I arrive to interview Hollywood heartthrob Heath Ledger drenched in sweat, red-faced, and desperately afraid I'm going to lose my hastily grabbed Tim Hortons chicken club sandwich.
I'm not in a flap because the 26-year-old actor is impressively tall, incredibly broad shouldered and speaks with a deep, lilting Aussie accent. My sad state is due to a faulty elevator at the InterContinental Hotel that trapped me (a closet claustrophobe) and a guy from Miramax long enough to make me very late for my 10-minute tête-à-tête with Ledger.
Afraid my tardiness would get me bumped from the interview roster, I practically fall into the room. Ledger, who is sipping an iced cappuccino (which I considered wrestling him for) looks at me askance.
"What happened? Get trapped in an elevator?" he jokes. At my nod, Ledger howls.
The only good thing about the sweltering experience (we were rescued by a guy with a crowbar) was that it broke the ice. Ledger, who hates doing interviews and has recently taken to whipping eggs at pesky paparazzi who lurk outside his home in Australia, proceeds to chat openly and easily about his new movie, Brokeback Mountain, his pregnant fiancée and co-star Michelle Williams, Ang Lee's often bizarre directing techniques, and his excitement about impending fatherhood.
In Brokeback Mountain, Ledger, who started his Hollywood career typecast as a pretty boy in 10 Things I Hate About You, plays dirt-poor cowboy Ennis Del Mar, who meets fellow ranch hand Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) while herding sheep one summer in the early 1960s. After a shaky start, a cautious friendship develops between the two, then quickly evolves into a desperately passionate love affair that the men try to put behind them (both marry, have kids), but never do.
As cowboy Del Mar, Ledger is almost unrecognizable from previous turns that made him a teen idol, such as Mel Gibson's gorgeous soldier son Gabriel in The Patriot or the talented jouster William in A Knight's Tale. In Lee's movie, Ledger has been allowed to mature (indeed, the story arc follows the lovers into their 40s) and what he presents is a tortured, mumbling, macho guy who wants to step outside the box -- but can't. Already, Ledger's Del Mar is getting some Oscar buzz because of the intensity and realism he brings to the role.
Ledger accepts, but shrugs off, any praise, insisting that if some critics claim there's a newfound depth to his acting, well, that's just natural. He's grown up.
"When I was handed a career, I was 17 or 18 years old," says Ledger, taking a haul on his icy drink, and then choking. "So you're limited to A, your choice, and B, your ability.
"At that age you're not formed as an actor or as a person. People are saying, 'Like, wow, there's a real difference between your performance now and when you did 10 Things I Hate About You,' " he adds. "And I'm like . . . I hope so.
"As you mature as a person, you mature as an actor. It's just a fact. There is no real trick to it. It just takes time to develop. I never went to acting school. I never had an acting class. So when I arrived in Hollywood and in the scene, I was arriving with the little that I knew of this profession. So my development, my mistakes, have been on film."
Last weekend, Brokeback Mountain -- based on the short story by Annie Proulx and adapted to the screen by author Larry McMurtry -- won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The films also stars Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries star plays Twist's wife) and Ledger's real-life partner, Dawson's Creek's Michelle Williams, who plays Del Mar's better half.
The two, who are expecting a child this fall, met while filming Brokeback Mountain in the Rockies near Calgary, where they struck up an easy friendship.
The first day of the shoot, Ledger and Williams had to do one of the most emotionally wrenching scenes of the film. "I remember sitting in the trailer with Michelle, talking and playing cards, trying to figure out what we were going to do," the actor remembers. "And then Ang walks past the door. And he says to us, 'Ha! Ha! Ha! Very hard scene'," recounts Ledger in a high, screechy voice. " 'Ha! Ha! First day. Very hard scene! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!' And then Ang walks off, kind of laughing to himself. And we look out the trailer. And he's still laughing at the fact that he'd just thrown us in the deep end. And he did. But it forced us into figuring out our entire stories because we were suddenly thrown into the 40-year-old end of our characters and we had to figure out everything that happened beforehand very quickly."
On becoming a father, Ledger adds that the timing couldn't be better. He's just wrapped up shooting of Brokeback Mountain, Terry Gilliam's The Grimm Brothers, and Lasse Hallstrom's Casanova. He's ready for -- and earned -- a break. "The birth of our child makes all [hype and buzz about the new films] insignificant. It's great. I'm stress-free when it comes to my work because my life is absolutely focused on preparing myself for fatherhood. It's wonderful."
Ledger was born on April 4, 1979, in Perth, Australia, to mother Sally and father Kim. He went to a private boys' school called Guildford Grammar, and studied some drama while there.
In his teens, he moved to Sydney, landing some small parts in independent films. He and a buddy crossed the pond to America soon after, barely getting by. It was 10 Things that got him noticed by the studios.
For inspiration for his cowboy, Ledger says he went home to Perth, and to his boyhood school. "Perth is the most isolated city in the world. So I know what it's like to be in a small town and isolation."
Guildford Grammar was also the place where all the big farm-owners in Western Australia shipped their sons to study. "It was full of ranch hands. It was all farmers so I very much knew the mentality," Ledger adds. "I knew how they walked and talked. I think there's a universal kind of spirituality, a common ground that all cowboys -- or anyone who spends all day and night on a horse -- shares. There is just something universal in the way they see the world."
Ledger's gay cowboy seethes with anger and repression, whereas Gyllenhaal's is a gentler soul, far more comfortable coming out of the closet. Ledger says while a lot of cues on how to play his part were written into the beautifully crafted screenplay, he still had a lot to figure out.
"I had to really discover what his inner battle was, what exactly he was fighting. One of the conclusions I came up with was that he was battling his genetic structure. He was battling what God gave him, what his father gave him, what his father's father gave him. All their beliefs, their traditions, and their fears that had all been passed down and were deeply imbedded."
Once he touched on Del Mar's struggle, Ledger explains he tried to make it physical, and come through in his posture, his talk, the way it was "a battle for him to speak, to express himself. I wanted him to be almost inaudible at time. I wanted him to be quite silent," says Ledger, who was dressed in jeans and a dark shirt, a tiny gold ring gleaming from his left ear.
Another highlight of making this movie, Ledger adds, was Alberta's Rockies and the locals, who left the cast alone. "They were beautiful," says the swarthy, six-foot-one actor who is rumoured to be thinking of relocating from Los Angeles, with mom and baby, to Italy. "Canadian people have such a kind of beautiful centre and mentality about them. They're very similar, I think, to Australians.
"Maybe we're the same because we're all trapped under the thumb of the Queen or something -- that we're all in it together," Ledger says with a chuckle. "But [in Calgary] there was a real modest approach to life that I can really appreciate."
As for the films he's made, Ledger says he's proud of some and dismissive of others. He refuses to name the ones he considers dogs. "Believe me, if I knew then [when I was starting out], what I know today, I would have made some different choices."
But what's done is done. And the actor says he doesn't believe in having regrets.
"Just the tiniest of events in your past affects where you end up today. And if I hadn't made [some of his less favourite films], I might not have done Brokeback Mountain."