It’s a long road from Perth, Western Australia to Hollywood, California, but for Heath Ledger, it’s a road he’s traversing with youthful self-assurance. Now starring opposite Mel Gibson in his first major Hollywood movie, The Patriot, he tells Paul Fischer that he’s trying not to take his new found stardom to seriously.
Heath Ledger refuses to act like the new Hollywood star for which he is being groomed. In Los Angeles to briskly promote his new film, The Patriot. We’re in Hollywood junket territory, LA’s Four Seasons Hotel where Ledger meets the press in between shooting yet another period film, A Knight’s Tale, on location in the Czech Republic. “I’ve been there for about 2 months, 2 to go. It’s a magical place,” Ledger says while struggling to light a cigarette.
Ledger returned to Los Angeles to promote the big-budget historical drama, The Patriot, in which he gets to play Mel Gibson’s son, in the first mainstream Hollywood film in over a decade, that re-examines the American War of Independence. In the multi-million film, Ledger plays adolescent Gabriel who, against his pacifist father’s initial wishes, joins the revolutionary forces against the British. Ledger has always seen The Patriot as being a father-son drama, and sees parallels, he recalls, with aspects of his own life. “The way I looked at Gabriel’s journey, was that he got to that stage in his life, where you believe you have your own set of morals and opinions on how life is and should be. You then stand up and say: I’m going out there and discover that. As much as he was going out to fight a battle and the revolutionary war, he was also going out to make that transformation from a young boy with innocent eyes to a young man. I could completely relate to that with MY relationship with MY father, when I got to the point when I was 16, stood up and said goodbye and jumped in the car and drove from Perth to Sydney; that was the start of all this.”
Ledger’s medium of finding himself, he said, was the film industry, in contrast to Gabriel, “whose medium was war.” Like Gabriel, Ledger recalls that he was setting off “to discover life and who I was.” At just 21, Ledger says that he has found himself, but is still learning about a profession in which he remains untrained. “Because I’ve had to learn my craft in front of the camera, I’ve had to discover my own weaknesses, look at myself and find what I’m doing wrong and try to be smart enough to fix that.”
The young actor, last year nominated for an Australian Film Industry award for the hit Aussie film Two Hands, had little time to think about the mere task of playing Mel Gibson’s eldest son. He had to get inside the head of a revolutionary patriot, set during an era about which he knew nothing. “I never got too much involved in American history when I was at school, but was always curious about it, so it was really interesting what I found out.” For Ledger, it answered a lot of questions for him “as to why the country was so proud and arrogant in many ways, but good ways, why they have their World Series without any other countries and why they wave their flag so high and proud. It’s because they went to hell and back, to build their country.”
Ledger defines his character as “representing the new generation of this country. He believes strongly in the ideals of the new government.” Apart from learning about American history, Ledger and his co-star Mel Gibson, had to undergo some serious training for this movie, he recalls. “We did a bunch of musket training and learned how to lock and load the musket, firing and horse riding. Basic stuff, including marching and drilling.” While it sounds like fun, young Heath did endure pain and suffering along the way, managing to rip open his “little pinkie finger” acquiring three stitches in the process. “On the muskets they have these flint locks, and on the flint there’s a sharp rock that causes the spark. I was just cocking it back to fire and just slipped my little pinkie across it, peeled it open and stuffed it full of sulphur. That was kind of painful.” Then he adds laughingly “I wasn’t a brave soldier.”
Miles from home, Heath has surrounded himself with a close circle of friends “who refuse to change” so keep him grounded and offering advice as he continues to deal “with whatever bullshit and crap this industry throws at me.” Ledger also learned much from his Patriot co-star Mel Gibson, much of which he won’t divulge, “Because it’s sub-textual.” What he WILL reveal “is that he taught me how to relax in this industry, both socially and professionally, and not to clog up your head. Mel’s very good at keeping a clear head and fresh approach to life. The guy walks to the beat of life which is such a wonderful trait to have and which I’ve tried to step up to.”
Ledger, consistently unpretentious, refuses to take any of this industry quite so seriously. “I just see the humour in it. I mean I take my craft seriously, but not the industry. I think it’s a big high school and funny. It’s so insignificant in the grand scale of things that just fills up some time between A and Z and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.” Heath admits that if the time came for him to give up acting, he’d “return to my other great passion, photography. But until I fall out of love with what I’m doing, then I’ll either stumble across another love, or just sit around and do nothing.”
In the meantime, he has little time to sit around and rest on his laurels. After filming is completed on Knight’s Tale, a comedy about knighthood and jousting, he remains in period garb for the fourth film version of The Four Feathers, set during the Crimean War. And Ledger then hopes to finally return to Australia. “Something’s brewing there, which I can’t talk about.”