Heath Ledger: Heath Wave
He gained a huge teen following when he played a cocky charmer in 10 Things I Hate About You. Then he swore off teen films and just waited. As a reward for his nerve, Heath Ledger is likely to pick up just about every other type of following when he stars with Mel Gibson this summer in The Patriot.
When I meet Heath Ledger at a Manhattan restaurant I'm shocked by his appearance. His blond hair looks unintentionally greased. His jeans are torn. His T-shirt sports a head dressed American Indian. Hanging around his neck is a 35-millimeter camera. He hardly fits in with the black-clad down-town New Yorkers. But this 21-year-old Australian, who's been in America for only two years, is not interested in fit-ting in. Careerwise, he's been downright determined not to fell into a mold. Having started in theater in his hometown of Perth (on the west coast of Australia) at age 10, Ledger came to Hollywood at age 19 utterly unknown (though he'd had a brief stint as the star of Fox's "Roar"), with years of low-profile Australian TV and films on his resume but no clout. The very first role he got was playing Patrick Verona, the roguish high school student who tames an ill-tempered Julia Stiles in last year's 10 Things I Hate About You, and he set off a shockwave among the teen girls who adored this film. But Ledger was so wary of being typecast as a teen star; he turned down parts for the whole next year. It turned out to be a smart gamble. He won the prized part of Mel Gibson's son in Columbia's prestige summer film, the big-budget Revolutionary War epic The Patriot. The studio is so impressed with Ledger, he'll next have the starring role of an amateurish knight in Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale, Whether Ledger likes it or not, he's fitting into Hollywood very well.
MICHAEL KAPLAN: Everyone wanted that part in The Patriot. How did you get it?
HEATH LEDGER: The day I had to read for The Patriot I woke up and was not in the tight space. I felt clogged. Halfway through reading the second scene, I stopped and told the director, Roland Emmerich, that I couldn't do this for him. I said, "I feel so embarrassed for having wasted your time. If I could come back and read again it would be much appreciated." Then I shook his hand, left, and figured, "Fuck it--I've blown the audition." But I think this made them curious, because they called me back.
Q: Have you heard that you were competing against Ryan Phillippe?
A: It's a great role and there obviously were a lot of people interested in it, but at the end of the day I am not competing against any actor. The directors compete against themselves for what direction they want the movie to go in. They cast me and it goes one way. They cast another kid and it goes another way. I didn't have to inquire as to who was being considered.
Q: What was it like working with your country's biggest movie star, Mel Gibson?
A: Mel is one of the most underrated guys out there. Because he's a blockbuster actor, it takes a lot of credit away from him. On set and off he gives everyone a lot of his time, and what you learn from somebody like him is contextual, totally off the page. I don't know what he did to me during the shoot, but by our last scene, which runs seven or eight minutes and has a lot of dialogue, I was totally comfortable in my characters skin. I took in every one of Mel's movements, every freckle on his face. I started to feel like he really was my father, I have a lot of respect for the man and a lot of love for him as a friend. Maybe that translates to father/son love.
Q: The Patriot is a big step up from your last film, 10 Thing I Hate About You.
A: 10 Things I Hate About You is not the movie I would have made as a filmmaker. I don't even watch teen movies. But you've got to do things before reaching the point where you can do what you want.
Q: Your character was a real hell-raiser. Did the director ask you to make him that way or was that all your doing?
A: I wanted to make him even more out there. I wanted to play him as a drunk. I wanted to do Richard Burton as a high school kid with a hip flask. But I quickly realized that they wouldn't give my character a bottle in his hand. So I played him drunk on life.
Q: What type of roles were you offered after 10 Things?
A: I had nothing but offers for teen movies. I could have auditioned for six things a week, but I sat on my ass for a year. People told me I was crazy, that I couldn't turn things down all my life. Then I got The Patriot.
Q: You obviously have a strong fear of being typecast.
A: That character in 10 Things I Hate About You is just such a tiny fraction of what I'm capable of.
Q: What did your friends back home think of your turning down all those offers?
A: I never told them I was getting offers. The last thing you want to hear is that your mate is turning down money.
Q: Your luck's been good in Hollywood. What do you think your secret is?
A: I really don't know. Jeez, why don't you tell me?
Q: Maybe because in a town where everyone is so worried about their next gig it was refreshing to see an actor who gives off the impression of not really caring all that much.
A: One way I manage not to take the Industry completely seriously while at the same time taking my craft seriously, is to think of acting as something that gets me from A to Z. I could end up a banker or something else. There is life outside of acting. I will never let it overtake my life.
Q: What do you like to do when you're not acting?
A: I take photos. I love tap dancing--Gene Kelly is a hero of mine. I love painting and art. I play Janis Joplin, Bowie and Beck songs on the guitar. Over the last five years I've been sucking up as much life as I can.
Q: Do you have a girlfriend?
A: My girlfriend models, and she's damned good at it. Her name is Christina Chauchi. We met a few years ago, the first day I turned up in Sydney, and then we didn't see each other, but I never stopped thinking about her. When she came to L.A. for Christmas last year, we met again. But she's always traveling. Right now, she's in Arizona. [He presses his hand to his flushing face.] Every time I talk about her, I go completely red.
Q: So you're a single man in the big city today. What's on your agenda?
A: First I'm going to Broadway to buy tap shoes. Then I'll go take a class. [He shrugs.] It's better than sitting around and getting polluted with TV.
Michael Kaplan wrote about when L.A. goes crazy in Oscar anticipation for the March issue of Movieline.