PARK CITY, Utah — Not even 24 hours after news of Heath Ledger’s death stunned the world, the sun came up Thursday (January 24) on another day at the Sundance Film Festival. There were films to promote, old friends to be reunited and important deals to be made. But everything seemed a bit quieter, a tad more respectful — and inevitably, any conversation would return to the show-business community’s collective shock.
“We’ve lost an incredible talent, an incredible talent,” Charlize Theron repeated to herself, as if still trying to sort out the news in her mind. “I’m still in shock about it, I really am.”
Actress Naomi Watts, in town to promote her film “Funny Games,” pulled out of all her scheduled interviews Wednesday, with a publicist confirming to MTV News that she had flown home hours after learning the news. The actress had met Ledger on the set of their 2003 film, “Ned Kelly,” and dated him for nearly two years.
No matter how close Park City’s temporary residents were to Ledger, or even if they had never met him, the actors and directors here shared their communal shock and sadness.
“I was in an interview with CNN when it happened,” “Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” director Morgan Spurlock related. “They basically told me right before the interview. … It’s shocking, you can’t believe it. … He [lived] not far from where I live in Brooklyn. It’s awful.”
One of the more enlightening perspectives on the tragedy, however, came from a wise veteran actor who has seen more than his share of sad circumstances.
“That’s tragic, in anyone’s life,” sighed ’60s counterculture icon Dennis Hopper, commenting on police speculation that Ledger’s death may have been drug-related. “I took drugs, and I was an alcoholic, and I have 24 years of sobriety at this point — no hard narcotics or alcohol in 24 years. But people today who start using drugs are starting where we stopped. The drugs today are much more powerful.”
Added Theron, who co-stars with Hopper in the Sundance family drama “Sleepwalking”: “I have a huge problem talking about this kind of stuff, because I feel like it’s so sudden, and I think there’s a family out there who’s really mourning. It’s incredibly sad. I think everybody’s incredibly shocked and saddened by it. I didn’t personally know him, there’s really nothing for us to say but [to offer] our sincere support. It’s a terrible thing for a family to go through.”
For someone like Hopper, the inevitable comparisons to another actor who died too young seemed disrespectful to the memory of either.
“James Dean … died in a car accident,” Hopper said of his old friend, who starred alongside him in the classic films “Giant” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” “I didn’t know Heath Ledger, I think it’s really tragic that he died at 28 years old. It’s hard for me to compare [him to] James Dean.”
Although several decades divided them, Ledger and Dean did share a similar, understated acting style, as well as an inner rage that came across as both sexy and dangerous. And the deaths of both will always leave their fans wondering how many more great performances they would have given us.
“It’s tragic, you know?” said Spurlock, summing up the thoughts of many. “You have somebody who’s 28 years old, who was just starting to come into his prime as an actor, and to have him be cut down like this, it’s terrible. For me, now, after having a son, my heart goes out to Michelle [Williams] and to their child. iIt’s a terrible thing. He deserves to be celebrated. He deserves to be looked at for what he was — which is a tremendous talent we lost way too soon.”
For more on Heath Ledger’s tragic passing, read more reactions from colleagues and admirers, as well as casting directors he worked with. Also, watch Ledger talk about his evolution as an actor in a 2005 interview with MTV News.