Boogie Knight:
An Exclusive Interview with Heath Ledger

by Tony Phillips

Heath Ledger’s classic Hollywood looks are like a gut-punch. When he breezes through the Columbia Pictures hospitality suite on the 20th floor of the Regency Hotel, there’s literally a yogic exhalation of breath from the group of reporters assembled to have a go at the star of A Knight’s Tale. He waves a casual hello to the room, and then places a half-eaten piece of fruit into a makeshift ashtray. As soon as he exits the suite, a pair of journalists eye the fruit and begin to discus what the nibbled melon wedge would fetch on E-Bay. One mentions Justin Timberlake’s uneaten pancake generating bids upwards of three thousand dollars. The other frets over spoilage. Before I can see which one snatches it up, I am escorted to a room where Heath is relaxing both feet up — on a large couch. Behind him is the panoramic southern exposure of Manhattan. The light steams in from behind — I have to squint a little —but he’s decking in a pair of loose-fitting black pants, which he describes as “maharishi.” He was wearing a dark, zip-front, hooded sweatshirt with someone he assumes to be Lenin screened on the front, but that’s come off and now to reveal a tiny red T-shirt. I can see a swirl of tribal ink peeking out from under the left sleeve. The fuzzy red, doo-rag that was covering his blond locks a moment ago is also tossed on the coffee table in front of him. His very close to dread-locked hair is cascading from the top of his head, dousing those nasty rumors that he cut it all off, ala Mr. Uneaten Pancake.

“Mind if I smoke?” he asks. “I really wish you would,” I reply. He cups a Marlboro to his mouth, making an oval around it with his palms, even though there’s no wind in the room. His left wrist sports a worn, black leather cuff. The right holds two silver bangles, one with raised Braille text. He exhales — backlit — with a cloud of smoke diffusing the light between us. I realize that even though this 22-year-old actor from Perth, Australia, has instinctually found the best lighting in the room, he has absolutely no need. He is just gorgeous. I relay the story of the upcoming E-Bay fruit auction and Heath says, “See that I just find funny, you know, like good on ‘em. Sell it!” He continues, “You’ve just got to find the humor in those sort of things, that’s the only way you can look at it.” More than just good looks, there’s been much ink spent on that harder to describe something else that Heath’s got. I’ve spent most of the afternoon trying to get it out of his Knight’s Tale co-stars. “You find out immediately when you meet him,” says his forever cracking-wise British co-star Paul Bettany, “he was wandering around the Czech Republic with an over 50 million dollar picture on his shoulders with calm and grace and charm. I was a mess, waking up naked in gardens at that age,” he laughs, “it’s wrong for somebody that young to be that together, frankly. He’s annoyingly calm and charming.”

“He’s very freaking charming,” Heath’s love interest in the film, Shannyn Sossamon continues, “in an old, respectful of women, confident way. He doesn’t have any trips. When he smiles and laughs, his eyes light up and it’s really comfortable for me to be near him.” Shannyn, in a modern take on the Lana Turner Schwab’s drugstore fable, was discovered while DJ-ing at a dual birthday party for Gwyneth and Jake Paltrow. The biggest discovery I make about Shannyn is the tube of Carmex she clutches during our interview. Who knew it came in tubes? Of her now-famous discovery, which Variety picked up for a headline, Shannyn says, “That’s story’s just killing me, man. I think it’s a nice story without the Gwyneth Paltrow.” Even Heath jokes, “Shannyn has the story. I was discovered because I went around and knocked on doors. It wasn’t like I was just sitting around and they were like, ‘Hey, let’s get this kid.’ I really went out there and I worked.”

Another co-star, Mark Addy, best known to American film audiences as Dave, the portly, would-be stripper in The Full Monty, sums up Heath’s charm with a story about first arriving on the Knight’s Tale locale in the former Czechoslovakia. “We showed up a month before we started shooting. They said, ‘Go down there, Heath’s doing some horse work and then we’ll do some sword fighting.’ And we went down and saw Heath on a horse. You look at him and go, ‘Yeah!’ He looks at home and he can ride.” Addy continues, “We knew he could act and we knew he looked so great for the part, but he’s brilliant because he doesn’t take himself too seriously, he likes having a laugh. He does the work and he does it well, but he’s not at all precious about it.” Alan Tudyk, a co-star audiences might remember as the cross-addicted Euro-fag in Sandra Bullock’s 28 Days, describes Heath simply as “a rocker.” Tudyk explains the medieval characters in the film as, “young people who are bucking the system and Heath kind of has this rock and roll thing. That for me was like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s perfect.’ Try and put him in a box and he’ll kick his way out.”

Heath made his debut on Australian television in the series Sweat in 1996. He played Snowey Bowles, a gay cyclist who’s angling for a spot on the Olympic team. “I never thought twice about it,” Heath says of his first gay role, “even gay people ask me how I approach that and really, there’s no issue around gay. Gay people especially should understand that. That’s certainly what I understood playing it, like what do you mean, what sort of preparation do you do? It’s gay, you know. I just went in and shaved my legs because I was playing a cyclist and learned how to ride a bike. That was it, really.” When I ask him about the gay appeal of A Knight’s Tale, he throws the question back at me. “You’re the expert,” he jokes. I tell him I see a gay themes in the father/son estrangement detailed in the film. And then there’s that dance scene. Heath perks right up, “It’s cool, isn’t it?” he asks about the scene that starts as a medieval formal and ends as a freestyle romp with David Bowie crashing onto the soundtrack. He continues, “It was choreographed, we did have three weeks of rehearsing. You know, Shannyn is such a great dancer, she really helped me out a lot, but it was an absolute blast, it was too much.”

Turning to the subject of his hometown, Heath describes his native Perth as “the most isolated city in the world.” He has lived in New York before and describes his life in Gotham by saying, “I loved it, I really did. I want to move back here actually. I lived here twice and it was through winter both times, I’ve never been here during the summer. It’s amazing.” But how does it stack up to Perth? “There’s no comparison,” he says, “basically, Perth is a really beautiful, clean, wealthy retirement facility. It’s nothing but heavily manicured green grass everywhere. It’s anal. And big blue skies and ocean stretches of beach — very relaxed and very laid back.” He describes the people of Perth as “not fussed about what’s going on in the rest of the world because they’re all the way over there.” It’s hard not to picture all this pastoral beauty without conjuring his current girlfriend, the actress Heather Graham. The Pre-Raphaelite image of the two of them braiding wildflowers into each others hair instantly springs to mind, but it wasn’t like that for them on a recent trip back to Heath’s hometown. Heath describes it this way, “I hadn’t had a break. It’s been six-day weeks, 18-hour days, nonstop. And then I finished Four Feathers and had a week off. I went back to Australia and that was a surreal moment, going back to Perth. Of all places you wish to stay the same, the utmost is your home. You want that to be the same and it wasn’t. I couldn’t do anything. It makes front-page news if you eat fettuccine on Tuesday. It’s very invading. It’s in your peripheral vision. All of a sudden you’re very self-conscious about the way you drink water. You get used to that, but I’m not used to that, I just came off working 18 months straight and all this was bubbling up while I was working so that when I arrived, bang, it’s changed. That’s strange. So then I left Perth and went to Sydney. The next day I went to Dallas then the next day I went to Atlanta. The day after that I went to Chicago and the next day I’m here. So I haven’t stopped working, I’m just like whoring myself.”

Is it easier to have someone in the business to share these frustrations with? Of his relationship with Graham, he says, “We don’t talk about the business. We don’t discuss it in terms of choices or where it’s going or where she’s going or where I’m going. It’s not a professional relationship. We really leave each other’s professional careers alone, I think it’s best.” During the course of our conversation it becomes clear that there’s actually only one person calling the shots for Heath Ledger, and that’s Heath Ledger. “I’m not feeling any pressure to say, ‘Okay, I better not do another period piece.’ It’s all about the material. I don’t really care what period, if I was to do another one. I really just like to keep my options open and not say, ‘Oh I think I should do this particular role next.’” He sums up his newfound role as cover boy by saying, “I don’t care what people write about me, good or bad, I don’t listen to it. It’s opinion. There are no facts and I’m not about to prove myself to anyone — audiences, critics, anyone. It’s my life, my career, my choices and my instincts. Where they lead me, that’s up to me. I’m really not about to mold myself to prove myself. And fuck looks, if people stop that far, that’s their fucking problem, not mine.”