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:: Spotlight :: Heath Ledger Interview: Brokeback Mountain

By: Catherine Naghten

Heath Ledger’s character in the film 'Brokeback Mountain' might be a man of few words, but Heath had plenty to say about this groundbreaking film and his newest role as a dad when Catherine Naghten met him in Melbourne recently.

How’s fatherhood treating you?

Heath - Very well. Yeah, it’s good. I’m exhausted but it’s a pleasurable exhaustion because you’re waking up to your daughter.

How did you and Jake make the relationship scenes work?

Heath - That just kind of happens. We didn’t really go out to bars, sit there, drink, and get buddy-buddy. You’re there for a couple of weeks beforehand rehearsing and just talking about a film that is fairly intimate in itself. And he’s a great guy - so it made things a lot easier. He’s an easy person to get along with, you know, he’s not an asshole.

When you first read the script were you always going to play Ennis?

Heath - I wouldn’t have played Jack Twist. I wouldn’t have done it. I enjoyed the complexity of Ennis, the lack of words he had to express himself, his inability to love. I liked how masculine he was going to be. I liked that he was a homophobic guy that falls in love with another man. I just don’t think I could’ve played Jack. It’s hard to explain why but for whatever reason I couldn’t do it.

Does the introspective nature of the role attract you?

Heath - It does, like you have to have a fairly thorough understanding of the person you’re playing. I put a lot of time and effort into physicalising his battles. I put a lot of time into his physical traits, like his posture, or lack of, and his voice. Any form of expression, I wanted it to be painful, so even words when they came out. And in ageing - I thought that was going to be the biggest challenge. The accent came into play with that also. It was a Wyoming accent and a little bit of Texas. Because he was so clenched as a person, I wanted my mouth to be clenched. Whenever words came out they had to be punching their way out.

Does Ennis’s character ever get to develop in the future or is he trapped in this stage of life forever?

Heath - My thought has always been the last line in the movie is the first step towards change for him. I can come up with one if you want but I’m pretty sure he dies in that trailer. I don’t think he moves on.

What was it like working with Ang Lee?

Heath - I always looked at working with Ang. I don’t think I would have done it if it had been in anyone else’s hands. There are two sides to Ang’s direction - there’s the pre-production, which is incredibly thorough and private, and then there’s the shooting side, when he just doesn’t say anything at all. Nothing. If you haven’t done your homework - too bad. It was clear that the shooting time was his time to create.

We didn’t openly share. He was very private and he’d take us aside to inject his ideas and his vision. He clearly relies on the fact that everyone knows what to do. If you turn up not knowing what to do, he’s miscast you. We should have done our homework and we’re now part of his day. He’s also very set in his ways. He prepares you so much that he doesn’t cloud you with direction. There are not many instructions - it’s always just crisp and clear. He doesn’t patronise you by slapping you on the back after every scene and saying “that was great, that was great…let’s try one more”. In fact, he never compliments you at all. Yet, it makes you try harder - and you do end up doing better.

You’d go home thinking you’ve failed at the end of the day. I remember one morning I finished a scene and it was really cold. It was about 4 o’clock in the morning, my voice box was hoarse, my mouth was frozen, so I couldn’t speak properly and I didn’t know if the words were coming out. So after the scene I went up to Ang and I said, “it’s so cold and my mouth…was the sound ok? Did we get it?” and he just goes (shrugs shoulders)… “Light was good.” Then he turned and walked off, and that was about all we got from him.

How physically demanding was the shoot?

Heath - Yeah it was okay. I’m pretty good out in the wilderness and on horseback. We were working in the Rockys, so it was just majestic.

Are there similarities between your home in Western Australia and the West in the US?

Heath - A little bit, certainly with just how ranch hands or wranglers are. It’s kind of like a surfer in Perth. They can see the world through the same eyes as a surfer in France would. It’s just their universal trade. It’s the same thing with wranglers, even down to the way they walk. It’s like if someone spends all night and all day on horseback, they’ll get off the horse and they’ll still walk like there’s a horse between their legs, you know. And it does something to their shoulders when you’re balancing in the saddle like that all day. When you get off it rounds your shoulders a little bit.

What about the bigotry etc?
Heath - Naa, it was just so real this beautiful story, so we didn’t really have to draw from anything else. There was just this piece of literature that was just so beautiful.

It was really important to live up to the literature because it was so well known but that’s all done in pre-production you know. You get a thorough understanding and then it’s just embedded and it just sticks. Sometimes you’re forced into over-intellectualising how you do something and where it comes from when the truth is that most of the preparation. Obviously you read the short story and the script. But most of it comes from some kind of weird, deranged place.

Have you had much of a conservative backlash with this film?

Heath - Yeah, it’s good. I heard that, at one point, West Virginia was going to ban it but you know, that’s a state that were lynching people until about twenty years ago.

And for the rest of America?

Heath - It’s actually proven to have the opposite effect so far. All of the American states, besides the odd one here and there, have ended up seeing it. It seems to have proven everyone wrong. People just want to see it, just to have an opinion on it. I think it’s going to turn into some kind of phenomenon.

Where does it sit in terms of your favourite film experiences?

Heath - Making it? I don’t know if it was an enjoyable experience, because it was a really lonely story, therefore it was a really lonely time making the film. You kind of just drag that around with you while you’re making the film, or I do anyway. It wasn’t the most fun making it.

What about the finished product?

Heath - Yeah, I’d say it’s the best film I’ve done for sure. In terms of experience, working with Terry Gilliam [The Brothers Grimm] will always be… I just adore him. That will always be the most fun I’ve had.

Did you think about Oscars and awards when you were making it?

Heath - No. If you go into any movie, you can’t really be thinking down the line about how it’s going to be perceived, or how you’re going to be judged for doing it. If you’re thinking about that, it bleeds into your choices as an actor. Your choices in the performance will be more manufactured. You have to pretend nobody is ever going to see it in order to bare your soul.

What’s next for you?

Heath - Nothing. Oh, I’m gonna work this year but I don’t know what yet. I’m really consumed with fatherhood. I want Michelle to work next - you know, we don’t want to be working at the same time. I’ll play Mr. Mum for a while.

Thanks Heath. One last thing, Was Jake a good kisser?

Heath - I can’t remember… so it couldn’t have been that bad (laughs).