He was in line to become Hollywood’s next top romantic lead, a blossoming hunk primped for mainstream superstardom.
Australian actor Heath Ledger seemed positioned as next “it” boy after such box-office hits as “The Patriot” in 2000 and “A Knight’s Tale” in 2001. But when most of his contemporaries were struggling with college midterms, Ledger was doing the unthinkable: abandoning a surefire film career for one dotted with commercially risky roles.
This conscious change in course perhaps culminated in “Brokeback Mountain,” for which Ledger received a 2006 Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a ranch hand secretly in love with a bull rider (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Now Ledger, 27, has taken on another audience-testing role in “Candy,” a dark memoir about a young couple locked in a death tango with heroin. The film also stars Geoffrey Rush and Abbie Cornish.
“I think it was more or less the time I decided to take my career into my own hands,” Ledger says in a phone interview from a New York hotel room. “I felt like it was a little out of my control. I’m happy I made that choice. I feel less like a product and more like someone who is kind of devoted to telling stories about all walks of life.”
In “Candy,” Ledger plays Dan, a poet who falls for a striking young art student (Cornish). Their passion for one another becomes entangled with an all-consuming need for heroin, which inevitably envelops their relationship.
Co-star and fellow Australian Rush is familiar with embracing such edgier parts. Along with playing Barbossa, Johnny Depp’s bane in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, he plays Casper, Dan and Candy’s impish dandy of a drug mentor.
By working on “Candy,” a small Australian film that has only a limited release in the United States, Ledger continues to bravely buck industry expectations, Rush says.
“He was kind of taken on as bright new face and branded as a certain kind of matinee idol,” Rush says. “I’m very much aware that he wants to deepen the experience of his curriculum vitae. And I think he’s been quite radical in laying down some pipe work for a healthy, unpredictable but interesting career.”
Ledger chose to work on “Candy” not only because it plunged into territory of such unfamiliar darkness; the movie, shot in Sydney, also gave him the rare opportunity to make a film in his homeland. As a result, it was his first film in eight years where he didn’t have to affect an accent.
But there were unexpected challenges in shooting such a bleak film.
(Spoiler alert! The following two paragraphs give away a key scene in “Candy.”)
About a month before Ledger began working on “Candy,” he learned that girlfriend and “Brokeback” co-star Michelle Williams was pregnant with their daughter, Matilda. Such happy news suddenly turned unnerving when the actor filmed a scene in which Dan cradles the bloodied body of his stillborn baby.
“I just kept running back and calling Michelle,” Ledger says. “It was horrible. I feared I was jinxing our own birth. I felt so freaked out holding this prosthetic bloody dead baby in my hands.”
Ledger says Matilda, who celebrated her first birthday in October, “is just this brilliant little person who’s so full of life and so smart and so happy.”
Within two years of catching the attention of American audiences in “10 Things I Hate About You” in 1999, Ledger’s performance in the racially charged “Monster’s Ball” set the tone for his choices in often offbeat, art-house movies. Such films as “Ned Kelly” and “The Brothers Grimm” followed suit.
In his next film, Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” he plays one of seven characters who embody an aspect of Bob Dylan’s life and work—hardly the stuff of multiplexes.
Though he appears to be following singing songwriter Neil Young’s career path of forsaking the middle of the road for the ditch—leading to the rougher but far more interesting ride—Ledger hasn’t completely turned his back on popcorn movies. He will play the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to “Batman Begins,” which begins shooting in March.
The actor says that in spite of the box-office potential of “Knight,” he’s intrigued more by the role, which he describes as a “pure anarchist.”
“I still feel like it’s a character I’ve never done before,” he says, “and I’m going to be donning a mask. I’m not really thinking about the commercial consequences. Maybe I should be. But at this point, it’s just an exciting next step.”
Born: April 4, 1979, in Perth, Australia
Honors: 2006 Oscar nomination for best actor for “Brokeback Mountain.”
Selected filmography: “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999), “The Patriot” (2000), “A Knight’s Tale” (2001), “Monster’s Ball” (2001), “Ned Kelly” (2003), “The Brothers Grimm” (2005), “Lords of Dogtown” (2005), “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Candy” (2006).
Future projects: Ledger portrays an actor playing a Bob Dylan-inspired performer in “I’m Not There” (2007); he also will play the Joker in the Batman film “The Dark Knight” (2008).
Fun fact: Ledger starred as an Irish chieftain in the short-lived Fox action series “Roar” (1997), which periodically resurfaces on the Sci Fi Channel.