Heath Ledger: The Heath is On

He touched teen hearts with 10 Things I Hate About You, then grabbed everyone else with The Patriot. Now Heath Ledger is starring in a rockin' medieval adventure, Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale, and has already shot Elizabeth director Shekhar Kapur's Four Feathers. Here Ledger explains how he keeps his sanity in the mounting storm of stardom, provides a plausible theory on why Aussies are stealing the best parts in Hollywood films, and praises the new star in his life, Heather Graham.


At the moment Heath Ledger isn't a prince of the red carpet. But those in the know in Hollywood have high hopes for the boyish-looking 22-year-old Australian actor with only two major US film credits under his belt. Teens kickstarted Hollywood's Heathwave in 1999 when they caught him as the brooding high school tough guy who spanks Julia Stiles into good behavior in 10 Things I Hate About You. A year later, Ledger drew interest from a broader audience when he starred as Mel Gibson's stubborn son in The Patriot. But even before The Patriot was released, word about the film had given Hollywood a good case of Heathitis, which caused writer/director Brian Helgeland (Payback) to meet with Ledger for his rollicking medieval adventure A Knight's Tale, a go-figure mix of action, bawdy humor, romance and heartfelt emotion held together by a brashly anachronistic thread of rock songs like Queen's "We Will Rock You" and David Bowie's "Golden Years." Ledger walked away with the lead role of the squire who disguises himself as a knight so he can compete in jousting matches. Now the film is generating sensational buzz, and Sony is releasing it in Hollywood's most competitive season, early summer. Should A Knights Tale fail to put Ledger on top, his fall film, Shekhar Kapur's Four Feathers, stands a good chance of doing the trick. In the remake of the 1939 war epic, he costars with Wes Bentley and Kate Hudson as a British officer determined to prove his courage during the uprising of the Sudan.

Ledger's personal life puts a celebrity gloss on his growing fame. While filming A Knight's Tale last year in Prague, he met and fell in love with an actress nine years his senior, Heather Graham, who was there shooting the Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell with Johnny Depp. Since then the two have been paparazzied everywhere, and have been the subject of many a gossip column.

While fame may be relatively new to Ledger, acting isn't. He landed his first professional gig at age 10 in a local stage production of Peter Pan. In high school he was the president of the drama club, but no theater nerd was he--Ledger was also the school's field hockey star. Upon graduating at age 16, he moved from his hometown of Perth to Sydney to pursue his acting career. Various jobs, including a starring role opposite Keri Russell on the TV series "Roar," elevated him to teen-idol status. That gave him the courage to try his luck in America. Within months he was cast in the gangster thriller Two Hands, which required him to fly back to Australia, where the film was shot. After that he got his big break in 10 Things I Hate About You.

When I meet Ledger in the coffee shop of L.A.'s trendy hotel The Standard, he's clad in oversized sunglasses, surfer-style beaded jewelry and a big fleece jacket. He's 100 percent L.A. groovy. But it's not only his attire that grabs attention--his mere physical presence is something to behold. At six feet four inches, with broad shoulders and a wildass mop of fashionably tangled bedhead, Ledger commands the room. Women stare, not knowing for sure who he is but knowing for sure he's someone. Though Ledger may look like a Hollywood scenester, he is not the least bit pretentious.

STEPHEN REBELLO: With so much happening to you in the past year, do you ever wake up and wonder how you got to such a place?

HEATH LEDGER: [Laughing] No, I very rarely wake up and think about anything beyond, "I'm hungry." It would be a lie to say I sit around and think about any of this stuff. My family gets all juiced up by it, though. They're living a different life through my eyes, a life that's probably more exciting for them than it is for me.

Q: You've been quoted saying that you'll drop out of the business if it stops being fun.

A: Yes, and I'm totally having fun. I love what I do, but it wouldn't be hard for me to walk away if I didn't.

Q: The Patriot gave you a tremendous amount of buzz in Hollywood. Did you figure that it would when you signed on?

A: Making that film came out of left field. Before it, I had a year and a half of sitting on my ass doing nothing. Without that movie, you wouldn't be here talking to me.

Q: What did you learn from Mel Gibson while working with him on The Patriot?

A: He knows how to run a business and to run himself as a business. He's also incredibly detached from it all and focused on his life and his family. Mel is like a gigantic king sitting up on his throne laughing and enjoying his banquet but at the same time running his city. It was really cool to have the first movie star I worked with be someone like Mel, as opposed to an asshole.

Q: Why did you take a year and a half off from acting before making The Patriot?

A: I was waiting for the right thing, determined that it would come. If it didn't, I was fully prepared to go home. I was that stubborn about it. "They" wanted to throw all sorts of opportunities in the world at me. That's their job. At the end of the day, it's what you make of the opportunities, which ones you pick that define you.

Q: But during that year and a half, didn't you almost get the role Jason Behr eventually won on "Roswell"?

A: I wasn't as close as you think. Yes, it was one of the things that I went for. I had been in New York for four months and had no money. Absolutely nothing. There were a lot of hard decisions during that year and a half where I was like, "Oh, God, should I take this part?" Then you talk yourself into it thinking it's a good idea. I figured I could do the series and get out in five years.

Q: What did you learn about yourself during that jobless phase?

A: I studied myself constantly, asking myself why I did things, why I was thinking and feeling things. I like to really get in there and read myself like a book. It helps me understand my craft. That year was a wonderful period where I got to relax with the world. It solidified for me the importance of standing by what I believe.

Q: Which is?

A: I'm only in this because I enjoy it. In terms of this industry, I can't run out and take just anything that might make me happy only for the moment. That's such a contrast to my character because I live every day by the second, not by the minute, hour or day. I don't have a diary or a schedule. I never have. I don't even carry cash. Can I borrow a dollar to pay the valet later?

Q: Sure.

A: Thanks, man.

Q: Your upcoming film, A Knight's Tale, is packed with action scenes, which must have been a physical strain. Were there ever times on the shoot when you were thinking, "What have I gotten into"?

A: No. Making that was fun. Everybody in that cast loved each other. I just saw it for the first time the other day and it is fucking fantastic. Oh, man, you haven't seen anything like this thing. I don't usually like to sound like a movie whore, to put myself out there and promote it, but it's really, really great. It's really funny and the jousting shit is astounding. The music, the cast--I'm just really happy with the way it turned out. I knew it was going to be good; I didn't expect it to be this good. I've finally made a movie my little sister can enjoy.

Q: Watch out. That could turn up as a review in an ad for the movie. A: [Laughing] I feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger right now. [Doing an Arnold accent] "Go and see my movie!"

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