Heath Ledger greets me in his Perth hotel suite with the widest, brightest, perfect-teeth smile since Julia Roberts. He sports a grey t-shirt, baggy pants, and a pair of moccasins he may have swiped from the set of The Patriot. His wispish bleached hair constantly falls over his eyes. It's been eight months since his last visit down under, where we last met for publicity on Two Hands.
"I mainly came back to see family. This is just a bit of publicity to pay off the trip," he jokes.
"Have they changed?" I ask.
"No way. That's the great thing about families; they never change."
Heath, on the other hand, has changed. At 21, he seems more thoughtful, more guarded, and yes, more mature. That's not so surprising when you appreciate the sharp learning curve that's challenged the young actor. Having shot from film-starved Perth to debutant megastar in just 3 years, Heath's career path reads like every aspiring actor's rainbow connection. Routine standing ovations with stage productions at prestigious private school Guildford Grammar led to the local TV series Sweat. The camera loved him, but he didn't much like it (his character wore bicycle shorts for 6 months). Heath was 17 and at a crossroads; he loved acting, but he was also a gifted field hockey player. I'm told he could have made the Olympics. Ironically, the coach prompted Heath's decision - and lost his star player to acting.
Heath's stocky 185cm frame, rugged good looks, and distinctive voice undoubtedly helped land him parts in the Australian features Blackrock and Paws. He then won the lead role in the US TV series Roar (ironically filmed in Queensland) and became a teen idol in the process. At just 18 Heath made a sudden move - Hollywood, where he almost immediately made the breakthrough that was to make his career. He joined tinsel-town powerbroker Creative Artists Agency. After months of meetings and auditions, Heath jumped into the lead in the Australian gangster comedy Two Hands.
Only two days after its wrap, Heath was in Seattle starring in 10 Things I Hate About You. Then came his really big breakthrough. Amongst many a would-be, Ledger beat out US wunderkind Ryan Philippe to star in the $150 million blockbuster, The Patriot, an American War of Independence action/drama. Suddenly Heath was screen testing with Mel Gibson (recently named by Premiere Magazine as the 15th most powerful person in Hollywood); an actor Heath admits is his idol.
The topper; he plays Mel's son.
What were you doing when you turned 21?
Two Aussies play Americans in a War of Independence movie. What's the reaction to your 'Aussieness' there? "It goes down good, I guess. They don't get Australian humour because the sarcasm and dryness goes over their heads. But it's almost like Australians are in fashion again over there.
"Mel and Paul Hogan really opened the market up, but they also gave it the clichés. People looked at Aussies as Crocodile Dundee …. you know, the larrikin, the beer," he chuckles. "I think now there's a new-found respect for the Australian style of acting."
"who is this kid?"
I heard your auditions were interesting...
"Yeah, the first time I went in to read it was just Roland (Emerich) the director and Dean (Devlin) the producer and the casting agent," he recalls. "Half way through the second scene I stood up and said 'Okay, this is hopeless, I'm wasting your time here. I'm not doing this right, I'll come back for you maybe'" he relays. "So I walked out with my head down and my tail between my legs, thinking I just f***ed that up big time. But they called my agent back. They were curious, like 'who is this kid? Bring him back in, let's see if he really was out of whack.' I had to go back in and prove that I wasn't focused, so I gave them a performance," he explains. "They must have liked it - they screen tested me right then."
Heath soon found himself standing next to Mel Gibson in front of a blue screen.
"It was like 'Heath - Mel, Mel - Heath, stand there and look like father and son. Roll camera,'" he laughs.
Being Heath's first big budget film, I'm intrigued to know what's different.
"On set there's 500 extras and a crew of thousands," he says. "In the other movies there were no expectations of making the money back. We were making a movie to make a movie. But all of a sudden I felt I was on this project where you had to make a million dollars to break even. There's a lot riding on it," he states. "It felt like this big machine. Every aspect of the movie was a big deal. But it was soon forgotten because Roland and Dean created such a relaxing environment on set. There were no tense vibes, no attitudes at all. Everyone was just friends.
"I was so lucky to be surrounded by all these great people like Caleb Deschanel, considered one of the greatest outdoor cinematographers," Heath explains. "He did The Right Stuff. Then we had David Brenner the editor, who did all of Oliver Stone's movies and John Williams scored the movie, a man with like 38 nominations. The guy's a f*****n' genius."
Did you know much about American history?
"About as much as the average American, which isn't much," Heath laughs. "I read up and discovered what they went through. I had a new found respect for America and how proud they are. In a way their winning of this impossible war justifies how self-centred they are."
"Nothing really scares me that much"
Is the new level of media attention scary?
"Nothing really scares me that much, I guess," Heath posits. "There's that whole thing about treading that fine line and keeping as much of your personal life personal, and then promoting movies and doing your job, you know, in the publicity department. I guess that's consciously in the back of my mind every time I speak to someone," he admits. "But that doesn't really bother me or get to me. It's all another craft. You want to be an actor. You do stage plays everywhere. Then all of a sudden it becomes a profession, and you're getting paid and it's great. But then you have to develop other skills alongside this craft," he explains. "Skills like talking about your movie, as we are now. That's the way I treat it - it's another craft - it's not acting, it's another skill you have to sharpen. I'm nowhere near an expert in this field," he admits. "I'm still learning."
Sounds like you're learning to make the media work for you.
"I guess so," he says. "But some people think it's good to go out there and get into every bloody magazine and do every bloody interview," he laughs. "I guess in a way that's why I hired a publicist in the States - to put a standard on it - because you can let it get out of control, you can over-publicise, you can get trashed. So I've held back on it as much as I can," he explains. "It's hard, especially when you're working for a studio like Columbia because they want you to do every f***ing interview. So it's hard to tell them 'NO! I'm not going to do Teen Pop' and all these fluorescent magazines," he laughs. You gotta protect yourself because it rubs off on the jobs people bring to you. It's a funny game."
Yet getting jobs doesn't seem to be a problem for the young actor. Ledger has already knocked back roles that would be the envy of most actors. He auditioned for the role of the Devil in Arnie's End of Days. He turned down offers to play LeStatt in Queen of the Damned, the sequel to Interview with the Vampire. Ewan McGregor's beat him to the lead of Moulin Rouge merely because Heath looked too young next to co-star Nicole Kidman. He is shooting the medieval movie Knight's Tale in Prague, and has signed up for the remake of Four Feathers.
Heath appears to be following in the footsteps of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. Many have tagged him 'the next Mel Gibson.' The tag is somewhat apt. Like Gibson, Ledger is ruggedly (unfairly) handsome, a jokester, sports loving, intelligent, and family oriented. Like Mel, he's an all-round nice guy. But there's something that tells me Heath will be the next Heath Ledger.