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Heath Ledger 1979-2008

The first impression I had of Heath Ledger when he entered the room for his “Brokeback Mountain” interview three years ago was how small and fragile he looked. Nothing like the hot-blooded warrior of “The Patriot” or the bungling jouster of  “A Knight’s Tale” or even the character he played in “Brokeback,” that laconic, lean and secretly gay cowpoke who kicks the asses of a trio of drunks harassing his family. He seemed troubled, too, and shy and uncomfortable, notwithstanding the fact that he and co-star Michelle Williams's  romance and newborn daughter were among the chief talking points of the junket.

Many have compared him to James Dean, but that fisticuffs scene in “Brokeback” reminded me more of wispy Montgomery Clift going preposterously mano-a-mano with John Wayne in “Red River.” We’ll never know if he would have equaled the accomplishments of either. Dead at 28 of yet to be determined causes, he only really had that one outstanding “Brokeback” performance. Or perhaps two if the early reports on his Joker in “The Dark Knight” hold true. Dean, meanwhile, though dead at 24 in 1955, had three iconic performances in a little more than a year (“East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant.”). As for Clift, by the age of 28 he had already made “The Search,” “The Heiress” and “Red River” and had another 18 years and 15 movies to go.

Maybe what all three have in common is their utter, self-immolating commitment made to their work. His last two roles —  as a Dylan persona in Todd Haynes “I’m Not There” and in the yet to be released “Dark Knight” — seem to have taken their toll. Interviewed in the “New York Times”  last November 4, he described the Joker as a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.” He added that the role had given him insomnia, for which he was taking Ambien, to no avail.

To quote Marlene Dietrich in “Touch of Evil,” “What does it matter what you say about people?” So I’ll conclude with this transcript of the interview with Ledger (Was it a roundtable? If so I’ll deny responsibility for the dumb questions) .

Q: I read in "Details" magazine that Jake said he doesn't believe the characters are gay. What do you think?

 A: I think it's a touchy subject. I think if we say that, that there will be a lot of disappointed people who want it to be. And it is. Essentially its two men that fall in love. It's hard to escape that. I think maybe what Jake was meaning by that. Certainly from my character, I wanted to tell a story of just someone who transcends the label of gay or straight, who he's just purely a human being whose soul falls in love with another soul which is in the vessel of a man. I think Jake's character was more relaxed and comfortable in his situation and willing to express it, where as Ennis was more confused. I don't know what my point is.

Q: Do you think Ennis was always confused? Or was it not until he met Jake's character?

A: Yeah. I don't think Ennis was a person who asked any questions. I think once he met Jake's character it was an innate kind of reaction to meeting this person.

Q: It was either Jake or one of the sheep?

A: Probably. Yeah. (laughs)

Q: Was Ennis ever in love with Alma? A: I think he believed he was. I think he felt like he should be. I don't think so, at the end of the day, I don't think it was the love he had with Jack. No.

Q: Had they not met at the mountain do you think he would have led a normal life? A: Yeah maybe he would have denied himself of that.

Q: It took a lot to maintain that performance. You have to hold a degree of restraint. What did it take to do that? Tell us about your process. A: Just a lot of preparation. I really wanted to investigate him thoroughly. I had to ask a lot more questions than Ennis obviously had ever asked himself. So I essentially knew a lot more about him than he ever will. So after discovering his battles and what he was battling against, and why he was so unable to express and love. And then the physical. His walk and his speech. I wanted him be clenched. A clenched fist. I wanted his mouth to be clenched. Any form of expression had to be painful. I put a lot thought into that. And of course the aging I thought was a really important aspect. If we couldn't pull that off then we're up shit creek without a paddle.

Q: When you choose a role about a character or your career, what comes into the equation (cannot understand entire question)?

A: No. No. If I did that, then my choices would have been as boring as they had been in the past. Because it becomes too self conscious. I just kind of came to that conclusion. I'm really not in the business to make a bunch of people happy. In order to further myself, and get better at what I do, I just have to make choices based upon what is going to help me mature as a person and as an actor.

Q: Now-a-days there is a gay rodeo cowboy circuit. Did you look into that to find out what was going on in the gay community within the cowboy world back then?

 A: I don't think there was anything back then that we know of. I thought Annie Proulx's short story and the script that Larry and Diana wrote was so beautifully thorough and descriptive of the time and of these characters that I really needed to do very little external research. I really didn't. In terms of being a cowboy or a ranch hand, I grew up in western Australia, a lot of farm folk. There's something very universal about people who spend all day and night on horseback. Right down physically. Once they get off the horse it still looks like there's a horse between their legs as they walk off. It's a universal thing. And they all see the world through the same eyes.

Q: I'm sure you've been offered cowboy movies before, read them at least. Is there a difference between a cowboy movie and a Larry McMurtry cowboy movie?

A: Sure. I think "Anything for Billy" is something I'm kind of interested in. He's actually put together a screenplay of that. It's a beautiful book. But I'm not actually a fan of the Western genre. I never grew up watching cowboy and Indian films. I'm not really a huge fan of John Wayne and all that.

Q: Is there anyone you based your character off of?

 A: George Bush. (laughs)

Q: Do you think he'll watch this movie?

A: Probably in private. (laughs)

Q: James Schamus said this is a movie he would enjoy watching with his wife.

 A: Oh right, probably. To answer your question, I really didn't have a model for the character. No. It was very obvious from the screenplay and from the short story of how it had to be played. Who the characters were, I thought anyway.

Q: When this story was optioned they couldn't find anyone to take the role on. Why were you willing to jump in there?

A: It's obviously the most complex and internal character that I have been offered to play. It would take a more matured performance out of me to complete this character. It was the perfect script, it was the perfect director. It was a story that hadn't been told, which is extremely rare in this industry or anywhere really. I think the story of love, in general, it's just kind of a little recycled and it's a little stale. And this hadn't been put to script. I think it was really rare. I thought I'd be crazy to turn it down.

Q: Was there a point where you were like, this has explicit gay sex and kissing a guy throughout the picture, was there a point that you said my image can't take this?

A: No. Not really. Obviously I had to think about it and go "Oh geez". It wasn't that huge a problem for me. Everyone always asks "what was the most difficult aspect of the movie for you, or physically what was the most difficult". Making out with Jake Gyllenhaal (laughs). It's a really obvious answer to give. At the end of the day once we got the first take out of the way. It was like "oh okay, alright whatever". Let's finish the day, let's continue. All the mystery had been taken away and we're still acting, it's a movie, lets get on with it and it really wasn't such a big deal.

Q: Is he a good kisser?

A: Yeah. He's a really good kisser. (laughs)

Q: You have two movies out at the same time, roughly, that deal with different aspects of sexuality. It's an important subject to examine in the world today. Does this give you some unusual insight into it as a result?

A: Nothing really. I am, unlike like Ennis, I'm very expressive and I've investigated love. I'm in love with love. It's never been a problem of mine. If anything, I wish I could have taught Ennis a thing or two. It's frustrating that I couldn't. I didn't walk away thinking "Oh right, men can fall in love, together." It's something I always knew and respected and never had a problem with it. So, not really.

Q: Even if this story happened today, would Ennis have ended up alone anyway because of the man he is?

A: Yeah perhaps. I guess so. I think one way or another he is self destructive. He punishes himself, the conflict within, which he doesn't understand. I think he would have manifested the loneliness in him.

Q: Does the flashback of the dead guy have anything to do with his personality?

A: To a certain degree. I always felt that was a big part of his struggle, was battling his genetic structure. His dad and the generations before him, and their fears, and their traditions. I think it was so deeply imbedded in him. Yeah, I think it had a lot to do with it and it ultimately defeats him. Because he opts out of happiness and love.

Q: Do you think their love would have been that strong if they were with each other day-to-day?

 A: I guess so. I haven't put that much thought into it. It definitely made it more exciting for them to. I'm not sure. I think for Ennis, the fact that it was forbidden didn't necessarily make it more exciting for him, obviously. I think the story for me was this incredibly masculine figure who just had this innate love for another soul that comes in a vessel of a man. I'm not sure how he would fare in New York City. (laughs)

Q: Was there any question of what this film would be rated? A: Not to me. Once again Ang and all those people would have thought about that. I think America is the only country that has given it an R.

Q: Madonna is saying it's shocking and you see it and it's tame. A: I guess its all relative to who you are.

Q: So the tragic core of the characters is that they're gay?

A: No, not at all. I think it's the society they are in, the restrictions that surround them. Their genes. Their inability to break free of society's requirements of them.. People's opinions on a grand scale and how heavily that affects their lives. That's not being gay at all.

Q: Do you think audiences will accept the film because their not punished in the end?

 A: I guess a majority of the audience these days likes to be spoon fed happy endings, but its not really how life works.

Q: You had a film this year that connects with audiences, "Lords of Dogtown". It seems you were channeling Val Kilmer for that role.

A: Everyone says that.

Q: What attracted you to that role?

A: I grew up skating and surfing as a kid. Having met Skip, I was channeling him. He talks like that man (mimmicks voice). He's all nasaly. He's got big teeth. He's out of control, he is bigger than life. I still talk to Skip. He calls me out of the blue. He's sending me skateboards for my daughter. He's really sweet.

Q: You've had so many roles that had been really different. Looking back has this been your best year?

A: Yeah. I guess so. It's definitely been the first year where I've been throwing everyone else's opinions and choices out the window and made my own. It took a long time coming. It definitely started off in another light. It was somewhat spoon fed to me and things were handed to me on a platter. I didn't really like what was on the platter. I didn't feel like I had a choice. I was never really happy with the direction I was being pushed in. It took a while to go off and stamp it out a little bit and kind of be bad and make bad choices and be a little ruthless in order to take the gloss off everything. Then finally it was Terry Gilliam who came around and gave me the shot [with “The Brothers Grimm”]. As soon as Terry gave me the shot, everyone else was like, "oh, oh OK. If Terry is giving him one, then we might give him another shot."

Q: Do you find a common thread or did you find them contrasting in what you learned from each one?

A: It's definitely very different experiences. Which is what I was after. It was funny how I lined them up. Going from "Brothers Grimm" to 'Lords of Dogtown" to "Brokeback Mountain" to "Casanova" to "Candy". I don't know if I consciously did it, but I kind of went from one, expelled something from within me, and to this one, and went to one, hahahaha all light and kind of fluffy, and not giving a shit, and not taking it too seriously. Having like a rest, kind of a professional rest. Then going back into something gritty that takes some thought. And it kind of just worked out. So while I was doing one thing, I was refueling myself for the next. I also had a lot of time before diving into all of these projects to wrap my head around what I was going to do. I think just how heavy the contrast was between the films kind of helped me switch so sharply back and forth between [snaps fingers successively]. If it was just subtle differences it would have been harder to define where I would come from and what I'm doing next. They were all so drastically different.

Q: You also fell in love.

A.Yeah I did. That's the best thing I got out of it. We are forever grateful.

Q: Did that add to the chemistry of the relationship with the characters?

 A: It didn't for us. Michelle and I are very professional people. We were there to make the best possible film and story. We didn't walk around all day holding hands. We had a very serious story we were all passionate about telling.

Q: There are rumors about a sequel to "A Knight’s Tale". Is that happening?

A: No.

Q: Do you like living in New York?

A: I love living in New York. I love it. I love Brooklyn.

Q: You still drive.

 A: Yeah, I do. Yeah. Just around Brooklyn. Not in Manhattan. If I want to go to Manhattan I take the subway.

Q: How is being a dad for the first time?

 A: It's incredible. It's incredibly humbling. It's the most selfless act you can ever encounter in your life. Yeah it's brilliant. It's beautiful.

Q: Anything else coming up?

A: No.

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Peter Keough tosses away all pretenses of objectivity, good taste and sanity and writes what he damn well pleases under the guise of a film blog.

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