It’s amazing what bringing a child into this world can do for someone. Since I last sat across from Australian actor turned hot Hollywood commodity Heath Ledger – which was in 2004, to discuss ”Ned Kelly” – he seems to have matured, found gratification and largely, discovered his voice.
Fatherhood definitely seems to agree with 26-year-old Heathcliff Andrew Ledger.
Back in his native Australia to promote his new film ”Brokeback Mountain”, a divisive yarn about two male ranch hands that fall in love, Ledger glows more than a freshly pressed glow-in-the-dark Ghostbusters T-Shirt when asked about baby Matilda.
“It’s going great,” he smiles. “It’s exhausting, but it’s a pleasure…a pleasure waking up to your daughter.”
Not that Ledger’s keen on talking about his personal life – his wife, and mother to his child, is ”Brokeback Mountain” co-star Michelle Williams – for the extent of the interview.
He rather promptly shifts the subject to the film he’s in town to plug.
What attracted Ledger to his latest role was the chance to work with acclaimed Hong Kong director Ang Lee. “I don’t think I would have done it if it had been in anyone else’s hands,” he says.
Having said that, Lee wasn’t painless to work for, explains Ledger – but his toughness ultimately helped Ledger give the stellar performance he does in the film.
“There’s two sides to Ang’s direction – there’s the pre-production, which is incredibly thorough and private, and then there’s the shooting side, when he just doesn’t say anything at all. Nothing. If you haven’t done your homework – too bad. It was clear that the shooting time was his time to create.
“He’s also very set in his ways. He prepares you so much that he doesn’t cloud you with direction. There are not many instructions; it’s always just crisp and clear. He also doesn’t patronise you by slapping you on the back after every scene and saying ‘that was great, that was great… let’s try one more.’
“In fact, he never compliments you at all. Yet, it makes you try harder – and you do end up doing better.”
The role was also quite an exigent one for Ledger, but thankfully he had a great co-star in Jake Gyllenhaal, who was also a virgin to such taxing material.
“It’s not like we sat around and drank at bars together before we did the movie, but we were in the same place, and he’s a great guy – so it made things a lot easier,” the actor, whose credits include ”The Four Feathers”, ”Two Hands” and ”The Patriot”, admits.
From the get-go, Ledger was always attached to play the quieter of the two men, homophobe Ennis. Had he been asked to play the more confident Jack – he wouldn’t have done it.
“I wouldn’t have cast me as [Jack]. I personally, enjoyed the complexity of Ennis, the lack of words he had to express himself, his inability to love. I liked how masculine he was going to be. I liked that he was a homophobic guy that falls in love with another man. I just don’t think I could’ve played Jack.”
Not that Ledger could just turn up on the set and just play Ennis. He had to do quite a bit of research, he says. “You had to have a through understanding of who you were playing. I put a lot of time into his physical traits, like his posture, or lack of, and his voice.”
For Ennis’s voice, Ledger decided to do a “Wyoming accent… a little bit of Texas,” adding, “Because he was so clenched as a person, I wanted my mouth to be clenched. Whenever words came out – they had to be punching their way out.”
The most enjoyable part of shooting the film was getting to spend time in the outdoors. Ledger says he’s “pretty good on horseback” so enjoyed getting around on horses, and “we were working in the Rockies, so it was just majestic.”
Though there has been some counterattack against the movie, Ledger’s happy that most people have reacted favourably to the film.
“I heard at one point that West Virginia was going to ban it, but that’s a state that was still lynching people until about twenty years ago,” he laughs. “I think it’s proven to have the opposite effect. All of the American states, besides the odd one here and there, have ended up seeing it. It seems to have proven everyone wrong. I think people just want to see it so they can have an opinion on it. It’s really interesting…I think it’s going to turn into some kind of phenomenon.”
Though he says it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to make (“because it was such a lonely story, and therefore, I had a lonely time making the film – which you kinda just drag around with you for months after”), he believes Brokeback Mountain is “the best film I’ve done, for sure.”
So what’s the most fun he’s ever had on a film? “Working for Terry Gilliam (on ”The Brothers Grimm”) was the most fun. I just adore him.”
Ledger says he’s going to let wife Michelle Williams go out and work this year whilst he stays home and plays ‘Mr.Mom’ for a while. “We don’t want to be working at the same time, and I’m really in tune with fatherhood right now – so I’m going to do that.”
One thing he will be suiting up for though is the upcoming Awards season, something he never saw coming: “You can’t think that far ahead when you’re making something. You’ve no idea how something is going to be perceived way down the line. If you think like that – your performance will be more manufactured. You have to pretend nobody is ever going to see it in order to really bare you soul.”