Written By: J.P. Mangalindan

Ask Heath Ledger what’s more thrilling — starring in the year’s most talked-about film or being a father — and the 26-year-old actor will plead no contest.

“I wouldn’t say it’s as scary as the last five roles I’ve done, but fatherhood’s definitely more exciting and more beautiful,” he says on this brisk Sunday morning. “It’s definitely my greatest achievement.”

Ledger’s still glowing about Matilda, his daughter with actress Michelle Williams, whom he welcomed into the world two weeks ago; while his girlfriend recovers, he finds one of his most important contributions to the family unit are menial tasks: washing the dishes, doing the laundry, ironing.

“What else am I going to do?” he chuckles. “We’re so bloody helpless in the birthing process, you come out realizing how stupid and weak men are. I might as well not be in there! We’re that useless.” He admits admiration, not just for his live-in girlfriend, but for females in general. “The primal strength that women have just exceeds anything that’s within men.”

In Brokeback Mountain, the strength of two men is tested. Set amid the picturesque rural regions of Wyoming during the 1960s, the award-winning New Yorker short story by Annie Proulx chronicles the summer spent by Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two young men trying to find their way through life who end up finding each other. One drunken night, Ennis and Jack realize their sexual tension. Shirts unbutton, belts unbuckle, sparks fly. It’s the beginning of a complicated relationship that spans decades, marriages, even children and resonates with a profound melancholy that’s liable to make even the most macho sheep wrangler shed a tear.

Mainstream gay films are nothing new — Philadelphia even earned Tom Hanks his first Oscar — but Brokeback is the first of its kind to saddle two decidedly masculine stars with a love story as the focus. When Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s script landed in his lap, Ledger remembers being struck by the courage and conflict in these characters during a more conservative era.

“It was probably the most beautiful script I’d ever read,” he says. “It felt like a story that had never been onscreen, which is rare to come across, with these incredibly complex characters. I would have been crazy to walk away from it.”

For two heterosexual men, the idea of intimate homosexual scenes might seem daunting (Gyllenhaal has admitted that kissing Ledger was an “exfoliating” experience).

“It was certainly rough,” Ledger admits. “At the end of the day, after the first take, all the mystery flew out the window. It was, ‘Ok, shit, whatever”. Neither of us really cared anymore and it became about what the next shot was. We didn’t have to make Freudian jokes about it and giggle.”

Before Ang Lee signed onto the project to direct, actors wouldn’t touch the script with a 10-foot pole, but the director brought with him an esteemed reputation — Incredible Hulk aside — for first-class filmmaking. Reference his fresh take on Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility, the sensual volatility of The Ice Storm or his sensitivity in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for a refresher on what Lee’s capable of. A talented visionary and a powerful script was enough to draw Ledger and Gyllenhaal onboard as the leads. It seemed like a brave decision for both, but Ledger immediately swats aside that idea.

“Firefighters are brave. We’re acting,” he retorts. “I’m not hurt. It didn’t damage me. I think it’s quite a shame that we live in a world — we’re moving out of it slowly — where people are so eager to voice their opinions and discuss the ways in which people choose to love one another. Shouldn’t we be expressing our concerns about the way people express anger? It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Though Ledger admits having doubts about the project — “I’m always back and forth about any role I choose” — he doesn’t understand the big hoopla behind a heterosexual actor taking on a homosexual role.

“I guess I never felt that I was putting anything at risk. I’m quite ruthless about my career. It doesn’t matter if it left because I made a creative choice of this nature and if it left, then why would I want to be in an industry that does that? I looked at it as a beautiful opportunity to work with brilliant material and with a brilliant director.”

Early screenings of Brokeback revealed powerful performances. Ledger’s nuanced transformation from easygoing Aussie to confused, self-hating mid-westerner set tongues wagging: Ennis is a man of few words, but the clenching of his jaw and pained expressions speaks volumes.

“Heath wears his heart on his shoulder,” says Gyllenhaal. “He’s the kind of guy who’s always protecting himself in different ways. Whether or not he’s talking, you can sense that from him always and I tried to work with that.” His emotiveness makes Ennis all the more painful to watch as a man torn between conventionality and love.

“Ennis had great potential to love,” Ledger says. “With his wife, it wasn’t really love: It was what he thought should be love. It was a routine he slipped into because it was traditional. Obviously his love for Jack was forbidden and he hated himself for it. He punished himself for it. Essentially, he was a homophobic man in love with another man.”

Critics agree it’s Ledger’s best performance yet, a relief for the actor who muddled along for several years with sub-par films like The Four Feathers and The Order. Believe it not, Ledger never aspired to be an actor.

“It was never a goal of mine as a kid. Growing up in Australia, you never feel like you’re gonna live beyond that city. You wake up, you go to the beach. I never much cared for Hollywood or movies. I wasn’t really allowed to watch them. I think the only the film I was allowed to watch was Wizard of Oz and I watched that a hundred bloody times, probably for that reason. My parents never really encouraged me; they hardly even knew I was doing it. They didn’t shine my cheeks, buy me tap-dancing shoes and drag me to a dance studio.” Ledger attributes his passion stems from involvement in the industry. “It was just something I fell into in a clumsy kind of way. I’ve slowly been kind of getting my coordination together and I’ll continue to do that.”

Brokeback may be a turning point for the actor, leading toward meatier scripts and away from the teen idol roles he became famous for. Industry buzz already indicates a possible award nod for him.

“Obviously it’s an honor for the film to be in that category, but it’s really strange for me that films and performances are compared as if we’re all running the same race. We’re all doing different ‘sports’ and we’re all training differently, so you can’t really compare them ever. They really are there for marketing reasons, but we can’t help but get dragged into it. We’re dragged into this false sense of success if they nominate you and then a false sense of failure when you don’t win.”

Ledger isn’t holding his breath, but you can bet come Oscar night, he’ll be sitting with the rest of Hollywood’s hopefuls. For now, Ledger’s just a happy man, extolling the virtues of fatherhood, wanting to do more for his family than clean house.

“You just feel like leaving, going out there and taking steroids, going to the gym and starting a war,” he says impishly. “But I’m not starting a war — I’m doing dishes!”