I Am Heath Ledger, the beautiful and heartbreaking documentary that premiered on Spike TV Wednesday, details the life and soul of the gone-too-soon actor told from the point of view of those family members and friends who shared his life. Compiled from interviews with the actor during his lifetime, as well as footage he shot on a handheld camera, the documentary offers viewers a rare insight into the actor’s life and philosophy.
Here are 15 things we learned about the star from I Am Heath Ledger.
1. He always wanted to act
As a teenager Ledger would follow all his older sister’s productions and watch from the front row telling his family: “That’s what I want to do, I can’t wait until I can do that!” He always had a clear vision for where he saw his life going and would stare up at the stars he’d stuck on his bedroom ceiling, point to them and say: “That’s where I’m going to be. I’m going to be in the film industry and I’m going to be a film actor.” This restless ambition led him to leave school and hit the road when he was just 17. “I had nothing to run away from in Perth,” the Australian says in a voiceover from a previous interview. “It’s just that there was all this going on outside of that and I just had to be a part of it.”
2. When he read the script for 10 Things I Hate About You he immediately wanted the lead role
Ledger’s filmmaker-friend Matt Amato gave him a copy of his friend’s script for 10 Things I Hate About You. Once Ledger had read it he immediately told Amato he wanted to play the lead role of Patrick, despite his relative inexperience. Ledger landed the part at the audition. At that moment Amato realized there was truly something “different” about his friend. After making the film, Ledger began to feel like this was really his career, that he truly was an actor. Because of his success in the rom-com, producers began scrambling to cast him in any and all similar projects, but that was the exact opposite of what the young actor was looking to do. Rather, he wanted to mix things up a bit, choosing his next role carefully. “People in Hollywood, they don’t like to hear no,” says Ledger in voiceover. “So I had a lot of fun saying no.” But he did it in a friendly way.
3. He made his own mini movies
Ledger was constantly recording what was going on around him, documenting his life with a camcorder, Polaroid camera, and regular camera and make art out of it. He had a knack for capturing friends at their most vulnerable and authentic. Cameras were a big passion of Ledger’s life, and he was able to set them up without using a light meter and understood how to use all their settings. He would also film himself acting — even if it was just him running around his hotel pretending to be on a mission — always curious to see how he, as a self-taught actor in many way, could improve.
4. Mel Gibson was one of his heroes
When Ledger screen tested for 2000’s The Patriot , he was excited at the thought of working with one of his longtime idols and fellow Aussies, Mel Gibson (he loved Mad Max growing up). However, halfway through the second scene of his screen test, Ledger stopped what he was doing, fearing he had messed up and didn’t want to waste anyone’s time. He called his agent when he left and told him he wouldn’t be getting the part, only to find out a little later that he had, in fact, landed the role — the producers were impressed by the little they’d seen.
5. He was plagued with self-doubt
While working on The Patriot, Ledger experienced a crisis of confidence. He called his friends from the set really upset and caught up in the fear that he wouldn’t be able to accomplish what he wanted in the role. However, Gibson took the young actor under his wing and looked out for him — he essentially became Ledger’s first teacher, telling his friends, “It’s not what Mel says, it’s what he doesn’t say.” After the movie wrapped, Gibson invited his young prodigy and friends to fly back to L.A. with him on his private jet.
6. He basically lived in the house from Entourage before Entourage was a TV show
Ledger kept around him the close group of friends he’d grown up with back in Perth, often inviting everyone to stay at his home in L.A. — with or without him. The doors were always open — Ledger could be away shooting a movie in Europe and his home would still be full. “Heath’s place in L.A. was sort of a renowned pre-Entourage kind of Entourage house,” says friend and actor Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline). Adrian Grenier was even there one night, which Mendelsohn believes was for research purposes. As alluring and enticing as Ledger’s life was, “he was very big on sharing his success,” says Naomi Watts, who starred along Ledger in 2003’s Ned Kelly.
7. The fame that came from A Knight’s Tale was unsettling for him
Realizing their lead’s star potential, the producers behind the 2001 movie built the marketing campaign around Ledger. There were billboards of his face everywhere and he knew it would project him into the limelight, which made him uncomfortable. Watts describes it as “tall poppy syndrome” — an Australianism that suggests too much success is ugly and one should be cut back down to size. Ledger was uneasy playing salesman for the movie on the multi-city promotional tour and despite having previously sought fame, when he got it realized he didn’t want it at all.
8. He picked projects based on directors and roles he could disappear into
In 2001, Ledger had a supporting role in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball, a role that allowed him to explore a completely different side of himself and a new skill set. Remembers Ledger’s future director Ang Lee: “He didn’t do a lot…but that’s the power of Heath Ledger; he will steal the movie.” The next year Ledger took on a role in Shekhar Kapur’s film The Four Feathers because he was a huge fan of the director’s work, followed by 2003’s Ned Kelly — a project Watts signed onto because of her interest in working with Ledger. She describes his intense approach to his work and being blown away by him on the first day. Next up was the Catherine Hardwicke-directed Lords of Dogtown. Hardwicke was initially worried Ledger was too much of a heartthrob to play the part in the 2005 movie, but some fake teeth and dedication soon convinced her otherwise. “This interest in the exterior and the craft, the way that characters would look and sound and physically look on screen — he was sort of a painter in that way,” says costar Emile Hirsch. “But he still had a psychological interest in characters.” Seven days later he was on the set of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Lee wasn’t initially convinced Ledger could carry a movie, but remembering his performance in Monster’s Ball convinced him otherwise.
9. He sent Ben Harper a grand piano
Ledger sent the musician a piano, telling him “it’s supposed to be with you.” Later, he called up Harper and asked him to write a lullaby for his unborn daughter. Harper saw the opportunity as a great privilege. Ledger later directed the music video for Harper’s “Morning Yearning.” Harper describes the video as “the best music video I’ve ever had in my 23 years of making videos,” referencing Ledger’s prowess behind the camera and his “command of his vision.” Ledger and Harper started an independent record label together named The Masses — because it wasn’t meant to be exclusive; everyone has the capacity to tell their story.
10. Being a dad was his favorite thing
After the birth of his daughter Matilda with then-partner Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain), Ledger fell in love with being a father. The young family moved to Brooklyn, New York. Ledger fell in love with the city and everything about their life at the time. He would breeze through the streets of Manhattan with Matilda on his shoulders.
11. He rarely slept
His friends describe him as having too much energy, too much creativity, and too much to do to find time to sleep. He would call up people at all hours of the night because an idea had taken hold of him and he had to share it, or he would show up unannounced for breakfast at 5:30 or 6 a.m. If anyone could sense their own mortality, it was Ledger. He had a thing for artists who had died young, like Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin, and would express to his friends that he felt he was like them and that he wouldn’t be around long so he had to get things done now. “If there wasn’t some type of risk involved, he had no time for it,” says Harper. “He went all the way to the edge in the time that he had. Some people are just bigger than the world has room for.” When working on 2007’s I’m Not There Ledger felt things starting to unravel and was struggling with being unable to give Williams and Matilda the attention he wanted to give them. He felt he couldn’t control his destiny and was having trouble sleeping. As a result he had to medicate his sleep, which, in turn, wasn’t good for his body.
12. He loved chess
He was an avid and gifted chess player who, by ten years old, could beat his dad. He played every day, online or in person, and was only a few points off achieving Grand Master status. So when he saw the script for Queen’s Gambit, a movie about a pill-addicted chess player, he was intent on making it his directorial feature film debut.
13. The Joker’s lip-licking in The Dark Knight was a way to avoid less time in the makeup trailer
For his role as the Joker in his penultimate movie, The Dark Knight, Ledger had to don prosthetics over his lips to resemble scars, but they would loosen any time he spoke. In an effort to avoid revisiting the makeup chair multiple times a day, Ledger would lick his lips to prevent them from cracking. This soon became a character trait.
14. Playing the Joker was the first time he felt untouchable as an actor
After spending six weeks locked away preparing for the role and perfecting the characteristics, Ledger — for the first time in his career — felt like he really nailed the performance. No matter how great the other actors were in the scene, he felt as though he was controlling it. Although people think it was a strenuous role for him, Ledger would come off set and laugh about how much fun he was having creatively. When he wasn’t working he would turn up to set anyway to watch director Christopher Nolan at work and learn from him.
15. He was happy at the time of his death
Although people have painted a narrative of Ledger’s death that suggests he was in a dark place, his family and friends contend the opposite. “It’s still hard when people talk about it, or have preconceived ideas surrounding that period of time but that’s what people do; they come up with their version of it that makes it convenient and tidy and also tells a good story,” says his agent, Steve Alexander. “The truth is, he was super happy and was loving life, and he struggled with some demons but he wasn’t wanting to go anywhere but forward.”