Looking Back on Heath Ledger
In 2009, Entertainment Weekly reached out to dozens of Heath Ledger’s friends and collaborators in the industry — many of whom hadn’t spoken publicly about his death at that point — to compile an oral history of his fascinating but sadly abbreviated film career. The surprising portrait that emerges offers new insight into this complicated artist, an actor who stayed true to his adventurous instincts while attempting to navigate the perilous waters of stardom.
Born in Perth in 1979 to an automotive-engineer father and a French-teacher mother, Ledger appeared in a handful of Australian TV shows and one small film before moving to Los Angeles at age 18. On the strength of his appearance in a short-lived swords-and-sandals series on Fox called Roar, he was signed by CAA agent Steve Alexander, who helped land him his first American movie, the 1999 Shakespeare-inflected teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You.
10 Things I Hate About You
Donna Morong, casting director, 10 Things: Heath drove up in a convertible, top down, and jumped out of the car without even opening the door. He was adorable. Gorgeous. So full of life. He smoked cigarettes and was wearing tight white jeans. He was impish, like he was in on a joke, like he had this secret that tickled him. He was living at a fast speed. It seemed like he was desperate to grow up.
Gil Junger, director, 10 Things: Heath came in to read, and he exuded a sexuality so uncommon for a man of that age. As soon as he left, I stood up and said, “Ladies, I have never wanted to sleep with a man, but if I had to, that would be the man. Please hire him immediately.”
Julia Stiles, costar, 10 Things: Heath always seemed so mature. I got the sense he was averse to becoming any kind of teen idol. I think he felt like 10 Things had more substance, but he anticipated that if he did more movies like this, he’d get stuck doing teen romantic comedies.
10 Things I Hate About You
Junger: I said, “Heath, once this movie comes out, your life will forever change. You’re going to be a big movie star and I want you to keep your head screwed on straight, because you’re not going to know what hit you.” And his cool response was, “Well, let’s just do as well as we can with this and see what happens.” Most 19-year-old guys would have said, “Wow, let me get a new car!”
Alexander: After 10 Things, Heath was offered every teen movie under the sun. Every studio wanted him to play the most popular guy in high school, the guy that gets the girl. He let all those opportunities go by, whether there was money or not. He said, “I really want to try to elevate what I’m doing.”
Following the moderate success of 10 Things, Ledger stepped away from the teen-pinup track with a part as Mel Gibson’s son in the 2000 Revolutionary War epic The Patriot. That $113 million hit led to his first major starring role, in a souped-up medieval jousting movie called A Knight’s Tale.
Mel Gibson, costar, The Patriot: His audition for The Patriot was rough. But he got the gig because of some kind of honest thing that was intrinsic to him. He was just authentic and sincere. I don’t think he knew the power he had already. So he’d work himself up into an angst situation, trying to get at things that were already there. You almost wanted to say, “Dude, just calm down and be yourself. It’s good.”
A Knight's Tale
Todd Black, producer, A Knight’s Tale: When we saw the first cut of A Knight’s Tale, you couldn’t look away from Heath. We were the first movie that put his full face on the poster. No one knew him quite yet, but we just decided to gamble. And Heath—ugh, he didn’t even want to deal with it. He was mortified! He wanted the other people who were in the movie to be on the poster.
Alexander: We were sitting in a marketing meeting at Sony, and they were talking about how they were going to build the campaign for the movie, how they’re going to hit this city and that city, and they’d like him to go on a world tour. They had this whole campaign—”He will rock you”—because Heathlooked like a rock star. Obviously it was a great opportunity, but Heath saw it as a lot of pressure. He was scared to death. He walked out of the meeting and ran into the bathroom. He was afraid he was being built up too quickly, and that if he was put on a pedestal there was nowhere to go. I don’t think he was mature enough at that moment to understand what he wanted from his career, but that just didn’t feel right to him.
On the strength of A Knight’s Tale, which earned $57 million at the box office—a solid tally considering Ledger was still largely unknown—the actor was inundated with major offers, including the leading role in Spider-Man. Instead, he shifted gears, demonstrating serious acting chops as a suicidal prison guard in the indie drama Monster’s Ball, which filmed in Louisiana.
Alexander: Sony asked me to come over and read the script for Spider-Man. It was going to be a really cool tentpole movie. But as soon as I said Spider-Man, Heath said, “It’s not for me. I would be taking someone else’s dream away.” He never second-guessed his decisions or said “what if”—which was amazing, because I certainly did!
Marc Forster, director, Monster’s Ball: When he read the script, Heath said, “Look, I get this character. I totally understand him. I’ll come down there and breathe in that world.” He wanted to try something different, something where the movie wasn’t resting on his shoulders. The one thing he said was, “I’m not going to participate in the promotion of the movie. I’m just going to come in and focus on the acting.”
Alexander: Monster’s Ball definitely did some heavy lifting for him. A lot of important filmmakers and studio executives saw him in a different way after that movie. It achieved exactly what we wanted it to in terms of stripping away the shininess of a leading man.
Wes Bentley, costar, Four Feathers: Heath’s fun clouded its way through a room. It was infectious. If you were stuck in an elevator with him, you’d be entertained. He liked to go to Vegas dressed snazzy. He’d walk the streets of Vegas and never really have a plan, dressed up in a pink blazer and a tie. He liked to get a boat and travel to the Greek islands. Some people think he’d party too much and take drugs. That wasn’t the case. It was young energy. He was high off life… Heath had great taste in music. He always knew what to play at 5 a.m.: Neil Young, “Old Man.” He’d find the right time for it and sneak it in.
Playing an eccentric con artist in the 2005 fantasy film The Brothers Grimm, opposite Matt Damon, proved a creative breakthrough for Ledger, despite the movie’s lackluster box office performance. He would then make another idiosyncratic career choice by taking a supporting role as 1970s skateboarding guru Skip Engblom in Lords of Dogtown.
Terry Gilliam, director, The Brothers Grimm: [Cinematographer] Nicola Pecorini was working on The Order, and he called me and said, “This kid is extraordinary. He’s fearless.” I went out to L.A. and met Heath and just liked him immediately. As we were talking, he was constantly jiggling around. I was like, “That’s great—you’ve got to keep that.” He just had this incredible energy that was intense but very vulnerable at the same time. Heath was determined to be his own man, despite his success. Johnny Depp was someone he really admired. I introduced them at the Toronto Film Festival. Johnny has a good sense of competition. Right from the start, he was just, like, “Ooh, this guy—watch out!”… He was a very old soul. When we were in Prague doing Grimm, there was one night we went to see this gypsy band. Somehow his age came up in conversation. At that time, Matt Damon was 32, and I always felt Heath was the same age, if not older. He said, “I’m 24.” I said, “What? That’s not possible!” He had a kind of wisdom you only get from centuries of former life. He could talk about any number of things—books, ideas—and this was not a 24-year-old you were talking to. Maybe he was part aborigine somewhere down the line.
Lords of Dogtown
Catherine Hardwicke, director, Lords of Dogtown: I heard Heath wanted to do Dogtown, and I was shocked. The real Skip was a pretty funky character. I thought I was going to get Philip Seymour Hoffman. Heath came in to meet me and he was extremely shy. He had his cap pulled down and it was like, could this guy look any more like a homeless person? It’s a survival mechanism, to become scruffy, to try to hide, to go against everyone’s expectations. He talked to me about Australia and surfing and skateboarding, and I thought, I can’t say no. By this point, Ledger had earned a reputation for having a magnetic personality and an irrepressible appetite for fun.
Heath Ledger and Naomi Watts
In 2005, Ledger embraced one of the riskiest choices a male movie star can make and signed on to play the tight-lipped, emotionally constricted gay cowboy Ennis Del Mar opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Ang Lee’s romantic drama Brokeback Mountain.
Diana Ossana, screenwriter, Brokeback Mountain: I called Steve Alexander and said, “Get this script to Heath now.” Heath was with [then girlfriend] Naomi Watts in New York, and on the way back to Australia, they both read it. When I met Heath, he told me that after they read the script, Naomi was jumping up and down on the bed going, “You have to do this! This will repay you in ways that you can’t imagine!”
James Schamus, producer, Brokeback Mountain: Heath was somebody that [screenwriters] Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana had always used as a reference point in writing the character of Ennis. You knew that part was in Heath. It was just a question of whether Ang could bring it out. Heath met Ang, and it was one of those funny conversations. All Ang wants is about 45 minutes to stare at the person. He doesn’t need to say anything and doesn’t care what the person has to say. But the minute Heath left it was like, “Okay, great. Yep.”
Hardwicke: Heath said, “I’ve got to go be a gay cowboy.” And everyone was talking every which way, making every kind of joke. You knew it was going to be great and he had to do it. But there was the fear embodied in it, too: What was I thinking? Did I really agree to this?
Gilliam: I used to get calls from Heath during Brokeback, because he wasn’t happy. He felt alone and isolated. I think it was his sense of not getting the kind of warm support we gave him on Grimm. Whatever it did, it produced an extraordinary performance.
Schamus: During casting, rehearsals, and preproduction, Ang is like the warm, wise, cuddly daddy bear. The minute he yells “Action!” on the first shot, the actors become alienated props he kind of puts up with. That’s the environment, and it’s tough on actors. He doesn’t yell at people or humiliate them. But it’s a very tough space. Heath had very difficult days. You could really feel the pain he was going through.
Rodrigo Prieto, cinematographer, Brokeback Mountain: Heath was definitely moody compared to Jake, who is very bubbly and jokes around. There were some very emotional scenes, and Heath would struggle to get it exactly right. It didn’t come easily. I think there was an insecurity about his ability as an actor. I remember the scene where he’s in the Greyhound station and the girl he’d been seeing comes in and starts crying. Each take, she cried very easily. She had no problem finding that emotion. Heath just looked at me and said, “Oh, how I envy her.”
Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams
On the Canadian set of Brokeback, Ledger—who had recently broken up with Watts—grew close to Michelle Williams, who was playing his wife.
Schamus: I remember when Michelle showed up, we had dinner with her and Heath and there was no indication of any of what was to happen. But a couple weeks later, it was a reality. People felt privileged to share in what they were discovering between each other. It wasn’t a big public drama. It was quiet, but very present as a kind of gift to everybody.
Prieto: We wanted to shoot a scene where Heath and Michelle are sledding down a hill and the sled falls over and they play in the snow. And when the sled tipped over and Heath fell on top of Michelle, she was like, “Ow! Ow!” We realized she’d really hurt her leg and was in intense pain. Heathwas consoling her and making sure she was okay. He went with her to the hospital. I was very touched. I was thinking, Hmmm, maybe there’s something here. A couple of weeks later I realized they were a couple.
In December of 2005, Brokeback Mountain opened to massive acclaim, becoming a zeitgeist-shifting phenomenon and generating Oscar buzz. Amid the hoopla, Ledger and Williams were raising their newborn daughter, Matilda, born that October.
Gibson: Fatherhood changes you. Some guys, it doesn’t. But with Heath, it was going to.
Gilliam: The months of publicity on Brokeback were difficult for Heath, because there was so much pressure—this was suddenly the Academy Awards and everything. Heath dutifully did it, and I know hated every moment of it. All of us heard it in different ways from him. He just hated it. For him, it was probably a kind of selling out. He hated going on chat shows. He hated what he felt were silly interviews. He felt his job was to be an actor. It bothered him to feel he was hustling to get an award or publicity.
Hardwicke: Seeing Heath at parties and events was uncomfortable. The handshakes, the endless probing, seeing the same people at the People’s Choice Awards that you saw at the Golden Globes—that wasn’t really him.
Nicola Pecorini, friend and cinematographer, The Order and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Heath would sometimes ask for help to escape: “Can you call me at 5:15 so I can pick up the phone and get off this interview?” It was very funny, because he was like a big kid—you know, “Get me out of Science 101.” He went along for the ride, but at times it was a bit too much for him. He’d call me and say, “Can I come play with your kid?” My son at the time was 10, and Heath would come and spend hours playing soldiers with him, just to get away from everything.
At age 26, Ledger earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, only to lose to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Following Brokeback, he appeared in the period romp Casanova, the heroin drama Candy, and the Bob Dylan quasi-biopic I’m Not There. Meanwhile, he felt increasingly driven to pursue his own projects: making music videos, working with a Los Angeles art collective called The Masses, and developing scripts he hoped to someday direct.
Pecorini: Heath was extremely relieved he didn’t win the Oscar. I saw him the next day and he was like, “It’s a big, bloody weight off my back.” I said, “Don’t you have even a little regret?” He said, “No. It’s over! I’m free now!” If he had won, he would have had to deal even more with this system that wanted to guide his career and his life. He immediately threw himself back into a project that was really important to him: a movie he wanted to make about [late British singer] Nick Drake. That was one of his dream projects. The moment the Oscars were over, he said, “Now we can do the Nick Drake thing.”
Gilliam: The Oscar nomination wasn’t a good thing. I think it’s a terrible thing to be nominated. That’s a punishment for having been good. There was a period after Brokeback where Heath just didn’t know which way to go. He would sign up for this and that and then pull out. That year was confusing for him.
Hardwicke: During the awards and celebratory parties for Brokeback, he told me, “I don’t want to work. I want to take a year or two off where Michelle and I will move to Holland and ride bikes.” This dream took root in his mind: How can I get away? How can I get time to renew my soul? But the business doesn’t want you to take that time. He was so desirable, everyone was offering him the most delicious things in the world on a daily basis.
I'm Not There
Prieto: I saw Heath at the Venice Film Festival when he was there with I’m Not There. He was accepting an award for Cate Blanchett. And he was just totally different from when we worked together. He was dressed very oddly. He had these little shorts and this funny jacket with the pockets turned inside out. He seemed different. His vibration was much higher. He went up to receive the award and he was making jokes about the absurdness of it all. It felt like he was making fun of the whole awards thing, the red carpet, everybody dressed up. He didn’t seem comfortable in his skin that day.
The Dark Knight
It took a year before Ledger signed on to his next role, as the psychotic Joker in director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which finally allowed him to do a big summer blockbuster on his own terms.
The Dark Knight
Charles Roven, producer, The Dark Knight and The Brothers Grimm: After Brokeback, everyone wanted Heath to do everything. His agent heard we were starting to cast the Joker and he said Heath was looking for something that would be the opposite extreme from Brokeback and he’d love to kick around the idea. Chris and producer Emma Thomas and I all thought that was great. We made sure Heath understood this was a huge summer tentpole, where you really need the whole publicity machine working. We laid out right away what you’re in for when you do a movie like this. You’ve got to be prepared to see your image in a store as a doll. We couldn’t have a situation where he goes, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know I had to do that!” He got it.
Pecorini: Heath knew The Dark Knight would take him off the market for a long time and he loved that. He was going back to the mainstream cinema he was trying to escape, but it was giving him a way out from everything else.
Alexander: Heath liked to torture me, in a playful way. He’d say, “I’m going to disappear after The Dark Knight.” He knew this movie would bring tremendous opportunity and that I’d want him to go to work with some great filmmaker—and he’d want to disappear.
Gary Oldman, costar, The Dark Knight: I kind of raised my eyebrow at the casting and thought, Oh, I wonder how that will be. But any concerns that one may have had vanished when you got on the set with him. I did a couple of scenes with Heath in the first leg of the shoot in London. I called a friend and he said, “How’s Heath?” I said, “He’s breathtaking. He’s going to be astounding.” I could tell just working for five minutes with him.
The Dark Knight
Gilliam: Heath was exhilarated by playing the Joker. He said, “I’m able to do things I never believed were inside me.” He’s working with great actors, like Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart, and he’d say, “I go into these scenes, and they can’t do anything to me!” He used to just giggle that he had found a character that was impregnable. They could beat him, hit him, and it wouldn’t make a difference because he was so utterly wacko. It freed him up and got him out of that uncertainty after Brokeback. It was just, “Let’s go. Let’s fly.” And he flew.
Roven: I showed Heath the first six minutes of The Dark Knight, the bank heist sequence, on an IMAX screen in London. I said, “You have to see this. You haven’t seen yourself be the Joker!” He watched it, and it just blew his mind. He was so thrilled, he was just laughing. He said, “I want to see it again!” It’s not an easy thing to rethread an IMAX, so it took about 15 minutes, but we showed it to him again. That was the last time I saw him.
The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus
In late 2007, Ledger went into production on Gilliam’s next film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It was a time of intense stress, as his relationship with Williams was falling apart. Ledger began to complain of terrible difficulty sleeping.
Gilliam: All of us who were close to Heath knew what was going on, and it was not the most pleasant experience…. He was obsessed with his daughter. She became the center of his thoughts. He would drag her up to my house in London. Here’s Heath, Academy Award nominee, and he’d just grab his daughter, stick her in a backpack, hop on the Tube, and come up to the house. Nobody would have thought, “There’s Heath Ledger.” He was just a guy with a kid.
Pecorini: Separation when there is a kid involved is always very painful, no matter what. And Heath was always very hard on himself. His tendency was always to say, “What did I do wrong?” He was really bleeding. And I’m pretty sure that all his sleeping problems had nothing to do with work and all to do with Matilda and Michelle.
Oldman: Most of the conversations we had were about family. I think because I had been through being a single dad in the past, he was picking my brain a little. The last time I saw him, he said he was looking forward to spending some time with Matilda.
Gilliam: The insomnia was really getting to him. He’d arrive in the morning looking really shattered. I’d say, “Let’s take it easy because you’re knackered.” And he’d say, “No, let’s go.” And he’d just whip the thing up into another gear very quickly and off we’d go. By the end of the day he was transformed into this beaming, angelic presence. The work just lifted him every day. He couldn’t get enough of it.
A Tribute to Heath Ledger
In January 2008, Ledger traveled to New York for a brief break from filming on Parnassus. On Jan. 22, he was found dead in his SoHo apartment. There was immediate speculation he had overdosed on illicit drugs, but autopsy reports ruled his death an accidental toxic combination of prescription painkillers, anti-anxiety medication, and sleeping pills.
Gilliam: I was in Vancouver, and there was a computer with a BBC website and it says, “Heath Ledger found dead.” My immediate response was, “It’s a f—ing Warner Bros. publicity stunt for the Joker!” We kept looking at the computer thinking it was going to change. But it wouldn’t go away.
Schamus: It was one of those “Where were you on the day Kennedy was shot?” moments. I called Jake [Gyllenhaal] and remember wailing.
Oldman: I call it the cosmic s— hammer. Just one of those things. I can’t even say I ever remember seeing Heath smoking. It was a complete shock.
Gilliam: They tried so hard to pin [drug abuse] on him, but they couldn’t because Heath was as clean as you could be. We know about the pills. But he had stopped smoking. Marijuana was no longer in his life, which he had enjoyed a bit. He wasn’t drinking. Nothing. This was a body that had cleansed itself for over a year of anything.
Pecorini: He was so solid into keeping clean, it was quite stunning. I really think he died of a broken heart. I know it can sound very romantic, but it’s very tragic. I think that’s what killed him.
Heath Ledger's Legacy
With his part in Parnassus half-finished, Ledger’s sudden death left the film in limbo. Ultimately, Gilliam would bring on Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to fill out the rest of Ledger’s character. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. scrambled to finish and market The Dark Knight. On the weekend of July 18, the film opened at $158 million. It eventually grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide and drew Oscar talk for Ledger’s performance. Still, for his friends, family, fans, and the filmmaking community, the shock and sadness over the actor’s death lingered.
Alexander: We were making these incredible plans about what was next, careerwise. The day after he died, he was going to meet Steven Spielberg to explore the idea of playing Tom Hayden in a movie about the Chicago 7. This wasn’t a guy who was even for a second thinking about checking out in any way, shape, or form. There’s a moment in The Dark Knight when Heath’s hanging upside down and he says to Batman, “You and I are destined to do this forever.” It’s a very sad moment. A sequel certainly would have happened. I cringe when I read that he was a tortured soul or a Method actor who couldn’t get out of his own way because he’d played this dark character. It’s just not true.
Bentley: I wish I knew what was going on with the prescription drugs. I could have said, “That’s not gonna help. Don’t mix all that.” I think he just didn’t know what he was doing. I feel like at least he would have listened to me. I didn’t go to the funeral because I know Heath would have been laughing at it. He would have had that smile on his face. At the very least he would have shrugged it off.
Pecorini: I remember when we went to the memorial service, most of the people there had nothing to do with Heath. He used to despise most of them, and there was no reason for them to be there. I understand the family wanting to give the “Hollywood community,” so-called, the opportunity of saying goodbye. But I’m telling you, 85 percent of the people in that room had no right to be there. It was pretty disturbing for me.
Oldman: If Heath does get an Oscar nomination, I can just picture him up there, looking down and going, “F—!”
Pecorini: We joked about [an Oscar nomination]. Heath used to say, “This time I’m going to give them such a hard time—they’ll have to cry to get an interview.” He knew he’d done something special. But he was saying, “This time I’m going to lead the dance.”
Gilliam: We’re cutting Parnassus now, so it’s like I work with Heath every day. He’s in fine shape, at least in the world I’m inhabiting at the moment. It just doesn’t make sense. Every day goes by and I think, He’ll be back in a second.