Reading the script to Brokeback Mountain for the first time, Heath Ledger started thinking it might be a risky career move. A film about two cowboys who fall in love was bound to be controversial.
But when he finished the script and the story sank in, his trepidation disappeared. He realised he’d only been scared because so many others had been frightened before him -“ the producers, directors and actors who had knocked the project back.
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, Ledger told Sydney Star Observer.
So I was really excited.
In Brokeback Mountain Ledger plays Ennis Del Mar, a young ranch hand who meets rodeo rider Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) when both are employed to herd sheep together in rural Wyoming in 1963. The pair unexpectedly fall in love and secretly continue their relationship over the course of decades, even when both get married to women and start families.
Directed by Ang Lee and based on the short story by Annie Proulx, the film has been heralded as the first major Hollywood production to realistically portray a same-sex love story, complete with intimate sex scenes.
Ledger said he felt it was high time that such a story made it to the big screen.
I thought it was an opportunity to represent this form of love, and to portray homosexual love as not being a disease or a plague or something that can be cured or a lifestyle choice, he said.
The levels of intimacy and emotion experienced within these relationships are exactly what happens within heterosexual love. And I just thought it was good to try and open some people’s minds.
International gay rights activists have said Brokeback Mountain is the film they’ve been waiting for -“ a film that could help change people’s minds.
While the movie wasn’t made with any political intentions, the 26-year-old Perth-born actor said he was quite comfortable being seen as a poster boy for gay rights.
I don’t mind being a part of that, he said.
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 affect 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.
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.
While a backlash from religious groups was expected in the US, Ledger said the response had been much smaller than anticipated. 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 selling out and it’s quite the phenomenon. I think it’s exceeding expectations, the level of acceptance.
Although tired after a full day of interviews, Ledger was polite, friendly and chatty during our meeting. Either the stories in the past about his being a difficult interview have been exaggerated or he’s decided to start being nice to the media to help repair his reputation.
Perhaps fatherhood has mellowed him -“ his first child, a girl named Matilda, was recently born to Michelle Williams, the former Dawson’s Creek star who plays Ledger’s wife in Brokeback Mountain.
Both Ledger and Williams were nominated for Golden Globe awards for their roles in the movie, though both went home empty-handed after the awards ceremony this week. The film won for best drama, best director, best screenplay and best song.
Speaking a few days before the Golden Globes were announced, Ledger said he was trying not to think about awards or the Oscar buzz currently surrounding him.
I think it’s dangerous to think about it. 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. I think it’s good to just breathe, not take it seriously, and kind of smile your way through it, he said.
On the topic of filming intimate scenes with Gyllenhaal, Ledger admitted he was somewhat nervous at first.
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?
Asked if he approached any gay friends for advice, Ledger said he didn’t because he specifically didn’t want to play gay.
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.
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.
One reason Ledger did the film was that he’d always wanted to work with Ang Lee. But he was somewhat unused to Lee’s unconventional filmmaking process.
There’re two sides to Ang’s directing, Ledger said. There’s the pre-production side, and that’s where Ang is incredibly thorough. He’s a man of very few words, and the few words that do escape his mouth are quite often poetic and somewhat profound. He takes us aside separately to inject us with this information. 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.
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 morning and want to do better.
It wasn’t a process Ledger enjoyed and it was one that left him feeling incredibly lonely. But it had to be, because it’s a lonely story, he conceded.
Brokeback Mountain changed him forever, Ledger said. Apart from his experiences making the film and the fact he’s now being taken as a serious actor, he also met his girlfriend Williams, now the mother of his child.
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 [New York, where he now lives] 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.
Read the full transcript of the interview here. Brokeback Mountain opens nationally on 26 January.