Heath Ledger is no stranger to war, Hollywood-style. After all, the Australian actor's big break came in Mel Gibson's Revolutionary War drama, The Patriot, as the son eager to get in there and fight for his as-yet-unborn country.
His latest film, The Four Feathers, would seem to be cut from the same cloth. Set in the British Empire of 1875, it's the story of a promising soldier (Ledger) who opts out of the military on the eve of his regiment being sent to quell an uprising against the crown in Sudan. Labeled a coward by his friends and his fiancee (who give him the titular feathers as a sign of their contempt), he changes his mind yet again and sets out for Africa, determined to prove both his bravery and his loyalty.
Both films deal with war, with young men who are a little too impetuous for their own good, with sons struggling to live up to the reputations of their fathers.
But The Four Feathers, Ledger insists, is a far different film from The Patriot.
For one thing, there are the little matters of time and money. The Patriot had a lot to play with, The Four Feathers -- which has also been inviting comparisons to David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, thanks to the shared desert settings and British colonialism themes -- not nearly as much.
"The Four Feathers never felt like a large-scale movie," Ledger says over the phone from Dallas, where's he's making a quick promotional stop in support of the film, which had its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last week. "The studio asked [director] Shekhar [Kapur] or another Lawrence of Arabia, and Shekhar was like, 'Yeah, but they shot that over nine months, we shot this over three; we didn't have a lot of time. And The Patriot, that had just endless money, that was a $150 million movie, they could spend nine hours of the day just waiting for a cloud to move. We couldn't do that, we had to shoot around the elements."
But the differences go beyond practical considerations, Ledger insists. "The Patriot was an epic journey of a nation, a rebellion, while this picture was an epic journey of one's soul, about discovering one's self."
In addition, Feathers' Harry Faversham is a far more complex character than Gabriel Martin, the knee-jerk warrior Ledger portrayed in The Patriot, who never doubted that his rightful place was at the forefront of battle.
"He reads on the page, my character, as a coward," he says. "I mean, I looked at it and said, 'This guy is a coward, he doesn't want to go to war, he's using his marriage as a cover, and his friends are sending him feathers of cowardice, and he deserves them. And what he's doing, he's going out to try and reclaim a little dignity.' That's how it read.
"But what I saw in it, and what Shekhar confirmed, is that, in that act of cowardice, he's being quite courageous. That's where his courage came from. There was a lot of dynamic involved in each decision [he made], in each action. There were a lot of layers, a lot of subtext."
Unfortunately, not all those layers, not all that subtext, will be available to American audiences. Some 50 shots were trimmed from the film, Ledger said, to ensure it would get a PG-13 rating, as opposed to the more restrictive (and potentially less lucrative) R.
"It does kind of drive me crazy," Ledger admits, while acknowledging it probably drives director Kapur even crazier. "There are little things. At the end of the movie, when I'm stabbing this guy, in this version, I stab him once and that's it. In the other version, I stab him, like, 50 times. It's a big, belching scene, and I'm just ... the emotions of my character just come pouring out.
"The ratings in America are a lot stricter than everywhere else," he says. "Everywhere else in the world said, 'Yeah, that's fine.' If you ever get to see what the rest of the world sees, it's a helluva lot more intense."
Intense has proven a good adjective to describe the 23-year-old actor. Following a series of Australian film and television roles, he starred in the short-lived TV series Roar on Fox (in which he got to play a 4th-century Celtic warrior) and the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. Light beginnings, for sure, and his subsequent films included the action-comedy A Knight's Tale. He's shone most brightly when he's been most serious.
Those roles include not only The Patriot and The Four Feathers, but also Monster's Ball, in which he played the emotionally conflicted son of Billy Bob Thornton's rotely racist prison guard. Of the film's four main players (including Oscar-winner Halle Berry), Ledger ended up with the least screen time; he was on the set for only two days of the three-week shoot. But it's his attacks of morality, as well as his gruesome fate, that set up the film's heart-rending shifts of allegiance and heartbreaking resolution.
Surprisingly, Ledger accepted the role in Monster's Ball pretty much sight unseen. "Wes Bentley [one of his Feathers co-stars] was attached to the role, but something came up, he needed to spend some time with his family. So he brought the script to me and said, 'Look, this is a great movie, it's a great cast, and can you help me out of a sticky situation?'
"I came on board only two weeks before shooting. I really had to trust what I'd heard over the phone, what I'd felt over the phone while talking to the director."
Which is one thing Ledger has learned in a career that looks to be heading nowhere but up: Work with directors you can trust, who know what they want from their actors. Like Monster's Ball's Marc Forster and Feathers' Kapur.
Acting even the most complex character, he explains, is so much easier "when you have someone like Shekhar, who hands you a brain on a plate. That just makes your job a helluva lot easier."