Ledger evolves in poignant role

Australian-born actor shows his range in `Brokeback Mountain'

November 27, 2005|By RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ

NEW YORK — NEW YORK-- --Heath Ledger is driving me home.

Movie stars don't usually drive journalists anywhere, especially distances that require knowledge of rules of New York streets. But this Brooklyn transplant of five months powers his car - a blue BMW - with the leisurely assurance of a cowboy on the range.

The star of Brokeback Mountain, set for release in Baltimore on Jan. 6, Ledger is slung back in his seat, his long legs stretched out in ratty jeans, a hood pulled over his dusty brown hair.

In movies, the high cheekbones slash across the screen. In person, he merely looks indistinct, curiously unassuming.

"This is my life when I'm in New York. I drive Michelle everywhere," he says, referring to his partner and Brokeback Mountain costar Michelle Williams.

On the day we meet, Williams is soon to give birth to their first child, a girl. They're also moving to a new house in Brooklyn.

As he cruises up the West Side Highway, the Australia native chats about the rapid life changes of the last couple of months. He sold his bachelor pad in L.A.'s Los Feliz neighborhood. He moved east.

Ledger could be just another involved dad-to-be. In a way, he's shyer about his public transformation - the one that everyone in America is about to see.

This fall shows him in a pair of contrasting roles.

Casanova, in which he plays the raffish title character, showcases his able comedic chops.

Ledger's other film, Brokeback Mountain, is the one that represents his evolution from dude to one of the most wrenching and poignant actors of his generation.

Save for several potent minutes in the indie Monster's Ball, there's little in his resume - from his American debut in 10 Things I Hate About You to the Arthurian romp A Knight's Tale and the action-adventure The Patriot - that prepares the audience for the depth of Ledger's Ennis Del Mar, the cowboy at the center of Brokeback Mountain.

`Gay cowboy' movie

Based on an E. Annie Proulx short story, the $13-million film, directed by Ang Lee and shot in Calgary, Canada, is the tale of two dirt-poor cowboys (Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) and their love for each other, carefully suppressed and hidden from the world around them.

Ever since it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2005, the film has been known in Hollywood as "the gay cowboy movie."

As Ennis Del Mar, Ledger emits the kind of loneliness that seeps into your bones like the dampness of a bad winter cold. He's unvarnished, understated and stoic, fiercely determined to keep his longing and fury and grief pent up for the rest of his life. Catharsis isn't permitted in his unforgiving cowboy world.

"When I met him, the moment I saw him, that was it. He nailed it," Lee says. "He's the person that's the best to carry that western brooding mood - elegiac and fearful and violent, all the complexities, all the poetic qualities."

Ledger grew up in western Australia, in Perth - the "most isolated city in the world." His father designed racing engines, but his parents split up when he was 10, and he and his sisters went back and forth between the two homes, moving every two weeks.

His ease on horseback - and directors' penchant for casting him as someone who rides - might owe something to the fact that his stepfather owned a farm. "I used to chop wood. That was my chore. I grew up around horses. Funny enough, I didn't start to ride horses until I had to. Then I couldn't get off horseback."

He says he essentially fell into acting at the instigation of his sister's agent, who got him cast in an Australian TV show. Other TV series followed, on which he played a gay cyclist (Sweat) and a medieval prince (Roar).

Unfortunately, the more challenging films - pricey epics like The Four Feathers and The Brothers Grimm - wound up more ambitious than successful, either artistically or commercially.

`Enjoyed the stillness'

"I've known Heath for a long time," says James Schamus, Lee's producing partner and now co-president of Focus Features, which is releasing Brokeback Mountain. "I always thought he was under-served in a lot of the roles he did."

Ledger says he knew from the moment the Larry McMurtry-Diana Ossana script for Brokeback Mountain dropped into his lap that he wanted to play Ennis. He even told the filmmakers he'd fly to China just to meet Lee.

"I enjoyed the stillness, and I enjoyed the lack of words on the page. There was so much information about him in the short story, I knew how to play those silent moments."

In playing Ennis, Ledger absorbed his utter desolation. "The whole shooting experience for me was incredibly lonely," he says.

"Whether or not Ang created that environment for me to work and live in, or I created it for myself - it's a lonely story, so it's hard not to take it home with you and feel lonely."

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