It goes without saying that Heath Ledger’s premature death on Jan. 22 sent a shockwave through Hollywood and the movie-going masses.
Fans the world over are still mourning the loss of one of the film world’s most promising young male talents who, at only 28, had already received an Academy Award nomination for best actor for his work in the critically-acclaimed Brokeback Mountain, as well as numerous other recognitions.
Ledger’s housekeeper and a masseuse found him dead in bed in his Manhattan apartment. The medical examiner’s office has ruled he died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
Us Weekly reported in the days following his death that Ledger and his ex-fiancée Michelle Williams’ relationship was torn apart by his alleged drug and alcohol use, and she’d even made an effort to enrol him in a rehab program in March 2006.
Her publicist, who also represented Ledger, vehemently denied the report, while it came as no surprise Williams was said to be devastated by the news of her ex’s passing.
I had the opportunity to interview the quiet, yet affable Ledger twice on a one-on-one basis, the first time for Brokeback Mountain at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2005, then again at TIFF in 2006 for the film Candy, in which he played a heroin addict.
It was a role Ledger told me he relished, being the first time in eight years he was able to work at home in his native accent.
“What’s great about it is feeling completely free to ad lib,” the actor exalted. “When you study an accent it’s almost a shortcut to discovering a character, because when you find the accent, suddenly the rest falls in line and follows the voice. When you don’t have an accent to find, you’re kind of going, ‘Where am I?’”
The gritty role was indicative of the types of risks Ledger enjoyed taking as an actor, largely shying from more lucrative mainstream fare.
In our second and final interview, I asked Ledger about putting himself in an addict’s mindset to play a poet junkie in Candy.
“Drugs are a form of escapism,” he commented. “I think, I’m not a professional on this, but I think probably 70 per cent of people who do drugs are there because they’re escaping something and the rest are just there because they’re curious. I guess artists are curious, too. But artists are addicted to pain because a lot of art comes from pain. I think sometimes drugs or alcohol can provide an outlet for pain or something to feel in order to express something.”
Was Ledger wracked by some sort of emotional pain? That’s not my judgment to pass based on a couple 15-minute interviews. What he was, from my experience, was the sincere type of actor who preferred straightforward talk in place of artificial niceties, and one who spoke lovingly of then-partner Williams and their daughter Matilda.