Heath Ledger was only 28 years old when he died in his Manhattan loft last January 22, 2008. According to the New York City medical examiner, the Oscar-nominated actor for Brokeback Mountain "died of an accidental overdose of painkillers, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medication and other prescription drugs."
Before Heath's untimely demise, he granted an interview with a group of journalists visiting the set of The Dark Knight in Chicago last year. The following are excerpts from that interview:
Question: Everyone says that you are kind of fearless about taking on this role—is that really true?
Heath Ledger: I definitely feared it anything that fears me, I guess excites me at the same time and, so yeah. I don't know if I was fearless, but I certainly had to put on a brave face and believe that I have something up my sleeve and something that was different.
Q: Did you ever watch Jack Nicholson's version of the Joker?
Heath: Oh yeah, not after I got the role, but I've seen it many times before. I was a huge fan of it and but having seen [director] Chris Nolan's first film, I knew that there was a big difference between a Chris Nolan film and a Tim Burton film. And so therefore there was enough room to for a fresh portrayal. And so I kind of steered away from what Jack did. Hopefully.
Q: Is the new Joker once a normal person? Unlike say, Nicholson's Joker was?
Heath: Yeah, he was once normal. And I definitely came to my own conclusions about Joker's background. I don't know if I might be putting my foot in my mouth by giving you that much, I guess it's my secret at this point. So, I don't know if this is the first time I've had to speak about it. And no one's really prepped me about what to say.
Q: How long does your makeup take?
Heath: About an hour and a half kind of thing. It's pretty quick. They've come up with a new technology for the mouthpiece, as the scars are made out of silicone, not prosthetics. And so they have free silicone stamps that they put on [gestures to his face] here, here, and here. My whole bottom lip is fake, essentially and they glue it on in [gestures to his lips] here, so it takes a half-hour to put those on. And then 20 minutes to a half an hour to paint the face.
Q: What does your child think? Was she scared? [Heath has a daughter with BrokebackMountainco-star Michelle Williams]
Heath: Um, she just had frowned at him. I don't think she connected me to him.
Q: Tell me about your preparations for the role.
Heath: It's definitely the icing on the cake to do all the research prior to shooting for sure, and there is something about the metaphor to work behind the mask and from within a mask. It always gives you the license to do whatever you want for the freedom, for your feeling like you're being judged or viewed, and so I'm literally wearing the mask now, which empowers me twice as much to kind of feel free and feel unrestrained.
Q: How do you get into this evil character?
Heath: I think we all have it in us. Sometimes I'll connect some scary thoughts. It's kind of like eating raw meat. I don't know what that does to your mouth and your eyes, and simple little visuals like that. That kind of twisted mind a little bit, and it feels evil when it's not necessarily an evil thought, but it may look and come across as evil. I guess the rest is just trusting your research.
Q: Do you have big fight scenes with Christian Bale?
Heath: Christian's beat me up a couple times...
Q: The Joker gets beaten up quite a lot?
Heath: Not hard. He's a total gentleman about it, but you know... been physical, but I enjoyed that I get battered and bruised, I like feeling pain too. It's kind of fun. I like it.
Q: Tell us more about your scenes with Christian because the Joker is the iconic Batman nemesis.
Heath: Well, firstly, it's an honor to work with Christian and the cast in general is pretty outstanding. Every single one of these people I've wanted to work with and have inspired me at some point. It's ridiculous. Gary Oldman is mind blowing. And then after he leaves the interrogation room, Batman arrives and suddenly I realized what movie I was in, and it's quite fun actually because supposedly nothing really gets under Joker's skin, including Batman. It's quite easy as an actor because it's kind of funny seeing somebody dressed up in a Batsuit it's easy to laugh at it, but he's incredibly professional and incredibly focused and one of the loveliest guys I've ever worked with and a brilliant actor. Even down to how serious Christian takes it and how he transforms and his voice shifts, and how aggressive he gets. It's really, really inspiring stuff.
Q: So the concept is that Batman uses fear and I guess the Joker feels no fear of Batman. Is that part of the relationship?
Heath: They can't really live without each other. It's that kind of relationship, like they have no real purpose in life without each other. So they don't really want each other dead.
Q: Could you describe what sets Chris Nolan apart from other directors?
Heath: He drinks a lot more tea than I've ever seen anyone ever drink. That definitely sets him apart. He's so young, but seem so old, and he sees just incredibly mature and organized and relaxed and he's definitely in his world, and he has a wonderful relationship with his DP [Director of Photography]. Those two seem to have the entire world mapped out. And we just kind of follow in their paths. I couldn't imagine what it's like directing a movie but he manages to keep a clear head.
Q: Since he's also the co-writer, did he involve you in any fine-tuning of the Joker's character?
Heath: Me? No. Not really. It was all there it was all on page. They did a really good job.
Q: He seems so serious, how do you know if he likes your performance?
Heath: I guess when he laughs, you know, whenever he's not taking it too seriously which is quite often. It's just the way he holds himself. He seems like this very old soul kind of guy but he is youthful when he talks about his children, you know kind of that... I guess.
Q: Everybody has been saying how dark the film is, is there any moment of kind of twisted fun that the Joker kind of brings with him to the table with him?
Heath: Yeah, all the time. There is nothing consistent about him at all. So he's not consistently dark or consistently fun or funny. He's just going up and down the whole time.
Q: Did you have fun in terms of playing it?
Heath: Yeah, it's the most fun I've had playing a role. I'm really surprised Chris knew that I could do it, or thought that I had something in me like this. And I don't know how he came to cast me to do it. But yeah, it is the bomb. It's definitely the most fun I've had and the most freedom I had and the work schedule is great. I work two days and have three weeks off. It's been like that for six months.
Q: We understand these stunts are a real as possible, and there's not much CGI.
Heath: Christian did want to do his own, but I know Christian, he went and stood up on the Sears Tower himself. They took him right up to the very top, and they took his feet right to the edge and they put him on a thin wire and he just leaned off the tower like this. So I thought that was a pretty cool story. There's been a lot of car chases and there's an IMAX camera that got busted up got jammed between a truck and a car and they just replaced it and kept on shooting.
Q: Is this the most expensive movie you've ever made? Is it different from doing something that's an indie?
Heath: Yeah, it's completely different. It doesn't really change that space of time between action and cut; that's always the same no matter what's around you. It's the same place you live in, but yet the different ball game, it's quite amazing. It's quite jaw dropping. It's been really a lot of fun watching it.
Q: Have you run into Nicholson ever since you got the part?
Heath: Oh, I wish. I never run into him, but I'd like to, I may not literally, but...
Opening on July 17 across the Philippines, The Dark Knight will be distributed worldwide in theatres and IMAX by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company.)