Poor Heath Ledger. It's late in the day but Hollywood's new Golden Boy, who's sprawled on a sofa, is still seriously hungover from partying the night before. But then the Aussie hunk is still only 22, so it seems only fair enough when he decides to crack open a beer (not a Fosters) and see if the hair of the dog will ease his headache (it does).
The actor, who made such an impact when he burst onto the Hollywood scene as Mel Gibson's son in Patriot, the (2000), is now starring in another period piece - and living up to all the hype. This time out he's wearing armour as the would-be knight William Thatcher in Knight's Tale, a (2001) the wacky 14th Century jousting- and-chivalry epic written and directed by Brian Helgeland (l.A. Confidential (1997) Oscar-winning screenwriter) that cleverly counterpoints chainmail with a heavy metal soundtrack that includes Queen's 'We Will Rock You. '
Here, Heath talks about making the film, cheap beer in Prague, the pressures of fame, and learning from Mel Gibson.
Was making this film as much fun as it looked?
More. It was wonderful, and the friendship was the stronghold of the movie. Brian brought us all into Prague a month early so we could rehearse, and we just spent a month drinking together. So rehearsals were just drinking and getting to know each other.
Weren't you supposed to learn horseriding and jousting?
Yeah, we were meant to, and we did. But ultimately Brian just wanted us to get there and become friends and create something that glued us all together on screen - and we did, instantly. We all bonded and hopefully it comes over on screen.
So was there a lot of carousing?
You bet. We hit all the bars. I think the cheapest beer we found was about 25 cents for a big flag on so a lot of fun was had by all.
After Patriot, the (2000) you were called the new hot young star. Has all the attention been overwhelming?
Yeah, it's all overwhelming. But I haven't lived with it that long and I've been working pretty hard for the last 18 months straight, so it's all new. I don't know yet what it's like to live like that completely. To tell you the truth I don't think about it and I don't dwell on it. I just show up for work and live my normal life.
What did you learn from Mel Gibson?
I learned a lot socially, and professionally about the industry and the way he tackles it. I guess I also learned a lot about just relaxing and relaxing on set, and not over preparing, not over thinking. But he's also just such a gentleman, such a lovely, lovely guy, and that pleasantly surprised me. I do know that it's not everyone in his position is as friendly as he is. He's a blockbuster, he's a superhero amongst the industry. He's really just levelheaded, truly, he walked to the beat of life in such a wonderful way. I was honored to be part of that and part of him. I was very excited to work with him, and extremely nervous. God, when I first turned up on set I was literally shaking in my boots, but he just put me at ease straightaway.
Are you worried you might fall into the teenybopper role?
I was, but I'm not any longer.
(Laughs) Yeah, but it's not like I come on board to the script and say, 'I want to have a scene where I sing.' It just happened and it was in the film. But I do like to sing. It's a part of me.
Did you do any of your own jousting?
I would do it, and we did as much of it as we could, but I'm really not willing to ride a horse towards another rider at full speed and hit them with a stick - or get hit myself. It was just way too f***king dangerous. Stunt guys were getting injured badly. One guy had his jaw ripped back, and had 15 stitches and was back on the horse two weeks later - and it happened again. They were really hitting each other. Unbelievable! So I'd like to have given it a shot, but. .. (laughs).
It seems like all the new action heroes are Australian. Why is that?
Maybe it's a fashion thing. We're all in fashion now. Maybe we present new flavors and spices people haven't seen much before.
Is it true you might do the next 'Mad Max' film?
Unfortunately it's not true. I'd love to do it. It'd be great. I know they're talking about it, and I certainly hope they get Mel to do it again. And I think he would. He should.
You're really the star of this film. How did you feel having to carry most of the weight?
I wasn't that intimidated. I was more intimidated after I'd made the movie and saw my mug on the poster. I know it was a big budget film, but between 'action' and 'cut' there's very little difference between a $50 million film and a $3 million one. I just go out there and do the job, and I had a great ensemble cast there to support me, so it never felt like it was just me running the show. And in terms of the pressure of being the lead role, I just looked at it as having more time to arc my character.
Are you still based in Australia?
No. I guess I'm sort of semi-based here in L. A. I bought a house here. But if I'm not needed here I go back home.
So what's the real you like?
I don't know if i can describe myself. It's too hard.
What did you inherit from your mother?
Sensitivity and acceptance. She's a very warm, caring woman.
What about your dad?
I don't know. I guess I. .. . I don't know.
What have you spent your money on so far?
I bought the house in LA and before that I bought a 1970 Mustang muscle car with 450 horsepower. It's been in and out of hospital. It's cursed.
Have you seen your new house much?
Not really. I bought it ten months ago and I've lived in it for a total of about two months. But half of Australia has been there as all my mates have been over and stayed there while I was away, and I have a friend staying there right now who looks after things while I'm gone.
So is your life living out of suitcases?
It was. (laughs) It still is, I guess. An actor's a bit like a gypsy and I like that. It's been in my nature from an early age. My parents were divorced when I was about 10, and from that point on I spent two weeks with my mum, two weeks with my dad, for the next four years. So I was just going back and forth, back and forth, packing and unpacking. Then it got to the point where I was like, 'I gotta get out of Perth,' and bang - I moved out of Perth and just kept moving. And I've still kept moving up till now, and I do still enjoy it. I haven't found any one particular place as my one and only home.
Was it devastating when your parents divorced?
No, I was really cool with it. I was kind of happy about it, actually. I had two houses, two sets of rules. It was wacky. I'd go to one place and when I was sick of that and needed a break I'd go to the other. It didn't bother me.
You were born in Perth and grew up there?
Yeah, till I was sixteen. Then I jumped in a car and drove to Sydney.
Did you go to Sydney by yourself?
No, with my best mate, Trevor. It's a long drive and it's one straight road with nothing between.
Is he also an actor?
No, he's not an actor. I've known him since I was three, and we haven't spent two months apart. And he's like my brother. He works as my PA.
Were you done with school at that point?
Yeah, I did my final year mark a year early and I just left. Yeah, that train of life was flying by and I had to jump on it, I had to get out of there. I had sixty-nine cents in my bank account and a bit of cash that my folks gave me.
That's the other thing, I'm so amazed and respectful of the fact that my parents are so lenient in the way of letting me follow my dreams and find my dream parts.
They were never ones who pressured opinions on me or pressured me on ways of living life. They were completely open for me to discover that myself. They warned me, they said, 'If you go out and touch the fire you'll burn yourself,' and I went, 'Yeah, yeah. ' I went out and I touched it and I'd come back with scars and say, 'Yeah, you're right.' But I have a wonderful relationship with them, and they're like best friends of mine.
My dad is in the engineering industry in Perth, he designed a crusher, which crushes rocks and iron ore and gold and all the stuff in iron mines. My mom, she just works, she has a day job, she and her husband live elsewhere.
You're only 21 but you seem very self-possessed. Where does that come from?
I guess it stems from my parents and my family. They're big fans of keeping a good spirit and not breaking it. They have the attitude of letting their kids grow up and discover things for themselves and be happy with themselves. They really provided me with a comfortable environment for just being who you were, regardless, and not trying or wanting to be anything else. I guess that's how they pushed me out into the world, and from there I just did that, and found my own lifestyle and way of living.
Can you imagine being anything but an actor?
No. I couldn't. If I didn't do this I don't know what I'd do. I don't think I could do a regular 9 to 5 job. The only thing I've ever done professionally is acting. Maybe I'd do something close to a beach (laughs). Other than that I'd probably take photos. I'd probably have to draw on something I could do, and that's photography, but I'd hate to ever think I'd have to turn a passion into a profession.
What sort of photography do you do?
I hate to try and analyze it but it's more documentary. I'm documenting life. It doesn't really have a style or shape. It's very open to suggestion and just capturing the moment, and I love doing it.
What drives you mad?
Control freaks, power-hungry people and dishonesty.
But isn't that a pretty good description of Hollywood?
(Laughs) Yeah, and it just drives me mad.
Do you like to read?
Yes, but I haven't had much time to in the past year. The last book I read was 'The Way of the Peaceful Warrior' by Daniel Mellman. It's a true story about his life and how this old man becomes his mentor. Most books I read I forget but this one stuck with me.
Where do you like to travel to?
I really want to go to the Caribbean. I've never been there before and I want to explore all the islands. I want warm water and to go surfing. I also want to go to Indonesia. But there's plenty of surf in Australia - and sharks.
Does all the current attention you're getting drive you nuts?
Yeah, but only because I'm so fucking sick of work. 18 months, long f***king hours with no days off, and I really need a rest.
Do you like music?
I love it and I take great pride in my music collection. A lot of it is Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jim Morrison, The Cure, U2, Beck and Radiohead. I travel with 'the big pouch' - I've gotta have 'em all. And I love to go to live shows.
If you had to do without either music or sex, what would you give up?
Music. It's hard to live without music, but it'd be harder to live without sex. (Laughs)
Who were your idols growing up?
U2 and Bono were big for me. They were the first really influential band for me. But no actors.
Do you ever worry that you're still so young with a long way to go in the business, and that maybe things are moving too fast?
Yes, but I don't know why I'm worried. If it all goes well, then fine. It'll be great. But it is overwhelming and I haven't been dealing with the fame and celebrity because I've just been working my arse off.
Do you get stopped in the street a lot?
Kind of, but they don't really bug you. You're just aware of it and you feel like you're in everyone's peripheral vision all the time. So you don't get bugged. It's just that and feeling self-conscious. And I don't take it all too seriously. I don't believe anything that anyone says about my career or myself - good or bad.
Are you worried about losing your privacy now?
Yeah, you can't help but be worried. But it's all so new for me I don't quite know how I'm going to deal with all that. I do find the comedy in it and have a good laugh, and I think that's probably the only way you can deal with it.
Is the Australian press worse to deal with?
It is, and I'll find out just how bad it is next week when I go back there.
Nothing. I'm going to take 6 months off. I've been working 18 months straight so I've got to balance it out a bit. I want to travel and just live.