Life couldn’t be sweeter right now for Australian import Heath Ledger.
The 26-year-old Perth-born pin-up is about to become a father for the first time; he’s moved into a new home in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and he has three hot new movie projects: The Brothers Grimm with Matt Damon; Brokeback Mountain, which explores a relationship between two men (he shares a tender kiss with another piece of eye candy, Jake Gyllenhaal); and the romantic period comedy Casanova, opposite Sienna Miller.
Heath’s rise to the A-list has been remarkable. Just six years ago, he was an unknown actor, scoring occasional roles in Australian soaps. Then came his Hollywood break in a modern remake of Shakespearean classic The Taming of the Shrew, called 10 Things I Hate About You, co-starring Julia Stiles. Shortly after, Mel Gibson snapped him up to play his son in The Patriot. Then came A Knight’s Tale and The Four Feathers, which he admits were less well received.
As he faced the flashbulbs this month at the Venice Film Festival, where he has been promoting his trio of new projects, it was clear that he is having the time of his life. On location in the beautiful Italian city, Heath talks about his love for Dawson’s Creek actress Michelle Williams, 25, impending parenthood and why he’s taking time off from the movie biz to be a full-time dad.
You’re becoming a father for the first time. How does that feel?
I’m pumped! I’ve always dreamed of having children. I don’t see anything wrong with having them when you’re young.
Do you have any marriage plans with Michelle?
I wouldn’t rule out marriage, but it’s not a priority. I’m looking forward to being a dad and spending time with my child, which is why I’ll be taking time off. I’ve told my agent not to bother sending me any scripts or offers for a while. I’ve had about six months off already. I was planning on a couple of years off, but I recently bought a house and moved to Brooklyn. So now I’ll probably have to work until the middle of next year to pay that off! [Laughs]
Do you have kids around you in your family?
Yeah. I have two younger sisters and my older sister has two twin daughters, so I just have girls.
Maybe you’re going to have twins?
I know that we’re not going to be having twins at this point! Later maybe.
Having acted in The Brothers Grimm, will you expose your baby to stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel & Gretel”?
Absolutely. They inspire the imagination in children. Plus, reading to children is a good thing. The familiarity of hearing my own mother’s voice sent me off to sleep
as a child.
Has having all of those sisters influenced your relationship with women?
I think so. I think it turns women into friends rather than conquests.
Do you find having a relationship hard when it’s so public?
Having a relationship isn’t hard. I think people desperately try to make it challenging for us by assuming and creating stories or just being interested in us. But love is love. If you’re in love, it’s easy and it’s hard in a good way.
Is it something that you’re just sure of?
Yeah, for me, when it’s true love, it feels like something that you’re rekindling, you’ve met the person before. It’s not the first time you’ve met them and so you’re rekindling something that’s burned before. You’re re-igniting a fire that went out in another life.
Is there a point where the price of fame will get too high?
I’m thinking about that every day. Is it worth it? It’s a good thing that I’m ruthless in that way — I don’t care if my career finishes tomorrow. It wouldn’t bother me. If anything, it would be fun. There would be a lot of disappointed people, a lot of people going, “Hang on; we were just about to make a lot of money from you. Where are you going?”
When Michelle has the baby, are you going to cut back on all the travel you do for work?
Yeah, but that’s okay, I’m kind of looking forward to settling in a couple of places. I’m practically half-American, so we’ll be in Brooklyn when we’re in the United States. But Michelle wants to work, so I think as much as possible we’re going to try and go one on, one off. I will always want to be with my kid.
You broke into Hollywood quite suddenly. Do you feel you are making wiser movie choices now that you’re a little older?
I finally proved myself. When I was younger, I was handed a career. I made these silly movies, and they put my name up on these posters and they put all this pressure on my shoulders. They were delivering me a career, which I felt like I didn’t deserve. I hadn’t done anything to prove myself. So, over the last four years or so, I have created a career that I have chosen. And kind of one I feel I’ve deserved.
What was the turning point for that?
It started maybe with the movie Ned Kelly in terms of that being the one I chose to do and the level of enthusiasm that I had for it.
How do you choose your roles? Your last few movies are all very different.
I don’t want to settle on one style of acting, or one style of film. I get bored quickly and I think if I was doing the same thing, I wouldn’t find any reason to continue. It helps me stay interested and it helps me evolve every time I change it up and do something new. I have to mature in performance in order to evolve as an actor, so I really enjoy that.
Do you have any regrets looking back at your career?
No, not at all. I don’t have any regrets in life. If you take one tiny thing out of your past, I believe it would change the position you are in; I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. So no, I try not to have any regrets in life, except maybe some silly movies I’ve made! [Laughs]
What made you want to be an actor?
Nothing in particular, really. My sister did amateur theater and a couple of guest appearances on TV shows and her agent picked me up. I was doing high school theater and stuff like that, and suddenly I just got a TV role. That’s it. Doors just started to open. Before I started acting, before my first job, I really had no interest in movies. I had never really watched them, nor did I really care about them. My curiosity for film is something that has grown over the years while making films. I never woke up as a young kid and said I was going to be an actor.
So what would you have become?
I’m really not sure. I probably would have done very little. I probably would have sat on the beach and surfed! [Laughs] Actually, I probably would have become a still-life photographer.
Do you use intuition to choose films? Did you have a good feeling about Casanova?
No, it’s more than intuition. I like it to be a coincidence. Very random. I don’t like to put too much planning into it. I like a role to land in my lap and for it to feel right dropping from the sky.
What would you say are the particular challenges of Casanova?
Going into the movie I did a lot of research on the historical figure of Casanova and read as many of his journals as I could, which was two out of the twelve volumes. Then when I got the script and read it, I talked to Lasse Hallström and said, “This information is just useless!” I threw it out of the window because it’s not a historically correct film, obviously. It’s not Fellini’s Casanova! So it would have just been pointless for me to try and capture him. It’s a romp. It’s a comedy. I really wanted to go to town; I’ve missed that boat. I should have made it bigger.
This is your golden year — you’re 26 and your whole life is going to change.
Yes, that’s really why it’s a golden year. I haven’t really looked at my career as being golden. I never want to feel like I’m settling. I haven’t given it much thought. If I did, I don’t think I’d be able to sit here and talk to you about it, because I get really nervous and panic. I’m kind of ignoring it a little bit, so it doesn’t affect me. It certainly doesn’t affect my personal life.
But three movies in one festival, that’s quite an achievement.
Yeah, yeah, it’s pure coincidence.
Coincidence or talent?
Coincidence. It just so happens I did a lot of films in one year and three of them are fairly suited for this festival. One was shot here.
Did you enjoy playing Casanova?
Yeah, I did have fun. Particularly because I had no restraints. I wasn’t tying myself down to any historical evidence. The film is a fairy-tale version of his story, so it was good for that reason. I had just come off of Brokeback Mountain; that was just torturous at times. It was a really tough, lonely shoot, and so coming straight from Calgary to Venice to shoot Casanova was like a paid vacation.
What was the atmosphere on the set of Casanova like?
It was refreshing because it was so light. I loved working in Venice. I loved the people and coming back is cool. I think we were here for five months or so; when you come back to a familiar space, it’s always so great. You get to retrace your footsteps and revisit people, restaurants or waiters in restaurants that you ate at everyday. Actually, shooting here, you don’t have camera trucks. You have camera boats. You don’t have trailers, you have a chair. It was a completely different experience.
Was the noise level different for you?
Oh yeah, you forget that. There are no cars. It’s so quiet, particularly at night. Just how still the city is, you can really get a sense of what it would be like a couple of hundred years ago at night. There’s not even the buzz of electricity. And when you’re in a gondola at night, all you hear is the paddle. It’s just so beautiful.
So how was working with Terry Gilliam on The Brothers Grimm?
Amazing, I’ve just been the biggest fan of his films for all of my life. And he’s been on top of my list of directors who I’ve wanted to work with; he’s brilliant. I absolutely adore him, I feel like the world is a better place with Terry in it. Working with him, I find his energy and his passion to create are astounding. He really creates a safe kind of environment for you, and he also dares you to be bad. He wants you to scream and shout and make a fool of yourself. He loves chaos and he’ll be laughing behind the monitor while you’re performing. I adored it. It was six months; it was 115 days of shooting in Prague. Every single day I woke up and I had the time of my life.
It sounds like the opposite of Brokeback Mountain, where you say almost nothing.
The energy levels are completely different. I actually ate two or three bars of Cadbury’s chocolate each day to get as hyperactive as Jake. I just got fat by the end of that film.
You ride horses a lot in your films. Are you a good rider?
I can ride a horse, yeah.
Did you ride horses growing up?
No. The first time I learned how to ride was on a TV show. I had told them I already knew how to ride horses to get the role, but then I couldn’t so I had to go to riding school.
Your look is so different in all of these three movies. Did putting on the costumes and the wigs for Casanova put you in a specific mood?
It did. It’s pretty hard not to. You become a product of your clothes; it’s like the icing on the cake. You do all the research and rehearsing at home, and when you turn up on the first day and they put you in your outfit and the wig, all of a sudden the clothing presents you with the posture of the character. You’re Casanova, and you just can’t help but walk around all straight and tall.
What about in Brokeback Mountain? The costumes are beautiful in their own way.
I didn’t want to have posture in that, because he didn’t have any confidence and he was lonely, so I wanted to be slumped and uncomfortable, and I wanted the clothes to have a lonely feel.
How much does the mood of a film affect you as a person?
Quite a lot. On Brokeback, you go home and you can switch off and you can have a glass of wine, you can relax, but the second you lay down to go to sleep, you close your eyes and go through what happened the whole day. I’m going through every take, every single thing I recollect. I always feel like a sponge when I’m working; it just kind of soaks into me. That is why Casanova was so much fun. We didn’t have to take ourselves too seriously.
Casanova seems very popular with the audience.
Yeah, but I haven’t slept with them all! [Laughs]
Has your voice helped in doing different kinds of roles?
Yes, especially because being Australian, I have to do a lot of accents. There are very few Australian roles out there, unless you’re in Australia. When I was back in Australia, actually, I shot a beautiful film called Candy using my own accent. I forgot how free it is to act without an accent.
Is it tough or is it really great to be on location for such a long period of time?
I love it, because you get the opportunity to live in Prague for six months, or to live in Venice for five months. You would never in a million years suddenly decide to just pack your bags and go and live in Venice. So I appreciate it.
What does your tattoo mean?
It’s got a few meanings. I’ll tell you one of them. I feel like now I’m at a time in my life where I’m paddling down Old Man River, it’s on its way, life is about to speed up
and maybe I should slow down and appreciate it.
When you reach thirty, everything turns.
Yeah, it feels like it’s turning now.