Down Under the Influence

Maui Time | November 27, 2006
Heath Ledger has become a household name alongside his Australian acting peers Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts. Cole Smithey talks to him about his latest film Candy in which Ledger plays a young man torn between his love of heroin and his equally addicted girlfriend (Abbie Cornish).

Every generation needs an anti-heroin movie to scare the living bee jeebees out of them so that they never even consider taking up the habit. Australian director Neil Armfield adapts Luke Davies’ novel with a pedantic and ham-fisted approach that partially undermines effective performances from Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish (“Somersault”). Dan (Ledger) and Candy (Cornish) are a couple of active youngsters caught up in the throes of a whirlwind romance when the dark specter of heroin transforms their promising existence into a nightmare of despair and illness. Falling firmly between anti-drug genre films like the superior “Christiane F.” (1981) and the unwatchable “Sweet Nothing” (1996), “Candy” is the kind of movie that would be mandatory for high school consumption if not for its authentic depiction of sex.

At the lively age of 27, the actor from Perth, Western Australia has amassed an impressive collection of films that include “Monster’s Ball,” “Lords of Dogtown,” and “Brokeback Mountain.” In person, the pale and stoic young man chooses his words carefully and never lets slip any trace of ego that might ripple his focus. Heath Ledger is a chameleon whose acting range seems open to untold extremes. Stardom has come to Heath Ledger but he hardly seems to notice. His uncanny charm and grace are at once joyful and reserved in the characters that he plays. In “Candy” he is devastating as a hopeless heroin addict, and his raw transformation cuts to the quick. I spoke with Heath at the W Hotel in Manhattan’s Union Square to find out more about his choices and ideas.

CS: What made you want to play this deeply troubled character in “Candy”?

HL: Well, to be honest it was just the opportunity to work at home again. The scripts in Australia are slim pickings these days and it was the best one available. It had been eight years since I’ve used my own accent in a movie and I was curious to see what that would be like.

CS: What sort of research did you do before filming started?

HL: Well, physically I stayed out of the sun and I tried to eat less, but all the technical aspects of it. Abby [Cornish] and I went to this center in Sydney called NUAOA, which is the Narcotics Users Association of Australia. We met a gentleman who has been using [heroin], and still is, over the past 20-years. He took us into a boardroom and opened up what looked like a rifle case and inside was a prosthetic arm, which was designed to train nurses within this center. It was designed to train young drug addicts how to find a vein and it was a fully functional kind of thing. Inside, the veins are fully functional and the two tubes like veins have blood bags. We pumped blood through the arm and you could find a vein and then we’d find a vein and the nurse showed us how to do that and you could even pump blood out of the arm and put the drugs through. Then he showed us how to tie the tourniquets. In the drying out sequence, we had someone on set who could take us through the stages step by step from experience. “Now you’re in a cold sweat, and in this next scene your stomach feels like it’s just twisting up into a knot. You’ve got headaches, you’re botched.” They just kind of spelled it out for us. And we just responded to his knowledge of it.

CS: Did you gain any insight on what makes drugs attractive to celebrities?

HL: I don’t know. I mean it’s obviously not just celebrities in rehab, it’s probably a similar statistic to people outside of the industry. But I do think that drugs and alcohol have been glorified and exoticized in such a way that it gets into the art world. Just watching the way that Jackson Pollock paints with a bottle of booze in his hand and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, we’ve kind of connected that to what it takes to create something. When in fact it’s anything but the truth. I mean obviously creation comes out of the mind and it’s hard to create when you’re in that state. I’m sure drugs and alcohol perhaps would inspire new thoughts, but I mean it’s certainly not something that I use as a tool or a mechanism to create.

CS: Do you like doing improv, and is there any in “Candy”?

HL: Yeah I do. Most of the scenes had drips and drabs of improv. I’ve never been exposed to a situation of just, ok, you guys meet each other in a park, you’re from here, you’re from there, ok, roll camera. I’ve never had something like that thrown at me, which I would probably feel a little uncomfortable with. But if you have a complete understanding of your character and you know the character’s makeup, where they come from, then it makes it a lot easier. Neil wanted to do a lot of rehearsal because he came from an extensive theater background and Abby and I were kind of like the heady kids in class who sat at the back and didn’t really want to give too much in rehearsal. It’s slightly superstitious of us, but I truly believe in the possibility of creation rather than recreating something that you did in an office space somewhere a thousand miles away. But he respected that and he gave us that room.

CS: Do you think independent films come out better or worse than Hollywood products?

HL: I think you’re generally granted more freedom when the money comes from alternative sources other than the studio, but whether or not it’s a better outcome is relegated to the person who made the film, I guess. But I think, generally, if it’s state funded or privately funded, your budget isn’t necessarily as high as it would be with a studio. Personally, I like to see films that come out with lower budgets because you’re forced into using your imagination. You don’t have everything at your fingertips. You have to create it from scratch.

CS: You got noticed in the romantic comedy “10 Things I Hate About You?” Would you like to do more comedy?

HL: Yes, I enjoy the physical aspect of comedy. I’d like to do a silent film that’s a comedy perhaps.

CS: Have you ever done a love scene with someone who was uncomfortable to be with?

HL: Well, I definitely have worked with people that I was uncomfortable with, but I didn’t have to do love scenes with them. It’s a funny thing. There’s nothing attractive about the process when you’re doing one of those things, even if the person you’re doing it with is attractive. It’s just a very unattractive thing to have to go through. But luckily enough, I’ve worked with a lot of good people.

CS: Tell me a story about your life that was a turning point.

HL: Well, meeting Michele in “Brokeback” [Mountain] was something that took me in another direction, in a good way. I’ve got a baby girl and I live in Brooklyn.

CS: What do you like about living in Brooklyn?

HL: Everything. I adore it. I love the real sense of community and the neighbors and the coffee shop down the road and I, it’s just, we really are left there to live and it’s just, it feels like we’re on an island when we’re just next to one.

CS: Can you walk around there without being bothered?

HL: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s the thing, in New York City you’re protected by numbers in a certain way. When you’re walking in the streets, no one’s looking at all the people passing and particularly in Brooklyn. People are really just trying to get from A to B and get through their day.

CS: I read that you bought a home in LA, are you still committed to Brooklyn?

HL: Yeah, we are. When Michelle is working, I’m the nanny, and when I’m working, Michelle’s the nanny. And so when she was working [in LA], I was in a hotel room and it was really hard. Whether we like it or not, we go in and out of LA all the time. So we found a one-bedroom treehouse up in the hills out there and it’s just a place to drop our bags.

CS: Has starting a family changed your career?

HL: No, I didn’t immediately get an urge to go out and be a voice in an animated film, but it definitely changes the person you are, and I think your personal evolution runs hand in hand with your professional evolution. Performance and the person you are kind of grow simultaneously. So I think it affects performance more than choice, perhaps.

CS: Do you have a list of directors you’d like to work with?

HL: Yeah, most of them are dead. Yeah. Fellini, Cassavetes, Bob Fosse and Stanley Kubrick. They’re all dead. No, there’s a long list of them, I should say they’re not lining up. I wish they were. Terrence Malick. I’d really like to be in one of his visual poems.

CS: You’ll be playing the Joker in the next Batman film “The Dark Knight.” Are you a fan of the Joker?

HL: I guess if I was a fan of comic book characters, it would probably be the Joker. Chris Nolan motivated me to take it. I like the opportunity to play this guy. I somewhere inside knew instantly what to do with it. I didn’t feel like I had to search for it. I felt like I had a plan of attack already, so that usually dictates whether I want to do something or not, if I feel a connection to it.

CS: Have you had any interaction with director Chris Nolan yet?

HL: At this point it’s pretty much just Nolan. Chris Nolan is pretty busy or was busy with “The Prestige” and they’re sort of still writing the script. Even I don’t have a script. I read it once at Chris Nolan’s house, but he wouldn’t let me leave with it.

CS: Tell me about your new film “I’m Not There” about Bob Dylan and that period of New York.

HL: Well, I found the connection in his lyrics, through his music, and through his poetry. And it was an incredible experience. Todd Haynes, I consider to be a genius. The footage I’ve seen of this film is just astounding. Cate Blanchett has given such an incredible transformation in this movie [playing the role of Bob Dylan]. It’s going to blow you away. I mean she walks, talks, sings, smells like Bob Dylan.

CS: How does Bob Dylan smell?

HL: Not very good.

CS: Have you met him?

HL: No. I haven’t, but you know.

CS: Are you excited that your films attract Oscar attention?

HL: No. I’ve never had high expectations of my work and I certainly am not going to let that plague my thoughts. I’m just going to continue to choose what feels right for me at the time and go with it.


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