The Product

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"My family and agents were going, 'Are you fucking crazy?'" he recalls. "And I was like, 'No. It's not an arrogant thing. I have a certain amount of confidence that I can do something other than this.' That's all it is, and it was just believing in that. I was not sure of the outcome, and if it didn't work out, it wouldn't have fazed me. I would have just gone home and done Australian movies or sat on a beach and surfed. It's just ruthlessness, yeah. That is the attitude. Absolutely. It's walking in there with that attitude and not being intimidated by any person in power and looking them straight in the eye and through the eye."

Columbia Pictures, the studio releasing A Knight's Tale, is betting the film will make Ledger a star. The actor says Columbia wanted to find a movie for him after executives saw the dailies for The Patriot, well before the movie's release last summer. That is why, he explains, he ended up on the cover of Vanity Fair a year ago: "The studio was like, 'Let's create a fucking star so our movie will make money.''' Now his face adorns bus boards, beside the tagline: "He will rock you." His is the only mug on the press kit. Ledger is unhappy about that -- it's an ensemble film, he reminds -- but not surprised. It's the studio's way of making him responsible for the film's success. "It's called passing the buck," he says, laughing. "Someone to blame. And I don't let it get to me, because my job's done. I'm not in a hurry to be a star. I had no choice. That's where you really feel a little weight, but that's their job."

Back to the TV station. Just as he was walking in, a handful of young private-school girls in white oxfords and plaid skirts charged at him. It was a hard day's night in the middle of the afternoon, and the driver of Ledger's Suburban rounded them up in his thick arms to keep them at bay. Once they calmed down, three of the girls approached Ledger "just to say hi," explains one. They shook his hand, stared, stammered. Ledger, a good sport, wore the cockeyed smirk of the dazed and bemused. After they left, he explained that such encounters, which have become more frequent, are "surreal." A beat. "And confusing."

Finally, he sits for the interview with the film critic for the local ABC affiliate. It goes smoothly: The critic liked the movie, which puts Ledger at ease. They chitchat about A Knight's Tale and The Patriot; he asks Ledger if he thought of the latter as a breakthrough film, a notion Ledger dismisses quickly. Later, Ledger will say it's enjoyable enough to do an interview with someone who's "enthusiastic" about the movie.

"Most of these people, it's like they have a chip on their shoulder," he says during the very short car ride to the next studio. "It's like you're guilty till proven innocent: 'Show me you deserve this.' And then, it's no fun at all. But I guess I can't blame 'em."

The next stop is a cable news station that broadcasts in dozens of markets. He's ushered into the newsroom and, with his small entourage in tow, led into a conference room where he's kept waiting some 15 minutes. Ledger thumbs through the press kit while one of the publicists mentions how she's working on various tie-ins and ticket giveaways with department stores. Ledger notices a disc in the press kit and asks what it is.

"It's the game that's on the Web site," she tells him.

"The game?" His face puckers as though he's bitten into rotten fruit. There are some things actors would prefer not to know, and chief among them is just how a studio is promoting their film--with Web sites and giveaways and radio promotions, all the grime that covers their "art" with "commerce." Little wonder Ledger complains about feeling like "product." But what is an actor these days but the name brand?

Here, he will be interviewed by a weatherman who greets Ledger by informing him he "saw the flick last night" and "really dug it." He asks Ledger to compare A Knight's Tale to The Patriot, which is like asking one to compare a candy bar to a cucumber; Ledger doesn't even try.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky