CASANOVA - Q&A with Heath Ledger
When Heath Ledger confesses, rather sheepishly, that his head is spinning and he's struggling to cope with the enormous amount of attention he is receiving right now, it is, perhaps, understandable.
This down to earth, immensely likeable Australian was the star of no less than three movies at the Venice Film Festival, each showcasing his talents in a different but complimentary way to the other.
In BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN - which would go on to win the Golden Lion award for best film - he stars opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in a beautiful, evocative story of doomed gay love; in BROTHERS GRIMM he is directed by one of his cinematic heroes, Terry Gilliam in a surreal, fantastic yarn about the world's greatest purveyors of fairytales and, perhaps most significantly of all given our location, he takes the title role in CASANOVA, Lasse Hallstrom's superbly crafted comedy romance which also stars Sienna Miller.
CASANOVA was filmed entirely on location in Venice and Ledger, 26, is delighted to return. "Oh it's fantastic to be back," he beams. "We had such a wonderful time being here. I felt privileged. I really got to know the place and it has to be one of the most beautiful cities on earth."
But what's it like, you wonder, having three films play at such a prestigious festival? "I'm trying not to think about it," he laughs. "It's an honour and it's overwhelming, really. For that reason I'm trying to keep myself in a state of denial about three of my films being here. I'm pretending that I only have one so I can focus every day just on that film and represent each of them properly and not panic!"
Right now his focus is on CASANOVA, a hugely enjoyable feel good film which sees the iconic seducer finding himself confronted by a unique situation - falling in love with a woman who seems resistant to his abundant charms.
The feisty Francesca - played by Sienna Miller - is a beautiful tomboy, an advocate of women's rights at a time when most of her sex were content to be little more than eye candy. She's bright, writes controversially about equality (using a pseudonym), she's outspoken and she's heading for an unwelcome arranged marriage unless Casanova can win her hand and somehow scupper the plan.
"I read the script and I thought it was just fantastic fun," says Ledger. "It made me laugh and it's not meant to be the definitive, historical take on Casanova, but a rather romantic comedy."
Ledger was born in Perth, western Australia, and first discovered acting at his school, Guildford Grammar, when he was asked to choose between a cookery course and drama and, fortunately, decided on the latter.
At 17, he headed for Sydney determined to find work as an actor and, although there were plenty of times when he needed to take fill in jobs, he eventually began to pick up work on Australian television shows like HOME AND AWAY, briefly, and playing an Olympic cyclist in SWEAT. He eventually won the lead in an Australian made for TV thriller called TWO HANDS which attracted the attention of American casting directors.
His first American film was 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU which led to Ledger winning a role in the period drama THE PATRIOT opposite Mel Gibson. He showcased his considerable comic talent with A KNIGHT'S TALE and won much acclaim for his role in the gritty drama MONSTER'S BALL with Halle Berry.
Ledger has also starred in THE FOUR FEATHERS, THE ORDER and LORDS OF DOGTOWN, amongst others. He is expecting a child with his girlfriend, the actress Michelle Williams.
Venice looks fantastic in CASANOVA and it's a character in the film in its own right. Did you need to use much CGI in the film?
In the version I've seen, it's quite funny, I was transported by the environment back to the time and it looks so beautiful. And then there's the very end shot and the camera pulls up and turns round and looks down on the river and there are Vaparettos (laughs) coming across and all the tourists are out there taking photographs, you know, they hadn't painted them out yet. And I thought 'you know that would be a genius ending, just leave them all in there...' (Laughs).
What about the stunt work, were you able to do some of it yourself or is there a lot of CGI involved?
The execution scenes and that stuff? We actually shot most of that there but to save time and money we went to another location where they recreated the gallows and were surrounded by green screen. I guess they must have gone into the square there and shot a 360 (degrees) plate and painted that back on, with all the tighter sword fights.
And what about that remarkable scene where you and Sienna swing on a rope and jump on to the moving horses?
Yeah, we actually did it and it was a lot of fun. But we didn't actually land on the horses that were galloping past. We did a take where I did a sword fight and it ended with me grabbing a rope and then turning around and running and swinging up in the air and then letting go and looking back, as if a horse was running underneath me, and kind of landing in a position as if I was landing on a horse and then I just landed on a mat. And then we went back and did the last bit where it looks as if I'm landing. And then they digitally merged the two pictures so it looked like it was all happening at once, but it's not, I was landing on soft bouncy mats. Great fun, though.
Were you intimidated at all when they asked you to play Casanova? He's such an iconic figure.
Yeah, a little but once I read it I understood what type of Casanova they wanted to make. And so I thought it would be a lot of fun, an opportunity to take what I do not too seriously and I understood that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was going to be really hard so that this would be a great way to relax in Venice for five months (laughs).
Is it possible to say which of the three films that screened at the Venice Film Festival you preferred?
Well, they were all important for me (laughs). I mean obviously BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was an obstacle I felt I could never climb, I could never defeat, that it was too tough but ultimately decided to do it. And with that I came out with a real sense of accomplishment which was something that I lacked in the movies that I've done before, I'd never felt that I'm accomplished anything. But then in both BROTHERS GRIMM and CASANOVA there was a lot to enjoy. BROTHERS GRIMM was the first time I've been let loose and use my kind of frantic energy and twitching and nervousness and clumsiness and Terry Gilliam is very good at allowing you to do that. He sets you free and creates an environment where you can feel safe enough to be bad - he lets you be bad and he lets you be big, which is fun. And with Lasse on CASANOVA he created such a lovely atmosphere on the set, with such a great group of people, cast and crew, that it really helped the film.
How much research did you do into the life of the real Casanova?
I did do quite a bit of research and I already knew little bits of information about him, all the obvious kind of things. But I was curious to know more and got hold of all his journals and read a couple of them and flicked through the rest. But there was no real point in tying myself down to historical correctness because the movie wasn't and the story wasn't. But particularly after coming off of BROKEBACK which was so serious and lonely and at times tortuous and I went from that to CASANOVA and I really wanted to not take acting seriously, not take movies seriously, I just wanted to have fun. And I wanted to come home smiling after work and so by throwing away all the history it allowed me to do that. And it gave me a clean slate so I just kind of created my own character.
And was Casanova that kind of experience - lighter and happier?
Oh very much so. It was a vacation really. I've never spent this much time in Venice and it ended up being a four and a half month guided tour of Venice. Every day we ended up being taken to the most beautiful parts of Venice to shoot so essentially it was like filming a movie inside a museum which was really cool. And you know, working with great people, great crew. It was a lovely experience.
You have a tattoo on your right arm which reads 'Old Man River' What does that mean?
It's got a few meanings, they all have many meanings, and I usually get tattoos when I need to be reminded of something but the answer I'll give you (laughs) is that it has nothing to do with the song, I just felt there was something eternal about the phrase and I feel that I'm at a stage in my life now where life is just about to really speed up and flash by and so I feel like I am on old man river paddling on a little row boat. That's my answer for today (laughs). This one (points to left forearm) is my sisters and my mum, Cate, Ashley, Olvia and Sally - yes 'chaos' or Sony when it's upside down which I discovered when it was too late (laughs). and thought 'oh great..'
Were you familiar with the Grimm fairytales as a child and did you have a favourite?
Well my Mum used to read them to me but I would be lying if I said my favourite was Rumpelstiltskin or something, I didn't have a favourite. And there were so many, over 200 of them. So I yes I did read them but no I didn't have a favourite.
What about Terry Gilliam's films?
I was obsessed with Monty Python films, THE LIFE OF BRIAN and THE HOLY GRAIL. My god, I so desperately wanted to be in that movie, I used to run around pretending I was one of the knights. And whilst shooting we were constantly quoting from his movies. But even since then I have loved his films; BARON MUNCHAUSEN, FEAR AND LOATHING, FISCHER KING and of course BRAZIL. He has been on the top of my list of directors I wanted to work with.
How do you feel about being suddenly acclaimed as such a big star?
Well, it doesn't feel so sudden - it's only been three days (laughs). I guess I'm hoping that it gives me more freedom of choice and I'm hoping it gives me more opportunities work with the directors I want to work with and that's really it. But I'm also hoping that it doesn't change my personal life.
How do you choose your roles?
I don't have that much forward planning about what I want to do in the future. But I guess once I find something, like if I'm doing LORDS OF DOGTOWN, I really like to flip the scale on the next job I'm doing. It's almost like you are a switchboard in a sound booth and on one job you use one side and by the end of the job you are kind of exhausted by it, but you didn't use any of the other side over here so you have to find something that will mean you using this half of your brain, energy wise, and that's how BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and CASANOVA complimented each other. BROKEBACK was excruciating and CASANOVA was drinking wine and eating pasta, it was like a holiday. But I've got no future plans, I don't know what I'm going to do next as along as it scares me, as long as it's something new, as long as I get to scare other people. As long as it's an opportunity to evolve and grow as an actor and a person and challenge myself.
Which directors would you like to work with?
(Laughs). I knew you would ask me that! Look, I couldn't give you a list because it's a really long list and half of them are dead.
Are you proactive about it, in terms of approaching directors and letting them know that you are interested in a project?
Not really, no. I don't know whether it's a good thing or a bad thing but I do leave a lot of what ends up in front of me to my agent. I don't really go shopping around myself and I wouldn't know how to or where to start. I like it to feel like it's a coincidence so it just drops from the sky. It sounds corny, but I like it be organic as much as possible. And my agent makes me feel like it's organic.
You said earlier that you had this sense of your life speeding up. Did you mean professionally or because you are about to become a father?
I feel like with impending fatherhood life is going to speed up. I feel like from the day that happens it will go a lot faster. That's why I've reminded myself to appreciate it (points to 'old man river tattoo.).
What was your impression of Casanova the man?
I thought he was an incredible man in many ways - and did many, many different things. But you know I wasn't trying to portray the historical too accurately - the script wasn't, so if I was, it would be pointless. I wanted to play up a little bit and if anything I thought I should have played it up more - you know really gone to town. I didn't but maybe I should have.
Was Sienna good fun to work with?
Yes she was just great. A great actress and a lovely girl. We had lots of fun.
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