With A Knight's Tale, can Heath Ledger shed his armor for a joust with fame?

By Dave Karger
Updated May 18, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Heath Ledger will always remember the day he saw the poster for A Knight’s Tale. The young Australian actor, who made a splash in the U.S. costarring in last summer’s The Patriot, was in London working 18-hour days on the period adventure Four Feathers when the one-sheet arrived. There he saw his own eyes, larger than life, staring back at him, with the words ”HE WILL ROCK YOU” emblazoned below his steely face. And he realized the advertising blitz for a $40 million enterprise would be all about…him.

”I got really nervous. I think I started shaking,” recalls Ledger, who, months later, is clearly still uncomfortable with being the focus of Columbia Pictures’ marketing campaign. ”Sure, the story is based around this knight’s character, but it’s about a group of people. It’s an ensemble piece — it always was….It was like, F — -! I’ve done all this work, but ultimately, these guys are making decisions that could either really make or break my career. And it’s out of my hands.”

Heath Ledger, welcome to superstardom. Whether he likes it or not, A Knight’s Tale, about a British commoner who impersonates a master jouster, has been positioned as a teen-idol-making vehicle for Ledger, akin to what William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet was for Leonardo DiCaprio in 1996. Like that film, A Knight’s Tale is a classic story featuring anachronistic flourishes — in this case contemporary music and dialogue — that’s targeted squarely at younger audiences. And although Ledger perceives the movie as an ensemble piece — his character, William Thatcher, does have a ragtag band of buddies — the 22-year-old actor is the face on the billboards, trailer, and TV ads. And then there’s that poster.

Which isn’t to say Ledger isn’t deserving of the attention. As Thatcher (and his royal alter ego, Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein), he sings, dances, romances, and, of course, jousts. And the studio is banking on the hope that in two-plus hours, a new Leo — or at least a new action hero — just might be born.

Columbia execs have no problem admitting that they’re pinning one of their two summer tent poles (the other being July’s Julia Roberts romantic comedy, America’s Sweethearts) on Ledger’s hunky mug. ”We went through various choices [for the poster],” says Jeff Blake, the studio’s president for worldwide marketing and distribution. ”But I gotta admit, when it came to putting a head of armor on that image, it just didn’t seem like a good idea.”

Indeed, even the film’s writer-director feels the role fits Ledger like a metal glove. ”In the movie he plays that character, but he’s also playing Heath Ledger,” says Brian Helgeland, the L.A. Confidential co-screenwriter who made his directorial debut with 1999’s Payback. ”I mean, Clint Eastwood plays Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson plays Mel Gibson. Bruce Willis is a movie star because people like that Bruce Willis persona. You look at Heath and you feel like you know him, even though you don’t.”

A Knight's Tale

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 132 minutes
  • Brian Helgeland