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Thursday December 2nd

Ledger Defends Personal Performance in the Lacking 'Feathers'

That's how actor Heath Ledger summed up the experience of making "The Four Feathers."

In his latest starring role, Ledger plays Harry Faversham, a British soldier who leaves his regiment -- the day before it goes to war in Sudan -- and is branded a coward. He later rejoins them, disguised as an Arab, to protect his friends and to regain his honor.

Ledger discussed his character in the film, his castmates and his career in a Sept. 13 conference call with about 20 college students from across the country.

"The Four Feathers," an elaborate period piece set in 1884, took the young actor from England to the African desert during six months of filming. Its epic scope can be compared to that of the classic film "Lawrence of Arabia," Ledger said.

His character's difficult journey was one of the main things that attracted the actor to the film, he said.

"He really starts one place and ends in another," Ledger said. "I was curious about this character because, on paper and in the day and time, he was labeled as a coward. It really read black and white. He was cowardly on paper."

But Ledger saw much more to the character.

"In that cowardly act, I found him to be courageous because he was standing up for what he believed in," he said. "He was standing against a systematic and regimental lifestyle he'd been spoonfed his whole life."

Putting himself into Faversham's shoes wasn't a huge challenge, Ledger said. Working with director Shekhar Kapur, a man he admires, provided a great deal of motivation, he said.

"He completely understands the actor, nurtures the actor, nurtures your performance," Ledger said. "He's truly an inspiration. He makes you want to stand up and say, 'Shekhar, where are you going today? I'm coming with you.'"

Ledger said he also gained acting insight from his castmates, especially Djimon Hounsou, who he said was like a brother to him both on and off the screen. In the film, the large, muscular Hounsou -- who had significant roles in "Gladiator" and "Amistad" -- plays Abou Fatma, an African slave who befriends Faversham.

"He's such a beautiful, beautiful soul and such a big heart and very generous to work with," Ledger said. "He's got such a huge presence. At first, he'll be intimidating. He'll walk into a room, and he's massive. But he's just big, and he's gentle, and you can push him over with one finger."

Ledger, who had nothing but compliments for his fellow actors, said all of the male cast members became close friends during filming and even joined a band together.

"Every Tuesday night, we'd play drums with this Sudanese drum band," Ledger said, laughing. "We all bought bongos. We'd just kind of get blind-drunk on red wine. There be glasses smashing everywhere, and we'd keep a constant beat throughout, like three hours straight."

Ledger admitted that he's drawn to dramatic, historical films, such as "A Knight's Tale" and "The Patriot."

"At the end of the day, there's a hell of a lot more stories to tell from the past," he said. "There is no clear picture on how they communicated, on how they spoke back then, so you are taking a guess. ... It kind of gives you more of a range and more room to play."

The actor is equally enthusiastic about his roles in smaller productions, such as "Monster's Ball," in which Ledger played a prison security guard.

"It's fun being able to walk in and walk out and not have the pressures of creating this huge arc for your character to carry the movie," he said. "You can pretty much do what ... you want, and it's not going to affect the movie."

But Ledger said he isn't sweating his latest starring role either.

"My job's done," he said. "I don't care. It's not my money. I've been paid. I've done my job."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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