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At first, Heath Ledger was understandably nervous about playing Australian icon Ned Kelly – so he played him as a real person with a heart as well as body armour – the original of which fits Ledger perfectly. The bushranger was a victim of circumstance, as Ledger sees him. Andrew L. Urban reports.

It could not be further from the world of Ned Kelly: Heath Ledger is sprawled on a two seater lounge in the 5-star elegance of Sydney’s Park Hyatt Hotel at Circular Quay, across from the Opera House. His hair is cropped very short, his beard is a wispy shadow of its Ned Kelly-self, and his clothes are very much today – red and white sneakers, light khaki cargo pants, shirt-tails hanging out under a V neck pullover. Seemingly driven by nervous energy, his legs and arms remain in motion for the entire 30 minutes, as he talks about playing – and re-inventing - Ned Kelly. He speaks quietly, as if he were shy.

“Before, I was rather misinformed; to me, he was just an outlaw. He represented a rebel and he wore a suit of armour. I didn’t really understand how much of a victim of circumstance he was. But I wanted to portray a person [not an icon]. . . I wanted to present a guy with a heart. That’s why it was important to see all aspects of this guy, and that’s why the love story was important, because without that I would have only been able to show you a very determined, very strong and responsible figure, somewhat hard. With the love story I was able to show him drop his guard and be vulnerable, like any 20 year old kid, with a smile…”

Most of this ‘character’ Ledger shows us on screen is his own hypothesis, gleaned from the “tons” of research he did on Ned Kelly. “It is my opinion; there are very few facts on him as to how he held himself, how he smiled and so on. So it’s a stab in the dark. I’m not claiming it’s fact.”

" I’m skinny ‘cause I don’t go to the gym"

Ledger even tried on Ned’s real armour that now lives in a museum, “and it fit,” he says with a meaningful look. “The helmet didn’t – my head’s too big – but the body armour fits exactly. He was my height and build. But he was skinny because he was starving; I’m skinny ‘cause I don’t go to the gym,” he notes with a wry, shy smile.

But out of all the pieces of research, Ledger found ‘the Jerilderie letter’* the most important as a clue to Ned: “It really shows very clearly how passionate he was. It also shows the larrikin in him. That, and the portrait of him taken just two days before he was hanged. That gave me his eyes. And the full length photo gave me the physicality – his posture.”

Ledger says he responded to “the integrity, dignity and pride in his eyes, when his life had been torn out from underneath him.” After recreating Ned Kelly, Ledger says he has a biased view of him: “I had to believe in him to portray him, so I do see him as a hero – and of course he was a criminal too, but he had to be to survive, that’s the point.”

Ledger felt the pressures of playing this particular character, not just because it’s a real person, but “because everybody has an idea of him. I just had to forget that; if I hadn’t, it would have become a really self conscious performance. But it turned out to be one of the easiest roles I’ve had to play, because I found something in him to hold onto - a few thoughts that carried me through the whole movie. And once you find something like that, something you really trust, you can do anything.”

But he won’t reveal what that is: “it’s quite personal, but it’s also very difficult to explain,” he says with a grin.

" return to Australia to live"

Ledger loved the shoot and enjoyed working with his friend the director with whom he made Two Hands (1999), Gregor Jordan (after he got over his nerves: “this was going to make us or totally shatter us,”) and loved “working at home”. So much so, he’s packing his bags and abandoning his Los Angeles base after six years, to return to Australia to live. “Yeah, I deserve a meat pie every day,” he jokes. “It was great being able to phone my friends and meet up for a dinner occasionally.”

Although he’s lived in Los Angeles for six years, the irony is he has never filmed there. Now that his name is established in Hollywood, he doesn’t feel he needs to be on its doorstep. And he is keen to work in Australia – indeed, anywhere, really. His next role will take him to Europe (Prague), playing one of the two Brothers Grimm in Terry Gilliam’s fairy tale movie. Ledger is genuinely excited: “I think Terry Gilliam is brilliant and he’s such a nice guy. I’m not interested in working with genius bastards…. And with Terry, I don’t really care what the project is. I’d work on anything he wanted me for.”

* The Jerilderie Letter provides a detailed account of Ned Kelly's troubled relations with the police. It was dictated by Ned to Joe Byrne in 1879. It is the only document providing a direct link to the Gang and the events with which they were associated. The lengthy letter of about 8,000 words has been described as Ned Kelly's 'manifesto'. It brings his distinctive voice to life and enables readers to develop a psychological portrait of him. 

Published March 27, 2003

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Heath Ledger


... in Ned Kelly

... in The Four Feathers

... in Monster's Ball

... in A Knight's Tale

... in The Patriot

... in 10 Things I Hate About You

... in Two Hands - Interview

... in Roar

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