It’s all about Heath

THE DARK KNIGHT directed by Christopher Nolan, written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan from a story by David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan, based on the DC Comics characters, with Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman and Gary Oldman. A Warner Bros. release. 152 minutes. Opens Friday (July 18). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNNN

Los Angeles — Heath Ledger is dead. The Joker, however, is very much alive.

The Heath question utterly dominates the press junket for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which was screened to several hundred print and television journalists over the course of one very long weekend.

Although Ledger’s accidental death from an overdose of prescription medication occurred months after the end of principal photography and had nothing whatsoever to do with the film, it is very much an angle that the assembled junketeers want to pursue. In fact, one twerp sitting at my overcrowded interview table tries to get Nolan to acknowledge that Ledger “got into a funk” by playing something so demonic and evil. Another goes that extra mile: Ledger was possessed by the Joker.

Fortunately, Nolan isnt having any of it.

“It’s a misunderstanding of the technical craft, really,” the director explains, as patiently as possible.

“He was a very fine actor, and a very fine actor’s job is to create an artificial character while the camera is running. Of the actors I’ve worked with, he was one of the easiest, most delightful presences on set. For those of us who were lucky enough to work with him and to know him, it’s a real testament to his skill as an actor to see how utterly unlike him this character is. But that’s the great skill of an actor.”

It goes on like this for several hours as the talent file into the rooms to talk about the movie and end up politely refusing to speculate on the soul of a dead man who, by all accounts, was just having a hell of a time reinventing one of the great comic-book villains from scratch.

“The first scene we shot was in the interrogation room, just the two of us,” says Christian Bale. “That was great, because we were allowed to be by ourselves without any crew inside the room. It was just the two of us, with mirrors all the way around us. Everywhere we looked, there were these two freaks sitting at a table, eyeballing each other. And I felt that I was seeing in Heath somebody who got the same enjoyment from acting that I do, you know?

“We just kind of recognized the ridiculousness of what we do, as grown men pretending to be other people and loving that ridiculousness, loving the job all the more for that and taking it all the more seriously precisely because of that, and staying under and staying in character whilst were inside the garb. It was wonderful.”

The question gets asked over and over, from a dozen different angles. Tell us something about Heath.

In the end, it’s Gary Oldman who weighs in most eloquently. This clearly isn’t the first time hes discussed Ledger – with whom he shares perhaps a handful of frames in the released film – but he speaks slowly and deliberately, either to make sure we get the quotes right or to make sure Mr. Joker Possession doesnt misunderstand him.

“From the very first get-go, Oldman says, the first morning I spent with him, I thought to myself, ‘Fuckin ‘ell, this kid’s a bit good.’ It’s almost like he’s tuned in, found a sort of frequency; he’s listening to a radio station we can’t hear.

Other young actors have done it; it’s like theyre going along sub-sonic and then… they go through the sound barrier. You’ve got Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, youve got Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.

I think what you’re responding to in this movie is Heath’s total commitment to the role. I never see an actor, I feel like I’m always watching the Joker. There’s no vanity about the role.”

As Oldman explains it – and this is something I experienced as well – Ledger’s ability to vanish so completely into the role ends up making it easier to watch his Joker without thinking about the doomed actor under the greasepaint.

“You forget, and he makes you forget,” says Oldman. “I’ve never been in a situation like this, where you’ve got a premiere coming up and you’re thinking, ‘Well, Heath’s not gonna be there, how am I gonna feel?’

“And I see it, and I really, honestly just forgot he had died. I just watched this great performance. You think he’s gonna get an Oscar?”

The room thinks so.

Oldman smiles. “And he won’t have to do all that fucking campaigning.”

Aaron Eckhart on playing Harvey Dent:

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Maggie Gyllenhaal on being torn between two heroes:

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Christian Bale on the movie’s themes:

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Christian Bale on the possibility of an R-rated Batman movie:

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Christopher Nolan on finding a new way to blow up a building:

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Christopher Nolan on replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal:

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Gary Oldman on the genius of Christopher Nolan:

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Gary Oldman on the tragedy of losing Heath Ledger:

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