July 2003 By Philip Berk
If ever there was a reluctant movie star, it’s Heath Ledger.
He usually shows up at his press conferences and photo shoots looking like shit. I guess it’s his way of saying “I’m not here to be exploited.”
When I once questioned his dismissive attitude at ShoWest when he was given the New Star of the Year award in 2001, he had this to say: “There’s a whole bunch of people out there, they’re the popcorn people, and they’re giving you an award. ‘Hey kid, you’re gonna be the star of Tomorrow. We think you’re going to be making money for us.’ It wasn’t about, ‘You did a good job.’ So I couldn’t help but feel awkward. I mean it was an honor to get that award, I’ve never had an award like that before, but that’s the way I felt.”
Despite his disdain, on screen he projects a magnetism unmatched by any actor of his generation, and in Ned Kelly, even hiding behind a ZZTopp beard, he looks great.
But at his press conference for Ned Kelly in Los Angeles, again, he looks lousy.
Scruffy beard, scruffy mustache, scruffy hair, scruffy clothes.
And still he exudes self confidence.
His friend and former co-star Paul Bettany said it best.
Discussing their collaboration on A Knight’s Tale, he told me, “Can you imagine he was only twenty one at the time, and there he was carrying a $30 million picture on his shoulders without a care in the world. He’s a really personable young man and sort of extraordinary.”
Extraordinary and unconventional he is.
At his press conference for Four Feather, asked why he was bald, he shot back, “I just shaved my head. What’s wrong with that.”
At the time I called him a big star about to happen.
And we’re still waiting.
He’s had so many disappointing movies among them Ned Kelly, The Sin Eater, and of course Four Feathers, you have to wonder why Hollywood has such faith in him.
And faith they have.
Later in the year he’ll be seen with Matt Damon in Terry Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm and he’ll follow that with Lords of Dogtown, directed by Thirteen director Catherine Hardwicke.
And just in the last month he’s been announced for two important films from Academy Award winning directors Ang Lee and Lasse Halstrom.
His relationship with acclaimed actress Naomi Watts may have kept his name in the gossip columns, but it’s his raw talent that attracts auteurs like Lee and Hallstrom.
Ang Lee’s movie is a western, Brokedown Mountain, based on an acclaimed New Yorker short story by Annie Prouix, the author of Shipping News.
What makes it unusual, possibly ground-breaking, is it’s a love story involving two cowboys.
Ironically, Maureen O’Hara has just published her autobiography in which she claims the screen’s greatest western director John Ford was bisexual! And Maureen should know: she worked with him on four John Wayne classics!
Having read that Heath wouldn’t even read the script until Naomi encouraged him to do so, I ask him to talk about that.
“Yes it is a challenge,” he answers in the present tense.
“It does scare me. There is an element of fear for obvious reasons. It’s unknown to me, but that’s also what’s alluring about the project, the fact that it scares me. So I have to be brave, and I have to face those fears. But it’s also a beautiful love story, and love stories for people my age generally revolve around a young couple that just got married and go off to France, and it’s a romantic comedy that’s been done a million times over; there’s no mystery to that. At the end of the day this is a love story between two people, but they’re two men, and that’s what makes it different and interesting to me; it’s telling the same story through the eyes of two men as opposed to a man and a lady and, look, we’re living in an age right now where that shouldn’t make a difference. It shouldn’t matter, and that’s my point. I am very secure, obviously, in who I am, and I just want to represent the story. I just want to represent love, and love comes in many, many different forms. I think this is a beautiful story, and I think Ang Lee is a beautiful film maker, and I think I can trust him with that story, and ultimately that’s why I took the job.”
When he says times have changed how right he is.
Twenty years ago when (director) Arthur Hiller was hoping to get big names to play gay lovers in Making Love, every top actor from Michael Douglas to Harrison Ford turned down the roles, which eventually went to Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin, actors of promise at the time, whose careers went into decline thereafter.
Brokeback Mountain promises to be a much more daring film, which bothers neither Heath nor his co-star Jake Gillenhaal.
As someone “secure in who he is,” Ledger is not your typical Aussie.
Instead of beer and football, he prefers Gene Kelly musicals and tap dancing.
Where does that comes from? I once asked him.
“I don’t really know. Somebody put me onto it, a friend, I think. The first Gene Kelly movie I saw was The Pirate, and it just blew me away. And from there, I don’t know. I’m more in love with the energy that they bring, that whole feel, the sets, the lighting, the magic, the smile, that presence they had, that era of filmmaking.”
Not that it means anything. His highly publicized relationships — a litany of love em and leave em — proves conclusively that he’s attracted to the opposite sex.
At the same time, he covets his privacy, and won’t talk about his personal relationships, and yet he seems attracted to famous women?
Among them Heather Graham and his current lady Naomi Watts.
When the two of them met on the set of Ned Kelly, she was relatively unknown, having just made Mulholland Drive.
Since then she’s become a real player in Hollywood.
Her work in 21 Grams won her an Oscar nomination, and up next for her are films with directors Marc Foster and Peter Jackson.
Did he and Naomi exchange notes about Marc? I ask him.
“I didn’t get to work much with Marc. I worked only two days on Monster’s Ball, but I could tell her she’d enjoy working with him, that he protects performance and that he’s a caring person and obviously knows how to make a good movie, but she’s smart enough to figure that out for herself.”
Smart she is except when it comes to relationships.
Before she fell in love with Heath on the set of Ned Kelly, she was in an eighteen month relationship with Stephen Hopkins, the director of Blown Away and Lost in Space. They were all set to get married, but in the same way that she and Heath had sent out invitations for a Christmas Eve wedding last December, it was called off.
Despite their on again, off again relationship, she and Heath are still very much together.
Hopkins, by the way is planning a movie with Heath called Nautica. Jake Gyllenhaal has been mentioned as a possible co-star. Before Hopkins fell for Naomi, he was in a relationship with Heather Graham, who starred in Lost in Space.
Talk about Changing Partners — but then again, isn’t that a script that’s been filmed before.
So what makes Naomi this incredible actress and this extraordinary human being? I ask him.
“What makes her an incredible actress, that is, if you’re a director lucky enough to work with her, she’s someone who commits herself 100% to what she’s doing. She commits herself 100% to the emotions she has to portray, the story she has to tell, and she’s not afraid. She’s brave as hell, she’s tough as guts, and she’s prepared to draw blood for her art. She’s incredibly passionate and beautiful in the way she does it. And as a person, I could go on and on and on. I won’t, but to sum it up I’d say she’s incredibly grateful for her position in the industry; she’s worked hard to get there, and she’s not about to let it go, neither is she willing to exploit or abuse it. She’s made very smart, intelligent decisions with her career, and I’m extremely proud of her. And as a person there are incredibly obvious answers to that question which I just know myself, and we’ll keep it that way.”
He was one of only a handful of actors wearing a peace ribbon at the Academy Awards. Was that intended as a protest?
“The peace sign was just in general, I think. It’s self explanatory really. I just wore it. it’s a brooch, and it says it all. I don’t want to sit here and give my political views at this point in time.”
How was it attending the Oscars as Naomi’s date?
“It was great! It was exciting. It was nerve wracking, overwhelming. But I was very proud of my girl. I was there to support her 100%. My palms were sweating for her. Yeh, it was fun, I guess.”
She’s eleven years older than he, which hasn’t been a problem. She’s tiny and he’s large. How does that play out in terms of the male-female roles?
“Interesting question.” he remarks. “It just plays out. It’s not as complex as you’d think. It’s very straightforward, very simple, and very easy. Otherwise we still wouldn’t be together. We protect each other, we nurture each other in the ways that we can complement each other. I am not going to go into detail on that, but that’s what relationships are about; opposites attract. You need a ying and a yang. You need someone to push you while you’re pulling, and yeah we certainly have that dynamic.”
The two of them recently purchased a house in Australia.
Is that where he’ll call home?
“I’ve been living out of bags since I was ten, but Australia, yes, is most definitely still home.”
Any plans for marriage?
Blushing, he answers, “Not any time soon. Maybe. I don’t know.”
Has his life changed drastically in the past few years?
“It’s really not as complex as you think. It’s like — how do you live your normal life with your lover? You do.”
Is he part of the Australian community of actors? Did they all hang out on the set of Ned Kelly, he, Geoffrey Rush, Rachel Griffith?
“We knew each other before, but we didn’t have time to hang out with each other as a group. Hanging out professionally on the set was a real treat because they’re all such fantastic actors. I didn’t get to work with Geoffrey enough — the only real scene I had with him was firing at him from about forty feet away. But we were very lucky to have such a cast and hopefully we keep using these great actors.”
Will he be playing opposite Naomi in King King, as has been rumored?
Obviously not amused by the question, he replies, “They asked me to play the ape part, but I turned it down because I don’t like bananas. No Naomi is doing it; I am not.”
But couples do work together?
“Certainly in our future. But this year it’s not likely; I’m backed up, she’s backed up, but the year after we’re going to take time off together. You have to do that. I’m certainly not going to let career destroy our relationship.”
Isn’t he flattered that people are interested in him?
“Why should I give a shit what people think about my private life?” he replies. “Whatever they write doesn’t affect me or my private life or my little circle of friends. They know who I’m dating. They’re not surprised reading about it because I’ve told them. I find it creepy that there are people who have nothing better to do than follow me around and hunt that stuff down. It’s quite sad. And I’m not going to let it influence who I see or how I run my life. I’m not going to walk around with a prosthetic mask on my face. Why should I?”
Doesn’t he enjoy being a movie star?
“I don’t actually know what it’s like to be a movie star. It doesn’t really enter my mind except when I’m doing a press junket. I find it extremely easy to forget. I happen to be a really lazy person. I have no problem just thinking about nothing.”
So he has no goals?
“I know I’m on a path. I’m not sure what’s going on and or where I’m going, but I don’t really want to know.”
Outside of acting, does he have any hobbies?
“Yes, photography. I take a lot of pride in taking my photos.”
He never finished high school.
Was there any reason why he dropped out at sixteen?
“I’ve always had a problem with systemic structures. The school I went to was military based. They taught kids how to fire semi automatic weapons, how to throw grenades. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t want to take part in that, so I left. I guess I had a quest, to go and learn for myself. I had a thirst for knowledge, but I didn’t want to be taught by these people. So that’s what I did. Although I made a lot of great mates there who are still my mates.”
Does it bother him when his films don’t do well at the box office?
“My only concern is between action and cut. That’s all my job is, really. After that it’s everyone else’s problem. Of course I’m proud of my work and the movie, but what happens after that, I have no control over.”
Like Stallone he refused to accept parts just because lots of money was dangled in front of him. He was almost broke when he accepted The Patriot.
Where does that self confidence come from? His parents?
“I have wonderful parents, but they would have advised me to take the job. ‘Go. Eat.’ But I can’t work on anything I don’t enjoy. I’d do a bad job because I wouldn’t care. My patience is really low. I want a body of work rather than a bunch of movies. I want to stay true to that.”
Although he and his sister were named after Heath(cliff) and Cathy from Wuthering Heights, when once asked by Vanity Fair if it were true, he flatly denied it.
When I asked him why, he had a simple explanation.
“I was just sick of being asked the question so I said No.”