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What The Last 12 Months Of Heath Ledger's Life Were Like

Heath Ledger was undoubtedly one of the greatest actors of his generation, such that his sudden, accidental death in January 2008 hit the industry hard. The Australian actor was a consummate professional, and he elevated every project he was a part of, from the 1999 rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (his breakout role) to director Terry Gilliam's 2005 exercise in weirdness The Brothers Grimm. He had also received an Academy Award nomination for his role in Ang Lee's Masterful 2005 drama Brokeback Mountain, and taken part in Todd Haynes complex and challenging exploration of the life and work of Bob DylanI'm Not There. It wasn't until months after his passing, however, that a very wide audience would be pretty much blindsided by the undeniable enormity of Ledger's talent.

Ledger's performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which he crafted into an enigmatic force of unstoppable malevolence, became the crowning jewel of an exceptional career. That Ledger had died only months after completing the film only added to his performance's legend. The speculation that the role had taken such a toll on Ledger that it essentially cost him his life began nearly immediately upon The Dark Knight's release, and to an extent, it continues to this day. 

The truth about the actor's relationship to the role, as such things tend to be, is quite a bit less dramatic; in his last year on Earth, Ledger did experience some pretty low periods, but he also enjoyed some pretty great times, and many of those came on Nolan's set. This is what the last 12 months of Heath Ledger's life were really like.

Heath Ledger began 2007 by exploring new career options and taking a stand

It's not exactly common knowledge that Ledger had designs on eventually moving behind the camera to direct features, or that he had more than a passing interest in music. In the years before his death, he had spent some time working with the Los Angeles media collective The Masses, learning as much as he could about the craft of directing. While he was at it, he helmed videos for some pretty interesting artists, including "Morning Yearning" by Ben Harper and a pair of clips by Australian Hip-Hop artist N'fa.

In January 2007, Ledger approached Modest Mouse lead singer Isaac Brock with a proposition: he was keen to direct the video for the indie rock band's tune "King Rat," the subject matter of which — illegal commercial whaling — intersected with another of his interests. Ledger worked on the project off and on up until the time of his death; it was completed by his cohorts in The Masses according to his vision, and released posthumously in 2009.

The next month, Ledger was given the opportunity to present at the Academy Awards, where Brokeback Mountain was up for eight Oscars (it went on to win three, for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Score). Ledger turned the gig down, and speaking with Another Man in 2020, his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal recalled why: the Academy wanted the pair to poke fun at the drama, in which two male cowboys fall in love. "I mean, I remember they wanted to do an opening for the Academy Awards that year that was sort of joking about it," Gyllenhaal said. "And Heath refused. I was sort of at the time, 'Oh, okay ... whatever.' I'm always like, it's all in good fun. And Heath said, 'It's not a joke to me — I don't want to make any jokes about it.'"

Heath Ledger threw himself into the role of the Joker

It was soon after this that Ledger began his preparation for the role of the Joker, which he famously took quite seriously. The actor sequestered himself in a London hotel room for the better part of a month, keeping a diary of his — or rather, the Joker's — inner thoughts while nailing down the character's voice, mannerisms, and physical tics, which he was determined to differentiate from all previous portrayals.

Speaking with Empire later that year, Ledger described his unorthodox method for getting into the head of a very unorthodox character. "It's a combination of reading all the comic books I could that were relevant to the script and then just closing my eyes and meditating on it," he said. "It was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath — someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts ... [Nolan] has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what the Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke."

While Ledger admitted to being intimidated by the Batman fandom, he was an actor who loved a challenge, and delving into the mind of the Joker did not take the kind of horrifying mental and emotional toll on him that legend has suggested. Ledger called the experience "the most fun [he's] ever had, or probably ever will have, playing a character," and other involved parties from his sister Kate to Gilliam, who helmed the actor's final film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, have insisted that Ledger was invigorated rather than broken down by his signature role.

Heath Ledger broke up with the mother of his child months before his death

The Dark Knight consumed a great deal of Ledger's attention over his final summer, but in the wake of that taxing yet fulfilling shoot, there came some sad news. In 2004, Ledger had struck up a relationship with actress Michelle Williams while the pair were working together on Brokeback Mountain; their daughter Matilda was born in October 2005. By all accounts, Ledger absolutely doted on the little girl. In a 2006 interview, he called his life with his new family "everything to me — the most important thing I do. Before, I felt like I was floating through life, like a ghost; I may not have even existed." Unfortunately, though, just a year later, everything had changed.

It was widely reported in September 2007 that Ledger and Williams had broken up, and neighbors and acquaintances of the couple blamed the split at least in part on Ledger's drug use, although Williams herself has never confirmed this. While the split was amicable, it also meant that Ledger was forced to spend long periods of time away from Matilda, a situation which weighed heavily on his mind during the last few months of his life.

Heath Ledger struggled with health problems and insomnia while shooting his last film

By October, Ledger was hard at work shooting Imaginarium, and we don't use the phrase lightly; the actor's castmates have since admitted that it was a very difficult shoot, with filming often taking place during chilly London nights. Veteran actor Christopher Plummer recounted his take on the experience to People after Ledger's death in 2008: "We all caught colds because we were shooting outside on horrible, damp nights. But Heath's went on and I don't think he dealt with it immediately with the antibiotics. I think what he did have was the walking pneumonia ... We had to shoot every second we were out there, there was hardly any time to go into the tent or the car to keep warm. We just kept shooting, boom boom boom, there was no pause. It was very, very hard work."

On top of that, Plummer remembered that Ledger was having an extremely tough time with insomnia, which had plagued him on and off for years. Ledger himself mentioned this in a November 2007 conversation with the New York Times. "Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night," he said. "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going." He went on to recount that even taking two Ambien couldn't put him down for longer than an hour, but he quickly moved on to the subject of his craft — and in the process gave us an excellent summation of his entire body of work. "Some people find their shtick. I've never figured out who 'Heath Ledger' is on film: 'This is what you expect when you hire me, and it will be recognizable,'" he said. "People always feel compelled to sum you up, to presume that they have you and can describe you. That's fine. But there are many stories inside of me and a lot I want to achieve outside of one flat note."

Heath Ledger was stressed but clean the month before his death

Less than a month before his death, Ledger visited friends and family in his hometown of Perth, Australia, for the Christmas holiday. He had begun dating model Gemma Ward in November, and in January 2008, her sister Sophie shed some light on what the star's final days had been like: relatively happy and drug-free, but a bit anxious, and missing Matilda. "He was clean and wasn't drinking any alcohol or taking drugs," Ward remembered. "He smoked cigarettes, but that's about it. He was drinking Diet Coke when we were together and he said he was very committed to not drinking alcohol ... He said he was going to London but was quite upset, because he couldn't see his daughter as much as he'd like to. He was traveling so much and I think he was just frustrated with it all."

As for Ledger himself, he left a clue as to his state of mind with the editor of The West Australian newspaper, whom he called to thank for giving him his privacy before he departed his home country for the final time.  "I don't know whether [it was] a conscious thing or an unconscious thing, giving me space and respecting my privacy," Ledger said. "It's just been awesome. I've had the most beautiful time back here and being able to see all my friends and family ... It's really enabled me to be a boy again from home and feel like I'd never left. It's truly been an incredibly therapeutic, and a much-needed, trip home."

Heath Ledger left behind some immortal performances

Heath Ledger passed away on January 22, 2008, from an overdose of prescription drugs. Rumors quickly surfaced that, dedicated as he was to his craft, allowing himself to embody the Joker constituted a mental and emotional strain that had perhaps led him to take his own life — but his death was later ruled accidental, and those who knew him best, including his friend and agent Steve Alexander, have said that Ledger was in no way despondent as he neared the end. "This wasn't a guy who was even for a second thinking about checking out in any way, shape, or form," Alexander told Entertainment Weekly in 2009. "I cringe when I read that he was a tortured soul or a Method actor who couldn't get out of his own way because he'd played this dark character. It's just not true."

For his role as the Joker, Ledger was awarded only the second posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and it took a community effort to finish his final picture, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Ledger had only finished filming about half his scenes, and after briefly considering scrapping the film, Gillian enlisted three A-listers — Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law — to step in to play transformed, alternate versions of Ledger's character. The finished movie received positive reviews upon its release in 2009, and for his part, Plummer was pleased that audiences got to see what he considered to be one of Ledger's finest performances. "Heath was in very high spirits [during shooting]. He was just enjoying himself tremendously. It's a rather fanciful script, and he was wonderful in this role," Plummer remembered. As to Gilliam's decision to finish the picture, Plummer couldn't imagine that the director ever would have made a different decision.

"I can very much understand why," he said. "Because he [wanted] to dedicate it to Heath, of course."