In Focus

'Mountain' Man Ledger's Steady Climb to the Top

Heath Ledger, right, is up for a Golden Globe for his role in
Heath Ledger, right, is up for a Golden Globe for his role in "Brokeback Mountain," also starring Jake Gyllenhaal. (By Kimberly French -- Focus Features Via Bloomberg News)
By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 16, 2005

The year 2005 has been a turning point for Heath Ledger.

He moved to a new home in Brooklyn, N.Y. He became a father, welcoming daughter Matilda into the world with Michelle Williams, his girlfriend and co-star in "Brokeback Mountain" (see review on Page 43). And his emotional work in that film, directed by Ang Lee, announced his presence as a serious, Golden Globe-nominated actor, and one who may be headed toward his first Academy Award nomination.

Ask which of these developments made the biggest impact on him, and the Australian native just chuckles.

"What do you think?" he asks rhetorically. "Look, Michelle and I are forever in debt to Ang, in a much smaller sense for giving us this movie, but on a grander scale for kind of putting us together and giving us this beautiful life and this little friend of ours we have floating around."

Ledger, who met Williams last year when the two were filming "Brokeback," teeters on the edge of giddiness as he says this, a reaction that might be nausea-inducing if it didn't seem, well, so darn heartfelt. In fact, "heartfelt" is a word that could easily be used to describe Ledger's performance as Ennis Del Mar, a tortured loner who falls in love with fellow cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) despite his belief that homosexuality is wrong. Some other words that effusive critics have used to describe his "Mountain" transformation: "breathtaking," "astonishing" and "extraordinary."

Despite the flattering adjectives and aura of Oscar buzz, Ledger, 26, seems to have his head in the right place. Or so it sounded during a recent phone interview from a New York hotel where he was making the requisite press-junket rounds. (Ledger may amble through Wyoming's wide-open spaces in "Brokeback," but his PR reps have him on a very tight lasso, making sure he ends an interview exactly at the 15-minute mark.) "The only time [the Academy Award talk] surrounds my day are on days like today," Ledger says. Though he's honored by the notion of a nomination, he realizes a golden statuette isn't the only definition of outstanding work.

"The thing that strikes me as strange is that we're all in the same race, but none of us are performing the same sport," he says of his fellow actors. "None of us started at the same spot nor do we finish at the same spot. But we all get compared and thrown into a mix. It all feels a little manufactured and filled with false senses of success and false senses of failure."

Ledger is equally candid when asked about "Brokeback Mountain's" controversial subject matter even as a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story suggested that he and Gyllenhaal were risking their careers by playing gay cowboys, something the actor dismisses.

"I never really felt I had anything at risk," he says. "If, at the end of the day, it is a risk to create a love story . . . if, in fact, that is a crime and that's something that's worth judging someone for, then quite frankly I don't want to be in an industry that restricts creativity in that way."

Ledger has been an active player in that industry for the past six years, making his American film debut in 1999's "10 Things I Hate About You," a teen satire of "Taming of the Shrew." After serenading Julia Stiles in a football stadium, Ledger moved into more dramatic territory, appearing in such movies as "The Patriot," "Monster's Ball" and "The Four Feathers." But none of those performances hinted at Ledger's ability to disappear so deeply into a character. As soon as he appears onscreen as Ennis -- his eyes squeezed into slits, his mouth twisted in an anguished knot -- Ledger immediately conveys the profound heartache this cowboy hides.

Asked whether he would define Ennis -- who is married to Alma, the long-suffering wife played by Williams, during part of the film -- as gay, bisexual or straight but confused, Ledger is reluctant to categorize.

"I generally don't think most situations can be labeled as black or white," he says. "He's obviously gay in the sense that he has fallen in love with another man, and this seemed to ignite something within his soul. But whether or not he had sought to find that in another man before, I doubt it."

Working on "Brokeback Mountain" meant new territory for Ledger and Gyllenhaal, too: Filming love scenes with another man, including an intense initial encounter in a tent on an exceptionally chilly night. Ledger admits to having been nervous but says he used his anxiety, an emotion Ennis shares during that moment, to make the scene more genuine.

"No matter what, when you're shooting love scenes, it's kind of uncomfortable, and this was certainly going to be one of those," he admits. "But it's also like, [expletive] it, we're not kids. We're professionals. We have a responsibility to tell it like it is."

Telling it like it is may mean that moviegoers uncomfortable with gay themes will avoid the film altogether, something Ledger accepts.

"The only people who are truly going to hate this film are the people who won't go see it," he says. "And that's fine. That's their own personal issues they have to deal with."

But Ledger doesn't accept the suggestion that he is daring or brave for playing a gay man.

"In my opinion, New York City police officers are brave. It takes courage to be a firefighter," he says. "We're just acting. We're telling a story. We're creating."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company