"Is this airing live?" Ledger asks one of the handful of publicists escorting him from stop to stop, the women who make the chauffeured Suburbans run on time. He turns away and asks, quietly, "D'ya think it'd be all right if I said fuck' a lot?" One of his Los Angeles-based publicists, a short woman with black clothes and two packs of Kools in her purse, isn't amused. Ledger then tries out a few accents -- Texan, British, Scottish, his native Australian--and considers answering every question in a different one. "That'd confuse 'em, wouldn't it?" he says with a conspiratorial smirk. This is how he keeps himself occupied, perhaps to forget about the task ahead -- a handful of interviews today in Dallas, then a plane trip to Chicago, where the whole promotional dance begins again.
Thirty minutes earlier. Ledger sits in the expansive lobby of a nearby hotel, explaining that this is the part of moviemaking that feels like a job, pronouncing the last word as though it were a pejorative. Standing on the starting blocks of fame, he is restless, anxious. He loves pretending to be someone else in front of a camera -- "it's fun," he says, again and again and again. Making The Patriot with Mel Gibson "was fun." Making A Knight's Tale, in which Ledger plays a country boy jousting his way across 14th-century Europe accompanied by Geoff Chaucer and a 20th-century rock 'n' roll soundtrack, "was the ultimate in fun." But this quick meet-and-greet tour through a handful of cities here and in Australia has absolutely nothing to do with acting. It's about selling, and that is no fun at all.
"The promotional side, the feeling like a product, the being used as a product, being a product--that sucks," he says between yawns and puffs on a Camel Light. He's dressed as though he just rolled out of bed: in patched-up jeans, an olive-drab parka-cum-waistcoat and thong sandals he can't keep his feet in for more than a few minutes at a time.
"It frustrates me. And people are like, Well, it's part of the game,' and it's like, well, it is and it isn't. You don't have to fully play along with it. You can mold it and sculpt it the way you want it, and if people get shitty about it, it's like, too bad. Of course everyone around you professionally--all the studios--want you to go out and do everything." This promo tour is his compromise for refusing to do a full-fledged junket, during which hordes of movie journalists descend upon a hotel, gather around tables and lob softballs and wet kisses at movie stars.
"I am not getting anything out of this," he says. He is on a roll, gathering steam. Ledger is talking about this tour, this very interview. He looks at the tape recorder, as though unsure whether to speak into it or smash it. There's no trace of anger in his voice, only weariness -- or whatever lassitude a 22-year-old on the brink of fame and fortune can muster. He's just trying to convey how seriously he takes his profession and how ludicrous he finds the whole star-making machinery in which he's beginning to feel a bit trapped and entangled.
"Where I benefit professionally is purely by people seeing the movie, not by listening to me talk or finding out anything about me," he says. Earlier this morning Ledger went on another morning TV show, where one of the anchors said to him, "Tell me about your personal life." He said to her, "Tell me about your personal life." The line of questioning ended there.
"I could do all the publicity in the world and do a lousy fucking job in the movie, and bang, that's it," he says. "And, likewise, the opposite: I could do no publicity but an amazing job in the movie, and I'd still get work, ya know what I mean? So that's what I am balancing, and that's what I'm fighting with."
Heath Ledger insists he couldn't care less about being a movie star. That's why, after starring in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You, a relatively smart remake of Taming of the Shrew aimed at the allowance crowd, he turned down myriad teenybopper projects. He could have become Freddie Prinze Jr., a man who never sniffed a turd that didn't smell like a flower, but preferred to sit and starve rather than do a bad job in a bad movie. His friends and family tried to convince him to work; they mistook his confidence for arrogance. But saying no proved far more shrewd than saying yes: The longer he held out, the more studios wanted him. Hollywood loves a tease.