Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Heath Ledger Breaks Through With Brokeback
from the 12-14-05 issue of Windy City Times
by Richard Knight, Jr.
A rare smile from Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar and with Ennis' love interest, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the landmark
When Heath Ledger calls in the middle of the jam packed media junket for Brokeback Mountain his VOCAL performance as the tough
sounding Ennis Del Mar is all the more astonishing. So perfectly does Ledger capture the flat edged twang of ranch hand Ennis that
it takes a moment to get your bearings when confronted by the strong Australian accent and eloquent words of the actor himself. I
took a moment to do that while congratulating the actor on the birth of his new daughter with his Brokeback costar (and fiancé),
Michelle Williams. Highlights from our conversation:
WCT: Even before this movie opens (here in Chicago), it’s a landmark film for “My People” – we’ve been waiting for this one for a
long time. But what do I tell my straight friends to get them to go see it? They’re all like, ‘It’s a gay cowboy movie; I don’t want to
see it.” How do I get them to go?
HL: Well if they’re you’re friends, than they shouldn’t have a problem.
WCT: I’m kidding; of course they’re going to go.
HL: Of course they’re going to go, right. Look, I don’t know; I’m kind of hoping that in this day and age straight men will be kinda
mature enough to understand that it’s not an epidemic; they’re not going to walk out of the theatre having caught something. This
is a beautiful story of love and it’s a grand story of love and not to be afraid of it (laughs). I think it will transcend a lot of people’s
– particularly straight men’s – perceptions or fears. I think most straight men are coming out of the screenings feeling swept away
by the story and have kind of looked past the fact that it’s a man on man love story. I think it transcends that with its purity and
WCT: Why is a film like this really important right now for mainstream audiences to see?
HL: I don’t know if it is. I guess in America… I mean something that always—
WCT: Yeah, “In America” here with go.
HL: Yes – right (laughs). Look, something that kind of baffles me and is really confusing is how people find time amongst their
busy lives; their 9 to 5 jobs, their schedules, their families, they find time to go out of their way and express their negative opinions
towards or disgust with the different ways in which people wish to express their love. If we’re going to stop what we’re doing in our
everyday life and bother to go out and make a little banner and march down the street about this, shouldn’t we be doing that
against the different ways that people express anger, perhaps? It just feels like a big waste of time and it feels just a little naïve to
me that people can be that immature perhaps? It really doesn’t affect them and there’s genuine beauty and affection involved so
what are you protesting about? So I think for that reason hopefully people will see it and they’ll understand that it’s not a joke.
Pure intimacy and sexuality and the purity of one soul falling in love with another exists within same sex relationships. Good man
on man relationships exist in incredibly masculine forms. That’s part of the reason why Annie Proulx picked the Wyoming cowboy
figures to tell this story because they’re so tightly connected to masculinity.
WCT: That I know – having grown up in Nebraska right near that Wyoming country not long after that period in which the movie’s
HL: So you know.
WCT: I remember the rigidness, the sense of social claustrophobia – to sound high falutin’. So, how do you get to that intimacy;
how did you prepare for the intimacy of those scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal?
HL: There really is no way to prepare. There is no kind of yoga stretch that gets you to do a love scene with anyone. Look, quite
honestly, unlike Ennis, I’ve investigated love, I love love, I’m very confident with the way I love, I’m very expressive—
WCT: And I love that you love—
HL: (laughs) Thank you. But I also have a memory of that. I know how to love someone and I know how to kiss someone so it’s
quite simple, you just do the same thing. That’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not really different – you’re still doing exactly the same
thing. That’s what I tried to do.
WCT: Did it feel like it was a bold step for you to take this role?
HL: At times it felt like it purely because there was a lot more fear surrounding this project externally from other people. At times I
think that manufactured a kind of sense of fear but not really. For me it was an opportunity to tell a story that had never been told
before; that had never made it to the screen – which is really rare. To come up with a script like that. It’s also that love stories
these days are somewhat stale and are recycling themselves and this was doing everything but that so I really didn’t. I guess, yeah,
the level of fear or anxieties or risk that you think is surrounding a choice like this is just relative to the person you are and how you
choose to live your life or express your life.
WCT: This has got to put your career in a new light. Your performance, your accent – both were so amazing. Who did you base
HL: George Bush.
WCT: (laughs) Senior or Junior?
HL: Yeah, right. No, I’m joking. No, I didn’t base Ennis on anyone; I really didn’t have to because Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry and
Diana Ossana are all geniuses when it comes to creating this short story and this script that was so beautifully descriptive of the
characters and their inabilities and their potentials. So I felt like I could see him upon reading the script and the short story and I
really just wanted to create him off the page. I’ve never been a fan of western movies; cowboy movies, I just never actually watched
them and I didn't have a western figure to base them on so I just started from scratch.
WCT: So how did you build that incredible voice you spoke in? I love when Australian or English actors do American accents and I’m
HL: First I came up with the regional accent and then I wanted to represent his inability to express and how painful it is for him to
express and I wanted to physicalize the battle that was within and I guess that came out in the accent. I wanted him to be a
clenched fist and essentially my mouth became a clenched fist and the words became part of the battle.
WCT: With your taking this role and Jake taking his, do you foresee a time where we’re going to see the reverse – gay actors
playing straight roles?
HL: You know what – it’s a bloody good question and I’ve been throwing it back to people. Everyone keeps saying, “Isn’t it risky for
a straight guy playing a gay role” and I’m like, “Bloody hell, isn’t it risky for a gay guy to play a straight role” – that’s exactly what I’
ve been thinking! (he’s laughing)
WCT: There haven’t been quite as many examples.
HL: It’s funny, they keep talking about how brave and how courageous it is and I keep saying, “No, it’s brave to be a firefighter, it’s
courageous to be an NYPD officer.” I’m an actor; I’m observing, investigating and portraying a form of love and life. Believe me,
I'm fine, I’m not hurt from it! (laughs)
UPDATE JANUARY 25, 2008: The excitement and buzz of Oscar nomination day this year, Tuesday, January 22, was cut short by a
dreadful announcement that same afternoon: Heath Ledger, the 28 year-old actor and reluctant movie star had died of unknown
causes. Ledger was immediately linked to James Dean and River Phoenix, two other gifted actors who left the world much too
young, and this, fortunately or not, will be part of his legacy henceforth. The days following the announcement have been the usual
hurricane of media coverage with the usual pontificaters pontificating and so-called "experts" spewing the usual twaddle. But here
and there authentic voices seemed to cut through the din - especially those of close colleagues and family members who talked
about an unassuming, sensitive guy who was exceedingly polite. This I can attest to. When Ledger phoned me up in December of
2005 during a press junket during Brokeback Mountain he asked for me by name exactly at the agreed upon time. "Is this Richard
Knight, Jr.?" said the voice on the phone in that distinctive Australian accent. "Yes, it is," I replied. "Oh hi, Richard, how are you?
It's Heath Ledger."
As if I needed to be told.