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Choose your attitude


He Will Rock You. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’ve seen Heath Ledger’s face. It’s the one looking out at you from the Knight’s Tale poster, so resolute, so earnest, so boy-bandishly thrilling, set against that audience-tested, charged-up red background. Anyone who doesn’t know quite who Heath Ledger is… well, catch up. By some accounts, he is, as asserted by an anonymous teenaged fan in Josie and the Pussycats, the “new Matt Damon.” But he’s also an actor, who won praise for his performances opposite Julia Stiles in 1999’s 10 Things About You (The Taming of the Shrew set in high school) and Mel Gibson’s hot-headed son in The Patriot (2000), not to mention the winner of the Australian Film Institute’s award for “Best Performance by an Actor” for his work in 1999’s Two Hands.


But if 22-year-old Heath Ledger is new to the U.S. mega-movie-promo scene, he’s quite aware of how it all works, thank you very much. When I first see him in a New York hotel, he’s coming out of the bathroom, having done battle with the door (“I thought I was locked in there!”). He sits restlessly on the hotel room couch, leaning back and then forward, crossing and uncrossing his arms, chewing on a bottle cap until it nicks him in the mouth (“Ouch!”). He’s tied a red wool kerchief over his famously tousled hair, tossed his frayed, hooded sweatshirt on the floor. He’s set out his light cigarettes before him, gets up to get an ashtray, drums his fingers occasionally, and at one point climbs over the couch to get a bottled water (over his shoulder, as he’s climbing: “Want anything?”).


For all the activity, he’s oddly relaxed, almost serene in his confidence. He knows what he likes—photography, hanging out with his friends back home in Perth, Australia, his girlfriend Heather Graham—and he knows who he is. Well aware of how the system works. Ledger says, “That guy [in the poster] is William Thatcher; he’s in a movie and the studio found an angle on how to market that product. That’s what studios do, they decide, ‘Let’s turn this kid into a star, and get him to bring in the bucks for our movie.’ It’s strange and it sucks, because it’s an ensemble movie, and it always was.” Facing fame, he now sees himself “in that transitional stage where I’m asking myself questions about this, figuring it out. At the end of the day, it’s just yin and yang, it all balances out. You receive a hell of a lot and it takes away a hell of a lot.” He got into acting, he says, “because my sister was a theater actor, a very good theater actor, and I wanted to experience what I saw in her. I had a curiosity for it, because in getting to know how to play a character, I also found that I had to start getting to know myself as a person.”


Ledger remembers A Knight’s Tale a good time. The cast arrived in the Czech Republic a month ahead of time for what Ledger jokingly calls “rehearsals,” complete with scare quotes. But, he says, this time with the rest of the cast was important. “It was mostly about getting to know each other. It gave us time to develop something real, which was important because ultimately it’s a movie about friendship.” As for stunts and other such excitement, Ledger says that since he’s a “product,” there’s no way he was actually going to be jousting (“They brought in a professional jouster from Vegas,” he cracks). In fact, he remembers that the “most dangerous thing” he did during filming was to “ride back into frame and wipe the sweat off my brow. I would have loved to have given it a shot, hitting some guy off a horse, but insurance-wise, I wasn’t allowed to ride a bicycle.”



Cynthia Fuchs:

You look like you’re handling this movie star business pretty well.



Heath Ledger:

I am affected by all this, you’d be a freak if you weren’t. I don’t care about it enough to let it affect me, it’s not the be-all and end-all of my life. I truly work to live. I love what I do, but the special moments for me are between “action” and “cut,” and the rest really bores me. I’m being pushed into this position as a product by a fucking studio that invested $40 million into publicity as insurance. I’m aware of that too, and I tell them that to their face. I don’t think a lot of people want to ask those questions, like, “Why, really, am I here?” And then they start to believe it a little, and then they can lose it a little. As long as you can approach these matters and be truthful about it and ask questions of yourself that you don’t want to ask, you’re fine, or at least know what’s going on, your “position,” so to speak.



CF:

Of course, studios and such are adept at packaging exactly that attitude.



HL:

Absolutely. But then it’s like, choose your attitude. They will play off of whatever I present, because that’s their job. But I keep them on their toes still. I keep surprising them. I won’t be as consistent as they think I’m going to be. I’ve gotta have fun with this: they’re all about games. And me, because I came from Australia, they think they can just push you over. And they’re like that with any kid: they think, “Oh it’s a kid, let’s mold him into a superstar and ask him to slick his hair and wear suits and become this for us, and tell him all this, so we can make him into this.” People have never been able to change me. My parents couldn’t change me, so there’s no way I’m going to let these guys change me. I work. I love what I do, and I don’t want to let this part of it destroy that.



CF:

So far, you’ve been lucky with the movies you’ve been able to do, like Two Hands* and *10 Things.



HL:

I think so. I really take pride in choosing pieces. And I just want to have fun. I could never say, “They’re gonna pay me, it’s gonna be a drag, but fuck it, four months.” Four months is four fucking months, and that’s really valuable time for me. You want to feel like you’re somewhat in control. If I wasn;t having fun, I wouldn’t think twice [about leaving]. It would actually be fun to just walk out: the phone calls I’d get, it would blow things up. Right at a point when they think they’ve got someone who they can [manage]... I’ve got my plan.



CF:

What is it that does draw you to projects?



HL:

Basically, it’s just having an understanding of the character straightaway. You know, to think, “He’s interesting, he has an arc, he’s starting somewhere and ending somewhere else. He’s learning, he has flaws.” It’s not always on the page, but as you’re reading it, you see if you can find the layers underneath the skin. I’m not out to do one particular kind of character or movie. I want to keep it interesting for myself, so I’m going to have to vary it up. Otherwise, it would just feel like I’m doing a television series.



CF:

Will it be harder to go back to smaller projects now that you’re Mr. Rock Star?



HL:

No. I’m doing a movie in a couple of weeks, a $4 million dollar movie, I’m on for two weeks. So I’m doing it. It’s not hard for me, it’s hard for the people around me, the people who want everything but that. The hard thing is getting hold of the material, because ultimately, your agents, as much as they say, “We’re here for you,” and “We’ll find you a cool independent movie,” for them a “cool independent movie” is made by Miramax, it’s a $100 million movie, hardly independent. So the hardest thing is getting to see material that is cool. Often enough, those pieces, you hear about by word of mouth, or someone gets it to you somehow, or sends it to my dad in Perth [adopting deep masculine voice]: “Son, I’ve got another script, I’ll send it your way!” So the decision isn’t hard, because I’m not here to sustain my career as a superstar. I’m not afraid to let it go if need be. It’s a ruthlessness. It’s going for your instincts, what you feel is right at this particular time in your life, and nobody else knows that. They want to know, your agents and the studios, yeah, and think they know from what they’ve seen you work in, but it’s your job to keep surprising them.



CF:

How did you know you wanted to act at age ten?



HL:

I got into acting because my sister was a theater actor and I used to watch her, and wanted to get up there and experience what I saw in her. I had a curiosity for it, because in getting to know how to play a character, I also found that I had to start getting to know myself as a person.



CF:

Obviously, this movie is being marketed to the TRL crowd, with a campaign that assumes these kids are easy marks. What’s your sense of your audience?



HL:

You know what that is? It’s a lack of respect. We’ve got to trust the audience; they’re not stupid people. They’re producing such crap movies these days.



CF:

You’ve just finished another well-financed period film, Four Feathers with Wes Bentley, a wonderful actor. And the cast in Knight’s Tale is great. How important is that for you, to work with people you respect?



HL:

I’ve been lucky. There’ve been one or two people… but I have low tolerance for people who are shitty or arrogant or obnoxious on set. I don’t care who they are. They need to be put in their place really fast. I can’t work around that. It’s annoying, it’s distracting.



CF:

How are you avoiding the usual career pattern that afflicts so many actors in what might be called “your generation”?



HL:

The blueprint, yeah. If anyone tries to put me on a schedule, I will go against it.



CF:

[laughs] So if they told you to do some variety of movies, you’d revolt by turning into Freddie Prinze Jr.?



HL:

[laughs] Right! [growling] I wanna do teen movies!



CF:

It sounds like you have a sense of what acting is about for you, rather than a career plan.



HL:

Yeah. And then you have to learn how to act like a movie star in a movie. That’s what Knight’s Tale is about. I mean, there are lines like, “Let’s dance, you and I!” I know those are going to be trailer lines, but you can’t work against it. You have to step up: you’re playing this guy and you’ve just gotta do it…. At this point, the hair and makeup stylists enter the room. Ledger looks surprised. “Are we done already?” Yes, comes the answer. It’s time to prep him for his tv interviews. That is, the red wool kerchief has to go and Ledger’s hair and face have to be made lovely for his adoring public. He leans back into the couch as the professionals approach, resigned and polite, and yet, he stiffens for an instant, just a little bit resistant. “This has been refreshing,” he says. We shake hands and I wish him luck.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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