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Memories of

Memories of


On the cusp of Brokeback mania, former Advocate editor Alonso Duralde spoke frankly with Heath Ledger for the magazine's January 17, 2006 cover story. Below is the interview in its entirety, along with Duralde's remembrances of the promising and conflicted actor.

I had the good fortune to meet Heath Ledger just once, at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, the morning after Brokeback Mountain premiered there. I had some trepidations about speaking with the actor -- he was notoriously press-shy, and he had arrived in Toronto having just returned from the Venice Film Festival, where he had given interview after interview to promote Brokeback,The Brothers Grimm, and Casanova, so I figured by the time I got to him, he'd be utterly sick of talking to journalists. But the soft-spoken, thoughtful young man I met allayed any fears I had about an unresponsive interviewee. Slightly hungover after a night out with Terry Gilliam -- who had directed Ledger in Grimm and directed him in his final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus -- Ledger opened up to me about his career-making Brokeback Mountain role, about his lifelong attitudes toward gays and lesbians, and about his impending fatherhood. We're all still a little shell-shocked by the loss of this young, vibrant actor who seemed to have nothing but one extraordinary performance after another waiting for him. Looking back on this interview, it's sad to remember just how vital and ambitious he was just a few years ago:

Did you have gay friends tell you what a big deal Brokeback Mountain is for queer audiences? "Dude, this is gonna be major -- don't fuck it up"? I didn't really need my friends to tell me that. [Alonso laughs] I understood that it's an important story and one that hadn't really been told properly. But I knew there was a certain responsibility.

There was an interview that Ang Lee gave at some point in the production process where he said something along the lines of "We can show Ennis's and Jack's feelings for each other through the sheepherding," and I think a lot of people got nervous that the movie would back away from the physicality of the relationship, which it certainly doesn't. Was there any kind of negotiating of those scenes, or were you just thrown into it? No, there had to be choreography involved, purely because for Jake and me, it wasn't a situation where the director could just say, "OK, now just have fun with this and just roll with it." It was delicately planned out. But we didn't really want to rehearse it either; we didn't really want to sit there and go through the motions as well. The rest was just absolutely trusting the story -- convincing ourselves of the love and committing to it 100%. Had we done anything less, it wouldn't have done justice to the story.

Are you getting a lot of the "Eww, what's it like to kiss a guy?" questions? The straight media loves that stuff. Yeah. Yeah, the straight world seems to be really stuck up on that. That's fine -- it's not like I wasn't prepared for it.

Now, you began your career playing a gay role on Australian television, right? [Laughs] Yeah!

How did you deal with the media then? I can't really remember. I actually remember getting harassed on the street.

Really? Yeah. [Chuckles] So I had small occasions where I'd get bullied on the streets for it! But I was never out to prove myself or my sexuality -- it didn't really bother me. I think if that was an issue, I wouldn't have done [that] show; I wouldn't have done this film.

I understand that you sort of stumbled into acting, almost by accident. No. I mean, I certainly had a curiosity about it, and then I suddenly kind of went in on a casting for that TV show, Sweat, and landed it. And then opportunity just started to pop up. I never went to acting school; I never had acting classes or lessons. And so for that reason, I've never had a dark room and a black pair of pajamas to walk around in and be creative and make mistakes in a dark room where no one can see you. All my mistakes are on film -- my growing process and learning process is documented. [Alonso laughs] And it always will be -- I want to keep on evolving from here. But yeah, I guess I did somewhat stumble into it. Before I got into the movies, I couldn't care less about films; I'd barely seen any films. My curiosity about movies and making films kind of came upon making my first film, when I started making actual movies. That's when the curiosity came. It certainly wasn't before then -- my parents didn't raise me on watching movies.

How do you perceive gay acceptance in Australia? We sort of get mixed messages: On the one hand, there's the Mardi Gras and we all love Priscilla, and then at the same time, occasionally your prime minister, John Howard, will say something very George Bush-ian. Well, I don't know. As you said, Sydney is considered the gay capital of the world. But as you said too, we have a prime minister that's... I don't even want to go into it, but he's definitely George Bush's buddy. Unfortunately. So yeah, it is confusing. I think it's like the red states in America, so to speak -- there's definitely issues that they have, which I think are just issues that they have with themselves, obviously. I think it still exists in Australia too -- it's just disguised better. It's more passive, I think. It's hard to answer for a nation.

Is the Australian "pioneer machismo" filtering away as the years pass? I think so. I think that filtered away in the late '80s and early '90s. Once again, I don't know -- I really haven't lived in Australia for the last nine years. I go back every now and then. I consider myself to be Australian, but I think in much more of a global sense. I don't feel attached to one spot on this earth; I don't feel attached to one society.

You grew up in Perth and surfed a lot there. Do you still live in L.A.? No, I moved out of L.A. too. I live in Brooklyn.

Oh, nice. Yeah. Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens area. It's awesome -- I just love it. But yeah, no, I didn't really get much surfing done when I was in L.A. For some reason I never associated Los Angeles with surfing and beaches. And I lived so far east -- I didn't really like the west half of Los Angeles. I liked staying in Silver Lake and the Los Feliz area. I associate Australia with beaches and surfing.

There was an interview with you that I read where you basically said that you signed up for the acting part but not the celebrity part. Can you go out and about? I can in Brooklyn.

But not in L.A.? No, and there were three cars that waited at the end of your street. If you were going to the fucking 7-Eleven or going to drop your girl off at yoga or going to the dentist -- anywhere, they just follow you. And it's not that they're sitting there just particularly waiting for me; there just happens to be, I guess, a bunch of celebrities that live in the hills everywhere, and there are cars just everywhere, parked at the bottom of streets. And they know your car, so as soon as you go down there, they follow you. I'm about to have a child -- I don't want to raise my children in that environment. It was hard enough for Michelle to have to feel like she had to outrun these people. She would just turn her car around and not go to an appointment, or she wouldn't go visit a friend because she has cars following her; she would just come home and burst into tears. I figured out ways to outrun them -- I had a very fast 1978 Mustang that I used to just burn through red lights, and it becomes really dangerous.

Well, they'll chase you now. They'll hit your car. They sure do. It's really a sad way to live life, and it was getting Michelle down too. But I'd been dying to leave L.A. anyway, because it had been getting to me all this time. I never considered myself to be someone who was gonna stay there for the rest of my life.

It's got to be weird to be one of those people where if you eat somewhere, it winds up in Page Six [the famed New York Post gossip column] or something. I can't imagine that level of public scrutiny when you're just trying to eat a meal. Yeah, it's really frustrating. I guess there are some people who are better at handling it; there are some people who, I guess, may even like it. It's just not the lifestyle that I wish to lead.

Is there a plus side? Is the material getting better? Oh, definitely. It's a double-edged sword, you know. With all this frustration and the stalking comes choice. [Sighs] It's really what I make of these choices and these opportunities -- the choices I make will also determine the level of frustration on the other side of the coin. You just don't go out and make Jerry Bruckheimer movies every time. I don't know -- it is a tricky one to balance. But in discovering Brooklyn, there are places in the world where the paparazzi aren't living on every corner.

Has being attractive been better or worse for your career as an actor, in terms of how filmmakers perceive you? I don't know how to answer that question. Wouldn't I be a particularly cocky person if I could answer that question!

I'm not asking you to say, "Oh, yes, I'm gorgeous." I'm just saying that you've gone out of your way to not take the standard "attractive leading guy" material. I'm wondering if your looks have ever been a hurdle for you. Not really. I've never felt that to be the reason why I've made these choices, and I've never really found there to be a problem in that area. These choices come from not being able to look a different way but being able to feel a different way and have it arranged within my soul, within my appreciation for life, within my observation of life. Also, just to learn more about myself and about what I do; if you do the same thing over and over again, you just hit a plateau and you just become stagnant and stale and cheesy. I think in order to mature as a person and mature as an actor, you need to push yourself and test yourself and do things that you're afraid of.

One of the things that I'm finding interesting about talking to you is that I've never heard your real voice before, your real accent. Your roles run the gamut -- you're American, you're British, you're Irish... Yeah, it's still a shame that you're forced into studying accents, but there's very few Australian parts. Actually, recently I just finished a movie in Australia called Candy, and it's a love story between two Australian junkies, and that was the first time I could use my own accent in almost eight years. It was really liberating to just...I'd forgotten how free you are to just roam about with your voice and improvise and breathe in your actions and not be conscious of the words that are coming from your mouth. So that was fucking brilliant -- I really, really loved it. I'm gonna go back and do more for that reason; it was just so freeing.

Having played Ennis, on the off chance that your child comes to you with the "Dad, I'm gay" speech, do you think you're ready to hear it now? Oh, it wouldn't have bothered me beforehand. I don't have a further appreciation for people who are gay; I always have. It's never been an issue for me. Of course, if my child came to me and said that, I'd love them even more for being honest with me.

You went to an all-boys school? Yeah.

Were any students out then, or was it the sort of thing that was not talked about? Oh, definitely not. I don't think it was even gossiped about. I'm sure it went on -- it was a boarding school -- but I wasn't a boarder there. I was a day boy, so I missed out on any of that gossip.

I understand that because you've got a baby on the way, you're taking a little time off? Yeah. Michelle's obviously been carrying our child around for the last nine months, and prior to that, she was carrying me around! [Alonso laughs] For the nine months while I was working, she was following me from job to job graciously. So now when that child arrives, I feel it's my time to be Mr. Mom while she gets out there and does some work. She really wants to get work again, and I'd like to support her. And I'm just tired. I feel like I'm just dry, that I've run myself and am just out of gas. I need to suck up some life in order to portray it again.

You've dated a lot of actresses -- is that just because those are the people you meet in your life, or is there something about the way that your life works that they get more than somebody who isn't in the industry would? I think it's a bit of both. At the end of the day, when you're working so much, there's not that many occasions that you're in any other environment other than this and can meet people other than the ones you're working with sometimes, so quite often they're the people whom you choose to be with.

What would you most like to see happen with Brokeback? What do you want audiences to get out of it, and what do you want for you professionally? You know, I don't know. I think it'll just find its way naturally. I'm not sure of what path I wish it to take. My job's done; I'm proud of the film, so I'm not really going to walk around from now on thinking about how people will receive it or how it affects me. Fortunately, as you said, I'm having a child in a month or so, and the timing couldn't be better because there's all this hype and excitement about this movie. I've got a lot of films that I'm promoting right now, and it's all so insignificant in comparison to meeting my child. It's such a gift, I think.

It forces perspective. Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.

You've worked with some incredible directors over the last couple of years. Tell me about working with Terry Gilliam on Brothers Grimm -- that must've been educational. To say the least. I think the world is a better place with Terry and his films. I really, really appreciate him and his movies. If I've been a fan of anyone's movies or if I've really wanted to be in a movie, it's Terry and his Monty Python films. I just adore them. And apart from being such a wonderful director, he's quite obviously a wonderful, wonderful father too. He has these three beautiful children, and they're such beautifully honest people, and just their eyes...they just have open eyes and open faces and open hearts. Michelle and I believe that what he did right was, upon becoming a father, he never retired himself. He never retired Terry Gilliam and became this "parent" -- he doesn't judge his children, he lets his children inspire more out of him. So they love him on the level that we all do too -- they appreciate him like we do. That's really been a good lesson for me to learn, to become that.

And now you've also got Casanova, which is directed by Lasse Hallstrom -- who, I imagine, is probably different from Gilliam or Lee, stylistically. Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, it's certainly not Fellini's Casanova, and I knew that going into it. It was also, for me, a real opportunity after Brokeback: I went straight from Brokeback to Venice for five months to shoot Casanova. Brokeback Mountain was such a lonely, harrowing experience at times, so Casanova became this wonderful space to unwind in.

One thing I forgot to ask you: Tell me about the physical requirements of doing Brokeback. Obviously, there was a lot of horseback riding.Yeah, I didn't grow up riding horses, but I was around horses from an early age. I started riding in my early teens. But I've ridden a lot [between A Knight's Tale] and Brothers Grimm and Four Feathers and Ned Kelly... always shooting film on bloody horseback.

And you have calluses to prove it. Yeah, exactly. Originally Ang -- one thing I kind of disagreed with him on was, he wanted us to bulk up. Jake was already bulked up anyway -- he'd come off some movie where he had to work out.

Jarhead? No, this was before Jarhead. He was just bulked up -- he works out, I don't. Ang said, "No, I want you to be big, big" -- I think he just wanted us to look a little more sculpted so it would be sexy. I really disagreed -- I thought, for one, Ennis is a ranch hand, where you starved and don't eat anything. So I actually wanted him to be thin and wiry, and I didn't want him to have a sculpted body -- I thought that that would kind of take you out of...

The '60s? The '60s, and into a completely different film. That, and I'm lazy. [Both laugh] So I didn't bulk up.

It's always tricky to age people in a movie, and there's this great close-up of you in Ennis's last scene with his daughter, Alma Jr. It doesn't look like you have a lot of makeup on, but it's all in your face. There's this real weight of experience and time and age in your face that you don't have at the beginning of the movie, and that moment...I was just really impressed by that. It's hard to explain how you do it or how you get there. Sometimes it's very easy to overintellectualize what we do, to explain exactly where our thought comes from. I think sometimes you're forced into just making shit up.

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Alonso Duralde