Hot Hot Heath: Heath Ledger's Career Has Caught Fire with Brokeback Mountain. in a Gay-Media Exclusive, He Talks about Making His Acting Debut with a Gay Role on TV and about Going the Distance with Jake Gyllenhaal

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For an actor who's not the biggest fan of talking to the media, Heath Ledger's been doing plenty of it of late. It helps, of course, that his breakout performance in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain--a love story about ranch hands Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who are forced to keep their passion a secret throughout the 1960s and '70s--has garnered him the best reviews of his relatively brief career. Nonetheless, a Sunday morning at the Toronto International Film Festival finds Ledger a little logy--he's just come from doing press for Brokeback as well as The Brothers Grimm and Casanova at Italy's Venice festival, and on top of that, he'd gone out the night before with Grimm director Terry Gilliam. Even a little hungover, though, Ledger is charming, articulate, and very straight-forward about his career as an actor. "He has a very Western aura, very natural," said Lee about his decision to cast Ledger as Ennis. "The way he speaks and carries himself makes him seem more mature than his actual age. And he looks great on horseback." No argument here. In a relaxed conversation, Ledger talked about everything from his native Australia's mixed feelings about gays to his then-impending fatherhood. (Matilda, his daughter with Brokeback costar Michelle Williams, was born October 28.)

Did you have gay friends tell you what a big deal this movie is for queer audiences? "Dude, this is gonna be major--don't fuck it up"?

I didn't really need my friends to tell me that. [Alonso laughs] I understood that it's an important story and one that hadn't really been told properly. But I knew there was a certain responsibility.

What about getting the role? It was my impression that almost every actor wanted to be in this movie.

It was really odd, actually. I read the script and loved it--it was the most beautiful screenplay I'd ever read. And then that was really it. My agent was like, "They want you to play it"Jack, at one point. And ! said, "No, I don't really know how to play Jack. I know how to play Ennis. Out of the two characters, I know how to tell his story." And then they started to head toward other people, and so I kind of forgot about it for a while. I went to Australia and did my own thing--saw my family and stuff. And then when I was there, they came back and said, "It's come back your way--they'd like you for Ennis, and Jake for Jack. Would you meet Ang?" "Of course I'll meet Ang." I went to L.A., I flew to New York for 12 hours, and went and had a meeting in [producer] James Schamus's apartment with Ang. We must've been sitting there for about half an hour, then I stood up, shook his hand, and left the room. I went back to L.A., and a month later or something, I found out that I got the role.

Did Lee get any chattier as the shoot went on? How is he with actors?

He's very selective about the words that escape his mouth. He doesn't seem to have too much interest in getting to know you as a person. He's completely consumed by the story and by filmmaking and the process. That's just the man he is--it absolutely consumes him. And working with him, it wasn't as collaborative of an experience as I thought it was going to be, in terms of putting together our characters, talking about the movie, talking about the objectives of each character. There were no group discussions about this; it was Ang who pulled us aside individually and injected us with just the right amount of information on our characters, and then just left us. So I didn't really know what Jake had been told or was gonna do; I didn't really know what Michelle had been told or what she was gonna do. It was a curious thing, a curious way of approaching it, because we ended up discovering each other and meeting on-screen, as opposed to over the table.

So no rehearsal at all?

Not really, not that I can recall. Little bits and pieces. I know Michelle and I rehearsed in little bits and pieces. …