Heath Ledger at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2006
Paul Wellman (file)

Days before the start of the 2008 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, actor Heath Ledger – who was honored in 2006 with the Breakthrough Performance of the Year award – has been found dead in New York City. Below is a interview with the actor that the Independent ran in 2006.

Heath Ledger Breaks Through to Receive Fest Award

When Heath Ledger made his major American debut starring in 10 Things I Hate About You, he seemed set to be the next teen hunk. He was roguishly handsome. He could sing, dance, and act. And he could bring in the big bucks at the box office. It seemed only a matter of time before he appeared in every movie with a prom scene and then disappeared into twenty-something oblivion. (Whatever happened to Freddy Prinze Jr., anyway?)

But the Aussie had other plans. He proved himself a serious actor as Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot and later floored audiences with his small, but powerful part as Sonny Grotowski in Monster’s Ball. But he also proved a risky decision-maker, taking parts in several flops: the laughably bad A Knight’s Tale, the box-office disaster Ned Kelly, and the murder movie you probably never even heard of, The Order.

As 2003 came to a close, it was hard to know if we’d ever hear of Heath Ledger again-unless, of course, it was in relation to one of his bombshell ex-girlfriends. (He has famously dated Heather Graham and fellow Aussie-and 2006 fest award winner-Naomi Watts.)

But 2005 has answered the question with a resounding “yes.” This is the year Ledger so fully embodied surfboard shaper Skip in Lords of Dogtown that he was almost unrecognizable. He charmed audiences as the lead in Casanova and drew audiences to theaters alongside Matt Damon in The Brothers Grimm. Oh yeah, and he was in that gay cowboy movie. Starring alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, Ledger portrayed cowboy Ennis Del Mar with restrained anguish and subtle tragedy. Sure, the source material-an Annie Proulx short story-was heartbreaking, Ang Lee’s direction was perfect, and his co-stars excellently conveyed the film’s weight. But it was Ledger’s embodiment of Del Mar that elevated Brokeback‘s reputation beyond its oh-so-scandalous subject matter. It is the fact that Ledger is so convincingly torn between love and decorum, so incapable of expressing himself in any way, that helps convey Brokeback as a tragic love story in the tradition of all tragic love stories, rather than simply as a rallying point for every school’s LGBT coalition. It’s this performance that gained him a Golden Globe nomination and recognition in our Film Festival with the Imperia Breakthrough Performance Award. And Oscar will probably come knocking, too. Just as 10 Things put Ledger on Hollywood’s map, Brokeback might put him in Hollywood’s Hall of Fame. It’s an outcome Ledger never could have predicted, though he certainly hoped the film would help his until-now inconsistent career. But any rewards he’s now reaping were hard-earned.

In order to make the film, Ledger had to fully embody the character of Ennis Del Mar. Not only did director Ang Lee isolate the actors during the filming and manipulate them emotionally, but Ledger also put himself through the emotional ringer.

“Through superstition, you always want to feel you’re within the film and within the character. You never want to see him go until the movie’s over,” he said. For instance, if a scene required Ledger to be upset or angry, he’d work himself up so much that he actually felt that emotion. Then, when the filming was over, he’d go home with those emotions still swelling inside him. “It’s a small process of shutting it down and realizing I’m controlling it and I can cut it off. That’s what happens on a grand scale, too. If the whole story represents a lonely, desolate tragic story, then you somewhat carry that around with you.”

It’s easy to imagine it was an especially harrowing experience for Ledger, whose character in Brokeback was the most repressed. Since Del Mar doesn’t say much, Ledger had to portray the character’s emotions physically-which meant restraining all his movements and tightening his lips so that even a handshake came out seeming labored. He wanted Del Mar to be a clenched fist, Ledger has said, and that meant his mouth became clenched, too.

It wasn’t easy, but Ledger felt it was necessary. “When you’re in your trailer and you step out with your cowboy boots and your hat, from that moment on you’re wanting to remind yourself of the story you’re telling,” he said. “It was definitely challenging and torturous at times, and certainly lonely.”

But it can’t have been lonely all the time. After all, while filming Brokeback Mountain, Ledger was falling in love with his onscreen wife Michelle Williams, who has since given birth to their daughter, Matilda Rose. Ledger, born in Perth, Australia, is now living with his family in New York, and planning to spend next year in Europe-all direct results from his experience with Brokeback.

“The level of synchronicity that’s in my life today because of Brokeback Mountain is astounding,” he said.

As for what comes next, Brokeback will usher in a new era of interesting parts for Ledger-not that he regrets any of his previous films (though he admits some were better than others). He also admits a good portion of his films have been period pieces, a fact that’s mostly unintentional.

“You’d have to ask my agent why,” he joked. “I’m getting quite sick of riding horses.”

In reality, he says most of the interesting scripts he’s gotten are for period pieces. The interesting contemporary roles are mostly reserved for actors around the age Ledger is now becoming (he’ll be 27 in April). In which case, it seems he did Brokeback just in the nick of time.

There’s no need to worry Ledger will get caught up in his own hype, though. The easygoing Aussie is more an actor than a celebrity, and would just as soon stay home than go to a star-studded bash. In fact, in the midst of Brokeback mania, he sounded surprisingly calm on the phone last week, even though he’d stayed up most of the night with the baby. “It’s a beautiful distraction from all this,” he said.


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