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Heath Ledger's mum on his legacy and his daughter

To the rest of us, Heath Ledger was freakishly talented and impossibly handsome but how does his family remember him?

By Caroline Overington
To the rest of us, Heath Ledger was freakishly talented and impossibly handsome but how does his family remember him?
“Incredibly generous,” says his Mum, Sally Bell.
“He had a big heart,” agrees his sister, Kate Ledger. “He was somebody who would do anything for anyone. And he loved his family. He had all of our initials tattooed on the inside of his wrist and when Matilda (Heath's daughter) was born, he had her name tattooed in red, over his heart.”
Heath's mother Sally Bell and sister Kate Ledger.
It is that generous, open spirit that Heath's family seeks to honour as they prepare to award the seventh annual Heath Ledger Scholarship to an up-and-coming Australian actor at a star-studded event in Hollywood on Monday night (Tuesday morning, Australian time). Guests will include Jacki Weaver and the musician Ben Harper; judges for the prize include the actors Rose Byrne, Ben Mendelsohn, and Vince Vaughan; and supporters include Hugh Jackman, Mel Gibson and Heath’s former partner, Michelle Williams.
“We love the scholarship because it’s Heath’s story,” says Kate. “He struggled to get his start but once he was established, he would help anyone, while they were trying to get their break. He believed in people.”
Sally agrees, saying: “He always had an open house. Young Australian actors would come and sleep on his couch while they were starting out. Helping people was what he wanted to do.”
Heath was raised in Perth, but set off across the Nullarbor in “beat-up, second hand Mazda, with P-plates” at age 17 to chase his dream. A year or so later, he moved to Hollywood, where he landed a role in Ten Things I Hate About You.
Heath was California handsome, and after that film came out, he had to resist a zillion efforts to again cast him as the pretty boy.
“People wanted him to do pin-up roles, and he said: wait. I’m not going down that path,” says Kate.
His Mum agrees, saying: “He turned down huge roles that would have paid a fortune because that was not the career path he wanted. He wanted to be challenged. He wanted to play great roles and he did.”
He certainly did: Heath played opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain and it was a revelation. Never before or probably since, have two men been more convincing as lovers on film. A short time later, Heath played a leering, smashed-face Joker in The Dark Knight.
Critics scrambled to find ways to praise him. The New York Times said: “Mr Ledger’s Joker is a creature of such ghastly life, and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterization pulls you in almost at once … Your nervous laughter will die in your throat.”
Heath’s Mum says: “It still takes my breath away.”
Heath's daughter Matilda Ledger, pictured here with her mother Michelle Williams, is now almost 10.
Filming was complete when Heath died, aged just 28, of an accidental prescription drug overdose, which is heartbreakingly easy to do. The loss to his family - his parents, his sister and his half-sisters, his step-sisters and nieces, plus Michelle and Matilda - was monumental.
Matilda is now almost 10, and lives with her Mum in Brooklyn.
“We are all close,” says Sally. “It is such a gift, to have Matilda in our lives, with Heath gone. I see a lot of traits of her father - physically, emotionally – in her, which is lovely.
“We have a wonderful relationship with Michelle. She’s an amazing mother and we all get on really well.”
“We are in constant touch,” says Kate, and in fact, the family just spent a good chunk of quality time together in New York, zooming around the shopping malls and having fun together.
Matilda was still a little girl when her Dad won the Oscar for his turn as the Joker (the statue is “locked up in a safe, in trust for Matilda,” says Kate.) Both of his parents – Sally and Kim Ledger, who separated when Heath was 11 but remain close – and Kate, plus her twin girls, who were then just four years old, went to Hollywood for the ceremony.
“It was such a mix of emotions,” says Sally. “A rollercoaster, because Heath was not there to receive it, and he would have been so proud.”
At around the same time, staff from the LA non-profit, Australians in Film, approached the family about a scholarship in Heath’s name. It offers a generous and particularly useful prize: $10,000 cash; a two year scholarship at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting and Theatre in Los Angeles; a return flight to Los Angeles flying Virgin Australia to attend the announcement ceremony; and – bonus! - a second flight when the winner is ready to transition their career to the United States; a 7 day Californian trip from Visit California; $5000 worth of visa and immigration support services from Raynor and Associates and complimentary lifetime membership to StarNow, with mentorship from professionals in the industry.
“It has become one of the most prestigious awards to win,” says the executive director of Australians in Film, Peter Ritchie. “In Hollywood, people look at the winner of the Heath Ledger scholarship as Australia’s best. Agents take notice. Casting directors take notice.”
Heath’s family support the prize, as do many of Australia’s finest exports, including Hugh Jackman (whose generosity is similar to Heath’s; at an event for Australia Day earlier this year, Hugh joked that half of the 600,000 Australians in the US live in New York, and half of those have at some point slept on his couch), Mel Gibson (who played opposite Heath in The Patriot) and Naomi Watts, among many others.
Judges include Australian actors Rose Byrne and Ben Mendelsohn; the actor, writer and producer Vince Vaughn; and industry heavyweights, including executive producer Adam Schroeder (Zoolander); and casting directors, Ann Fay (Anzac Girls, Packed to the Rafters) and Laray Mayfield (Fight Club, Gone Girl, House of Cards, The Social Network).
Previous recipients include Cody Fern (The Last Time I Saw Richard), James Mackay (The Dressmaker, The Tomorrow People), Anna McGahan (Anzac Girls, House Husbands), Ryan Corr (The Water Diviner, Wolf Creek 2), Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows, The Rewrite) and Oliver Ackland (Party Tricks, Blinder).
Winners are announced at a gala event in Hollywood. Besides Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook, Animal Kingdom) and Ben Harper, this years guests will include Radha Mitchell ( Looking for Grace), Damon Herriman (The Water Diviner); Simone Kessell (Frost/Nixon), Luke Hemsworth (Infini); Ben Lawson (Now Add Honey, No Strings Attached), Peta Wilson (La Femme Nikita), Ursula Brooks (Angels & Demons), Daniel Webber (Sleeping Beauty), Felicity Price (Wish You Were Here), Nash Edgerton (The Square), Grace Huang (Infini), Jessica McNamee (The Vow) , Callan McAullife (I Am Number Four) and Callan Mulvey (Captain America: Winter Soldier).
The finalists are:
Mojean Aria (Hybrids)
David Berry (A Place to Call Home)
Shareena Clanton (Wentworth)
Emilie Cocquerel (An Accidental Soldier)
Ashleigh Cummings (Puberty Blues, Gallipoli, Galore)
Taylor Ferguson (The Turning, Strangerland)
James Fraser (Devil’s Playground, Deadline Gallipoli, The Water Diviner)
Reef Ireland (Puberty Blues, Wentworth)
Joel Jackson (Deadline Gallipoli, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door)
Travis Jeffrey (Unbroken, Gallipoli)
Matt Levett (A Place to Call Home, Devil’s Playground)
Brandon McClelland (ANZAC Girls)
Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood (A Place to Call Home)
Jordan Patrick Smith (Neighbours, Unbroken, Banished)
Adele Perovic (The Code)
TJ Power (Underbelly, The Sapphires, The Little Death)
Harry Richardson (Looking for Grace)
Millie Samuels (The Gods of Wheat Street, Around the Block)
Lily Sullivan (Mental, Puberty Blues, Galore)
Geraldine Viswanathan (Dysfunktion)

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