Z is for Z-Boys
Or the surfers-turned skate team that Ledger’s Skip helped gather in Lords Of Dogtown.
Director Catherine Hardwicke recalls the actor’s push to have real beer on the set to help his performance.
“With other actors, it was a problem. They came on the set too f****d up and couldn’t say their lines. For Heath, that was never an issue. But you just never know.
“There was one scene where his character is losing it at a party. He got up on the roof, and we didn’t know if he was going to fall off and kill himself or throw his surfboard at somebody or what. Everybody was semi-terrified. You just didn’t know where his chemistry was. I literally prayed.”
Y is for Young At Heart
Despite his mature attitude to acting and what Terry Gilliam describes as an “old soul”, Ledger’s young side still came when confronted with the slog of promoting his movies.
Heath would sometimes ask for help to escape: ‘Can you call me at 5:15 so I can pick up the phone and get off this interview?’” says cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, who met Ledger on the set of The Order, befriended him, and recommended him to Gilliam.
“It was very funny, because he was like a big kid — you know, '’get me out of Science 101.’' He went along for the ride, but at times it was a bit too much for him.
He'd call me and say, '’can I come play with your kid?'’ My son at the time was 10, and Heath would come and spend hours playing soldiers with him, just to get away from everything.”
X is for X-Rated
No, not Ledger’s performance as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback, but how he saw his work as The Joker.
While The Dark Knight scraped past censors with a PG-13, Ledger had high hopes he could push the ratings.
“It’s a PG-13 isn’t it? II remember going into this thinking it was PG-13 but I wanted to present an X rated performance, if I could. So it’s kind of what I’ve been going for and the power of suggestion. It is pretty dark, but there’s not a lot of gore.”
W is for Wuthering Heights
There are varying accounts on where Heath got his name, but the most common seems to be a big Emily Bronte inspiration in his family.
Heathcliff and Cathy - Ledger, of course, has a sister named Kate – are the main characters in the windswept novel of tragic love. It might help to explain why he was seemingly drawn towards darker roles…
V is for Videos
While the actor had aspirations to direct films, he’d begun to learn the craft by working with musical friends on their videos.
He worked with singer Ben Harper (with whom he also started a music label) on a promo for his song Morning Yearning.
And he also created pieces for Modest Mouse (‘King Rat’, above) and Grace Woodroofe.
U is for Unwilling Star
Heath Ledger never wanted to be a superstar – he just wanted to be an actor.
“We were sitting in a marketing meeting at Sony, and they were talking about how they were going to build the campaign for the movie, how they're going to hit this city and that city, and they'd like him to go on a world tour", remembers his agent, Steve Alexander.
“They had this whole campaign — ‘He will rock you’ — because Heath looked like a rock star. Obviously it was a great opportunity, but Heath saw it as a lot of pressure. He was scared to death. He walked out of the meeting and ran into the bathroom.
“He was afraid he was being built up too quickly, and that if he was put on a pedestal there was nowhere to go. I don't think he was mature enough at that moment to understand what he wanted from his career, but that just didn't feel right to him.”
T is for 10 Things I Hate About You
Though he’d appeared on TV and in a few well-regarded Australian films (such as Two Hands), 10 Things is the movie that launched the lad in America and across the rest of the world.
Inhabiting the cheekily charming Patrick Verona opposite Julia Stiles pissy Kat Stratford, he found a perfect role. Even if he didn’t think so.
"I was a young kid from Australia, and that was the only movie someone was willing to put me in, so what do you do?" he told the Houston Chronicle. "You've got to start somewhere. I just didn't want to stay there."
S is for Sonny Grotowski
On the heels of The Patriot and especially A Knight’s Tale, Ledger could have chosen any role he wanted and would be first pick for most leading man decisions.
Instead, he chose to throw himself into a supporting role in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball alongside Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry.
“Monster’s Ball” was the first time I felt like I had to something about it; 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,” he said of his fame before the film.
R is for Robbie
Robbie is the riff on Bob Dylan that Ledger portrays in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There.
He didn’t originally plan to be a part of the film, but circumstances intervened…
"I had no choice, really. Michelle (Williams) was cast in the movie before I was. And I read her script. Another guy was playing Robbie, and he pulled out at the last minute.
“I just kind of put my hand up and said, ‘I'll be in Montreal. I'd love to be a part of the project.’ And Todd said, ‘OK.’
And he threw himself into his research.
“It's a wonderful excuse to research this figure. I knew very little about Dylan prior to the movie. I knew the obvious songs and a little bit about his history.”
Q is for Quest
The quest his character, Celtic prince Conor undertook in warrior drama Roar, which lived a brief life on the US Fox network in the late 1990s.
While the show launched several names who would go on to successful acting careers – including Vera Farmiga, Melissa George and Keri Russell – Ledger quickly saw the show drop in quality when the ratings began to droop.
"It started off quite dignified and Braveheart-esque," Ledger told Rolling Stone. "But as they got desperate for ratings, slowly no one's wearing clothes."
But at least he got to date co-star Lisa Zane (yes, sister of Billy), who was 18 years his senior.
P is for The Patriot
He impressed co-star Mel Gibson right out of the gate on this Roland Emmerich historical drama. “He does his stuff really well, he's got a real good screen presence and a lot of talent,” said Gibson at the time.
“He's more mature than I was at that age. He seems more worldly, seems to know his way around." - Hey, I'd let him even take my daughter out to dinner. And that's weird, huh? No tomahawks involved."
The film kicked his stardom up a level too – something for which he wasn’t really prepared. “I was really slapped with the change when I went back home for two weeks. My hometown, Perth, is tiny - 2 million people - and it's the most isolated city in the world. So it's a big deal if you're from there and you're in this industry.
“It was a shock. Every move I made was written down and documented and released the next day on the front page of every f***ing paper. You kind of want to feel that if there's one place in the world that is always the same, it's your hometown or the town you grew up in. And it's gone now.”
O is for Oscar
Though he never really wanted one, his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight scooped Heath a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, which made him only the second actor (after Network’s Peter Finch) to win one posthumously.
It was accepted by his parents. "This award tonight would have humbly validated Heath's quiet determination to be truly accepted by you all here — his peers within an industry he so loved," an emotional Kim Ledger told the audience.
N is for Ned Kelly
Ledger was unsure about taking on the story of the Aussie criminal icon, but soon had his mind changed.
“Before, I was rather misinformed; to me, he was just an outlaw. He represented a rebel and he wore a suit of armour.
“I didn’t really understand how much of a victim of circumstance he was. But I wanted to portray a person not an icon. I wanted to present a guy with a heart.
“That’s why it was important to see all aspects of this guy, and that’s why the love story was important, because without that I would have only been able to show you a very determined, very strong and responsible figure, somewhat hard.
“With the love story I was able to show him drop his guard and be vulnerable, like any 20 year old kid, with a smile…”
M is for Matilda
Matilda Rose is Ledger’s daughter with Michelle Williams, who he met and fell for on the Brokeback set.
The three-year-old (she’ll be four at the end of the month) was doted upon by her father and has famous godparents in Busy Philipps and Jake Gyllenhaal.
"Heath and I made love, and they got a baby out of it!" is how Ledger’s co-star and pal describes it.
L is for Local Theatre
Young Heath had his first taste of acting with roles in both school productions at Guildford Grammar School in Perth and local theatre companies.
One of his earliest roles was as Peter Pan. "It took a lot of guts," he once told the Washington Post about pulling on the tights. "For a 12-year-old kid, that can be damaging amongst your peers."
K is for Knight
Ledger not only played a wannabe jouster in – what else? – A Knight’s Tale, but he had a driving love for another sort of knight-related activity: chess.
At the tender age of 10, Ledger was Western Australia’s junior chess champion, and continued the obsession into adulthood, playing in Washington Square Park whenever he was in New York.
He’d even planned to make his directorial debut with an adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit.
J is for Jake Gyllenhaal
Gyllenhaal and Ledger bonded on the set of Brokeback Mountain, which was handy since they were playing doomed lovers.
“We talked a lot. Heath would say stuff to me like, ‘I really think this character is very sensitive to light and I think he’s very sensitive to sound. He doesn’t really like being around any place that’s too noisy.’
“We would talk a lot about that. And then when it came to doing love scenes and stuff like that, the best metaphor I can give is that it felt like we were both like, ‘Are you ready? Yeah. Let’s go,’ and we dove off the boat into the deep end.
“It’s like when you’re terrified of the water, you see a little kid thrown in the water and they’re trying to get back to the boat as fast as they can. That’s what it was like. But at the same time when we were there we really went for it.”
I is for Ink
The actor had several tattoos – one was Old Man River on his arm, which had been written by then-fiancee Michelle Williams and was tattooed over.
Another is KAOS – which is formed from the initials of Kate, Ashleigh, Olivia and Sally, his mom and three sisters. And the fact that his household was, as he puts it, “chaos” growing up. But it taught him well…
“I learned respect for women, and patience. You grow up with all those women around you... you learn to wait your turn.”
H is for Home And Away
He likely doesn’t consider it a high point of his career, but Ledger, like so many other Aussie actors, scored one of his early roles on the popular soap.
In 1997, he appeared in around 10 episodes of the show, playing Scott Irwin, a surfer who seduced several of the ladies at Summer Bay.
Despite the producers wanting him to stay on, Ledger opted to leave the show once his contract was up.
G is for Gilliam
Terry Gilliam clearly bonded with Heath Ledger during the making of The Brothers Grimm, finding the sort if kindred spirit friendship he hadn’t enjoyed since meeting Johnny Depp.
Ledger was quick to sign on to Dr Parnassus, and Gilliam wasn’t sure the film could continue when he died: "The choice I made was to close the film down. I couldn't see how we could finish it without Heath because we were in the middle of production. Fortunately, I was surrounded by really good people who insisted that I shouldn't be such a lazy bastard and I'd better go out and find a way of finishing the film for Heath. That's what we did.
“Heath was enjoying himself so much and he was ad-libbing a lot which I don't really allow that much in my films. He got everybody else going. Everybody was just energized by Heath, he was extraordinary, and he was almost exhausting."
F is for Field Hockey
Ledger was an avid hockey player in his youth, and was a part of the 1990 Kalamunda Field Hockey team. His father Kim was president of the team from 1990 to 1992.
Heath had always been a sporty type and even got picked for the state squad, but soon realised that acting was his real passion. He tried juggling hockey and acting until his hockey coach gave him an ultimatum – he picked drama.
E is for Entertainer
He might have had serious doubts about his career, his talent and his personal life, but Ledger was always entertaining to friends.
Inspired by movie musicals, he’d always wanted to star in one (10 Things would be the closest he got), but in real life, when the mood struck him, he was apparently a fun person to be around.
“Heath's fun clouded its way through a room. It was infectious. If you were stuck in an elevator with him, you'd be entertained,” recalls Wes Bentley.
“He liked to go to Vegas dressed snazzy. He'd walk the streets of Vegas and never really have a plan, dressed up in a pink blazer and a tie. He liked to get a boat and travel to the Greek islands. Some people think he'd party too much and take drugs. That wasn't the case. It was young energy. He was high off life.”
D is for Depp
Johnny Depp, to be exact.
The man was a big inspiration for Ledger, who saw him as the ideal career model. A good-looking actor who largely refuses to trade on his matinee idol appearance? Check! Quirky roles? Check! Friends with Terry Gilliam? Yup (it was the director who introduced Ledger to Depp)…
The actor stepped in for Ledger – alongside Colin Farrell and Jude Law -when he died during the making of Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus, donating their salaries to Ledger’s daughter, Matilda. “It’s Heath’s money, and it should go to her,” Depp said at the time.
Depp even named a beach on his private island – a favourite snorkelling spot – after the actor: Heath’s Place.
C is for Casanova
Never one to forge a predictable career, Ledger chose to work on this historical romp after the intense drama of Brokeback. “I was really free of any rules, guidelines or instructions to paint a historically accurate picture of the man,” Ledger said of the role.
“I was exhausted after Brokeback and had been so wound up that I wanted to unwind. And it worked. Perfectly!”
B is for Brokeback Mountain
Ang Lee’s adaptation of Annie Proulx short story remains a highlight of Ledger’s career.
The film scored three Oscars (and acting nominations for Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams) and proved to be one of the more rewarding experiences of the young actor’s life. Lee remembers their time together fondly:
"Working with Heath was one of the purest joys of my life.
“He brought to the role of Ennis more than any of us could have imagined – a thirst for life, for love, and for truth, and a vulnerability that made everyone who knew him love him."
A is for Australia
While he hadn’t lived in the country for a while before his death, Ledger will always be associated with his homeland, a place he loved.
He was born Heath Andrew Ledger on 4 April 1979 in Perth, the son of a racing car engineer and a French teacher.
And Australia is also pertinent to his career – he turned down the lead in Baz Lurhmann’s epic about the place to star in The Dark Knight. Smart move…