The Product

Heath Ledger's in no rush to be a star. Why's everyone else in a hurry?

May 9, 2001 at 4:00 am
Heath Ledger, wearing the scowl of the anxious and uneasy, is having trouble standing still. He most certainly would rather be anywhere but here: killing time in a TV studio, waiting to be interviewed during a live afternoon newscast. Waiting to promote his new movie. Waiting to assume the guise of pitchman and product. The actor fidgets with whatever he can find lying about -- he grips and spins around a camera, reads along with a TelePrompTer as the news anchors narrate in an adjacent studio, rolls around on a skateboard left in the studio.

"Is this airing live?" Ledger asks one of the handful of publicists escorting him from stop to stop, the women who make the chauffeured Suburbans run on time. He turns away and asks, quietly, "D'ya think it'd be all right if I said 'fuck' a lot?" One of his Los Angeles-based publicists, a short woman with black clothes and two packs of Kools in her purse, isn't amused. Ledger then tries out a few accents -- Texan, British, Scottish, his native Australian--and considers answering every question in a different one. "That'd confuse 'em, wouldn't it?" he says with a conspiratorial smirk. This is how he keeps himself occupied, perhaps to forget about the task ahead -- a handful of interviews today in Dallas, then a plane trip to Chicago, where the whole promotional dance begins again.

Thirty minutes earlier. Ledger sits in the expansive lobby of a nearby hotel, explaining that this is the part of moviemaking that feels like a job, pronouncing the last word as though it were a pejorative. Standing on the starting blocks of fame, he is restless, anxious. He loves pretending to be someone else in front of a camera -- "it's fun," he says, again and again and again. Making The Patriot with Mel Gibson "was fun." Making A Knight's Tale, in which Ledger plays a country boy jousting his way across 14th-century Europe accompanied by Geoff Chaucer and a 20th-century rock 'n' roll soundtrack, "was the ultimate in fun." But this quick meet-and-greet tour through a handful of cities here and in Australia has absolutely nothing to do with acting. It's about selling, and that is no fun at all.

"The promotional side, the feeling like a product, the being used as a product, being a product--that sucks," he says between yawns and puffs on a Camel Light. He's dressed as though he just rolled out of bed: in patched-up jeans, an olive-drab parka-cum-waistcoat and thong sandals he can't keep his feet in for more than a few minutes at a time.

"It frustrates me. And people are like, 'Well, it's part of the game,' and it's like, well, it is and it isn't. You don't have to fully play along with it. You can mold it and sculpt it the way you want it, and if people get shitty about it, it's like, too bad. Of course everyone around you professionally--all the studios--want you to go out and do everything." This promo tour is his compromise for refusing to do a full-fledged junket, during which hordes of movie journalists descend upon a hotel, gather around tables and lob softballs and wet kisses at movie stars.

"I am not getting anything out of this," he says. He is on a roll, gathering steam. Ledger is talking about this tour, this very interview. He looks at the tape recorder, as though unsure whether to speak into it or smash it. There's no trace of anger in his voice, only weariness -- or whatever lassitude a 22-year-old on the brink of fame and fortune can muster. He's just trying to convey how seriously he takes his profession and how ludicrous he finds the whole star-making machinery in which he's beginning to feel a bit trapped and entangled.

"Where I benefit professionally is purely by people seeing the movie, not by listening to me talk or finding out anything about me," he says. Earlier this morning Ledger went on another morning TV show, where one of the anchors said to him, "Tell me about your personal life." He said to her, "Tell me about your personal life." The line of questioning ended there.

"I could do all the publicity in the world and do a lousy fucking job in the movie, and bang, that's it," he says. "And, likewise, the opposite: I could do no publicity but an amazing job in the movie, and I'd still get work, ya know what I mean? So that's what I am balancing, and that's what I'm fighting with."

Heath Ledger insists he couldn't care less about being a movie star. That's why, after starring in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You, a relatively smart remake of Taming of the Shrew aimed at the allowance crowd, he turned down myriad teenybopper projects. He could have become Freddie Prinze Jr., a man who never sniffed a turd that didn't smell like a flower, but preferred to sit and starve rather than do a bad job in a bad movie. His friends and family tried to convince him to work; they mistook his confidence for arrogance. But saying no proved far more shrewd than saying yes: The longer he held out, the more studios wanted him. Hollywood loves a tease.

"My family and agents were going, 'Are you fucking crazy?'" he recalls. "And I was like, 'No. It's not an arrogant thing. I have a certain amount of confidence that I can do something other than this.' That's all it is, and it was just believing in that. I was not sure of the outcome, and if it didn't work out, it wouldn't have fazed me. I would have just gone home and done Australian movies or sat on a beach and surfed. It's just ruthlessness, yeah. That is the attitude. Absolutely. It's walking in there with that attitude and not being intimidated by any person in power and looking them straight in the eye and through the eye."

Columbia Pictures, the studio releasing A Knight's Tale, is betting the film will make Ledger a star. The actor says Columbia wanted to find a movie for him after executives saw the dailies for The Patriot, well before the movie's release last summer. That is why, he explains, he ended up on the cover of Vanity Fair a year ago: "The studio was like, 'Let's create a fucking star so our movie will make money.''' Now his face adorns bus boards, beside the tagline: "He will rock you." His is the only mug on the press kit. Ledger is unhappy about that -- it's an ensemble film, he reminds -- but not surprised. It's the studio's way of making him responsible for the film's success. "It's called passing the buck," he says, laughing. "Someone to blame. And I don't let it get to me, because my job's done. I'm not in a hurry to be a star. I had no choice. That's where you really feel a little weight, but that's their job."

Back to the TV station. Just as he was walking in, a handful of young private-school girls in white oxfords and plaid skirts charged at him. It was a hard day's night in the middle of the afternoon, and the driver of Ledger's Suburban rounded them up in his thick arms to keep them at bay. Once they calmed down, three of the girls approached Ledger "just to say hi," explains one. They shook his hand, stared, stammered. Ledger, a good sport, wore the cockeyed smirk of the dazed and bemused. After they left, he explained that such encounters, which have become more frequent, are "surreal." A beat. "And confusing."

Finally, he sits for the interview with the film critic for the local ABC affiliate. It goes smoothly: The critic liked the movie, which puts Ledger at ease. They chitchat about A Knight's Tale and The Patriot; he asks Ledger if he thought of the latter as a breakthrough film, a notion Ledger dismisses quickly. Later, Ledger will say it's enjoyable enough to do an interview with someone who's "enthusiastic" about the movie.

"Most of these people, it's like they have a chip on their shoulder," he says during the very short car ride to the next studio. "It's like you're guilty till proven innocent: 'Show me you deserve this.' And then, it's no fun at all. But I guess I can't blame 'em."

The next stop is a cable news station that broadcasts in dozens of markets. He's ushered into the newsroom and, with his small entourage in tow, led into a conference room where he's kept waiting some 15 minutes. Ledger thumbs through the press kit while one of the publicists mentions how she's working on various tie-ins and ticket giveaways with department stores. Ledger notices a disc in the press kit and asks what it is.

"It's the game that's on the Web site," she tells him.

"The game?" His face puckers as though he's bitten into rotten fruit. There are some things actors would prefer not to know, and chief among them is just how a studio is promoting their film--with Web sites and giveaways and radio promotions, all the grime that covers their "art" with "commerce." Little wonder Ledger complains about feeling like "product." But what is an actor these days but the name brand?

Here, he will be interviewed by a weatherman who greets Ledger by informing him he "saw the flick last night" and "really dug it." He asks Ledger to compare A Knight's Tale to The Patriot, which is like asking one to compare a candy bar to a cucumber; Ledger doesn't even try.

"So, this is your first real starring role?" the weatherman asks.

"No," Ledger says, grinning, "not really."

It's all downhill from there. A few minutes later, the weatherman asks Ledger what he does when he's not working. He mumbles something about photography ("my passion"), surfing and picking his nose. On the way out Ledger grumbles, "Well, that was a fucking well-prepared interview, wasn't it?" He lights up a cigarette, climbs into the waiting car and drives off. Back to the promotional treadmill.

"Believe me, this is not and will not be a smooth ride," he said earlier, sitting in the hotel lobby. At that moment, he looked 10 years older than his age. He sounded 20 years older. "It's climbing up that roller coaster not knowing just how far and how fast it's going to drop down. And, yeah, it's scary, it's nerve-racking, it's exciting, it's interesting. I'm really curious about it. And I'm discovering it as I go, because it's all new.

"This is what I'm being faced with over the next month -- over the next year -- is the yin and the yang and balancing it out, because you get both the yin and yang out of doing the job, and if the yang starts to overbalance the yin, that's when it becomes bad and I just wouldn't do it, because it's not worth it. I get a lot of joy and pleasure out of life, full stop. I work to live, and that's the only reason why I work, so I wouldn't think twice about stopping. But for now, it's fine. I can get through all of this crap and see it for what it is."