When Heath Ledger calls in the middle of the packed junket for Brokeback Mountain, his VOCAL performance as the tough-sounding Ennis Del Mar is all the more astonishing. So perfectly does Ledger capture the flat-edged twang of ranch hand Ennis that it takes a moment to get your bearings when confronted by the strong Australian accent and eloquent words of the actor himself. I took a moment to do that while congratulating the actor on the birth of his new daughter with his Brokeback costar ( and fiancé ) , Michelle Williams.
WCT: Even before this movie opens ( here in Chicago ) , it's a landmark film for 'My People'—we've been waiting for this one for a long time. But what do I tell my straight friends to get them to go see it? They're all like, 'It's a gay cowboy movie; I don't want to see it.'
HL: Well if they're you're friends, they shouldn't have a problem.
WCT: I'm kidding; of course they're going to go.
HL: Of course they're going to go, right. Look, I don't know; I'm kind of hoping that in this day and age straight men will be kinda mature enough to understand that it's not an epidemic; they're not going to walk out of the theater having caught something. This is a beautiful story of love and it's a grand story of love and not to be afraid of it ( laughs ) . I think it will transcend a lot of people's—particularly straight men's—perceptions or fears. I think most straight men are coming out of the screenings feeling swept away by the story and have kind of looked past the fact that it's a man-on-man love story. I think it transcends that with its purity and honesty.
WCT: Why is a film like this really important right now for mainstream audiences to see?
HL: I don't know if it is. I guess in America … I mean something that always—
WCT: Yeah, 'In America' here we go.
HL: Yes—right ( laughs ) . Look, something that kind of baffles me and is really confusing is how people find time amongst their busy lives; their 9 to 5 jobs, their schedules, their families, they find time to go out of their way and express their negative opinions towards or disgust with the different ways in which people wish to express their love. If we're going to stop what we're doing in our everyday life and bother to go out and make a little banner and march down the street about this, shouldn't we be doing that against the different ways that people express anger, perhaps? It just feels like a big waste of time and it feels just a little naïve to me that people can be that immature perhaps? It really doesn't affect them and there's genuine beauty and affection involved, so what are you protesting about? So I think for that reason hopefully people will see it and they'll understand that it's not a joke. Pure intimacy and sexuality and the purity of one soul falling in love with another exists within same-sex relationships. Good man-on-man relationships exist in incredibly masculine forms. That's part of the reason why Annie Proulx picked the Wyoming cowboy figures to tell this story, because they're so tightly connected to masculinity.
WCT: That I know—having grown up in Nebraska right near that Wyoming country not long after that period in which the movie's set.
HL: So you know.
WCT: I remember the rigidness, the sense of social claustrophobia—to sound high falutin'. So, how do you get to that intimacy; how did you prepare for the intimacy of those scenes with Jake Gyllenhaal?
HL: There really is no way to prepare. There is no kind of yoga stretch that gets you to do a love scene with anyone. Look, quite honestly, unlike Ennis, I've investigated love, I love love, I'm very confident with the way I love, I'm very expressive—
WCT: And I love that you love—
HL: ( laughs ) Thank you. But I also have a memory of that. I know how to love someone and I know how to kiss someone, so it's quite simple, you just do the same thing. That's the point, isn't it? It's not really different—you're still doing exactly the same thing. That's what I tried to do.
WCT: Did it feel like it was a bold step for you to take this role?
HL: At times it felt like it purely because there was a lot more fear surrounding this project externally from other people. At times I think that manufactured a kind of sense of fear, but not really. For me it was an opportunity to tell a story that had never been told before; that had never made it to the screen—which is really rare. To come up with a script like that. It's also that love stories these days are somewhat stale and are recycling themselves and this was doing everything but that, so I really didn't. I guess, yeah, the level of fear or anxieties or risk that you think is surrounding a choice like this is just relative to the person you are and how you choose to live your life or express your life.
WCT: This has got to put your career in a new light. Your performance, your accent—both were so amazing. Who did you base Ennis on?
HL: George Bush.
WCT: ( laughs ) Senior or Junior?
HL: Yeah, right. No, I'm joking. No, I didn't base Ennis on anyone; I really didn't have to because Annie Proulx, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana are all geniuses when it comes to creating this short story and this script that was so beautifully descriptive of the characters and their inabilities and their potentials. So I felt like I could see him upon reading the script and the short story and I really just wanted to create him off the page. I've never been a fan of western movies; cowboy movies, I just never actually watched them and I didn't have a western figure to base them on, so I just started from scratch.
WCT: So how did you build that incredible voice you spoke in? I love when Australian or English actors do American accents, and I'm just curious.
HL: First I came up with the regional accent and then I wanted to represent his inability to express and how painful it is for him to express and I wanted to physicalize the battle that was within, and I guess that came out in the accent. I wanted him to be a clenched fist and essentially my mouth became a clenched fist and the words became part of the battle.
WCT: With your taking this role and Jake taking his, do you foresee a time where we're going to see the reverse—gay actors playing straight roles?
HL: You know what—it's a bloody good question and I've been throwing it back to people. Everyone keeps saying, 'Isn't it risky for a straight guy playing a gay role' and I'm like, 'Bloody hell, isn't it risky for a gay guy to play a straight role'—that's exactly what I've been thinking! ( he's laughing )
WCT: There haven't been quite as many examples.
HL: It's funny, they keep talking about how brave and how courageous it is and I keep saying, 'No, it's brave to be a firefighter, it's courageous to be an NYPD officer.' I'm an actor; I'm observing, investigating and portraying a form of love and life. Believe me, I'm fine, I'm not hurt from it! ( laughs )