It's been nearly two years since Heath Ledger ran the awards gauntlet with his career-changing, Oscar-nominated turn in "Brokeback Mountain." Since then, save for a little-seen Australian film called "Candy," he's been busy making movies rather than promoting them.
One of those films, the Bob Dylan-inspired fever dream known as "I'm Not There," afforded Ledger the rare opportunity to portray Dylan alongside six other actors (among them, Cate Blanchett). Ledger is Robbie in the story, a riff on Dylan as an actor who is struggling to balance a career with home life. These are problems the 28-year-old has no doubt confronted himself; the actor reportedly had a recent split with actress Michelle Williams, the mother of his daughter, Matilda (Williams co-stars in "I'm Not There").
As an interview subject, Ledger is a jittery — if incredibly likeable — man. A nervous laugh always on the tip of his answers and a cigarette in one hand, he explained why he'd run if he ever saw Bob Dylan on the street, what he just has to do every single day and how "A Clockwork Orange" inspired his much-anticipated performance as the Joker.
MTV: I hear you play a lot of chess in Washington Square Park.
Heath Ledger: Yeah. I've played since I was a kid. I play at least one game a day.
MTV: That's dedication.
Ledger: Yeah, or obsession.
MTV: Smoking and chess?
Ledger: Yeah, they go hand in hand.
MTV: "I'm Not There" is quite a surreal film for the audience member to experience. How did it read on the page?
Ledger: It was a fantastic read. Obviously it was dense, as you can imagine. You immediately understand that here's this man, [director] Todd [Haynes], who's clearly crazy [laughs], super intelligent and out to really create a respectful attempt to portray Dylan. He wasn't trying to categorize him in any way. He wasn't assuming to know everything about him. And that was really refreshing. Biopics kind of annoy me sometimes. It's really hard not to defame someone when you're doing a biopic. I got the sense that Todd was really trying to preserve Dylan's mystique.
MTV: There are a few Dylans you could have portrayed in this. Was it always going to be Robbie for you?
Ledger: I had no choice, really. Michelle [Williams] was cast in the movie before I was. And I read her script. Another guy was playing Robbie, and he pulled out at the last minute. I just kind of put my hand up and said, "I'll be in Montreal. I'd love to be a part of the project." And Todd said, "OK."
MTV: Did you see this as an opportunity to really get into researching Dylan?
Ledger: It's a wonderful excuse to research this figure. I knew very little about Dylan prior to the movie. I knew the obvious songs and a little bit about his history. It was a good excuse to crack open the files, watch the documentaries, read the books and expand my catalog of his music. Therefore, my appreciation of him expanded also.
MTV: What struck you most about Dylan from the research?
Ledger: He was such a chameleon. He had this ability to avoid conforming to public demands and people's expectations. He was constantly evolving, and he let his art evolve as he evolved and grew and matured. That's something I certainly respect.
MTV: If you see Dylan on the street tomorrow are you going to ask him what he thought or are you going to run in the other direction?
Ledger: I'm going to run in the other direction for sure. [He laughs.]
MTV: Why is that?
Ledger: I don't know. There are some people that I admire greatly that I wish not to meet in my lifetime. I think he's best left in the shadows for me.
MTV: There's this little film called "The Dark Knight" you're doing ...
MTV: Michael Caine told me recently that you'd created "one of the scariest performances" he'd ever seen. Is that part of the goal, to scare the crap out of people next summer?
Ledger: It was one of the goals, yeah. There are a few more surprises to him. I don't know what I'm allowed to say. Warner Bros. and DC [Comics], I'm sure they have hit men ready to attack this room if I say anything. They'll shoot me when I leave.
MTV: Is there anything redeeming to this character?
Ledger: Not at all. He has zero empathy. You'll just have to wait and see. It's the most fun I've had with a character and probably will ever have. The movie itself is far exceeding my expectations. I think it's going to be a really fun movie to watch.
MTV: Christian Bale has cited "A Clockwork Orange" and Sid Vicious as two inspirations for your performance.
Ledger: Yeah. "A Clockwork Orange" was a very early starting point for Christian and I. But we kind of flew far away from that pretty quickly and into another world altogether. And Sid Vicious, yeah, I guess so. There's a bit of everything in him. There's nothing that consistent. It was an exhausting process. I actually had quite a bit of time off between scenes — weeks sometimes. But it was required because whenever I was working, it exhausted me to the bone. At the end of the day, I couldn't move. I couldn't talk. I was absolutely wrecked. If I had to do that every day, I couldn't have done what I did. The schedule really permitted me to exhaust myself.
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