A year ago, Aussie Heath Ledger was a virtual unknown outside Australia. Since, he has graced magazines from Vanity Fair to Movieline, is dating Hollywood star Heather Graham, and now joins a growing list of Australian talents gracing movie screens all across America these days, a list that includes such names as Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, and Geoffrey Rush.
However, Ledger calls to mind another famous star from down under, Mel Gibson. In fact, Ledger shot to stardom by playing Gibson’s son in The Patriot, a Revolutionary War epic. Like the blockbuster superstar, Ledger has a strong masculine presence combined with a sensitive face and soul — traits that help him appeal to both male and female audiences. Prior to his American film debut, the Perth-born Ledger was already a television star in Australia, having starred in two television series. In the short-lived Australian series Sweat, Ledger played a gay cyclist, the first major young gay role down under.
Following the series’ demise, Ledger headed for Sydney where he won parts in a variety of projects before winning the role of Conor, a Celtic prince destined for great things, in the series Roar. The show, which aired briefly stateside on FOX, earned Ledger legions of young female fans who instantly fell in love with the young heartthrob. But like his first series, Roar didn’t last too long and was quickly cancelled. Following his breakout role in the Aussie film Two Hands, Ledger went to LA and scored his first major Hollywood role in 10 Things I Hate About You. The film also received generally good reviews from critics, something, which helped the film stand out in a market overcrowded with teen-oriented films. Ledger carefully selected his follow-up project, the coveted role of Gabriel Martin in The Patriot.
Ledger has quickly became a hot property in Hollywood and with his newest film, A Knight’s Tale, a rollicking take on A classic genre, Ledger’s star is truly shining. Inspired by “The Canterbury Tales,” it is the story of William, a young squire with a gift for jousting. After his master dies suddenly, the squire hits the road with his cohorts Roland and Wat. On the journey, they stumble across an unknown writer, Chaucer. William, lacking a proper pedigree, convinces Chaucer to forge genealogy documents that will pass him off as a knight. With his newly-minted history in hand, the young man sets out to prove himself a worthy knight at the country’s jousting competition, and finds romance along the way.
In this very candid chat with Paul Fischer in Los Angeles, Ledger discusses the film, his reluctance to discuss his love life and his refusal to play by Hollywood’s rules.
Question: There seems to be some interesting parallels between your journey and that of William, in A Knight’s Tale. Like William, you leave home and come back something of a star. Do you agree with that in some way?
Answer: A little bit, sure, and it’s part of my job to find those parallels so I can bring truth to what I’m portraying. But there are also parallels to Brian’s story (writer/director) which is why he wrote the script. It was originally about a young writer wanting to be a director in America. So that’s what we shared, I guess and that’s where we clicked. But I didn’t focus on that or wake up every morning to remind me that’s what I was doing. I just tried to tell the story as the character in the script I was given. Those things come naturally. When you’re put in a position where you have to play an emotion, you draw upon what you know and what you’ve experienced and shit like that.
Question: So what did you draw on the most to play this guy?
Answer: I guess it was his thing with class systems and that whole thing of the lower class not being able to step up. It’s that kind of grudge, Australian, ex-convict kind of thing. I don’t know EXACTLY what I was drawing upon. I’m just making up answers for you. To tell you the truth it’s the script. I read the script and it had to do with on-the-day. We didn’t stress about the background of each character. The way Brian cast the movie was really smart, in that we just along REALLY well, and our job was to explore those friendships on screen.
Question: I understand that you also taught everyone how to get pissed really well during production.
Answer: That’s right, I did.
Question: So you must have been a bad influence on everyone them or them on you?
Answer: You have NO idea. We just influenced each other. I mean, fuck, you’re in Prague, beer’s 20c a pop and there’s a pub on every corner. When in Rome, right?
Question: Apart from the beer, what else in Prague did you like – or not?
Answer: I dunno. I mean I LOVED the city. I don’t know what it would be like as a tourist and I don’t know if I’d go there as a tourist. I have some fear for the Czech people who live there, because it’s this beautiful, wonderful city, yet they were digging themselves out of the Communist trench, and the older people are still walking around in this kind of grey, hypnotised state. But the tourist industry has come in BAM. McDonalds is there – almost like Disneyland down there, yet the locals can’t even afford to buy a Big Mac. You go there and you feel like: Wow I’m in Prague, but you’re not. You’re in a big, corporate, tourist-run city, so you’re competing with that. But it’s a really great place to work, because it’s a tight-knit kind of community.
Question: How did you get cast for the film?
Answer: I guess through people watching dailies of The Patriot and then by me meeting Brian [Helgeland] after reading his script and falling in love with that, and meeting him. He’s such a wonderful man that you WANT to give to this guy, you WANT to work with him, so I was very excited to meet someone that looked everyone in the eye on an equal level. That’s very rare I guess.
Question: Did you do your own stunts?
Answer: Yeah I did. I mean they wouldn’t let me HIT a guy or get hit by those lances. It’s pretty obvious, since those stunt guys were hitting each other; they were fuckin’ charging at each other and hitting each other. We had stunt guys who got hit in the head many times with 15 stitches on the jaw and coming back the next fuckin’ week doing the same shit again. They were absolutely crazy.
Question: How did you prepare to carry the film?
Answer: I guess I just wanted to be as relaxed as possible. I didn’t want to go in there tense and too nervous and thinking of it that way. It was more or less I wanted to be excited on the fact that I had more time to create an arc for a character and I never felt the weight of a leading man and the weight that I was carrying the movie because I had a great ensemble cast with me the whole time. So, the only weight that I felt wasn’t during the making of the movie but when I saw my mug on the poster. That was just slightly intimidating.
Question: There’s a lot more pressure on you for this film, since you’re carrying Columbia’s big summer movie —
Answer: Yeah, I’m carrying now that my mug’s on the picture for the poster. But this is the thing. The studio creates the pressure and I’m not going to take it on, because, yes, it’s A Knight’s tale, but it’s an ensemble movie. The way that the studios work is they find a product and they’ll put it out there and make it. What THEY’RE trying to do is create a star in a big way. Now BANG, someone to put the pressure on.
Question: So how do you deal with that?
Answer: I cut it in half. You know, I play hardball with them; you’ve got to stay in control and you’ve got to at least FEEL like you’re in control somewhat of what gets released and what doesn’t?
Question: So how do you set about trying to control the marketing of you as a commodity?
Answer: Look I guess they wanted me to tour around 12 cities in America for over a month and I cut that down to four days. And it’s not because I don’t want to talk about the movie – of course I’m proud of it. The studios want to do everything in their power to make the movies good, especially when they’re putting a lot into it like this one. So they’re just passing the fucking pressure over here, that’s all, and me dealing with it is, yeah, I’ve just got to say true to MYself and not look at myself and this movie and say: OK, I’ve done this movie and NOW I am a part and product of this corporation, and I’m going to do everything I can to BANG, promote that movie. Because while you’re doing that, you’re damaging yourself.
Question: To what extent have you changed since The Patriot?
Answer: Well, professionally it really helped me a lot in terms of opportunities. My social life hasn’t really changed. I’ve been working since that came out, since I started shooting I’ve been working straight for 18 months. I had no breaks and six-day weeks and I just finished two weeks ago. So, I’ve had two weeks to find out what it’s like, so I’m living it now I guess but I don’t know.
Question: It’s interesting though, because when you were doing press for Patriot, you were more conservatively dressed, with slacks and tie. Yet now, much more casual look.
Answer: Believe me, they were down there trying to put on the slacks! [Laughter]
Question: But now you’re more in control?
Answer: Yeah. Fuck it, you know? This is ME. I’m not here portraying someone I’m not.
Question: What did you like about acting?
Answer: I started acting around that time when you’re a kid and you just want to scream and shout and express all this stuff in side of you. People sometimes do it through drugs or rebelling and running away, getting on the streets, whatever or just in an attitude way more or less, the attitudes, those fronts, those barriers. It was an opportunity, a medium for me to use it as an outlet to express these things and to also use these things and feelings that I had inside of me and put it into a portrait of a character. It just really intrigued me, stepping into those shoes and giving something, telling a story and passing on an emotion of some sort, of some level to someone. I really liked that. There wasn’t really a movie or a movie star so to speak that I looked at. In fact, it wasn’t until I started making movies that I started to love movies and started to really watch them. That was only because it became a fascination of mine, I became really curious with the whole process. The interest grew on me.
Question: Does the sex symbol thing bemuse you?
Answer: I really don’t think about it. I really don’t think about all this. I switch off work so quickly and I find it so easy to just forget about this world that I just don’t think about it. You may find it hard to believe but you just don’t wake up every morning and think about your position in life like that. Or, I certainly don’t.
Question: What can you say about Four Feathers? Is it true to the novel?
Answer: It is faithful but my portrayal of that was that he wasn’t a coward and the fact that it was actually one of the bravest decisions he could have made, to leave and not go to war and not fight. I certainly follow that and stand by that and I would probably do the same thing. To me, the fact that he was labelled a coward, he was actually a hero smuggled in amongst all that, a hero in his own mind to himself and that’s in terms of being true to himself. He would have been a coward if he went to war because inside of him, everything inside of him said don’t go. It’s a coward to go against your instincts and he didn’t. For that, he was brave.
Question: How do you view the media’s hoopla surrounding your relationship with Heather Graham?
Answer: That’s the way the media works, so fuck it, it’s a story to sell. The media invests in your personal life: OK here’s a story to sell and I’m going to invest in it now because we can fuckin’ get some people in to read it. Look, I’m aware of that but I’m not about to sit down and talk about it.
Question: Why do you think the studios want to use your personal life in this process of selling movies?
Answer: Because they’re ruthless and they don’t give a shit about my personal life. It’s all about numbers. Ultimately, the guys who run the studios probably don’t even see the movie and at the end of the month are handed a sheet with numbers and they’ll fire people upon that, not upon how good the movies are. That’s it.
Question: Anything else coming up?
Answer: I’m going to take a break, six months. Hopefully a year if I can. I just feel I’ve got to put back the equivalent into life because 18 months of work just takes so much out of you. So, I’ve just got to put it back into my own life.
Question: What would you like to do in your time off?
Answer: I’m going to take photos, I’m going to travel, I’m going to relax, and I’m going to do nothing, which is the best thing to do. That’s it, really. Just catch up on life.
Question: What kinds of photos?
Answer: Whatever, from portraits to landscaping. The last few years I’ve been doing a lot of print artwork. I blow up prints, black and white prints generally, and I scratch away on the surface. Then I paint on the prints and I scratch away and then paint on the paper underneath.
Question: How do you keep yourself grounded?
Answer: I don’t know. This is the thing. I don’t see why it’s such a hard thing NOT to, and keeping grounded is just a way of saying: How do you stay yourself? How do you NOT change into ANOTHER person? I find it hard to like CHANGE into another person. I don’t want to and I don’t feel the need to have to fill shoes and live up to expectations and be worried about people judging me, but who gives a shit? I DON’T. What I’M worried about is MY personal life, my friends and family, and THAT doesn’t change. And as long as that doesn’t change, I don’t change.