I am the worst auditioner in the world,” Heath Ledger once said. “I really am f**king s**t.” But when he walked into the audition room for 10 Things I Hate About You, he was all but hired before he’d even opened his mouth.
Back then, Ledger was an unknown, 20-year-old Australian who’d never been in an American film before. But his star power was obvious. “Heath walked in,” director Gil Junger recently told The New York Times, “and I thought to myself, ‘If this guy can read, I’m going to cast him.’ There was an energy to him, a sexuality that was palpable.” Ledger could do more than just read: he nailed the character’s playful, wacky insouciance in the space of just a few minutes. He was convinced he had blown it, but he hadn’t: the resulting film went down in romcom history, and Ledger’s performance made him a star.
Ledger plays Patrick Verona, a handsome weirdo who may or may not have “sold his own liver on the black market for a new set of speakers”. The film, which came out 20 years ago today, is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in one of his earliest roles) has a crush on Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), whose strict father won’t allow her to date until her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does. Enter Patrick, recruited by Cameron to try and woo the stern, study-focused Kat, whose interests include “Thai food, feminist prose and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion”. Of course, he ends up falling for her.
Stiles is excellent as the quippy, opinionated heroine, but watch the film now, and you can tell that Ledger was headed for greatness. He fizzes with charisma when it’s needed – such as in the famous bleachers scene, in which he jubilantly evades two guards while serenading Kat with a Frankie Valli song – and is understated and ego-less elsewhere. Filming the climactic poetry recital scene, Stiles started to cry. When it came time for Ledger to film his reaction shot, “he said something like, ‘I don’t need to do anything, because this isn’t about me,’” Stiles later recounted. “I thought that was really cool.”
“Heath was a star,” David Krumholtz, who plays Cameron’s friend Michael, tells me. “The second we all met him, we knew. He was a gracious, cool man, with a deeply empathic heart and the greatest smile. A dedicated actor capable of anything. And he knew it. He was the most confident actor I’ve ever met, with no ego trip.” More and more these days, Krumholtz is approached by fans of the film – some of whom weren’t even alive when it first came out. But he hasn’t seen it since Ledger died. “It’s hard to watch,” he says, “because I miss my friend.”
When the film became a huge success, both critically and commercially, opportunity came knocking at Ledger’s door. But he was worried. Unwilling to retread the same ground twice, he refused every offer of a romcom love interest, and didn’t work for an entire year. At meetings with executives, he felt as though he was buckling under the weight of his own hype. “I didn’t feel like I deserved it,” he told Rolling Stone in 2005. “I didn’t really know how to act properly yet. I started to feel like a bottle of Coke. And there was a whole marketing scheme to turn me into a very popular bottle. And, you know, Coke tastes like s**t. But there’s posters everywhere so people will buy it. So I felt like I tasted like s**t, and I was being bought for no reason.”
It wasn’t for no reason – the executives realised they had a rare talent on their hands – but it didn’t stop Ledger walking out of a meeting in a moment of blind panic, “and pretty much burst[ing] into tears. I was hitting my head, hitting the walls. It was a full-on anxiety attack.”
In some ways, Ledger’s chronic lack of complacency proved to be a blessing, pushing him to take on roles even A-listers wouldn’t touch. Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio had all turned down Brokeback Mountain (2005) by the time Ang Lee turned to Ledger. Now, it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role of Ennis, the repressed, uncommunicative cowboy who falls in love with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist. Their decision to take on the roles initially raised a few eyebrows. Ledger was unfazed. “I guess you’d love for me to say that it was difficult, that I wanted to vomit,” he told an interviewer. “But the straight fact is, it was just another person […] I was kissing a human being with a soul.” Both actors were nominated for Academy Awards.
It was on the set of Brokeback Mountain that Ledger met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The pair quickly became a couple – “Our initial meeting, the circumstances of how we first met, were cosmic or something,” Williams said in 2012 – and their daughter, Matilda, was born in 2005.
Two years later, Ledger was cast as the psychopathic mastermind The Joker in The Dark Knight, the second film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Nolan was convinced that Ledger was the man for the part. Nobody else was. “No one got it,” said Nolan’s brother Jonathan, “The studio didn’t get it. And the fan community was … we were f**king pilloried for it. It was a disaster. This was the worst casting decision ever made.”
Except it wasn’t. Ledger’s performance – by turns funny, disturbing and erratic, all wild, flicking tongue and exultant giggles – was extraordinary. “I’ve never felt as old as I did watching Heath explore his talents,” said Nolan. Christian Bale, who played Batman, said that Ledger wanted to be hit for real during the famous interrogation scene. “He’s going, ‘Go on, go on, go on…’ He was slamming himself around, and there were tiled walls inside of that set which were cracked and dented from him hurling himself into them. His commitment was total.”
So total was his commitment to crawling inside his character’s disturbed mind that Ledger – already prone to anxiety – found himself unable to sleep. “Last week, I probably slept an average of two hours a night,” he told The New York Times in November 2007. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”
Three months later, before The Dark Knight had even been released, Ledger was dead. The 28-year-old had taken an accidental overdose of prescription pills, some of which were to treat insomnia, others pain and anxiety. He didn’t live to see the acclaim with which his Joker was met, which included a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Even if he had, he probably wouldn’t have agreed. “I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as I want to be,” he once said, “but I’ll keep striving for it.” It is hard to imagine the strides he would have made, the risks he would have taken, if he had lived beyond 28.
When Matt Damon – who worked with Ledger in 2005’s The Brothers Grimm – heard of his death, he rang Terry Gilliam. Gilliam had directed that film, and was in the middle of working with Ledger again, on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (a convoy of actors took over Ledger’s role for the second half of that film). “And he was like, ‘I’m sitting here in Vancouver,’” Damon said, “‘I’m looking out the window, and it’s a beautiful sunny day, and the lights are turning red, and the lights are turning green, and cars are stopping, and cars are driving. I am surrounded by mediocrity. And he’s gone.’”
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