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— by Larry Carroll

Walking into an interview with Heath Ledger and Matt Damon, one can't help but notice that they're drinking the same blended coffee concoction.

Their similarities, however, appear to run deeper than their caffeine-delivery systems of choice: the blonde hair, the fair skin, the rugged-but-vulnerable sensibility that marks so many of Hollywood's young leading men. They were born thousands of miles apart, but there's little doubt that Damon and Ledger have frequently crossed paths, figuratively and literally, in Hollywood, alternating as the up-and-comer, the action-hero lead, the solid second choice. So when it came time to make Terry Gilliam's latest fantasy saga, "The Brothers Grimm," the two embraced their similarities, as well as their shared desire to be cast against type.

"Well, we have similar kinds of ideas about being the lead in a movie, and there are certain things we don't want to be," Damon offers, flashing a roguish American smile.

"It may have just happened," Ledger says of their similarities, writing them off as chance while flashing a mischievous Aussie grin.

 Matt Damon talks about having Heath Ledger as a "brother."

 Heath Ledger talks about working with Matt Damon.

 Matt and Heath show a little brotherly love in "The Brothers Grimm."

 Check out the trailer for "The Brothers Grimm."

Nevertheless, Damon and Ledger admit that they spent countless hours on the "Grimm" set simply hanging out, with the intention of taking on each other's mannerisms in order to make the sibling bond more authentic. According to Damon, the two stars fostered a feeling of brotherhood by sharing "a lot of time talking and having beers," all for the benefit of the production. The similarities between the two were so interchangeable, in fact, that Gilliam effortlessly switched around their intended roles — recasting Damon as the conniving Will and Ledger as starry-eyed dreamer Jake.

"It was just very noticeable how tight they were," says co-star Lena Headey, who appears in the film as Angelika, the third point in the Grimm love triangle. "They just enjoyed each other. They had a really cool friendship going on, and yeah, hung out 24/7."

"We have a similar perspective," Damon concedes, cracking up his cine-brother. "We're total hams."

Now, the duo are leaving behind their shared blockbusters ("The Patriot" vs. "Ocean's Eleven"), misfires ("Gerry" vs. "The Order") and critical breakthroughs ("Good Will Hunting" vs. "Monster's Ball") to tackle Gilliam's vision of the storytellers and fable gatherers who lived once upon a time. As all are quick to point out, however, the cinematic Grimms don't resemble the real version nearly as much as the two stars resemble each other.

"The real Brothers Grimm were scholars; they were these amazing heroes in Germany who discovered this folklore and shone a light on it, and made Germans proud of their heritage," Damon points out.

"Heritage," Ledger chimes in, suggesting which member of the duo did the majority of the talking over those beers. "Yeah."

"At that time they were thinking of themselves as barbarians," Damon continues. "Suddenly the Brothers Grimm came along and said, 'No, our history is beautiful, our fairytales are beautiful.' They were influential people who rose to positions of real prominence in society. Jacob became a politician, they were famous collaborators; they lived together with their families until they were old men working together, sharing, like, a little desk."

 Photos: Check out "The Brothers Grimm" photos.

 Photos: Damon, Ledger and more at "The Brothers Grimm" premiere.

"Now in our movie ..." Damon says, about to weigh in on Gilliam's concept of the Grimm stories coming to life and haunting the brothers.

"This is a fairytale version," Ledger steps in. "They're con men."

"Our mannerisms were the same in that we both wanted to be really cowardly," Damon adds.

For Gilliam (whose twisted vision in the film includes a homicidal Gingerbread Man who wields cookie batter that allows him to morph into deadly formations, a la Robert Patrick in "Terminator 2"), the film maintains the Grimm trademarks of fantasy, darkness and a happy ending.

"The Brother's Grimm were responsible for these fairytales that informed my life and made it as interesting, or as confused, or as wondrous as it is," insists the revered "Twelve Monkeys" director. "The idea of doing a film about the brothers is boring. But the idea of doing a film that's in a sense a fairytale about the Brother's Grimm seemed right. The real men were academics, and they did a brilliant job of bringing together all these tales that had been part of the oral tradition in Germany. The idea of inventing the story and inventing them I felt was only fair because of what they'd done to me as a child."

Oddly enough, however, it isn't a Grimm fairytale that Gilliam cites as his favorite.

"It's Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Emperor's New Clothes,'" he smiles. "Which is all about a child seeing that the emperor doesn't have any clothes on, while everybody else — the adults — thinks he does. And that's about seeing the world through a child's eyes, which is what I try to continue doing even though I'm getting very long in the tooth. I just like to kind of see it with [a kind of openness]. Everything we do in life is conditioning us to compress the world, to say, 'This is reality, this other stuff is just silliness,' and I don't want that. I like to keep it as broad as possible. Fairytales are a way of doing that."

In real life, the 19th-century brothers created a staggering number of enduring characters, including Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. After "Grimm," however, Damon and Ledger both agree that the psychopath made of gingerbread seems destined to become a favorite.

"It's a great sequence," Damon says admiringly.

"It's creepy," agrees Ledger.

"It's a really cool sequence," Damon reasserts. "With all those effects, yeah, it's pretty ..."

"Amazing," Ledger says, finishing his co-star's thought.

Whether sharing coffee, beers or their thoughts on this latest offering from the remarkable mind of Terry Gilliam, these two guys are, it seems, simply meant to be together.

Check out everything we've got on "Brothers Grimm."

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Photo: Dimension Films

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