Gay Culture: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal on Playing Gay Cowboys

Brokeback Mountain is a love story for our generation
–Heath Ledger

An epic American love story, “Brokeback Mountain,” based on the short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx and adapted for the screen by the team of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Set against the sweeping vistas of Wyoming and Texas, the film tells the story of two young men–a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowboy–who meet in the summer of 1963, and unexpectedly forge a lifelong connection, one whose complications, joys, and tragedies provide a testament to the endurance and power of love.

Early one morning in Signal, Wyoming, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet while lining up for employment with local rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). The world which Ennis and Jack have been born into is at once changing rapidly and yet scarcely evolving. Both young men seem certain of their set places in the heartland — obtaining steady work, marrying, and raising a family — and yet hunger for something beyond what they can articulate. When Aguirre dispatches them to work as sheepherders up on the majestic Brokeback Mountain, they gravitate towards camaraderie and then a deeper intimacy.

At summer’s end, the two must come down from Brokeback and part ways. Remaining in Wyoming, Ennis weds his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams), with whom he will have two daughters as he ekes out a living. Jack, in Texas, catches the eye of rodeo queen Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway). Their courtship and marriage result in a son, as well as jobs in her father’s business.

Four years pass. One day, Alma brings Ennis a postcard from Jack, who is en route to visit Wyoming. Ennis waits expectantly for his friend, and when Jack at last arrives, in just one moment it is clear that the passage of time has only strengthened the men’s attachment. In the years that follow, Ennis and Jack struggle to keep their secret bond alive. They meet up several times annually. Even when they are apart, they face the eternal questions of fidelity, commitment, and trust. Ultimately, the one constant in their lives is a force of nature — love.

Getting the Role

Jake Gyllenhaal: I met with a different director about the movie years ago. At the time, I was a teen, so it wasn’t a realistic prospect. I was immediately drawn to “Brokeback Mountain,” because love stories haven’t been told this way in a long time. Movies I’ve seen in recent years have avoided the struggles and the trials that it takes to actually be in love and keep that going. When I heard that Ang Lee was going to make it, I thought, I have to do this movie.

Heath Ledger: I committed to play Ennis Del Mar for Ang Lee without having met or spoken with the director. I trusted that story in Ang’s hands. I loved the script because it was mature and strong, and such a pure and beautiful love story. I hadn’t done a proper love story [prior], and I find there’s not a lot of mystery left in stories between guys and girls; it’s all been done or seen before.

The Script

JG: I was surprised at how similar the script and the story were, although Lureen’s story was not as substantial as it is now. Joy set up three voices, three separate marks in the script, for Heath and I. Our voices change; they get progressively deeper.

HL: We all spent time with Ang talking about and rehearsing our characters’ stories. His attention to detail is microscopic; he doesn’t miss a beat. He’s a wonderful filmmaker who always seems to know exactly what he wants. He slips into possession of the story he’s telling with ease.

The Characters

JG: This is the first time I’ve ever played a character spanning a long period of time. Ang said, it’s not only the makeup and the wardrobe but also the voice and the movement and the behavior–everything combined into one. He made me feel empowered.

Between Jack and Lureen, I think there’s real love — but it’s real love without that sexual bond, which I think is somewhat [closer to] friendship. He probably makes a decision to go be with her because that’s his mask, going with what society says is the right thing to do. All this time, there’s this aching to be with Ennis and to have a life with him. I think she knows; she probably has an idea of it — that something’s going on. The question of identity, whether it’s sexual or whatever, is what makes this movie so powerful. My own struggle with who I am, and who I am to other people, and what masks I put on, is hopefully interlaced with this character.

HL: I think Ennis punishes himself over an uncontrollable need — love. Fear was installed in him at an early age, and so the way he loved disgusted him. He’s a walking contradiction.

JG: The way Ang described Jack, and the way it’s been written, is, he’s more open to his emotions — and to a relationship. Ennis is more withdrawn. Jack, to me, tries really hard to hold on to the one thing that he knows is real in his life — his love for Ennis. Somewhere in him he has enough courage to say, Let’s try this. Let’s take this risk, but I need you to take it with me. I can’t do it alone. There comes a time, I think, in every relationship, where you have to say, “Are you gonna make this sacrifice or not. And if you’re not, then I’m gonna find somebody else who is maybe more willing.”

Working Together

JG: Heath and I trusted each other enough to take risks. It was wonderful creating an intimacy with him. He made me feel comfortable; he made me want to be present, and that’s the best thing you can ask for from someone you’re acting with.

HL: It was great working with Jake. He was a very brave and talented actor to work with. I had fear going into it, but that was all the more reason to do it; it was exhilarating when I committed to the movie. Michelle’s ability to dive deep within her soul never ceased to amaze me. She’s a brilliant actress.

Preparing for the Role

HL: I went down to Texas to visit Larry, who’s like the authoritative father figure in that world. I had the privilege to be toured by him to all of the real-life The Last Picture Show places. We went to the ranch where he grew up. I took photos, and he talked to me about the West. He’s very generous about sharing his experiences — and his books, for art department research. He also gave a list of places to visit in Wyoming. So I went all over Wyoming, where Annie Proulx also spent some time with me. Doing the research, and being there in Wyoming, really helped a city person like myself.

The American West

JG: There’s a metaphor of the whole West, how the West was changing at the time from the Old West to the New West. Ang likes to say that Jack represents the New West, and Ennis represents the Old West. They’re two people, two landscapes.

Horse Riding

JG: Heath has known how to ride since he was a little kid, and he’s already done movies where he’s ridden a horse. I knew nothing about riding horses. I came up a month before we started shooting, for, as we called it, “cowboy training camp.” Getting on a bull wasn’t too freaky; I trusted the guys to give me a bull that wasn’t too rowdy. I learned how to ride horses, how to wrangle sheep, and how to do the cowboy things.

The Set

HL: It was a focused vibe on-set. Everyone there wanted to work hard on telling the story properly. The crew in Calgary were the most wonderful group of people I have worked with to date.

Heath Ledger’s Career

Heath Ledger was born and raised in Perth, Australia. At the age of 10, he enrolled in the local theater company. While performing on stage, he also began landing roles on such Australian television series as Clowning Around, Bush Patrol, Corrigan, Ship to Shore, and Home and Away.

In 1997, Ledger starred in an American television series, Roar, which was filmed in Queensland, Australia. The series landed him an American talent agent, and he decided to make his move to America. He returned to Australia to star in Gregor Jordan’s award-winning feature Two Hands. Back in America, starring roles in four major films soon followed: the popular comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (opposite Julia Stiles for director Gil Junger); Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster The Patriot (alongside Mel Gibson); Brian Helgeland’s hit A Knight’s Tale; and the Academy Award-winning Monster’s Ball (with Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry for director Marc Forster).

Ledger’s subsequent films include Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers, Brian Helgeland’s The Order, Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly, Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords of Dogtown, and Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm. He next stars in Lasse Hallstrom’s Casanova, as the legendary title character. Mr. Ledger also recently returned to Australia to make a new independent feature, Neil Armfield’s Candy (with Abbie Cornish and Geoffrey Rush).

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Career

Among the most promising young actors of his generation, Jake Gyllenhaal has an impressive and diverse list of film credits that continues to attract attention from critics and audiences alike.

He will soon be seen starring in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, alongside Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, and Chris Cooper; and in John Madden’s Proof, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. His next film is David Fincher’s Zodiac, in which he stars as real-life author Robert Graysmith, with Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

Gyllenhaal was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his portrayal of the title character in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, one of the most talked-about films of recent years. His other films include Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl, Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing, and Joe Johnston’s October Sky.

His earliest film appearances were small ones, in A Dangerous Woman (directed by his father, Stephen Gyllenhaal); and, as Billy Crystal’s son, in Ron Underwood’s smash City Slickers. He also appeared as Robin Williams’ son in the highly acclaimed “Bop Gun” episode of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street.

In 2002, Gyllenhaal made his theatre debut, in Laurence Boswell’s London staging of Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth. His performance in the play earned him the London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Outstanding Newcomer.