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For many actors, that chain of events is a dream come true. Ledger is not one of them. "In a way, I was spoon-fed, if you will, a career. It was fully manufactured by a studio that believed that they could put me on their posters and turn me into their bottle of Coca-Cola, their product," he says, his fingers fidgeting with anything he can find--a pencil, his scraggly beard, his beat-up old Samsung phone, the buttons on his army-style coat. "I hadn't figured out properly how to act, and all of a sudden I was being thrown into these lead roles. I didn't have the black room and the black pajamas to prance around making mistakes in private. All my mistakes are on the screen." Most of all, Ledger says, he felt he was undeserving. "I wanted to scrub it all away and start again, to see what my abilities are, if there are any." Or as Jordan puts it, "They wanted him to be Harrison Ford. He wants to be Sean Penn."
So he destroyed whatever buzz he had generated in the industry. Thoroughly. He went after roles in which he wasn't the son or romantic lead. The result was that, with the exception of Monster's Ball, all the films he has made since A Knight's Tale got critical drubbings or have been commercial busts or both (including this year's The Brothers Grimm and Lords of Dogtown), at least in the U.S. Even Brokeback Mountain, which was the talk of the Toronto and Venice film festivals and has generated lip-smacking advance criticism, could be a tough sell. Many people might find the notion of gay cowboys too jarring In Texas, where the movie is partly set, voters just overwhelmingly endorsed a ban on gay marriage. But producer James Schamus is confident people will see the love story, not the politics. "Young girls are going to be a huge part of this movie," he says. And that's largely because of Ledger. "He's managed to become a bit of a movie star and at the same time to protect his own vulnerability."
Ledger's masculinity frames an urgent sensitivity; he gives off the air of being willing to punch someone but only to mask his own pain. He's the kind of guy who has his mom's, sister's and two half sisters' first initials tattooed in Gothic letters on his wrist. ("It spells KAOS, but upside down it looks like Sony," he notes wryly.) But will young girls warm to his vulnerability when it's drawn out by another guy? "I don't think Ennis could be labeled as gay," says Ledger. "Without Jack Twist, I don't know that he ever would have come out. I think the whole point was that it was two souls that fell in love with each other." Then again Ledger's not sure about conventional notions of gay and straight anyway. "I don't think it's that black-and-white, and I think because we label it so harshly, there's just a lot of confused people running around thinking, Oh, f___, which side am I on?"