Many people got to know Heath’s movies.
I wasn’t one of those people.
No, unfortunately his death was our introduction. I had heard his name, knew he was an actor and could have rattled off a couple movies he had done, but that was it. I knew little about about the actor and even less about the man.
When I was hit with the title, “Heath Ledger found dead at 28” on my homepage on January 22, 2008, I literally felt I had been slapped across the face. Not because of who was, but how old he was. 28. I was then 28 and going through a hard time. That connection jolted me into reality and just how fast life can be taken away. Ended.
It was harrowing to hear someone had died so young, especially for the reasons surrounding his death, but I eventually moved on. It was in the coming months I would continue to see headlines about Heath Ledger pop up on my homepage. The constant reminders began to cultivate a curiosity inside me. Who was Heath Ledger? Why was the media giving him so much attention, other than the fact he died so young? In other words, what made him so special?
That’s when I decided to
get to know Heath Ledger.
As an actor and as a person.
There are always shades of grey.
On screen Heath could be anyone, but in reality he only played himself. He flashed his honesty in the face of us all. He held nothing back and had nothing to lose. His smile was fearless, his eyes were endless and his soul rejoiced in the marvels of the human spirit.
Naomi Watts on Heath while filming Ned Kelly. “I hadn’t really been that familiar with his work,” Watts recalls. “Then, when I got to the set and did that first scene with him, I was like, ‘Wow! This guy is alive.’ It was just something deep in his eyes. You could look into them, and they would tell a thousand stories in one glance. There was a wonderful mixture of power and fragility at work in everything he did, which just pulls you in. His strength didn’t scare you. It intrigued you. And his fragility touched you.”
And there was something about him that kept us from feeling he was a movie star at all and made him feel like one of us. And that’s how he wanted it. Early in his film career Heath desperately tried to escape the pretty boy image Hollywood had pinned on him. He was willing to do anything to keep growing professionally and personally. Being a movie star and poster boy for Hollywood propaganda was the last thing Heath wanted to be.
Heath was an incredibly perceptive, sensitive, vulnerable and reserved person juggling a semi-frantic nervousness. Often finding it difficult to sit still during interviews, on the set Heath managed to harness this energy, channeling it into his roles and creating characters that would soon redefine the entertainment industry. His acting ability became a finely tuned instrument capable of producing pitch perfect performances.
On acting, Heath once said,
“part of the magic of acting is,
you harness the infinite
power of belief.”
It was this infinite power of belief, coupled with his presence on the screen and masterful art of pacing – timing – which helped him create unforgettable characters. This man didn’t make movies, he made film history. And the industry believed he could do no wrong, but Heath always kept himself in check, never getting cocky or over confident about his talents.
Heath on actors. ”I think that’s the problem with a lot of actors in the industry. We all just think we’re brilliant, you know? And ninety-eight percent of us are crap. And we’ve got to realize that, before we can improve.”
One thing I find so humbling about Heath, is that even he had to start somewhere. This is an excerpt from Rolling Stones interview with him in March 2006.
“Ledger enlisted his mother on a reassurance mission: He was really just terrible in the show (Sweat, an Australian TV Show) — wasn’t he? He couldn’t act at all — could he? ”And she just said, ‘Well, that’s OK.’ The honesty kind of slipped out of her, in the most beautiful way. She didn’t even bother with ‘No, honey, you were great, I’m so proud of you.” No one else around you, except your mum, is going to tell you that, you suck. She straight-up told me. ‘There are other things to do in life.”’
When Brokeback Mountain
came out the rising waters
from overnight stardom
came surging from all sides.
Michelle Williams, the young woman who played his ill-fated wife in Brokeback Mountain and whom he fell in love with on and off the set, became the rock that kept Heath grounded. She was a powerful force in his life. Heath once said in a German interview that Michelle was his greatest strength.
“She’s my soul mate and we couldn’t love each other any more than we do already. We’re like two peas in a pod.” — (on Michelle Williams, girlfriend and mother of his daughter)
Michelle reflected on Heath’s many talents. “He was good at sports. He was good at directing.”
“He was good at painting. He was good at taking pictures. He was good at building things. It could be infuriating to a lot of his friends, I mean, he had a talent for everything that he put his mind to, pretty much, so he didn’t know limits.”
“Maybe he had never been told that he couldn’t do something, so everything was possible for him.”
Heath was also a gracious and loving father filled with adoration for his daughter, Matilda Rose; the joy of his life. Daughters can do no wrong in the eyes of their father. There’s a reason you never hear, “mommy’s little girl.”
“Matilda is adorable, and beautifully observant and wise. Michelle an I love her so much. Becoming a father exceeds all my expectations. It’s the most remarkable experience I’ve ever had – it’s marvelous.”
There are always shades of grey.
Michelle softly recalled. “For as long as I’d known him, he had bouts with insomnia. He just had too much energy.”
“His mind was turning, turning, turning – always turning. He had an uncontrollable energy. He buzzed. He would jump out of bed.”
In Todd Haynes film, I’m Not There, a heterogeneous portrait of music giant Bob Dylan, he directed Heath and Michelle and remembers how the actor would need to lean on her during their summer shoot in 2006. “The night before we were going to shoot a scene, he started to have a real panic about it.”
Haynes continues, “He had to call Michelle in New York, who talked him through relaxation methods to try to get him asleep. He said he was just curled up in a corner holding one of Matilda’s stuffed animals, and he slept about an hour and came on set.”
Heath slowly turned more and more into himself. With sleepless nights as the norm and an on again off again affair with alcohol and drugs, Heath and Michelle’s relationship began to feel the stress and in September 2007 they decided to break up, yet remain dedicated parents.
The entries are provocative, revolting,
open like a festering wound and
bleeding with literary genious.
Last year, writer Lisa Taddeo constructed a fictional account of Heath Ledger’s last few days for Esquire magazine. It is a most intriguing read, setting the stage for his final days with startling imagery. In this fictitious report, Heath, knowing he’s going to die in a few days, writes in his journal with petrifying detail about the events of each day leading up to his death. In this make-believe diary, with its caustic tone, rank with ridicule, a voice of Heath can still be felt seeping through. Read this arresting and controversial article here.
Heath wasn’t just famous for movies. He was also famous for mocking the establishment that employed him. He was generous to offer sarcasm or a smart-ass remark without invitation, simply showing his innate freedom and frankness in all things. As an actor he was courageous, as a man he was genuine.
When remembering Heath Ledger,
I don’t think of the things
he stood up to.
I think of what he stands for.
For taking risks, because you only live once and you have nothing to lose. For being strong in who you are and never being pulled into being someone you’re not. For loving life and experiencing it to the fullest humanly possible. By daring to defy and in doing so defining yourself.