When Heath Ledger suddenly died from an accidental overdose of prescription medication in January 2008, he was arguably at the height of his career. He had just come off an Oscar-nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain, his record label was in full swing, and his latest turn as The Joker in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight was one of the most anticipated portrayals of the character in history.
To say his untimely death (he was only 28 years old) was a shock would be an understatement. We were all expecting a lot more brilliance from this artist; sadly the world never got a chance to see it.
That’s what makes the documentary I Am Heath Ledger (May 22, 7 p.m.. ET, The Movie Network) so haunting. The full-length film premiered at the Tribeca Film festival in April, and everyone who has seen it agrees that it’s a pretty personal and intimate look at the man Ledger was… and who he may have possibly been, had he not died so young.
We got a chance to see the film too, and while we don’t want to give away any spoilers, here are nine surprising revelations from the must-see project.
He was a secret chess master
Okay so Ledger was actually a few points away from becoming an official “Master” but he certainly rocked at chess. There are several stories about his crazy skill at the game throughout the doc, and apparently he was a Junior Champ back as a boy. He would often stop by New York’s Washington Square Park to try his hand at five-dollar games with people playing there, and he once told People that he tried to play a game at least once a day.
He never wanted to be typecast
It was pretty awesome the way Ledger up and moved from his home in Perth, Australia and landed a spot in Ten Things I Hate About You almost right away. Our teenaged selves were definitely smitten with him in that movie, that’s for sure. It seems like casting agents were too, because the offers for projects flooded in after that. The problem? They were all too similar to his first role, and he needed to branch out. It was around this time that he learned just how much people in Hollywood hated hearing the word “no,” but he stuck to his guns and it eventually paid off.
He had a severe fear of failure
A monumental turning point in Ledger’s career had to be his role in The Patriot alongside Mel Gibson. As a fellow Australian, Gibson was easily one of Ledger’s heroes, and landing the role was a really big deal for him. In fact he felt so much pressure that he was prone to having something similar to anxiety attacks on set.
“He kind of almost ended up pulling out of every movie he ended up doing,” Ledger’s agent tells the cameras in the documentary.
He spent a lot of time self-teaching
An artist at heart, Ledger wanted to perfect his craft. Given that he had no real formal training, the actor would record videos of himself and watch them later on to self-critique and learn. Several of those offerings are on display in the documentary, and again — they’re pretty haunting.
He was obsessed with photography
As one ex-girlfriend of Ledger’s fondly recalls, he had a real penchant for photography and brought a camera everywhere he went. There are stories in the doc of how he could balance light without any kind of meter, and how he found the beauty in his everyday surroundings. No doubt observational skills like that contributed to him being such a great actor.
… and music
One of the best moments in the film comes when Ledger is directing one of his friends in a music video. We’re grateful that he and his friends were able to capture and keep of the behind-the-scenes process, because it means that we get to watch it now, posthumously, as an audience. According to his friends and family, Ledger was always into music, which is why he was launching his own record label, Masses Music Co. at the time of his death.
… and art
Not only could Ledger act, direct, photograph and carry a beat, but he was into more classic artistic endeavors like painting and sketching too. From the sounds of things he always had a project on the go, and he was bursting with creativity that needed to be directed into something. The idea that he may have known his time on this planet was limited comes into play in the film, as some muse that he was trying to do it all before he died.
He was a family man
Leaving home wasn’t always easy on Ledger, since he was actually very close with his family growing up. Indeed his sister Katie is a large part of this film, and some of her stories about her brother are the ones that will bring the most tears to your eyes.
He lived in a version of the Entourage house
Speaking of his Australian roots, Ledger seemed to have brought half the country with him when he first moved to America… and they kept coming from there. There are tons of stories about how Ledger’s entourage would live in his house (even when he wasn’t there) and follow him to set. It was that background that led one of Ledger’s friends to speculate that Adrian Grenier, the star of Entourage, may have been doing research when he attended one of Ledger’s parties. Maybe so, but we all know that the HBO series was grounded in Mark Wahlberg‘s own rise to fame.
Regardless of all that, one thing’s clear: even though Ledger saw unprecedented and sudden success at such an early age, he never forgot his roots.
And we guess that’s just another reason to miss him.