it's unnerving to see heath Ledger's huge face looking down on Toronto. The 22-year-old Australian actor isn't just part of the popular billboard for his new film, A Knight's Tale -- he is the billboard.
Look closely at that face, separate the parts and you discover that he shouldn't be as good-looking as he is. He's got beady eyes, a wide, flat nose and stringy blond hair that looks as if it's been through a bad home perm.
But put the pieces together, toss in a font of natural charisma that flows the moment he steps in front of a camera and you've got a movie star.
Oh, and he can act.
He caught our attention in 10 Things I Hate About You, that smart teen remake of The Taming Of The Shrew, playing Patrick Verona, the rakish seducer of Julia Stiles. Then he popped up as Mel Gibson's son in the blockbuster The Patriot, and while Mel's over-emoting was hard to endure, we happily soaked up Ledger's performance.
When rushes of his scenes in The Patriot arrived at Columbia Pictures, studios execs were blown away by the then 20-year-old's movie-star presence, and desperately started searching for a film to showcase his talents.
They came up with writer/director Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale, which casts Ledger as 14th-century British peasant William Thatcher, who impersonates royalty so he can enter jousting tournaments across Europe.
It's a postmodern rock comedy that shakes up its medieval setting with a script that includes hip, modern-day slang, great tunes and close-knit camaraderie among the characters. And then there's Heath, front and centre.
"The script was such an amazing read, such fun," says Ledger on the phone from New York. "But what I thought when I read it was, "Boy, this is such a risk. How the hell is Brian Helgeland going to pull this off? He's written 400 pages of entertainment into a 140-page script.'
"It wasn't until I sat down and spoke with Brian and saw the enthusiasm and passion in eyes that I knew he could do it and I was going to have fun making it, and I was right."
Having fun is Ledger's raison d'etre. "It's all about the process of making films for me, not what comes out afterwards. I can't control that," he says.
He's known as a guy who likes to have a good time. During the shooting of A Knight's Tale, Guinness provided an unlimited supply of beer for Ledger, which, along with co-star Mark Addy, he enjoyed to the fullest. He gives off that laid-back but assured Aussie vibe that makes guys want to sit down and have a pint with him and makes girls swoon.
But if you stare deeply into those small eyes, you see an intensity that's startling in so young an actor. Leonardo DiCaprio had it when he was that age, and, like DiCaprio, Ledger knew as a teenager that he was committed to acting.
"The story that I was acting every weekend as a 10-year-old phenomenon has been blown up by people," says Ledger. "I didn't know who I was at 10. But by the time I was 14 years old I was working professionally, and by 16 I'd told my parents I wanted to move to Sydney to work."
The son of divorced parents (Ledger spent three weeks living with one parent and the next three with the other), he was mostly inspired by his older sister, Kate, who works in theatre and encouraged his decision to move cross-country from Perth to Sydney.
"Man, I was just so set on doing it," remembers Ledger, "and my parents knew they were going to become either my enemy or a support system -- that was it -- so they gave me a pat on the back and said, "Go get 'em, kid.' They're big believers in not breaking a kid's spirit."
He got TV work, which led to the lead in Fox TV's short-lived series Roar, a small-screen take on Braveheart that allowed Ledger to move to L.A. Roar tanked, but Ledger got noticed. Director Gil Junger refused to succumb to the pressure to cast an American teen heartthrob in 10 Things I Hate About You and made sure he got Ledger.
After 10 Things, Ledger was offered the lead in every Hollywood teen comedy, but he refused to bite. He hates teen comedies, and wanted to make a movie that meant something. The hottest male thang in L.A., he was unemployed for a year.
"I was so broke I bummed money from friends and ate two-minute instant noodles," laughs Ledger. "It was no fun, but I knew it would be a drag to make those movies. I would have been bored."
He landed the role in The Patriot after a bad first audition during which he stopped midway through, apologized for wasting everyone's time and walked out. It was that intensity thing again.
With the release of A Knight's Tale, Ledger is the Hollywood "it" boy. No more two-minute noodles. He and girlfriend Heather Graham, whom he met in Prague while filming A Knight's Tale, can afford to eat whatever they want.
A tight-lipped boyfriend, he doesn't like to talk much about Graham, and even his many Web sites come up short on couple sightings. And in an unusual Hollywood dating twist, the 31-year-old Graham is the older of the two by almost a decade. Now that's an endorsement of Ledger's drawing power.
Heath Ledger is one of those rare young actors who are both hunky and gifted. Here's where he stands compared to other Hollywood it actors when they were the same age.
At the age of 22:
Heath Ledger has been in six feature films and on two magazine covers
River Phoenix had been in 12 feature films, received one Oscar nomination (Running On Empty) and been on eight magazine covers
Leonardo Dicaprio had been in 11 feature films, received one Oscar nomination (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) and appeared on five magazine covers
Tobey Maguire had been in seven feature films and had one nervous breakdown
had been in six feature films was studying journalism at the University of Missouri
A KNIGHT'S TALE written and directed by Brian Helgeland, produced by Helgeland, Tim Van Rellim and Todd Black, with Heath Ledger, Rufus Sewell, Shanynn Sossamon, Paul Bettany and Mark Addy. An Escape Artists/Finestkind production. A Columbia Pictures release. 132 minutes. Opens Friday (May 11). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 97. Rating: NNN