The unimaginable, devastating news arrived here in New York City, while some of us were over at the Warner Brothers offices to attend a press screening. The tremendously gifted, brilliant and far too young actor Heath Ledger was found dead in his apartment downtown on Broome Street.
The atmosphere at Warner Brothers was thoroughly traumatizing. And everyone was in a state of psychological lockdown, as Heath was just completing his work in The Dark Knight, due out this summer from Warner Brothers. He had stopped back home for a much needed break, to wind down from the high-anxiety stress of a Hollywood blockbuster movie set. When sleeping pills didn’t relax him sufficiently, he took more, too many more.
Some of us in the press here had come to know Heath Ledger – named Heathcliff by his parents, from Wuthering Heights – quite well over the years, conversing with him in interviews for his movies. He was the hopeful young actor climbing the stairway to stardom, from his humble roots in Australia. His screen role there as the Australian Robin Hood and rebel hero Ned Kelly, had caught my attention instantly. And I was perhaps the only critic who designated the film as one of my favorites that year. But I sensed immediately his uniqueness and magnificence as a performer.
We spoke to Heath just last month, for his role as one of the many stressed out Bob Dylan’s in the now ironically titled, I’m Not There. And I remember Heath as a very naked soul, serious, vulnerable and intense, as if he might implode with fiery passion and emotion bursting through, if he could not express himself fully and deeply. And with his hands waving about and gesturing emphatically, as if to flesh out each thought completely.
And there was always, definitely a feeling that Heath felt profoundly frustrated in his aspirations to be accepted as a serious actor, and not a star. Perhaps cursed with his good looks and mesmerizing, seductive voice, Heath against his will was swiftly fast-tracked as a sex symbol in Hollywood, something he clearly abhorred.
Did Hollywood play a part in the unraveling of this sensitive artistic soul? Very likely. There was always a sense that Heath took on the highly controversial role of a gay man in Brokeback Mountain, to destroy once and for all that Hollywood-manufactured hunk persona, and finally be accepted as the gifted actor he had always longed to be and convey.
Said Heath just before his death of the current stress of his character, The Joker, “He’s a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown, with zero empathy…Last week, I probably slept an average of two hours a night. I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”
Here are some excerpted conversations I had with Heath Ledger over the years, a man who is still so very much alive and will remain so, for his baby Matilda Rose, for all of us. And his Joker in The Dark Knight this summer is certain to take on a vivid new meaning, his dynamic charisma, humble nature, warmth and wit, as an extraordinary presence who would indeed not go gently into that good night.
How ready are you to be The Joker?
HEATH LEDGER: I was definitely a fan of what Jack Nicholson had done, and the world Tim Burton created. I can tell you now that if Tim Burton were directing The Dark Knight and asked me to play the Joker, I couldn’t reproduce what Jack did.
When Chris [Christopher Nolan] asked me to be in the film, I had seen Batman Begins, and I knew the world he created. There was a different angle to be created. And that’s why I did it.
When your playing a character based on an iconic figure like The Joker is it counter-productive to delve into the original, or helpful?
HL: It’s a bit of both, necessary and unnecessary. We can prepare, over-prepare, under-prepare. I think it’s all to feed our superstitious needs, to comfort ourselves. But at the end of the day, you usually just have an understanding of what you’re going to do. It’s kind of embedded inside.
What’s the worst part of doing a big movie?
HL: Just emotionally. It’s draining, just scene-wise. There’s like very big scenes, portraying big moments. And I have to like be there at 4 AM every morning. If they had their way, they’d be shooting day and night.
How scary is first time fatherhood for you?
HL: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s as scary as my last five roles! But it’s definitely more exciting. And a lot more beautiful. And it’s definitely my greatest achievement. Look, I now feel connected to something a lot bigger than me. And it’s beautiful. There’s something cosmic about it. Yeah….
I’m born to be a father. And I’ve been looking forward to this all my life. And unlike my character in this movie, I’m very expressive, and in touch with love. What else am I going to do? We’re so bloody hopeless.
In the birthing process, you come out just realizing how stupid and weak men are! I mean, I might as well not have been in there, we’re useless! It’s funny, it’s like such an intimidating process, witnessing how beautifully innate is this primal strength that women have.
It just exceeds anything that’s within men. And you just feel like leaving, and going out and…taking steroids! And going to the gym. Or starting a war! Yeah, it explains a lot about society. It’s like overcompensating for this lack of strength. But I’m not starting a war, I’m doing dishes!
Now that you’ve played a couple of fathers in movies and you’re one yourself, how has that felt?
HL: The same as if I wasn’t a dad. I guess it’s like anyone in this industry, like yourself, it’s a kind of a gypsy lifestyle. So I can totally relate to the struggle to keep consistency – your family life, your social life, your professional life.
And it’s both an annoyance, and an addiction. So yes, I could definitely relate to that. I might not have agreed on a lot of the reactions and words I was supposed to express, it’s not my job to agree. But I could relate and understand.
I hear that you turned down a bunch of teen movies that would have paid well, even when you were broke. Was that a hard decision, to turn the money down?
HL: Not at all. I really can’t stand money, and what it does. And I was never going to let that influence me, it never has. I wouldn’t have been happy, that’s the thing. Sure, you’re getting paid. But I would have been just really bored.
And that’s not why I’m an actor. If it were about the money, I’d go do something else. So it wasn’t hard, no. I’d never had money, so it wasn’t hard living without it, certainly. And it was fun, saying no! Because they don’t like hearing ‘no’ in Hollywood, they don’t.
Is it true that you turned down Spider-Man too?
HL: Well, it wasn’t really a direct offer. It’s more like they talked to people about it, before they made anything official. But why would I want to? Because I’ve never read comics, certainly not Spider-Man.
So I didn’t have any interest in it. I thought it might be a lot of fun to make. But I wouldn’t want to…go around K-Mart dressed like Spider-Man! Anyway, Tobey has a true passion for Spider-Man. And he wanted to play it, he’s a great actor.
What do you miss most about Australia?
HL: Hmm…Probably the sense of humor, I really do.
How is the humor different?
HL: There’s quite a cultural difference. The Australian sense of humor is very dry, sarcastic, and very undercover. Like if I tell any jokes here, people just think I’m…serious! So I just quit telling any jokes whatsoever.
Weren’t you pretty young when you got into acting?
HL: I was fourteen.
When you were that kid and you didn’t have much sense of the world, what made you believe in yourself?
HL: I don’t know. Growing up in Australia, you never feel like you’re going to live beyond that place. You wake up and you go to the beach, and you do your homework. You’re just a kid. And I never really cared much for Hollywood or movies.
You know, I was never really allowed to watch movies. I think the only movie I was ever allowed to watch, was The Wizard Of Oz. I watched that about a hundred bloody times. Probably for that reason!
But the curiosity for filmmaking, and expanding myself as an actor and my curiosity for people and portraying them, just has grown. And that’s from simply being involved in the industry. But it was never a goal of mine as a kid.
What kind of family life did you have?
HL: Well, my mom and my dad, they never pushed me into performing. They hardly knew I was doing it, you know? Like they never shined my cheeks, or put on tap dancing shoes and dragged me to a dance studio.
So they didn’t polish up my own expectations of myself. But they never prohibited me from trying anything, or being anything. They never restricted me in any way. For which I’ll be forever grateful. But this was just something I kind of fell into, in a clumsy sort of way! And I’ll continue to do that, hopefully.
What was it like to play somebody who is gay, in Brokeback Mountain?
HL: For one, it’s not an occupation! But it involved essentially nothing. I could have actually taught Ennis something about loving. Unlike Ennis, I enjoy love. I’m very expressive. And I’ve investigated love. And he didn’t.
But I never feared that love between men could exist, it was never a huge issue of mine. So it wasn’t some great revelation of mine, that this is possible, you know?
What about your weird segue from that, to Casanova?
HL: You know, I didn’t have to take Casanova too seriously. Because we were essentially just kind of borrowing his name and his legend. You know, just to have fun with it. And that’s exactly what I did. I went in there and drank tons of wine, and ate tons of pasta. And….floated around in gondolas!
But that was the point. I was so tightly wound up from Brokeback. And I knew I couldn’t unwind back home. Doing the dishes! Because I’d probably smash too many of them! So I knew I had to unwind professionally. Because it was my profession that wound me up so tight. So Casanova was just that, and it was a perfect vehicle for relaxation.
Playing Dylan in I’m Not There, what has been the impact of music on your life?
HL: Oh, my gosh where do I start? Music to me? On every level it has effected my life, and still continues to. I guess one example to me, particularly to me, the voice singing, the poet, the songwriter, Dylan, whoever. To me, it’s such a pure expression of the soul that deeply connects to mine.
So that’s always been a key. You know, that it connects and enables me to express the anger or pain, of any sort. So it’s always been a wonderful excuse. Or a door opened up to me to express creatively and personally.
Do you identify with Dylan?
HL: I was definitely a fan of Dylan’s. Dylan was someone I had scheduled down the line, the future to….become obsessed with! I definitely become obsessed with people. Musicians, artists. But I think Todd [Haynes] prematurely invited me into this obsession!
But Todd is the perfect puppet master. So I just let him shut off the rest of the stories, and I concentrated on my task. I did run into Cate [Blanchett] the last day, and we sort of tagged each other. She walked and talked and smelled like Bob! But I didn’t.
How do you feel about turning into a major star?
HL: Well, I’ve always been an actor. Now I’m being created into a star. That’s out of my control, it’s the decision of the studios. It’s a little intimidating, you know? And it’s nerve wracking and scary. And exciting. It’s just a whole bunch of things.
Basically, you’re faced with what could quite possibly be a life changing thing, like anything else. And there’s a period between that, where you’re just trying to kind of figure stuff out.
How are you keeping your feet on the ground, through it all?
HL: You just don’t believe anything you read, good or bad. But especially good. And ultimately you just have to have a sense of humor, and laugh about it a lot. And I do. You know, I really find the comedy in it, because it is….ridiculous!
But it’s a hassle, really intruding, and invading and strange. Because nothing will ever be the same, especially in Australia. And if there’s anywhere that you want to be the same when you go back, it’s your home. And it just wasn’t. So that was hard.
What happens? Like do people yell your name out on the street?
HL: Yeah. And it would make the front page of the local newspaper, reporting that I like ate fettucini at some restaurant on Tuesday!
How do you feel about your Oscar nomination?
HL: Um…I don’t know. I mean, the only time it’s swirling around me, is when I’m at these interviews. But the Oscars, they’re a really strange concept to me. It’s obviously an honor, for a film to be in that category.
But it’s also such a strange concept, that films and acting can be competing against each other. We’re not running the same race. It’s like we’re all doing different sports in fact, you know? And we’re all training differently.
So you can’t really compare them, ever. Those awards are really manufactured for marketing reasons. But we can’t help but get dragged into it.
And ultimately what it ends up doing, is that other people’s opinions kind of drag us as actors and filmmakers into this false sense of success if they nominate you. And certainly this false sense of failure, if you don’t win! But long story short, it’s great to be in a movie that’s being well received.
What are you going to do next?
HL: Nothing. I really just want to do nothing, especially after all this. Believe it or not, I can just look at a wall, and be so content.
What do you do, when you’re doing nothing?
Good night, Sweet Prince…