Take it from acclaimed director Ang Lee: sometimes a little bit of co-worker tension can turn into something beautiful. In a new piece for Empire’s Greatest Actors issue, the director pays tribute to the late Heath Ledger and muses on their experience working together on Brokeback Mountain in 2006. The acclaimed film won Lee an Academy Award for Best Director and saw both Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal nominated for acting awards as well.
In the film, Ledger and Gyllenhaal star as two cowboys who struggle to come to terms with their sexuality (and feelings for each other) across a decades-long relationship. According to Lee, watching the pair of actors build a relationship on and offscreen was something he cherished. “I saw it unfold right in front of my eyes,” Lee recalls, “from rehearsal all the way to filming.”
However, Lee also says Ledger and Gyllenhaal had “a very different attitude towards their work,” which occasionally caused some discourse behind the scenes.
“Sometimes there was friction – not quarreling, but a clash of styles,” Lee recalls. “Sometimes I would mediate that, but they were both good in different ways. They would always make the effort to find a way through.”
Earlier this year, Gyllenhaal also reflected on Brokeback Mountain, and told Vanity Fair that his relationship with Ledger during filming “was based on a profound love for a lot of people that we knew and were raised by in our lives, a deep respect for their love and their relationship.”
Gyllenhaal continued: “There were many jokes being made about the movie, or poking fun at, things like that. And [Ledger’s] consummate devotion to how serious and important the relationship between these two characters was — it showed me how devoted he was as an actor and how devoted we both were to the story and the movie.”
When Lee looks back on working with Ledger, he mostly just feels lucky to have been in the room to witness Ledger’s “God-given gift” before the actor’s untimely passing. Ledger died in 2008, the same year he filmed the project that posthumously won him his Academy Award, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
“Heath Ledger was a brilliant young actor,” Lee shares. “God only knows what he would have achieved later in life. He had so much talent — I’m sure he would have been a great director.”