Interview: Heath Ledger "Brokeback Mountain"
Interview: Heath Ledger
Posted: Wednesday, December 7th 2005 3:34PM
Author: Garth Franklin
Location: New York, NY
If 2004 was 'The Year of the Law' (Jude Law that is), 2005 is 'The Year of the Ledger' it would seem. After brief forays as a gay cyclist and a medieval prince on TV series such as "Sweat" and "Roar", Aussie actor Heath Ledger was pegged as one of the next big young hunks to hit Hollywood back in 2000. Coming off comedy hit "10 Things I Hate About You", the actor scored a high profile role as Mel Gibson's son in "The Patriot" and followed that as the lead in actioneer "A Knight's Tale" and a small part in the acclaimed "Monster's Ball".
Then the gild came off the cage. 'Tale' underperformed, Ledger's next three follow-up films "The Four Feathers", "The Order" and "Ned Kelly" all bombed. Whilst a high profile relationship with fellow Aussie and rising star herself Naomi Watts meant his name was still being mentioned in the press, career wise things seemed rather quiet.
This past year changed all that, the now 26-year-old Ledger went back to work with a vengeance and ended up scoring or sharing the lead role in four major projects which opened in 2005 including skateboard drama "Lords of Dogtown", Terry Gilliam's twisted fantasy "Brothers Grimm", and adult comedy "Casanova".
The one that's garnering most interest though is "Brokeback Mountain", Ang Lee's haunting tale of a romance between two cowboys in 1960's Wyoming. Aside from the controversial subject matter, the most frequent comments around the film surround Ledger's powerful performance which many are already citing a likely Oscar nomination and a good chance to win. The actor, who recently had a daughter with 'Brokeback' co-star Michelle Williams, spoke with press in New York about the film:
Question: Did you approach your character from the physical standpoint?
Heath Ledger: Definitely. I actually thought it was a gift not to have words to play with. It definitely restricts what you can express. You are stuck with what's on page. In a sense, I had the freedom to say what I really wanted. In fact, I can make my own decisions and come to conclusions about this character from the physical point of view. First of all, I had to go in and discover what was causing this inability to express and to love. What was the culprit in that? I figured that it was some sort of a battle, and the conclusion I came to was that he was battling himself and battling his genetic structure; he was battling his father and his father's father's opinion and traditions and fears that have been passed down and deeply imbedded in him. So, once I had that and a few other things, I wanted to physicalize it cause that was all I was really left with. I wanted it to be hard for him to express and I think any form of expression had to be painful. I wanted him to be a clenched fist; and therefore my mouth became clenched too. A lot of the physicalization was lack of posture, but with the lack of posture in his mouth; in the words, it escapes his mouth.
Question: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Heath Ledger: Well, the challenging thing for me I think was in preproduction, figuring out what to do with so little time. I guess the aging process was probably what I thought was one of the important aspects, because without that, the whole story goes up shit creek without a paddle. And also, it had to be so subtle the aging process. Physically aging between 18 and 40 is fairly slim and subtle, and also for Ennis, the character I was playing; he didn't really evolve emotionally either within that age at the time. I used my accent to voice the tone of the voice at the beginning of the film when he's younger; it's pitched a little higher and it's a little more useful and energetic and enthusiastic and it slowly kinda gets deeper and deeper and raspier and more fixed and tighter towards the end. I thought that was just a subtle vehicle I could use to age. The easiest thing I found was being a ranch-hand, being a horse backup. I can ride backwards if I had to. I'm very comfortable with horses. I love horses and I have grown up around farm-hands and even if I was born in Perth, Western Australia, there's something very universal about anyone who's on horseback night and day. There's a universal trait. Even physically, when you are on horseback night and day, when you get off that horse, you are still walking as if there's still a horse between your legs.
Question: Does this film reinstate your belief in Hollywood because for awhile there, you felt as if you weren't being challenged enough with the roles you had or were being offered?
Heath Ledger: It's definitely given me hope. The whole year was about reigniting enthusiasm for myself because I did The Brothers Grimm followed by Lords of Dogtown, then Brokeback, then Casanova, and then Candy, which is a love story between junkies; and I think before that I was really bored with the choices I made and with the movies. I was just in the industry. Everything was just boring and it was starting to get stale and I was getting a plateau of nothing. This was my year to handpick things for the first time. I really wanted to put together a collection of quality work.
Question: Was that "Monster's Ball" that changed it all for you?
Heath Ledger: "Monster's Ball" was the first time I felt like I had to something about it; and what I had to do was essentially nothing. At the time, I just boiled it down, take off the shine, and destroy it a little bit.
Question: Who was the biggest supporter and biggest detractor in you playing this role in regards to the gay aspects?
Heath Ledger: No one was trying to detract me from it. Everyone was very supportive of it. I understand everyone else or people found it risky. I hate to call it "daring" or "brave"; firefighters are daring and brave. I'm acting. I didn't get hurt and I'm not mentally wounded from this experience.
Question: In looking back at the ranch-handlers you grew up with, do you think any of them might have been gay?
Heath Ledger: No, but I have a very good friend of mine, who's actually an uncle of mine. I didn't base this character off him, but he's gay. He's always struggled with his sexuality. He's like 60 now but back when he was younger, his dad kicked him of the Perth and said to him, "Go to the hospital and get fixed or you're not coming back to the family." My uncle said, "I can't get fixed" and his dad said to don't come back and he left and hasn't been back since then, but he's also the most masculine person I know. He's the head of arm wrestling federation and he goes to cage fighting. So that was definitely a good example of the level of masculinity, the range of masculinity; there relationships that occur with him. It's purely masculine and it was important for Ennis to be that.
Question: Did you have any connection to Ned Kelly, the Australian outlaw on horseback that you portrayed and this particular sexual outlaw that you in this film?
Heath Ledger: I guess not. Ned Kelly was extremely expressive; physically, violently. He dictates this incredibly expressive manner about his cause and he was very in touch with what he was fighting against; whereas Ennis was very unaware about the battle within him. I knew the battle within so I tried to do the investigation and I chose to ask the questions about him but he has never asked these questions and that's part of his problem. He's unaware of this battle within him and so essentially as an actor, once I gathered all this information about him, I had to then perform as Ennis and forget the information I learned and essentially think less.
Question: To follow up on that question, did you model your voice in the film on any other performance you may have seen?
Heath Ledger: For one, it was something I remembered about Australian ranch-hands; they always liked talking like this. (Changes his voice) But I think it in Australia, it's just to keep flies out of your mouth, but it was something very clenched about it. When I found this accent, I had to find a regional accent and my mouth was moving everywhere when I got it, but that was part of physicalizing his battle and it was an extension of what was within him. I just tried to that and as many as those aspects as possible.
Question: Ennis is not an outwardly emotional character. Can you talk about the different feelings he had with Jake's character, Michelle's, and even Linda Cardinelli's character?
Heath Ledger: I guess the quick answer to that is that I think most of the emotions or love within Ennis is purely potential. It's within him and he never really expresses. That's the tragedy of this story and that's the tragedy of each one of those love affairs. I think the only time you get to see this potential or slither of how he could express is when he's with his children; because his children are the one area where he feels safe and allowed to love the way he naturally feels he can love them. With his wife, his love is slightly manufactured. It's more traditional and it's him conforming, but it's not true love. His love for Jack is true in a passionate love, but he hates the way he loves and it's forbidden. Essentially, he's like a homophobic male in love with another man. He's very fixed in his ways and he's left lingering in between the role.
Question: Did this film change your idea of the American western at all or the western hero?
Heath Ledger: Not at all. I'm not a big fan of western movies and I really don't like cowboy-indian movies. I have never watched them. We're borrowing this iconic figure because it is so tightly connected to masculinity and the surroundings and that was the point; that loves transcends all and all its environment.
Question: How did you prepare on an emotional level for the big tent scene?
Heath Ledger: The way we looked it and the way it is is that there are not actually love scenes for the sake of doing a love scene. There are actually stories within each of those moments. The first moment for Ennis was very poignant because it had to be rough; it had to be fighting. He was almost ready to punch him. Once that all settled it had to be this innate passionate adrenaline. It just takes over him. There's another moment in the tent where it was really important to show a glimpse of Ennis in a vulnerable state. It is true intimate love they have for each other. It has to set up the tragedy for the story. It set up the freedom of Brokeback Mountain.
Question: Did you have to reshoot those scenes a lot to get it right?
Heath Ledger: I don't know. I think Ang has been telling everyone that we did 13 takes. I don't even know which scene he's talking about, but I generally haven't taken notes of how many takes for any scene. It doesn't seem like we did a lot of takes.
Question: Do you think Ennis could be happy with Jake's character, Jack?
Heath Ledger: I don't know. Maybe externally, he would have been seen happier because he was never confronted or tested in any way and he could have continued to live in denial. I'm sure inside he would have be hallow and rusty and alone. I think he was ultimately internally happier for having the experience because in his life he experienced true love.
Question: What did you take the role when others in the past had said no?
Heath Ledger: It was a beautiful story. It was a story that hadn't made it on the screen; which is rare to come upon a script so beautifully well written and hadn't been told before. It was very exciting to tell a new story. Ang lee is attached to it. I don't think I would have done it if it were in anyone else's hands. He was the perfect director for it and that's really. I looked at it as a wonderful opportunity to get in the head of this character. I never saw it as a huge risk that everyone else was seeing. It's all relative to the person you are and how relaxed you are with people and the people around you. I was very happy to tell a story that hadn't been told and I thought it should have been told.
Question: How was working with Jake?
Heath Ledger: Wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better person. He comes from a beautiful family and he's a wonderful actor.
Question: What kind of mindset does a straight person need to be in to see this film?
Heath Ledger: Just a regular straight male. Anyone who fears this... they are not going to come out of the movie and suddenly... it's not a disease. It's not contagious. They should understand that it's a story of pure love. They don't have to be a hero. They don't have to be brave like us. I guess a little bit of maturity is being asked for because society has been immature in the past. That's about it.
Question: Is there any particular Ang Lee movie that made you do this?
Heath Ledger: I think all of them as a whole because he's so diverse. He's got such an attention to detail for different forms of life and society; I knew he would be able to capture this world. He's a smart man.
Question: The first seven minutes of the film is totally silent. When you are working with an auteur like Ang Lee, what did he tell you to get that great shot where you are sitting out there waiting for Randy Quaid to show? How was setup built?
Heath Ledger: It's an interesting example because the way Ang directs, I have separated the experience of the two. Like when he's in preproduction, he's very thorough and voices his opinion and observations to you that he has on your character and the story and loads you up with all this information. You go away and digest it and process it and come out with your character; and during that process we don't sit around as a cast in a room roundtable and openly discuss everyone's plan. His plan as a director is very private. He'll take us to the side and give me little bits of information and then take Jake aside and do the same thing. Essentially, when we are outside the office and our characters are looking at each other and thinking, "Who's he" and "What's he been told", that's when our character meet on film. Ang set it up as situations that capture as oppose to recreate.
Question: What's next for you?
Heath Ledger: Nothing really, just raising my daughter and that's enough work and has been most enjoyable.
Question: How would you feel if you got an Oscar nomination for your performance?
Heath Ledger: I think it's a great honor to be in a movie that's been well received. The only time it's presented to me; the idea of a thought is like today. Michelle and I definitely don't really sit around worried about it. It's also a little surreal; kind of a strange concept to me that one performance or one movie can be compared or competed against another and that's what this strange little season does. Each performance and each movie is running a different race. It's a different sport. We all train for different sports and we all start from different points. There is no one finished line at the end. It's an award season of opinions, so it's full of false sense of success and failure.
Question: If you win, would you say something profound? Like Tom Hanks did for his win in "Philadelphia".
Heath Ledger: No. I'm not going to pretend to be some great wise person. I'm just a kid from Perth who's acting. I'll probably thank my mom.
Question: Did Jake put on weight for the aging process? On screen, it seemed like you didn't and he did.
Heath Ledger: Going into the movie, Ang really wanted me to build up. He wanted me to get bigger and stronger and I was trying to convince him that masculinity come from maturity and I thought that Ennis was a poor dirt ranch-hand. He doesn't go to the gym and he certainly doesn't eat big meals. In fact, when you get older, you get thinner. I thought he would look more desolate and lonely than someone would be in a Calvin Klein commercial.
A sad, melancholy ache pervades Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's haunting, moving film that, like his other movies, explores societal constraints and the passions that lurk underneath. This time, however, instead of taking on ancient China, 19th-century England, or '70s suburbia, Lee uses the tableau of the American West in the early '60s to show how two lovers are bound by their expected roles, how they rebel against them, and the repercussions for each of doing so--but the romance here is between two men. Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are two itinerant ranchers looking for work in Wyoming when they meet and embark on a summer sheepherding job in the shadow of titular Brokeback Mountain. The taciturn Ennis, uncommunicative in the extreme, finds himself opening up around the gregarious Jack, and the two form a bond that surprisingly catches fire one cold night out in the wilderness. Separating at the end of the summer, each goes on to marry and have children, but a reunion years later proves that, if anything, their passion for each other has grown significantly. And while Jack harbors dreams of a life together, the tight-lipped Ennis is unable to bring himself to even consider something so revolutionary.
Its open, unforced depiction of love between two men made Brokeback an instant cultural touchstone, for both good and bad, as it was tagged derisively as the "gay cowboy movie," but also heralded as a breakthrough for mainstream cinema. Amidst all the hoopla of various agendas, though, was a quiet, heartbreaking love story that was both of its time and universal--it was the quintessential tale of star-crossed lovers, but grounded in an ever-changing America that promised both hope and despair. Adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from Annie Proulx's short story, the movie echoes the sparse bleakness of McMurtry's The Last Picture Show with its fading of the once-glorious West; but with Lee at the helm, it also resembles The Ice Storm, as it showed the ripple effects of a singular event over a number of people. As always, Lee's work with actors is unparalleled, as he elicits graceful, nuanced performances from Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as the wives affected overtly and subliminally by their husbands' affair, and Gyllenhaal brings surprising dimensions to a character that could have easily just been a puppy dog of a boy. It's Ledger, however, who's the breakthrough in the film, and his portrait of an emotionally repressed man both undone and liberated by his feelings is mesmerizing and devastating. Spare in style but rich with emotion, Brokeback Mountain earns its place as a classic modern love story.