Park Hyatt, The Rocks, Sydney
SSO: What were your first thoughts when you read the script?
HEATH LEDGER: Well, when the script was handed to me it was pretty obvious there were these invisible leaflets stapled to the script saying -˜risky’, -˜controversial’, -˜fear’. I read it and that definitely kind of bled into my initial response. As I was sitting there and the story was sinking in all of that kind of disappeared and I realised that was kind of manufactured and sent to me from all the people in the past who didn’t want to do it -“ producers, directors, actors -“ and they weren’t my fears.
What I was left with once that all disappeared was this incredible story and one of the most beautiful screenplays I’ve ever read. And an opportunity to play this incredibly complex, lonely man. And so I was really excited.
I didn’t find it risky. Whether or not it’s controversial I think is completely relative to the person you are, and I never found the subject controversial, nor should it be.
I understand that unfortunately it was going to be in some people’s minds, but I didn’t find that a big enough reason not to do it. And Ang Lee was the director and I’ve always wanted to work with him.
It was a story I felt hadn’t made it to the big screen. I thought it was an opportunity to represent this form of love and to portray homosexual love -“ man on man or woman on woman love -“ as not being a disease or a plague or something that can be cured or a lifestyle choice. The level of intimacy and emotion experienced within these relationships are exactly what happens within heterosexual love. And I thought that was going to be incredibly important and I just thought it was a good to try and open some people’s minds.
But we never really went into it with any political intentions. I think had we have gone in thinking we were making this movie to change people’s minds we couldn’t have made the movie we were making, because we would have been aware of people’s opinions and judgements after the film of us and of the film and so therefore, just like any film, we had to make it as if no one’s going to see it, then it allows you to bare your soul and it doesn’t prohibit or restrict you from portraying.
I loved the book.
It’s amazing isn’t it.
And the movie is so true to it. The dialogue is word for word often.
And just the pacing of it too. You’re never for one minute spoon fed a beat. It just draws you in. Lures you in to following the story.
The movie had some of the most realistic man-on-man passion scenes I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of movies with gay themes before. Was it at all daunting to try and make it real? Was it something you were ever worried about?
I can’t say I wasn’t nervous. But once the first take was over the mystery was gone, and it was like, -˜Whatever. It’s just another human being, it’s not painful,’ you know? Also what I knew I had to give to the story was, in those intimate scenes, I guess I had the easier job of the two. Jake had to be really comfortable with it and look as if he accepted it and had been there before. I had to have reservations and be nervous and have anxieties, like the character of Ennis. I knew that I didn’t have to hide anything I was feeling as an actor portraying it. I could in fact just be observed and I knew the camera would be able to capture something. That’s what I knew I had to give to those scenes. I knew it would be closer to something honest, purely because I wouldn’t have to hide as much, I’d be able to just experience it.
Did anyone try to talk you out of taking the role?
No. I mean, myself. I do that going into any role, not this one in particular at all. It’s a pattern of mine. Whenever I want a role or get given a role I always try to back out of it and believe I can’t do it or shouldn’t do it. But I also recognise that as a necessary part of me trying to convince myself to focus more and defeat myself and defeat my own anxieties.
I read that Annie Proulx said since seeing the movie, when she imagines Ennis she now imagines your portrayal of him. How does that feel?
It is honestly, in our minds -“ we all received letters from Annie Proulx stating just that -“ that’s about as successful as we can get, we feel. She was our greatest critic. She’s a tough one. And that was about the highest level for us, so we were definitely blushing on that.
Also lots of gay activists and gay rights groups around the world have said this is the movie we’ve been waiting for. This is what might finally change people’s opinions about gays and lesbians. That must feel pretty good.
Yeah it does. I don’t mind being a part of that. It’s not really my job now to be representing a whole community, but I don’t mind it because even though it doesn’t directly effect me, it does disappoint me that there are still people in this world who go out of their way to protest and express disgust over the way in which two people choose to love one another. Why aren’t they using all that energy to go out and protest the ways in which two people would express anger and violence toward each other? I don’t know, it baffles me. It’s just really immature I think at the end of the day.
So yeah, as I said we had no intentions or expectations for this movie to reach such heights as it has now, in people’s hearts and minds. But it’s a good thing, and if it does improve the way in which people perceive or look upon gay relationships then that’s a wonderful thing. I hope it does help.
I guess you guys were expecting a backlash from the religious right, especially in the States. Has it been to the extent you imagined?
Not really actually, quite the opposite. The banning in Utah -“ that’s one cinema in Utah. Salt Lake City actually sold out and all those so-called -˜red states’ in America are actually selling out and it’s quite the phenomenon. So it was to be expected, because that’s just part of today’s society. But I think it’s exceeding expectations, the level of acceptance.
Did you have any gay friends you went to for advice about playing this role?
No, purely because my philosophy was, you know, the character I was playing -¦ I don’t have to go out and find out how to play gay, because I think that’s what the problem is -“ labels. I don’t think it’s as black and white as that. I think sexuality is a continuem and it was about just playing a human being who’s in love with another man. It is a gay story because it’s between two men, but it was important to have him just as a human being, filled out with human flaws and faults, and let the story carry.
But I do have an uncle who is gay and incredibly masculine. You’d never guess it in a million years, and he’s a really good friend of mine. I certainly didn’t base it on him, but I’ve definitely spoken to him about what he’s going through in order to accept himself. I certainly had a mild understanding of it. But the characters are so incredibly described through the short story and the script that I didn’t need to refer to anything else, it’s just all there. In a sense it was almost like doing a bio-pic, because it was so clear, so clear how to play them.
You did play a gay character once before in Sweat, many years ago.
I guess there was no same-sex kissing in that.
You’re probably trying not to think about it, but there’s lots of talk about you winning awards, and you’ve already won a couple. Do you think about the award hype? About possibly winning an Oscar?
The only time, quite honestly, that we think about it is like, today, when people keep asking. Otherwise I think it’s dangerous to think about it. It’s all manufactured and so, you know, our job’s done. It’s definitely an honour to be in a movie that’s received this way, but it’s also a little surreal. Because with this awards season comes this false sense of success and false sense of failure at the same time. So it’s kind of up and down, up and down. I think it’s good to just breathe, not take it seriously, and kind of smile your way through it.
What was it like working with Ang Lee? You said you were very keen to work with him.
Yeah I was. There’re two sides to Ang’s directing. There’s the pre-production side, and that’s where Ang is incredibly thorough and willing to express. He doesn’t speak that much. He’s a man of very few words, and the few words that do escape his mouth are quite often poetic and somewhat profound statements that mean the world to your character and the story and just kind of blows your mind. He’s very private. He takes us aside separately to inject us with this information. We don’t sit around a boardroom table and have conversations about each and every character. Then we take that away and digest it and process it.
Then there’s the shooting side of Ang, where he just goes silent. It’s very clear that now is his time to create. Your time to create was in pre-production. By now you have to have it figured out, because I’m not going to help you any more. Now it’s my turn. Now I’m gong to make my masterpiece while you guys just have to know what you’re doing, otherwise you’re miscast.
And so there were no compliments, no nothing. You’d go home each day thinking you’re the biggest failure in the world. But because of that you’d arrive the next day morning and want to do better, and kind of prove him wrong. And so there was definitely directorial manipulation, but because it’s Ang Lee you just allow yourself to be manipulated.
I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed the process because it was a really lonely experience making this film. It had to be, because it’s a lonely story. But I’ve just grown to adore Ang after making this film. He just really opened up to us and really embraced us now, which is really sweet.
And you met Michelle Williams on this film, so it will obviously always have a very special place in your heart.
It’s kind of surreal, the level to which this movie has just changed my life. The amount of synchronicity that has come from this one choice, one day, just deciding to do this movie. And now I have just the two most beautiful girls in the world, who I fall deeper and deeper in love with daily. I have Brooklyn now instead of fucking Hollywood, which I’m so happy to leave. Just happiness. Aside from the movie, just so much in my life has changed from making this choice, that I’ll just forever be grateful to Ang for hooking me up, so to speak.