Heath Ledger tells EW.com what it took to transform a young Hollywood heartthrob into a grizzly, 19th-century war hero in ''The Four Feathers''
Heath Ledger
Credit: Heath Ledger: Nick Douglas/London Features

Heath Ledger may be making news these days for sporting a freshly-buzzed dome and a new Aussie girlfriend who’s 10 years his senior, ”Mulholland Drive”’s 33-year-old blond bombshell Naomi Watts. But that emphasis should shift with the release of Ledger’s ”The Four Feathers” (Sept. 20), a 19th-century epic served up just in time for serious movie season.

Ledger plays Harry Faversham, a young British soldier whose fear of battle causes him to resign his army post days just before heading to war in Africa. But after receiving four feathers (a sign of cowardice) from his three closest friends and his patriotic girlfriend (played by Kate Hudson), Harry ventures to Africa, after all, and fights to regain his honor, aided by local farmer Abou Fatma (”Amistad”’s Djimon Hounsou).

Ledger recently sat down with EW.com, and while he didn’t discuss his tabloid-friendly personal life, he did share a few secrets about his new movie.

”Four Feathers” seems like it must have been physically demanding. What’s the toughest thing you had to do?
Arm-wrestle Djimon Hounsou. It burst my biceps. Well, if I had any. The tough thing for the local [Muslim] crew members and the local cast was that half way through the shoot, it turned into Ramadan — where they’re not allowed to eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset — and they’re working in this dead heat. I have these amazing photos of hundreds of crew and cast members passed out on the inside sand dunes, asleep in the shade.

There’s a scene inside a Sudanese prison with thousands of prisoners who look on the verge of death all packed together like sardines. How tough was that to shoot?
Those [extras] were literally starving [from fasting for Ramadan], and when the director said ”cut,” they’d all just pass out. But all those guys, they knew how to have fun. [Once they’d recovered], they’d all yell and give high fives, and I’d be hugging ’em.

How did you prepare for all that fighting, horse riding, and ballroom dancing?
Djimon dragged me into the gym, but he kind of gave up half way. I was [imitating himself struggling at the bench press] and he was lifting it with one arm, so he said, ”Forget about it kid.” We did horse riding training, military weapon training, learning how to stand in the posture of the soldier, marching as a soldier, and ballroom dancing. It was kind of refreshing to finally get out there and scream and beat people up and jump on horses.

Which was tougher — the ballroom dancing or the military stuff?
Oh, God, probably the military stuff because it was so boring. You’re just standing there like a twig. I enjoyed the dancing. That was fun.

You have this great relationship with Djimon on-screen….
The only reason we’re laughing in each scene is because we made each other laugh in that scene. He’s such a monstrous figure. He’s this huge guy, and you think he’s just gonna crush you. But then you can just tickle him and make him giggle. [Turning mock serious] But don’t try to tickle him.

Director Shekhar Kapur (”Elizabeth”) says this film was shot somewhat on the fly. True?
Totally. For the final fight in the desert, we had no idea how Harry was going to escape. It was like: ”How the f— does he get away from this huge, monstrous dude? He’s weak and he’s been stabbed. How does he get away?” We’d just walk in the dunes and figure out how to do it. We’d say: ”Okay, so he punches him here. Let’s throw him down the dune. Now let’s go down there and see what we could do. What if there’s a skeleton in the ground? He could take a bone from that. That’s the only way he could really escape.” That was exciting.

To make a modern-day comparison, how would you react to, say, being drafted into the army?
Why should I be fighting some politician’s battle? They should put the presidents in a ring together and let them box it out, rather than sending 30,000 people out to die. I don’t get into politics. I don’t read about them. I don’t care about them. So why should I fight their battle? I’d take the feathers. I’m fine with that.

The Four Feathers
  • Movie
  • 130 minutes