Heath Ledger has logged more hours saddled to a horse than any other young actor in recent memory.
In August, the 21-year-old wrapped the medieval-era “A Knight’s Tale,” a film that required him to horseback ride, joust and sword fight, just before he landed in Morocco this October and onto a horse to lens “Four Feathers.”
Before that, he played opposite Mel Gibson in summer 2000’s “The Patriot,” a Revolutionary War saga that, yes, called for some horse jockeying.
In fact, Ledger had even gone equine as early as 1997, when the Australian native starred in “Roar,” the Fox series set in 400 A.D. that helped shoot Ledger to fame.
Such nonstop action is perhaps why Ledger engenders comparisons to cinematic swashbucklers.
“I haven’t seen anyone on film like him since Errol Flynn,” says Brian Helgeland, who wrote and directed “A Knight’s Tale” for Columbia Pictures. “He’s the next Errol Flynn as far as I’m concerned.”
Only “10 Things I Hate About You,” a 1999 Hollywood update of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” and “Two Hands,” an Australian gangster film that screened at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, have offered Ledger a respite from quadrupeds.
Set for a June 1 release, “A Knight’s Tale,” which co-stars Mark Addy and Paul Bettany, tells the story of a young squire (Ledger) whose gift for jousting allows him to easily take on his deceased master’s identity. Inspired by Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” the film lensed in Prague, Czech Republic, over a six-month period and is the thesp’s first lead role in a Hollywood feature.
“He’s the star of the film,” says Todd Black who produced “A Knight’s Tale” with Tim Van Rellim and Helgeland. “It’s the ‘Knight’s Tale’ and he’s the knight. It’s his tale, and he’s believable at every turn. A lot of actors, particularly in fantasy or period films like this one, are not very believable; you have trouble buying them. But Heath could put on anything, a T-shirt and jeans like in ’10 Things’ or armor like in ‘Knight’s Tale’ and you’d believe him.”
Ledger began acting in his hometown of Perth, Australia, where at 10 he enrolled in a local theater company. By 16, he had struck out on his own, joining theater troupes the Globe Shakespeare Co. and the Midnight Youth Acting Co., eventually winning roles in independent films and on TV.
His first full-time gig came in 1996 with “Sweat,” an Australian drama series about a school for the athletically gifted, while his breakthrough came when he was cast as Conor, the Celtic hero in “Roar.”
Ledger’s role in “Roar” caught the attention of Dean Devlin, the producer who cast him in “Patriot,” and Helgeland, who remembered Ledger and the series despite its brief run.
“I was looking for somebody for the lead in ‘A Knight’s Tale,'” says Helgeland. “I met with Heath because I’d remembered ‘Roar,’ which was really cheaply made. But Heath was great in it, he was riding around on a horse, sword fighting, all the stuff that he does in this movie.”
In fact, says Helgeland, Ledger does most of his own riding in “Knight’s Tale,” as well as some of the jousting and all of his sword fighting.
“I had 20 stuntmen on the movie and he was the fourth-best stuntman that I had,” Helgeland continues.
Ledger even handled the film’s song-and-dance chores with aplomb. While “Knight’s Tale’s” time period is the 14th century, Helgeland decided to tune the story with 1970s rock music.
“We have a dance number in the movie for which I had chosen a song. But Heath suggested it would be better with David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years,'” he recalls. “I’d run into him on the street in Prague and he said, ‘Hey, I want to talk with you.’ So I went up to his apartment and he played me this song and I agreed that it was better.”
Shekhar Kapur had never seen Ledger onscreen until the director screen-tested him for “Four Feathers,” based on novel by A.E.W. Mason. Ledger plays the central character, a British officer stationed in the Sudan circa 1898.
“He’s afraid to go to war,” Kapur says from Morocco, where the Paramount-Miramax film –which co-stars Wes Bentley, Kate Hudson and Djimon Hounsou– is in production. “He gets feathers of cowardice from his friends who feel he has betrayed them. He can’t live with himself anymore so he goes on a journey to rediscover his own self and in the process he earns the right to give the feathers back, but he goes beyond that to find himself.”
Kapur says the role requires aptitude for action-adventure and emotional struggle.
“I was basically looking for somebody who could grow from a boy to a man and from immaturity to wisdom. I found that for someone his age, he had a remarkable understanding,” Kapur continues, comparing Ledger’s qualities to those of Cate Blanchett, whom Kapur cast as the queen in “Elizabeth.”
The director also admits to being amazed by Ledger’s athletic abilities.
“Sometimes when you do action, you try to do it in ways that you can cut around and use doubles for your actor,” Kapur explains. “There’s a scene where Heath is knocked off of a horse in the middle of charging horses and he has to clamber onto another horse. And Heath actually just clambered up and jumped onto a galloping horse, just from the ground and he did it amongst other galloping horses. We were astounded. That shot is in the movie.”
After “Four Feathers,” Ledger’s slate appears clear, although Helgeland for one has plans for him.
“I want to do a cast sequel to ‘Knight’s Tale,'” he says. “Different movie, but the same cast, including Heath.”
No word yet, however, if the role involves horses.