When Aaron Eckhart found himself strapped to a hospital bed for a pivotal scene opposite Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” the actor didn’t know what to expect.
The two had not rehearsed the scene in character, but Eckhart heard that Ledger was raising the bar with his performance as Batman’s infamous nemesis the Joker.
“It was a fun day working for me,” says Eckhart. “Heath, out of the box, doing his thing. I felt like he was in such command that I could say anything to him in character and he would come right back with something funnier, better. As an actor, you can’t ask for anything more.
“For Heath to give completely of himself, to open himself up, to be so vulnerable and to take such risks with the character just freed everyone in the room.”
Producer Charles Roven already had a working relationship with Ledger, who died in January from an accidental overdose of prescription medication. The two collaborated on Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm” in 2005.
Roven says Ledger was looking for something different after the two-year hiatus that followed his work in “Brokeback Mountain.”
“He was always part of a very short list of guys we had talked about, but so many things were wonderful surprises,” Roven says. “When we heard his voice, when we see his tongue flick, when he does that thing with his hair when he sees Rachel. The thing about this performance is it really pulls you in. You know this character is deeply disturbed, but you want to spend time with him.”
Regarding that flick of the actor’s tongue, like some wicked clown serpent, Roven says Ledger researched what it would be like if someone had his mouth cut like the Joker’s horrific scarring suggests. In some cases, Ledger told Roven, a person might run the tongue along the wound. So the actor built that defining physical attribute into the character.
Ledger was never able to see his finished performance, though Christopher Nolan did show him the film’s introductory scene, featuring a Joker-masterminded bank heist. For Roven, the portrayal lives on in the film’s popular and critical reception and, indeed, the awards chatter the late actor’s work has ignited throughout the year.
“He had the greatest sense of humor,” Roven says. “He always brought so much fun to the set with him, and I know he’s happy right now, knowing that whatever happens, his work will go down in history as one of the truly great villain performances.”
Editor’s note If Ledger is nominated for “The Dark Knight,” it will be his second Oscar nom. He received one in 2006 for “Brokeback Mountain.”