Heath Ledger: The reluctant star who burnt out far too soon

On what would have been the actor's 40th birthday, we ponder whether inner turmoil was the spark behind his tremendous talent

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock (714201i)
Heath Ledger
'I'm Not There' film premiere, New York, America - 13 Nov 2007

From Timothee Chalamet and Ansel Elgort to Joe Alwyn, many of this generation's up-and-coming actors have displayed tenderness, emotional intelligence and a certain rawness in each of their roles. However, has any ingenu ever displayed such torture, such empathy, such wholehearted sentiment as Heath Ledger?

It’s a subjective question, granted, but there’s no denying the Australian actor had a talent that still lingers in the forefront of the industry’s figurative mind, 11 years after his untimely death.

Whatever he touched seemingly turned to box-office gold, with roles in A Knight's Tale, The Patriot and Brokeback Mountain under his belt. And it wasn't just mainstream movies the critically acclaimed Ledger was known for, either, starring in Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There and indie fare such as Candy. ­Indeed, his 18-work filmography, dating from 1997 to 2009, is extensive and impressive considering it spans only 12 years – shorter than you would expect for an actor who made such an impression.

The star, who would have turned 40 today, alas, died of an accidental overdose of prescription medication in 2008, aged just 28. Ledger was broadly recognised as one of Hollywood’s most intriguing, dedicated and consistent actors, rising from humble beginnings in Western Australia. Yet behind his happy-go-lucky public persona, and heart-throb status, lay a darkness; the star battled insomnia in his lifetime, which led to his dabbles with medication, although he kept his struggles behind the scenes.

The man behind the mask

Ledger, born to a teacher and mining engineer, was educated in Perth, where he first tried acting in school plays. Moving to Sydney in his teens to pursue the craft, he appeared in numerous ­Australian TV series, such as Home and Away, throughout the 1990s, finding his breakout role in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You. "I had nothing to run away from in Perth," he previously stated. "It's just that there was all this going on outside of that and I just had to be a part of it."

The rom-com rocket-­launched Ledger's star into orbit, thanks to his nuanced performance and movie-star looks. However, he was not destined to rest on his laurels (and cheekbones), carving out a career as a sensitive actor over the next 10 years, showing variety and skill with roles in The Four Feathers and Lords of Dogtown. An impeccable performance in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain cemented Ledger's status as a true talent of his generation – and if that was the role that made him, was The Dark Knight the one that broke him?

A dark side

It was during the editing of the Christopher Nolan-­directed film – and in the midst of filming his final role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus  that Ledger died. Found unresponsive at his New York apartment, the actor's struggles only truly emerged posthumously.

"For as long as I'd known him, he had bouts with insomnia," Ledger's former partner Michelle ­Williams, mother of his daughter, Matilda, told Interview magazine just two months after his death. "He had too much energy. His mind was turning, turning, turning – always turning."

The star himself also told the New York Times' Sarah Lyall that playing the Dark Knight's Joker – a "psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy" – was taking its toll, with the actor turning to sleeping pill Ambien for relief. "Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night," he said in 2007, when he was filming in London. "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going." 

Struggling with fame

Ledger also struggled with the concept of celebrity, and the attention it brought. "He wanted fame. And then when he got it, he didn't want it. He was mortified, and he felt owned," said his friend, Matt Amato, in I Am Heath Ledger, a documentary released in 2017.

Was the restlessness, that buzz, that creative jitteriness, the key to Ledger’s tangible talent? Williams certainly believed his emotional connection was one of his most precious skills. “I think the interesting thing about Heath, which maybe people have only really fully discovered in his death, is how vulnerable he was,” she said. “There was always that underlying sensitivity. That’s who he was.”

<span>I can't say I was proud of my work</span><span>. People always feel compelled to sum you up, to presume that they have you and can describe you</span><span>. </span><span>But there are many stories inside of me and a lot I want to achieve outside of one flat note.</span>

In I Am Heath Ledger, the actor's friend, the singer Ben Harper, also paid tribute to his fearlessness: "If there wasn't some type of risk involved, he had no time for it. He went all the way to the edge in the time that he had. Some people are just bigger than the world has room for." 

Despite his myriad accolades, the humble Ledger insisted he was never happy with his performances, telling the the New York Times, "The day I say, 'It's good' is the day I should start doing something else.

"I can't say I was proud of my work. People always feel compelled to sum you up, to presume that they have you and can describe you. But there are many stories inside of me and a lot I want to achieve outside of one flat note."

Despite his light flickering out too soon, his body of work – which stands the test of time – provides a legacy that confirms his goal was fulfilled.