The first time I talked to Heath Ledger was in the summer of 2002, and he dropped the F-word so many times I wasn't sure if I could publish a word of the interview. "I couldn't care f---ing less about money," he said. "I never had it before in my life." He didn't care about auditions either. "I hate them," he said. "It just f---ing sucks." What about the critics? "I generally don't give a s--t what people think, particularly about the movie," he said. "I've seen it. I like it." He was referring to Shekhar Kapur's "Four Feathers," a movie that—for the record—no one else liked much. But Heath Ledger, 23 at the time, was making one thing clear: he wasn't going to play the role of the pouty heartthrob. He was a renegade Australian actor, wanting to be taken seriously, trying to find his own way in Hollywood. The last time I interviewed him on the phone, in February 2007, he seemed to be on better ground. He was sweet and amiable, standing on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles where Michelle Williams, his partner at the time, had just dropped him off so he could meet with a friend. Wasn't he getting mobbed by the paparazzi? "That's the funny thing," he said. "If you stand in the middle of the street, no one looks twice at you. I kind of walk through life with that kind of attitude. A hat doesn't hurt. But I only wear a hat if it's sunny."
Ledger was found dead today in a Manhattan apartment. He was 28. While the cause of his death is not yet known—authorities said it might be drug-related—he will now almost certainly become a sort of James Dean for his generation. Ledger made his first impression on Hollywood in the 1999 teen comedy "10 Things I Hate About You," based on Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," and by the summer of 2000, with Mel Gibson's "The Patriot," he was as OMG! swoon-worthy as Justin Timberlake or Leonardo DiCaprio. But rather than mount his career around his good looks, he went in the opposite direction, uglying himself up in the independent films "Monster's Ball" (2001)—in which his character killed himself—and "Lords of Dogtown" (2005). That was also the year of his best performance, as Ennis Del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain," a movie that earned him an Oscar nomination as a tragically closeted gay cowboy in love with Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist. The movie's elegiac ending, where Ennis hugs the shirt of his dead lover, will now take on an even more bittersweet aftertaste.
Ledger met Williams, the mother of his two-year-old daughter Matilda, on the set of "Brokeback," and for a time he seemed to be less restless. "She's a great mom," he said to me last year. "As a dad, I've been trying to work as little as possible to devote myself to Michelle and Matilda. All you can do is give your child an infinite amount of love and space and creativity and defend her from pains and keep her fearless." He said he would wake up every morning between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., depending on when their daughter started crying, where the two lived in Brooklyn. "We make coffee or walk to our local coffee shop and drink with our parents and friends on the block," he said. "It's the usual stuff, very simple things. If we need laundry, we pay the laundromat. If the house needs food, I go get groceries. At the end of the day we put her down and it's mom or dad time. We'll watch a movie or go and have a date."
But Ledger and Williams split in September, while they were both preparing to do press for their second film together, the Bob Dylan biopic "I'm Not There." Ledger's final completed film role is in "The Dark Knight," which will be released this summer, in which he plays the most demonic version of the Joker yet, which may not be easy to watch in the wake of his death. "I've been bouncing around like a lunatic for the last four months," he said when we last talked. "It's a little premature to say how different it's going to be, because it's still churning. I tend not to commit myself 100 percent to one mold until I'm in makeup and I've been lit. But I definitely have a different take on him." Then he had to go. "Sorry, I got distracted. Can you hold on a second?" he said. "My friend is calling me"—the two were collaborating on a newly formed music label together. But Ledger himself didn't have any musical aspirations. "My singing is strictly restricted to the showers, the bathroom and to my ears only, thank God."