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Heath Ledger Makes His Stand on Brokeback Mountain

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.



By Brad Balfour

Doing Brokeback Mountain, was as much a challenge for Heath Ledger, taking on what might seem to be a risky role — playing Ennis, a gay cowboy in love with Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) — as it was taking on a complex restrained character at a time when so many are broad and brutal.

In Ang Lee’s film, he has to negotiate a character that says little and shows much in his eyes and economical action. But this role offered a chance to Ledger to do something other the usual leads offered young male actors these days. The gamble paid off — with awards and an Oscar nomination as best actor.

When this story was optioned, they couldn’t find anyone to take the role on. Why were you willing to jump in there?

It’s obviously the most complex and internal character that I have been offered to play. It would take a more matured performance out of me to complete this character. It was the perfect script; it was the perfect director. It was a story that hadn’t been told, which is extremely rare in this industry or anywhere really. I think the story of love, in general, is a little recycled and it’s a little stale. And this hadn’t been put to script. I think it was really rare. I thought I’d be crazy to turn it down.

Was there a point where you were like, this has explicit gay sex and kissing a guy throughout the picture, was there a point that you said my image can’t take this?

No. Not really. Obviously, I had to think about it and go “Oh geez.” It wasn’t that huge a problem for me. Everyone always asks, “What was the most difficult aspect of the movie for you, or physically what was the most difficult?” Making out with Jake Gyllenhaal (laughs). It’s a really obvious answer to give. At the end of the day once we got the first take out of the way. It was like “Oh okay, all right whatever. Let’s finish the day, let’s continue.” All the mystery had been taken away and we’re still acting, it’s a movie, let’s get on with it and it really wasn’t such a big deal.

Is he a good kisser?

Yeah. He’s a really good kisser. (laughs)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain.

Jake has said he doesn’t believe the characters are gay. What do you think?

It’s a touchy subject. If we say that, that there will be a lot of disappointed people who want it to be. And it is. Essentially, it’s two men that fall in love. It’s hard to escape that. Maybe that’s what Jake was meaning by that. Certainly, from my character, I wanted to tell a story of just someone who transcends the label of gay or straight, who he’s just purely a human being whose soul falls in love with another soul, which is in the vessel of a man. I think Jake’s character was more relaxed and comfortable in his situation and willing to express it, whereas Ennis was more confused. I don’t know what my point is.

Was Ennis always confused or not until he met Jake’s character?

I don’t think Ennis was a person who asked any questions. I think once he met Jake’s character it was an innate kind of reaction to meeting this person.

It was either Jake or one of the sheep?

Probably. Yeah. (laughs)

Was Ennis ever in love with Alma?

He believed he was. I think he felt like he should be. I don’t think so, at the end of the day, I don’t think it was the love he had with Jack. No.

Had they not met on the mountain, would he have led a normal life?

Maybe he would have denied himself of that.

Would Ennis have ended up alone anyway even if this story happened today, because of the man he is?

Yeah, perhaps. I guess so. I think one way or another he is self-destructive. He punishes himself, the conflict within, which he doesn’t understand. I think he would have manifested the loneliness in him.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams in Brokeback Mountain.

Does the flashback to the dead guy have anything to do with his personality?

To a certain degree. I always felt that was a big part of his struggle, was battling his genetic structure, his dad and the generations before him, their fears, and their traditions. I think it was so deeply imbedded in him. It had a lot to do with it and it ultimately defeats him because he opts out of happiness and love.

Do you think their love would have been that strong if they had been together day-to-day?

I guess so. I haven’t put that much thought into it. It definitely made it more exciting for them to. I’m not sure. I think for Ennis, the fact that it was forbidden didn’t necessarily make it more exciting for him, obviously. I think the story for me was this incredibly masculine figure that just had this innate love for another soul that comes in a vessel of a man. I’m not sure how he would fare in New York City. (laughs)

Would there be a story if there hadn’t been this degree of frustration and unresolved elements?

That’s the tragedy.

Was there any question of what this film would be rated?

Not to me. Once again Ang and all those people would have thought about that. I think America is the only country that has given it an R.

Madonna says it sounds shocking until you see it and it’s tame.

I guess it’s all relative to who you are.

It’s really about this classic tragedy.

It’s pretty grand.

It’s great how you can play it as a tragedy instead of as a gay love story.

That’s kind of the way we have always looked at it.

So, the tragic core of the characters is that they’re gay?

No, not at all. I think it’s the society they are in, the restrictions that surround them, their genes and the inability to break free of society’s requirements of them. It’s people’s opinions on a grand scale and how heavily that affects their lives. That’s not being gay at all.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

Do you think audiences will accept the film because they’re not punished in the end?

I guess a majority of the audience these days likes to be spoon-fed happy endings, but it’s not really how life works.

Now, there’s a gay rodeo cowboy circuit. Did you look into what was going on in the gay community within the cowboy world back then?

I don’t think there was anything back then that we know of. I thought Annie Proulx’s short story and the script that Larry and Diana wrote was so beautifully thorough and descriptive of the time and of these characters that I really needed to do very little external research. I really didn’t. In terms of being a cowboy or a ranch hand, I grew up in western Australia, a lot of farm folk. There’s something very universal about people who spend all day and night on horseback. Right down physically. Once they get off the horse it still looks like there’s a horse between their legs as they walk off. It’s a universal thing. And they all see the world through the same eyes.

You show such a degree of restraint. What did it take to sustain that performance?

Just a lot of preparation. I really wanted to investigate him thoroughly. I had to ask a lot more questions than Ennis obviously had ever asked himself. So, I essentially knew a lot more about him than he ever will. So, after discovering his battles and what he was battling against, and why he was so unable to express and love. And then the physical–his walk and his speech. I wanted him to be clenched. A clenched fist. I wanted his mouth to be clenched. Any form of expression had to be painful. I put a lot thought into that. And of course, the aging I thought was a really important aspect. If we couldn’t pull that off, then we’re up shit creek without a paddle.

When you chose a role what comes into the equation, more the character or your career?

No. If I did that, then my choices would have been as boring as they had been in the past because it becomes too self-conscious. I just came to that conclusion. I’m really not in the business to make a bunch of people happy. In order to further myself, and get better at what I do, I just have to make choices based upon what is going to help me mature as a person and as an actor.

Have you’ve been offered cowboy movies before, and is there a difference between a cowboy movie and a Larry McMurtry cowboy movie?

Sure. I think Anything for Billy is something I’m interested in. He’s actually put together a screenplay of that. It’s a beautiful book. But I’m not actually a fan of the Western genre. I never grew up watching cowboy and Indian films. I’m not really a huge fan of John Wayne and all that.

Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

Is there anyone you based your character off of?

George Bush. (laughs)

Do you think he’ll watch this movie?

Probably in private (laughs). But to answer your question, I really didn’t have a model for the character. No. It was very obvious from the screenplay and from the short story of how it had to be played. Who the characters were, I thought, anyway.

Producer James Shamus said this is a movie he would enjoy watching with his wife.

Oh right, probably.

You have these two movies out at the same time [Casanova is the other one] that deal with different aspects of sexuality. Does this give you some unusual insight into the subject as a result?

Not really. I am, unlike like Ennis, very expressive and I’ve investigated love. I’m in love with love. It’s never been a problem of mine. If anything, I wish I could have taught Ennis a thing or two. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t. I didn’t walk away thinking “Oh right, men can fall in love, together.” It’s something I always knew and respected and never had a problem with it. So, not really.

You had a film this year that connects with audiences, Lords of Dogtown. It seems you were channeling Val Kilmer for that role.

Everyone says that.

You’ve had so many roles that had been really different. Looking back has this been your best year?

Yeah. I guess so. It’s definitely been the first year where I’ve been throwing everyone else’s opinions and choices out the window and made my own. It took a long time coming. It definitely started off in another light. It was somewhat spoon fed to me and things were handed to me on a platter. I didn’t really like what was on the platter. I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I was never really happy with the direction I was being pushed in. It took a while to go off and stamp it out a little bit and kind of be bad and make bad choices and be a little ruthless in order to take the gloss off everything. Then finally it was Terry Gilliam who came around and gave me the shot. As soon as Terry gave me the shot, everyone else was like, “Oh, oh okay. If Terry is giving him one, then we might give him another shot.”

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

You had such a great choice of directors. Do you find a common thread, or did you find them contrasting in new things you learned from each one?

It’s definitely very different experiences. Which is what I was after. It was funny how I lined them up. Going from Brothers Grimm to Lords of Dogtown to Brokeback Mountain to Casanova to Candy. I don’t know if I consciously did it, but I kind of went from one, expelled something from within me, and to this one, and went to one, ha ha ha ha all light and kind of fluffy, and not giving a shit, and not taking it too seriously. Having like a rest, kind of a professional rest. Then going back into something gritty that takes some thought. And it kind of just worked out. So, while I was doing one thing, I was refueling myself for the next. I also had a lot of time before diving into all of these projects to wrap my head around what I was going to do. I think just how heavy the contrast was between the films helped me switch so sharply back and forth between (snaps fingers successively). If it were just subtle differences, it would have been harder to define where I would come from and what I’m doing next. They were all so drastically different.

You also fell in love.

Yeah, I did. That’s the best thing I got out of it. We are forever grateful.

Did that add to the chemistry of the relationship with the characters?

It didn’t for us. Michelle and I are very professional people. We were there to make the best possible film and story. We didn’t walk around all day holding hands. We had a very serious story we were all passionate about telling.

Do you like living in New York?

I love living in New York. I love it. I love Brooklyn.

You still drive?

Yeah, I do. Yeah. Just around Brooklyn. Not in Manhattan. If I want to go to Manhattan, I take the subway.

How is it being a dad for the first time?

It’s incredible. It’s incredibly humbling. It’s the most selfless act you can ever encounter in your life. Yeah, it’s brilliant. It’s beautiful.

I’m glad you’re a New Yorker now.

Yeah me too. I’m a better person for it.

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: March 5, 2006.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2005. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#2 © 2005. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#3 © 2005. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#4 © 2005. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#5 © 2005. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#6 © 2005. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.


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