The actor propels himself into that elite tier of fine actors with the most daring and risky performance of the year

Heath Ledger becomes a movie star in Brokeback Mountain. He propels himself into that elite tier of fine actors with the most daring and risky performance since Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. He plays Ennis Del Mar, a quiet and rugged Wyoming cowboy that embarks on a twenty-year homosexual affair. The role is a difficult one and Heath takes command of it. He was quite different in-person from what I expected. Heath is verbose and articulate, but also very animated. He had put a lot of thought and time into this character and was well prepared for the interviews.

Why did you take this role when others in the past have said no?

Related: Brokeback Mountain Comes to DVD April 4

Heath Ledger: It was a beautiful story. It was a story that hadn't made it to the screen; which is rare to come upon a script so beautifully well written and hadn't been told before. It was very exciting to tell a new story. Ang lee is attached to it. I don't think I would have done it if it were in anyone else's hands. He was the perfect director for it. I looked at it as a wonderful opportunity to get in the head of this character. I never saw it as a huge risk that everyone else was seeing. It's all relative to the person you are and how relaxed you are with people and the people around you. I was very happy to tell a story that hadn't been told and I thought it should have been told.

Who were the biggest supporters and detractors in you playing a gay cowboy?

Heath Ledger: No one was trying to detract me from it. Everyone was very supportive of it. I hate to call it "daring" or "brave". Firemen are daring and brave. I'm acting. I didn't get hurt and I'm not mentally wounded from this experience.

How was it working with Jake Gyllenhaal?

Heath Ledger: Wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better person. He comes from a beautiful family and he's a wonderful actor.

Was there any particular Ang Lee movie that made you want to work with him?

Heath Ledger: I think all of them as a whole because he's so diverse. He's got such an attention to detail for different forms of life and society; I knew he would be able to capture this world. He's a smart man.

The first seven minutes of the film is totally silent. When you are working with an auteur like Ang Lee, what did he tell you to get that great shot where you are sitting out there waiting for Randy Quaid to show? How was that set-up?

Heath Ledger: It's an interesting example because of the way Ang directs, I have separated the experience in two. Like when he's in preproduction, he's very thorough and voices his opinion and observations to you that he has on your character and the story and loads you up with all this information. You go away and digest it and process it and come out with your character; and during that process we don't sit around as a cast in a room roundtable and openly discuss everyone's plan. His plan as a director is very private. He'll take us to the side and give me little bits of information and then take Jake aside and do the same thing. Essentially, when we are outside the office and our characters are looking at each other and thinking, "Who's he" and "What's he been told", that's when our characters meet on film. Ang set it up as situations that capture as oppose to recreate.

Ennis is not an outwardly emotional character. Can you talk about the different feelings he had with Jake's character, Michelle's, and even Linda Cardinelli's character?

Heath Ledger: I guess the quick answer to that is that I think most of the emotions or love within Ennis is purely potential. It's within him and he never really expresses. That's the tragedy of this story and that's the tragedy of each one of those love affairs. I think the only time you get to see this potential of how he could express is when he's with his children; because his children are the one area where he feels safe and allowed to love the way he naturally feels. With his wife, his love is slightly manufactured. It's more traditional and it's conforming, but it's not true love. His love for Jack is true in a passionate love, but he hates the way he loves and it's forbidden. Essentially, he's like a homophobic male in love with another man. He's very fixed in his ways and he's left lingering in between the role.

How did you prepare for the initial love scene in the tent?

Heath Ledger: There are not actually love scenes for the sake of doing a love scene. There are actually stories within each of those moments. The first moment for Ennis was very poignant because it had to be rough; it had to be fighting. He was almost ready to punch him. Once that all settled, it had to be this innate passionate adrenaline. It just takes over him. There's another moment in the tent where it was really important to show a glimpse of Ennis in a vulnerable state. It is true intimate love they have for each other. It has to set up the tragedy for the story. It set up the freedom of Brokeback Mountain.

Did you have to shoot multiple takes to get it right?

Heath Ledger: I don't know. I think Ang has been telling everyone that we did thirteen takes. I don't even know which scene he's talking about, but I generally haven't taken notes of how many takes for any scene. It doesn't seem like we did a lot of takes.

What kind of mindset does a straight person need to be in to see this film?

Heath Ledger: It's not a disease. It's not contagious. They should understand that it's a story of pure love. They don't have to be a hero. They don't have to be brave like us. I guess a little bit of maturity is being asked for because society has been immature in the past. That's about it.

Talk about your physical approach to the character?

Heath Ledger: I actually thought it was a gift not to have words to play with. It definitely restricts what you can express. You are stuck with what's on the page. In a sense, I had the freedom to say what I really wanted. In fact, I can make my own decisions and come to conclusions about this character from the physical point of view. First of all, I had to go in and discover what was causing this inability to express and to love. What was the culprit in that? I figured that it was some sort of a battle, and the conclusion I came to was that he was battling himself and battling his genetic structure; he was battling his father, his opinion, traditions, and fears that have been passed down and deeply imbedded in him. I wanted it to be hard for him to express. I wanted him to be a clenched fist; and therefore my mouth became clenched too. A lot of the physicalization was lack of posture, but with the lack of posture in his mouth; in the words, it escapes his mouth.

What was the biggest challenge in making this film?

Heath Ledger: Well, the challenging thing for me I think was in preproduction, figuring out what to do with so little time. I guess the aging process was probably what I thought was one of the important aspects, because without that, the whole story goes up shit creek without a paddle. It had to be so subtle the aging process. Physically aging between 18 and 40 is fairly slim and subtle, and also for Ennis, the character I was playing; he didn't really evolve emotionally either within that age at the time. I used my accent to voice the tone of the voice at the beginning of the film when he's younger; it's pitched a little higher and it's a little more useful and energetic and enthusiastic and it slowly gets deeper and raspier and more fixed and tighter towards the end. I thought that was just a subtle vehicle I could use to age. The easiest thing I found was being a ranch-hand. I can ride backwards if I had to. I'm very comfortable with horses. I love horses and I have grown up around farm-hands. There's something very universal about anyone who's on horseback night and day. When you get off that horse, you are still walking as if there's still a horse between your legs.

In looking back at the ranch-handlers you grew up with, do you think any of them might have been gay?

Heath Ledger: No, but I have a very good friend of mine, who's actually an uncle of mine. I didn't base this character off him, but he's gay. He's always struggled with his sexuality. He's like 60 now but back when he was younger, his dad kicked him out off the house and said to him, "Go to the hospital and get fixed or you're not coming back to the family." My uncle said, "I can't get fixed" and he left and hasn't been back since then. He's also the most masculine person I know. He's the head of arm wrestling federation and he goes to cage fighting. So that was definitely a good example of the level of masculinity, the range of masculinity. It's purely masculine and it was important for Ennis to be that.

Does this film reinstate your belief in Hollywood? For a while, you felt as if you weren't being challenged enough with the roles you had or were being offered?

Heath Ledger: It's definitely given me hope. The whole year was about reigniting enthusiasm for myself because I did The Brothers Grimm followed by Lords of Dogtown, then Brokeback, then Casanova, and then Candy, which is a love story between junkies; and I think before that I was really bored with the choices I made and with the movies. I was just in the industry. Everything was just boring and it was starting to get stale and I was getting a plateau of nothing. This was my year to handpick things for the first time. I really wanted to put together a collection of quality work.

Was Monster's Ball what changed it all for you?

Heath Ledger: "Monster's Ball" was the first time I felt like I had to do something; and what I had to do was essentially nothing. At the time, I just boiled it down, take off the shine, and destroy it a little bit.

Did this film change your idea of the American western or the western hero?

Heath Ledger: Not at all. I'm not a big fan of western movies and I really don't like cowboy-indian movies. I have never watched them. We're borrowing this iconic figure because it is so tightly connected to masculinity and the surroundings and that was the point; that loves transcends all and all its environment.

How would you feel if you got an Oscar nomination? You're the early favorite to win.

Heath Ledger: I think it's a great honor to be in a movie that's been well received. The only time it's presented to me, the idea, is like today. Michelle and I definitely don't really sit around worried about it. It's also a little surreal; kind of a strange concept to me that one performance or one movie can be compared or competed against another. That's what this strange little season does. Each performance and each movie is running a different race. It's a different sport. We all train for different sports and we all start from different points. There is no one finish line at the end. It's an award season of opinions, so it's full of a false sense of success and failure.

What's next for you?

Heath Ledger: Nothing really, just raising my daughter and that's enough work and has been most enjoyable.

Brokeback Mountain hits theaters on December 9th and is rated 'R' for sexuality, nudity, language and some violence.

Julian Roman