Young Wonder from Down Under: The Redcoats Are Coming-And So Is Heath Ledger. an Aussie Heartthrob Explodes in 'The Patriot.'
It was a storybook moment--or at least it was meant to be. A young Australian actor, so broke he's been bumming money off his agent, finally snags an audition that could jump-start his career. And, man, does he screw it up. "I had two scenes prepared," says Heath Ledger, 21, of his first meeting with the makers of "The Patriot." "Halfway through the second scene,I stood up and left. I said, 'I'm awfully sorry and I'm awfully embarrassed, but I'm wasting your time. I'm going to get up right now, and I'm going to walk out that door. Thanks for your time, but I'm giving you a bad reading. Catch you later'.'' Ledger pauses. "I wasn't comfortable being there. I wasn't comfy in my own skin. It had been a long and hard year. I was dead broke. I was starving... So I left. I walked down the hallway with my tail between my legs and my head sunk."
Fortunately, Ledger's agent begged for another audition, and the rest is American history. Despite mixed reviews--and some sniping from British historians that the movie whitewashes the unsavory exploits of colonialist Francis Marion, who was one of the inspirations for Mel Gibson's character--"The Patriot" is expected to be one of summer's most thundering hits, and Ledger's winning, understated turn as Gibson's defiant son is the real revelation in this Revolution. It is a tricky, pivotal role. As Gabriel, Ledger sets "The Patriot's" plot in motion by drawing his reluctant father into the war. He narrates the movie with his letters home, embodies its spirit-of-'76 fervor and carries off some of its hokiest symbolism, such as when he's seen solemnly mending a colonial flag. Most importantly, he is "The Patriot's" young hottie. (This is a summer movie that never met a demographic it didn't like.) Columbia Pictures executives swooned over Ledger when they saw footage from the South Carolina set. "They were over the moon," says producer Dean Devlin. "They were just scrambling to figure out what else they could put him in. It was like this crazy hunt." Ledger was tapped for the lead in "A Knight's Tale," a comic epic now shooting in Prague, and photographed for the cover of the August Vanity Fair. Superstardom? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Matthew McConaughey was the subject of identical hype not so long ago. Still, Ledger seems to have the looks and the talent to really take off, and not just get arrest- ed for playing the bongos naked.
Ledger himself does not seem to care tremendously either way. In person, the actor is frank and polite, but comes within millimeters of being too cool for school. He arrives for lunch looking like an '80s pop star: sleeveless red T shirt, green jeans, a Dolce & Gabbana leather jacket and a wide, black leather bracelet. Ledger is a Camel smoker in a nonsmoking building, and so he's jittery. He's constantly stretching, leaning back in his chair, folding and unfolding his napkin. The actor, who was named after Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights," grew up in Perth. …