Movie Interview by Scott Orlin
Heath Ledger, the 26 year-old Perth native, is a bit tired. Lounging on the sofa in a posh Beverly Hills Hotel suite, one might presume the Australian actor had participated in a bit too much partying the night before. While part of the deduction is correct, it is not what one might think. It wasn’t alcohol that drew the fatigue; it was linguini.
“I had some friends over for dinner last night and I made the pasta from scratch,” he proudly reveals. “But it was a lot of work.”
Not only has the Italian cooking been taking its toll but so has his professional career. Although a teenage star in his home country, Ledger burst on the international big screen as the moody student with a reputed criminal past in 1999’s 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. Declining numerous offers to exploit that angst, he sat jobless for over a year until his resiliency paid off when he was cast in rapid succession in THE PATRIOT, A KNIGHTS TALE and then MONSTERS BALL.
Pre-ordained as the next big star, the sudden rush of fame and scrutiny almost overshadowed his creative passion as he felt forced into films that compromised his artistic vision. But a short sabbatical and a thorough soul searching convinced him that it wasn’t his acting that was at fault.
“I was letting other people make my choices. I’m in control of my life, not anyone else in Hollywood and I knew I was only doing this because I was having fun. The day I stop having fun, I will walk away,” he notes. So carefully selecting where he would invest his time, Ledger soon set sail working with such acclaimed filmmakers as Ang Lee, Catherine Hardwicke and Terry Gilliam.
It was his work with Gilliam on THE BROTHERS GRIMM that brought Ledger out this summer morning to discuss not only his new found appreciation of fairy tales but his long sequestered desire to be in the hunt for the Holy Grail, at least in Monty Python’s world.
How familiar were you with the writings of the Brothers Grimm?
LEDGER: I was not that familiar. Obviously I had the fairy tales read to me by my mom when I was a kid but we did some research on who these people were. They were highly respected scholars of their time. In fact, Jacob went on to become a politician. But this was Terry’s vision of the movie and so all this was pointless to stick to the facts of who they were. That was not what the movie was going to be about. We were putting them in a fairy tale and so we had license to just play with their name.
Terry Gilliam seems to create new worlds in his movies, fairy tale or not.
LEDGER: I am such a huge fan of his work. I grew up watching Monty Python and wanting to be in Monty Python so therefore I was very familiar with his sense of humor and style of comedy. Being aware of that, I wanted to bring that sensibility to my character and to the film because I so desperately to be in one of those films as a kid so I would do anything I could, to present that in my character. People are quick to label him as mad or visually insane. I truly strongly believe that he is sane, just brutally honest. That is rare in Hollywood or today’s society to find someone that honest. Where people get confused is that he has so much passion and energy in creating and in his visual eye. It is an absolute treat to be in his film.
You mentioned about bringing that sensibility to your character. Initially, you were cast as Will, not Jacob. How did that switch come about?
LEDGER: It was actually Matt and I at the same time who had this similar idea. We both thought we would like to play the other character to play against type and so approached Terry. He thought about it and thought it would be a good idea. Directors in the past wouldn’t give Matt or me the opportunity to play something we hadn’t done before. I felt I had played Will and Matt felt he had played Jacob. I guess it was an obvious casting call. By switching it up, it made it more interesting for us. We had to study more and create more but it was worth it. Terry said he did the same on TWELVE MONKEYS with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. He switched their roles around and it made for a more interesting experience all around.
Jacob is a dreamer and a romantic. How closely do those attributes resemble you?
LEDGER: I am definitely a dreamer and a romantic. There was quite a lot of me in Jacob. When I met Terry in London, we sat and shared a drink at some hotel, and when I get nervous, my hands go everywhere (laugh). I lose control of them as I explain things with my hands. As my arms were flailing all around, he was going, “That’s great. Do it just like that.” He was giggling at my nervous energy. So for the first time instead of being asked to harness my energy, he wanted me to pop the lid off. I just let it fly.
Actors always talk about how they view other people and then use that to help base their character in reality. If that is the case, who did you observe and then utilize as Jacob?
LEDGER: If anyone, it would have been Terry. He is a believer. His energy on set as he creates fuels a lot of passion and that was something I tried to use as well in my character.
Fairy tales contain violence, magic, death and vengeance. Some complain about cartoon violence but look at what we were taught as kids.
LEDGER: Yeah. They are very dark. The movie kind of represents that nicely, although with humor. But we do have dark corners. Those fairy tales were dark. Mothers were always dying (laugh). I think the film is nicely balanced but it could be intense for an 8 year-old to the see the film. But Terry showed the film to 10 year-olds and they loved it.
Were you surprised at how much the Brothers Grimm had written? So much can be attributed to them as the film subtly hints at.
LEDGER: They wrote over 200 fairy tales. I really thoroughly enjoyed going over all their works. We had a book on set so we could cross reference their work and we could add little bits and pieces to the film when we saw fit. For example, I named my horse Piff Paff. I screamed during one scene that my horse, Piff Paff, was eating the girl. That was a name I saw in the book and just shouted it out. We tried to throw in a whole bunch of little things like that from the books.
Back in the 1800’s, these stories were passed down from generation to generation as the mythology of the day. Today we have our own superstitions as whom we are to be afraid of. Instead of the big bad wolf, we have terrorists.
LEDGER: I think the timing is quite perfect actually but I don’t think the average moviegoer will read that into the film. But I do understand what you are saying.
You filmed in Prague. Had Terry decided to shoot on a soundstage on Hollywood, one imagines that it would have been a different ambiance on set.
LEDGER: Filming in Prague felt like we were actually in a fairy tale because it is so gothic and medieval. The buildings were all bent out of shape and so it felt like we were in a Gilliam world anyway. The city itself actually lends itself to feeling like an intimate village space. You are neighbors to everyone in the crew and in the cast and so you re forced to a social gathering every evening. It was good in intent to creating friendships with everyone. If we shot in Hollywood, people would get in their cars and drive home and we would see each other the next day. In Prague, we would have dinner together because we were all removed from our homes and families and so it was more intimate on set.
Terry deliberately wanted the set to have a whimsical, fantasy based feel to them. How did that enable you to feel more comfortable?
LEDGER: The sets were incredible. I think Terry just naturally does that anyway in all his films. The forests were all indoors in these two massive soundstages, where they pushed the wall down between the two and made one huge stage. It was enormous. Matt and I were actually galloping horses in doors (laugh). It is a strange concept to go full tilt with lights and ceilings above you. On top of that, there was this village Marbaden built behind the Barrandov Studios. You can pretty much shoot 360 degrees anywhere and you would still be inside this world. The houses were not just facades. They were complete where you could actually light fires inside and shoot in any house. Besides that, there was an actual forest that was transplanted to the backlot so when we burned the forest, we really burned a forest.
But that wasn’t the scene where the two of you almost get burned?
LEDGER: Yes it was (laugh). Matt and I were strapped to a ladder with flames licking our toes (laugh).
What was your thought process during those takes?
LEDGER: It was pretty hot (laugh). We were a little nervous at one point. But they lathered us in this fireproof gel beforehand but it didn’t matter. I wanted it to be more dangerous and bigger. But I knew we were in safe hands with Terry.
You appear to be doing some impressive stunts besides having fire lick your toes. How involved did you have to get in some of the impressive stunts, specifically the climbing of the tower wall?
LEDGER: Terry likes to shoot as much as he can in camera. Obviously I am not climbing up a real tower but we did build the side of the tower and I just walked along that. The way it was shot, it looks like I am climbing. It reminded me of those old BATMAN TV shows where Batman and Robin used to climb a building (laugh). I was actually just walking horizontally on the ground. There was some stuff that people would not even pick out that was difficult.
Can you elaborate?
LEDGER: When I got in the tower, there were two separate rooms built. One for today, filled with cobwebs, and one of 500 years ago. There was no actual mirror so everytime we filmed the mirror, I would do one shoot in front of one side of the pretend mirror and then run to the other side and do the same shot but in reverse. I had to use a TV monitor to mirror what I did. If I had my right hand running in front of the mirror, I had to then run with my left hand out. It was complicated stuff but exciting. We went home everyday and thought that that was a first. It was a sense of accomplishment. Terry would sit behind a monitor on the other end of the room yelling,. “Right hand, left hand, drop to your knees, look left.” We would mirror the image and see if it worked. He wanted to keep the effects real but in the camera. But if we did have a digital image, like the wolf, he was very good at painting that visual image. He never left anyone on the dark as to what they had to do.
In the film, Matt plays your brother, a very close bond. In your own life, you have sisters but no brothers. Having to portray such a close brotherly affection during the film, was it easy to access the same emotions you had with your siblings or did you and Matt have to create something new?
LEDGER: We didn’t have any scheduled 9 till 11 bonding class (laugh). I did grow up with sisters but I did have a group of guy friends since I was 3 that I still have so I did have that brotherhood. Matt does have brothers and so he was very good at sharing with me the stories of his own brothers. But I think our bonding just happened organically. We had a lot of time prior to shooting as we collaborated and it just naturally happened.
Jacob is viewed as an outsider who has these crazy ideas but in the long run, his ideas are not so crazy after all. How closely do you identify with that? Have you ever been the outsider?
LEDGER: I guess so but I never drew a parallel. Looking back on it, I believed I could be an actor and I left home at an early age to pursue that dream. My father and mother thought I was committing suicide. It wasn’t until I started earning money, that they finally understood I was secure and safe. It is hard to convince anyone of your hopes and dreams until you manifest them and prove them. So I do see a similarity.
You have two beautiful female co-stars in Monica Bellucci and Lena Headey. How aware of them were you prior to making the film?
LEDGER: I was obviously aware of Monica, as the whole world was. I had never seen Lena in anything but we were very lucky. They are both very beautiful and talented girls. It was a blast working with both of them.
They represent two sides of the feminine mystique yet Jacob is drawn to Angelika. What was it about this woman that drew his attention?
LEDGER: I think it was her rawness. She seemed to be somewhat believing in my world and that was what was instantly attractive to him. She was also quite beautiful.
As with a lot of fairy tales, it always comes down to that elusive kiss. What is it about a kiss that symbolizes so much in these stories? It can awaken a sleeping princess or rejuvenate a lost soul.
LEDGER: Yeah. I don’t know. Maybe it is the magic of two powers merging.
How old were you with your first kiss?
LEDGER: I think I was 13 but I might have been a little younger at one of those spin the bottle birthday parties. It was awkward and embarrassing. It was with Rebecca Anderson.
You remember who it was so she must have meant something.
LEDGER: She is one of my best mates. I have known her since I was 3 and we are still good friends.
You are about to become a father. Will you retell these same fairy tales to your child?
LEDGER: I would like to think that I would tell them. Sure.
You took some time off a few years back and now you have like four films opening this year. Did you need that break to rejuvenate the creative juices? Do you feel better about acting that you understand the craft now?
LEDGER: I guess so. I hope I will always be learning the craft. I did like five films the past year and half. I was able to exercise my ability to pick and choose which films I wanted to do. Prior to that, I felt the choices were being made for me so I feel that this has been my time now to find the good stories and test myself. It has been interesting I am now ready for a break but it has been an interesting year where I finally have a sense of accomplishment.
What did you feel THE BROTHERS GRIMM tested you at?
LEDGER: It was the first opportunity I had to really do comedy. It was a lot of physical comedy for my character. When I was younger, I studied dance and human movement and this was the first time I was able to use it. Terry was demanding and I wanted desperately to please him and I just wanted to live up to his standards.
How did you know you were funny while on set?
LEDGER: You don’t (laugh). When you do a Terry Gilliam film, you know because you will hear him laughing behind the monitor. At the end of the day, you think it’s funny because it is your sense of humor but it might not be the rest of the worlds. You just leave that up to the movie Gods. I don’t know if there is a universal sense of humor. Matt and I have a similar sense of humor and so we found what each other was doing was funny, but we don’t know if it truly is, that I cannot answer.
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