New York — HEATH LEDGER is driving me home. Movie stars don't usually deign to drive journalists anywhere, especially long distances that require time, effort and knowledge of the arcane, helter-skelter rules of the New York streets. But this Brooklyn transplant of just five months powers his car -- a hulking blue BMW -- with the leisurely assurance of a cowboy on the range.
He's slung back in his seat, his long legs stretched out in front of him in ratty jeans, a beat-up black sweatshirt, hood pulled over his cropped, dusty brown hair, obscuring his features. In movies, the high cheekbones slash across the screen. In person, he merely looks indistinct, pleasantly healthy, pleasantly good-looking, curiously unassuming.
"This is my life when I'm in New York. I drive Michelle everywhere," he says, referring to his partner and "Brokeback Mountain" costar Michelle Williams. "I even got the whole driver thing when she has to run in somewhere. I'll put on the blinkers. I'll stand out in front waiting for her. I'll open the door for her."
Ledger is wry about his transformation from movie star to chauffeur -- but he's also not kidding. On the day we meet, Williams is about to give birth to their first child, a girl. They're also moving to a new house in the Boerum Hill district of Brooklyn. As he cruises up the West Side Highway, the Australia native chats about the rapid life changes of the last couple of months. He sold his bachelor pad in Los Feliz. He moved east. He's starting a family -- and here the conversation drifts back, as if by some gravitational pull, to the couple's plans for natural childbirth, the doula who's tutored them, their foray into a hypno-birthing class, which didn't work for them. ("I don't think we'll be throwing Michelle into a trance.") They keep the sonograms on the refrigerator.
"The very early ones -- it's just this part," he says, gesturing to the bottom half of his face. "It's just two little nostril holes and then the shape of the lips -- it's Michelle's mouth. It's so bizarre. These little porcelain lips that are exactly the same shape as Michelle's. It's just adorable."
Ledger is in fact so organized he's written himself a little script for things to remember to say.
"I just need to meet her. I need to hold her," he says of his daughter (who did, in fact, arrive three weeks after this interview).
Ledger could be just another involved hipster dad-to-be. In a way, he's shyer about his much more public transformation -- the one that everyone in America is about to see. This fall shows him in a pair of contrasting roles. "Casanova," in which he plays the raffish title character, showcases his able comedic chops. It's hardly the story of the real 18th century Casanova -- just an amusing riff on a mythical Casanova, lover nonpareil of women, who falls for the one freethinking woman in all of Venice who doesn't want him. With an uncredited rewrite by Tom Stoppard, it's reminiscent of "Shakespeare in Love."
Ledger's other film, "Brokeback Mountain," is the one that represents his full-tilt break from the past -- his evolution from dude to one of the most wrenching and poignant actors of his generation.
A slow route to success
MOST big stars show glimmers in their earliest performances of the talent to emerge. Remember Tom Cruise as the psychopathic cadet in "Taps"? Mel Gibson in "The Road Warrior," or the hilariously priggish Daniel Day-Lewis in "A Room With a View"? Twenty-six-year-old Heath Ledger is not one of those stars.
Save for several potent minutes in the indie "Monster's Ball," there's little in his resume -- from his American debut in the teen comedy "10 Things I Hate About You" to the Arthurian romp "A Knight's Tale" and the action-adventure "The Patriot" -- that prepares the audience for the depth and ache of Ledger's Ennis Del Mar, the cowboy at the center of "Brokeback Mountain."
Based on an E. Annie Proulx short story, the $13-million film, directed by Ang Lee and shot in Calgary, Canada, is the tale of two dirt-poor cowboys (Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) and their love for each other, carefully suppressed and hidden from the world around them. Ever since it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival this year, the film has been colloquially known in Hollywood as "the gay cowboy movie." Yet the film's heroes are a far cry from what's now become an acceptable stereotype in American pop culture: the liberated, confident and often campy gay man, which populates such mainstream hits as "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."