How Heath Ledger Used His Own Self Doubt To Fuel His Acting

Heath Ledger is remembered as one of the greatest actors of his generation, but Ledger wasn't as sure of himself as his reputation might suggest. Some of Ledger's more memorable performances include his role as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight," his romantic leading role opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain," and his cynical character in a teen movie take on a Shakespearean classic, "10 Things I Hate About You." Ledger's electricity onscreen is undeniable, and his performances are brimming with life. That's because the actor was able to harness all of his natural nervous energy and gift-wrap it for the audience.

The late actor's friends and ex-partners remember him as a rolling stone. Michelle Williams, with whom Ledger shared a daughter, described him as having an "uncontrollable energy" to Interview Magazine. "For as long as I'd known him, he'd had bouts with insomnia. He just had too much energy," she revealed. When Ledger passed away from an overdose on sleeping pills, this energy was re-interpreted as anxiety. His fellow actor Philip Seymour Hoffman saw things differently. Hoffman says that Ledger's "constant state of movement... didn't see[m] like anxiety to me. It seemed like excitement."

A naturally nervous energy

The actor was well aware of his own nervousness, and in fact consciously used it to his advantage. "My nervous energy is usually the easiest form of energy to tap into," Ledger told Blank on Blank. "It's a pattern for me, going into any job carrying a certain level of anxieties and doubt... I recognize it as necessary because without it I wouldn't try as hard to overcome it."

In this way, the anxiety serves two purposes. On the one hand, this excessive energy can be harnessed directly into performances. On the other, it must be overcome for the sake of the performance, which fuels Ledger's motivation.

Ledger harnessed his anxiety and overcame it

The nervous energy that would come to define Ledger's performances is perhaps best seen in his portrayal of the Joker in the 2008 Batman movie, "The Dark Knight." Ledger was known for his staunch commitment to Method acting, staying in character for the entire duration of shooting projects like "The Dark Knight." For Ledger, this "self-manipulation" is all part of the craft. Both he and his director must work "to convince yourself to believe the story and believe your characters." In his words, "acting truly is harnessing the power of belief." Ledger believed the best way to convince himself was to stay grounded in real emotions like anxiety.

Part of this anxiety sprung from a lack of rehearsal. "I really don't like to rehearse at all," the actor admitted. Instead, he preferred using that time in pre-production to get to know his fellow cast and crew members. Ledger opted to "just throw things out there in the moment, in an attempt to be captured as opposed to recreate, which is what extensive rehearsals can sometimes take away," he explained to Ion Cinema. He felt that a more authentic texture could be reached from a loose, under-rehearsed scene as opposed to a stiffly over-rehearsed one.

Heath Ledger's anxiety may have troubled him, but it drove him to deliver some of the most iconic roles of the past several decades. He wasn't fidgety, he was on fire.