No sooner did Heath Ledger arrive in Hollywood from his native Australia than some powers that be tried to stick him in a box and label him “cheesecake.” Certainly his well-coiffed bravura turns in The Patriot (2000) and A Knight’s Tale (2001) didn’t mollify the pinup enthusiasts, but for a young actor honing his craft, the prospect of a career defined by marketers was bleak. Anxious to turn the tide and captain his own ship, Ledger scaled back and immersed himself in gritty, experimental work, such as Monster’s Ball (2001). Now 24, Ledger stars as the title character opposite Orlando Bloom and real-life girlfriend Naomi Watts in this month’s Ned Kelly, playing the epony-mous Australian outlaw, an antipodean Robin Hood-meets-Jesse James-meets-John Brown rebel, whose larger-than-life legacy and persona gave Ledger plenty of room to explore. Here, he catches up with his old friend and Knight’s Tale co-star Paul Bettany.
PAUL BETTANY: Hello, mate. How are you?
HEATH LEDGER: Hey, Paul. How are you? Where are you?
PB: I am in Canada.
HL: How is that?
PB: Big and white. Jennifer [Connelly, Bettany’s wife] is making a film [Dark Water] in Toronto with Walter Salles, and I am “set bitch.”
HL: Sorry? You’re what?
PB: I’m set bitch [Ledger laughs], which is a position I find myself strangely comfortable with.
HL: Do you just stay in the trailer all day, naked?
PB: That’s right, yeah. Though with Stellan [Bettany and Connelly’s baby] here, it’s a bit weird. Now, in the time-honored journalistic tradition, I’ve just poured myself a large drink, and I was thinking of wearing one of those little sun visors that journalists seem to wear in films. If you want a moment to pour your own drink, please go right ahead.
HL: I might make something a bit later.
PB: Okay, then. Well, I’ve just seen Ned Kelly. You do a really lovely job in it.
HL: Oh, thanks, Paul.
PB: It’s nice to see a young actor taking on a physical transformation because that seems to be out of vogue at the moment, you know? You really transformed yourself, just in the way you held yourself.
Jacket: Calvin Klein Collection. Shirt: Paul Smith. Jeans: Tsubi Jeans. Underwear: Calvin Klein Underwear. Shoes: Converse.
HL: I got that from the only physical insight I had into him. There was, of course, the famous Jerilderie Letter, which Ned Kelly wrote to a news-paper editor by dictating it to [his gang member] Joe Byrne. It was key to understanding his voice because it was, like, 56 pages long, and very passionate and quite humorous at times. But there were only two portraits of him, taken in the days before the government hanged him. One was a close-up of his face, where he had the full ZZ Top beard [Bettany laughs] and thick Irish hair with the big curl coif on the top of his head. And the other photograph was a full-body shot, and that’s where I got his physicality and his posture. The thing about this photograph is that he couldn’t actually stand-he was kind of sitting on a metal pole-because by the time they caught him, he had 29 lead bullets embedded in his body. That was all I had, really. The rest was guesswork.
PB: I had a look at the Jerilderie Letter last night. I pulled it off the Internet so I could have some sort of notion of who Ned Kelly was. As an Australian, is his image very much in your consciousness in the way that I, as an Englishman, have my own images of Robin Hood?
HL: Definitely. Though the public image of him in Australia is divided fifty-fifty. Half the country believes he was a robber and a cop killer who should have been strung up, and the other half believes he was a hero.
PB: Right. We have in England, from our dreadful colonial heritage, an image of Ned Kelly too. And my image of him, of course, was this man dressed in-
PB: Yes, exactly. That thick metal suit of armor he wore on robberies, and which was a big part of the making of his legend. So is there any truth to the affair between your character and Naomi Watts’s character?
there is no Yoda-there’s no one who points you in the right direction. You’ve got to figure that out by yourself.Heath Ledger
HL: Offscreen. [both laugh] No, there isn’t, actually. The movie was based on a book called Our Sunshine [by Robert Drewe], and the love affair is a bit of license taken by the author. But without the love story there would have been no opportunity to see the human side of Ned in the movie. There would have been no opportunity to see him smile or laugh, because he’s always on his cause, being chased by cops, and there was no opportunity to create a person out of that.
PB: Well, I am massively im-pressed by what you did. You know, since we worked together in A Knight’s Tale, I’ve thought a lot about how tough all of this fame must have been for you. I mean, I spent my twenties waking up in gardens drunk, and no one was watching, you know? As well as being quite blessed, the past number of years must have been a really difficult time for you.
HL: Yeah, it really was, Paul. Particularly after we worked together, because it was a time when I had not really chosen my career path-it had been chosen for me. I didn’t audition for A Knight’s Tale; I was given it. And then the studio put my face on a poster and wrote “He Will Rock You,” and if I didn’t, my career would have been over. That was the first lead I’d had in anything, and there were all these new pressures, which freaked me out. I felt like my career was out of my hands. I wasn’t making any decisions; they were being made for me. And so to a certain degree, I had to go out and destroy my career somewhat in order to rebuild it.
PB: You know what? I think it was a really wise thing to do.
HL: I do too. And believe me, at the time, I had studios telling me I was crazy. I had agents on my back, publicists, family members, everyone saying, “What are you doing? You should be this. You should be that. You should follow the dollar. Follow the gloss.”
Jacket: Earl Jeans. Shirt: Paul Smith. Jeans: Tsubi Jeans. Underwear: Calvin Klein Underwear. Shoes: Converse.
PB: Well, I was worried about you. I spoke to you about it at the time, and you sounded-as I imagine anybody going through that needed to be-entirely confident that it wasn’t going to get to you. I’m just so pleased you kept your shit together and on track.
HL: Thanks. My life is together, both professionally and socially. But it’s been a big learning process, and there is no Yoda-there’s no one who points you in the right direction. You’ve got to figure that out by yourself.
PB: I’d say you have, mate. So now you’ve gone and just made this Terry Gilliam movie with Matt Damon.
HL: The Brothers Grimm. It was extraordinary working with Terry, but I’ll tell you, it was also a lot of hard work. We were in Prague [shooting] for 112 days, but turning up every day was an absolute pleasure because he’s this eccentric, mad scientist who feeds you energy. You want to perform for him. You want to make it big. The humor in this film was somewhat [Monty] Python-esque, and the thing about performing that way is that you really have to trust the director. You have to be able to let go and feel brave enough to do anything and know he’s going to pick the right moments. And because Matt and I had that confidence in Terry, we felt like we had license to play around. It was like a big playground, and it was brilliant.
PB: You just took a holiday in Australia. Is there any anonymity for you over there? Is there any way you can not be Heath Ledger Incorporated?
HL: I think there would be if I were living there full-time, because then people would get sick of seeing me. I guess it’s a bit of a novelty when you come back into town if it doesn’t happen all that often. To tell you the truth, it’s a bit of a hassle when you can’t go to the beach because you’re so self-conscious of taking your shirt off to dip into the ocean because you’re aware that [the paparazzi] are zooming in on your nipples or something. I think if you spend enough time in one place [the paparazzi] eventually begin to say, “Fuck it. We got this photo of him five times already. There’s no story to tell anymore.”
PB: The trick is to wear the same clothes every day because they can’t keep repeating the same photo. [Ledger laughs] What’s your next move?
HL: I’m doing a film with Ang Lee. I just got it the other day.
PB: Whoa! Is this the gay-cowboys movie?
HL: Yeah, man. Brokeback Mountain. I’m going to wrangle a wrangler.
PB: You bastard! Somebody called me and said, “There’s an Ang Lee film with gay cowboys.” I thought, Gay cowboys, that’s me! [both laugh] Oh, fantastic. Congratulations. When are you doing that?
HL: We start in July. But listen, it’s the strangest thing: I haven’t met Ang Lee or even spoken to him on the phone yet. He’s a shy man, apparently.
PB: He’s terribly, terribly sweet.