For Kate Ledger, the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of I Am Heath Ledger was a cathartic experience. Ledger and her sister, Ashleigh Bell, made a rare public appearance and gave an even rarer interview at Sunday’s world premiere of Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis’s documentary on the life of their brother, actor Heath Ledger, who died in 2008.
At that time, he had wrapped his transcendent performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight and was in the middle of shooting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with director Terry Gilliam, a friend and mentor. He was at the pinnacle of his acting career at only 28; however, I Am Heath Ledger, featuring interviews with family and friends (including Ben Mendelsohn, Naomi Watts, Ang Lee, and Ben Harper, among others) is an intimate portrait of more than just an actor. It shows Ledger as an artist, a filmmaker, a brother, and a father.
“For us, it was a lot about showing the world what they didn’t know about him,” Bell said during a panel discussion with the directors and Ledger’s longtime friend, Matt Amato. “We knew the photographer, the father. He was such a filmmaker. He was such a creator of everything. It was really important to us to be able to show…”
“More than just the celebrity,” Kate Ledger interjected. “Because he was really not a celebrity. In his eyes, he really wasn’t. We wanted that to come through.”
Ledger’s aversion to celebrity is present throughout the film. In 2001, with the release of A Knight’s Tale looming, Ledger was so uncomfortable being marketed as a Hollywood heartthrob that he excused himself from a meeting with Sony and had a panic attack in the bathroom. “He used to say to me, ‘They pay you to promote the film, not to make it,'” his sister Kate said. “That’s what he really struggled with, putting himself out there and being a salesman and promoting the film.”
More so, I Am Heath Ledger is a thorough look into Ledger’s own love of filmmaking, a life-long passion that would manifest into a career behind the camera toward the end of his life. Directors Murray and Buitenhuis pulled from the actor’s personal archive of footage to use in the film. “It’s very true that Heath was the director, or certainly a co-director of this movie,” Murray said during the panel. “His vision goes all the way through.”
Before his death, he was working on his directorial debut, a feature adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit. Despite being at the height of his success, both professionally and creatively, “he was struggling with his demons,” Alexander recalls in the film. “But he didn’t want to go anywhere but forward.” Though the doc doesn’t elaborate on the “demons” that plagued Ledger’s final days, it does change the narrative about his mental state at that time.
According to the actor’s family, Ledger’s role in The Dark Knight didn’t depress him, as so many tabloids had reported. It energized him.
“It was coming out that he was depressed, and it was taking a toll, and we were going, ‘What?'” Bell said.
“It was the absolute opposite,” Kate Ledger added. “He had an amazing sense of humor, and I guess only his close family and friends really knew that. But he was having fun. He wasn’t depressed about the Joker.”
That’s about as far as the film delves into Ledger’s death. Instead, I Am Heath Ledger chooses to focus on his life. It may not be a complete picture of the actor, but after nearly a decade of rampant rumors and tabloid gossip, it’s nice to see Heath through his own lens.
I Am Heath Ledger will hit select theaters on May 3, before airing on Spike TV on May 17.