The role of Ennis seems to have captured everyone’s imagination in a way your previous performances haven’t. Why do you think that is?
Well, I usually find it easier to play characters with high levels of energy. I am like that myself, my hands are always flying everywhere. So I really had to swallow that and that was the most difficult part, harnessing the stillness of Ennis.
How much did being out in the country help you get into the character?
You start to blend in and you realise that you truly are a product of your environment. It was so still and quiet that it became easy, his posture and the way he walks are all a product of this battle going on inside him. I wanted to show that, I wanted the light to be too bright for him and the sounds to be too loud; I wanted the words to be punching their way out of his mouth, his mind and his heart. His biggest challenge is the battle against his genetic structure, you know? His parents handed down these fears and beliefs and he has to push a lot harder than most to get acceptance and maybe even self-acceptance.
Were you aware just how insane the praise was going to be for your performance?
Well, the first time I saw the film, they screened it in New York for me and Michelle [Williams, girlfriend/co-star] and we walked out shaking our heads. We weren’t sure if it was a really brilliant film or really bad but I am like that, I can’t transport myself away from it while I’m watching it. I see the make-up, I see the tricks and I remember filming it so, you know, it’s a difficult thing for me to do. Then I watched the movie in Venice with an audience and I allowed myself to actually see the film and find the beauty in it. I walked out feeling proud, feeling like it was a step forward for me. I was always aware that it was a more mature role because I was required to tell this story and that’s what excited me. It was time for me to evolve as an actor and also as a person and I felt a real sense of accomplishment.
How much of that is down to Ang Lee?
Ang took us aside individually and prepped us. He spoonfed us little bits of information about our characters; the way they walk, talk, the way they breathe and also how they see the world. We didn’t sit round a table together, it was private. So going into the movie I didn’t know much of what Ang had told Jake; in essence our characters met on screen. We obviously knew what was in the script but we didn’t know the game plan behind it. It was a curious approach but it’s surprising how well that worked because you really see these guys meet on film. Ang is great at that – he has this ability to observe life, an acute eye for detail.
Was he as reticent on set with you as Jake Gyllenhaal claims he was with him?
Ang truly is a man of few words. Except for press conferences, funnily enough. We were in Venice and someone asked him a question in the press conference and he was just blah blah blah. He went on and on and on. I said, “Oh my god, you can talk!” So many times I talked to him on set and he’d pretend not to understand what we were saying. He’s a mystery. It’s a very lonely character I’m playing, and the experience of making the film became very lonely for me. He’s a man of few compliments. He doesn’t pat you on the back and say, “Well done.” He just goes, “Let’s move on” and walks off. So each day you come back wanting to do better, which is very smart of him. It was a battle but I was prepared for it. I realised what he was doing and I wasn’t going to back down.
This year’s been pretty good for you. You met Michelle on set, fell in love and became a father.
Yeah, it certainly made going home in the evenings a real pleasure! It also made Michelle and I a little more comfortable with each other but to be honest, the film doesn’t represent the love we have for each other or even the time we spent together during filming because we made sure that didn’t bleed into our performances. Being a father is amazing, just the tiny little changes you have to make that create such profound movements in your heart and soul. I feel really focused, I have a huge amount of clarity and excitement. I just feel alive and very lucky.
We have to ask you about kissing Jake Gyllenhaal…
It was definitely tough – it took a lot of courage and once I got home I felt slightly violated! I think going in to the film, Jake and I had a lot of respect for one another just for making this choice but we also understood that we had a responsibility to tell the story. To act out the scenes, I guess you have to suspend reality and harness the power of belief in the performance, you know? We’d convinced ourselves of the story and the love between these guys and between the words “action” and “cut” we didn’t think about the fact that it was Heath kissing Jake. If we had, we probably wouldn’t have been able to complete the scene. We really had to believe in our environment. It was tough subject matter for sure but just be conquering it and doing justice to the story. We all felt very proud.