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Heath's moment

Enjoying acclaim as cowboy and casanova, Ledger finds delight as a different kind of leading man

NEW YORK -- Heath Ledger is immensely satisfied with his newest role. It's not the swashbuckling 18th-century lothario he plays in ''Casanova," a duels-and-disguise-rich romantic comedy costarring Sienna Miller (''Alfie") opening Christmas Day. Nor is it Ennis Del Mar, the taciturn and emotionally clenched cowhand he subtly inhabits in director Ang Lee's ''Brokeback Mountain" -- a risky part that has garnered the 26-year-old Aussie the best reviews of his life, not to mention his first Golden Globe nomination as best actor.

Rather, Ledger is absolutely giddy about the prospect of playing short-order cook and maid to his 8-week-old daughter, Matilda Rose, whose pictures he proudly displays on his laptop computer, and to his partner and ''Brokeback" costar, Michelle Williams.

''I'm Mr. Mom," says the normally subdued Ledger, letting slip a rare grin. Dressed in a rumpled pink buttondown shirt and black pants, with a generous sprinkling of facial scruff, Ledger looks every bit the new father. ''Every day I wake up and prepare two breakfasts: I get [Michelle] granola and cook her an egg, I clean the dishes, and then I'm cooking lunch. Later, I go out to the market and get fresh produce for dinner, and then I cook that. And I love it! I love my new job."

The palpable excitement Ledger demonstrates toward his daughter is rivaled only by the renewed enthusiasm Hollywood is showing for him. After a string of forgettable flops, including 2003's ''Ned Kelly" and ''The Order" and this summer's underperformers ''Lords of Dogtown" and ''The Brothers Grimm," the former teen idol is finally coming into his own as one of the best actors of his generation, thanks to a mesmerizing performance in ''Brokeback" and, now, a solidification of his leading man status in ''Casanova."

As Giacomo Casanova, the insouciant charmer who falls for Miller's protofeminist writer Francesca Bruni, Ledger exudes an easy charisma, rakishly conning nuns of their virtue and running afoul of Jeremy Irons's Inquisition company man, Bishop Pucci. But as reimagined by director Lasse Hallstrom, in full, fanciful ''Chocolat" mode, the Disney-fied romp is also light on debauchery and high on sight gags and froth. (Hot air balloons! Fireworks! Costar Oliver Platt covered in green goo!)

''It was an opportunity not to take acting too seriously," says Ledger of the six-month production, shot entirely in Venice. ''We obviously weren't taking Casanova too seriously. Essentially we were borrowing his name and his legend and just having fun with it."

''The night shoots went on for a long time, so I have all these memories of me and Heath at 5 in the morning hitting silly o'clock," says Miller of her ''laid-back and grounded" costar, who treated her like one of his three sisters. ''There were no trailers, so he, I, and the cast were put in these palazzos with everyone in the same room, and we'd sit around playing dice games, running around half-naked getting changed in front of one another. It was a real, old-fashioned band of players in that way."

Making Casanova was a deliberate choice for Ledger, who knew he would need an ''emotional vacation" after the intensity of filming ''Brokeback," a $13 million independent based on Annie Proulx's short story of two ranch hands who fall tragically in love.

''Since my profession had wound me up, I needed something in my profession to wind me down," says Ledger, his fidgety fingers seizing upon a hotel coffee spoon. ''I couldn't just go home; I would have gone mad. So I went to Venice, floated around the city, drank wine, ate pasta. I needed to just breathe, relax . . . and got paid for it."

It's not hard to see why Ledger would need the break after ''Brokeback." Shot in Calgary during the spring of 2004, Lee's poignant take on Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's script is shaping into the film to beat, acclaim-wise. Topping every critics association list, the formerly derided ''gay cowboy movie" is proving to be the last film standing.

''We had a good sense of humor about it, because we knew what we were holding on to and how it was going to exceed expectations and [labels]," says Ledger. ''We weren't running around naked in chaps swinging pink guns in the air. We knew that, and we found it funny that no one else did."

The film's true revelation is Ledger. Worn and torn down by his pure and unceasing love for Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist -- the rodeo rider he falls for while herding sheep in 1963 Wyoming but can't ''quit" -- his Ennis Del Mar is a study in stoicism. Every one of the rancher's subtle tics -- growling out answers without moving his upper lip, tenderly caressing a faded shirt -- adds infinitely to the character, and was the result of intensive homework on Ledger's part.

''Character-wise, once I determined that what Ennis was battling was his own genetic structure and the beliefs and fears he's been handed by his family, I wanted to find a way of physicalizing the fight through his voice, his stance, and the way he looked at life -- or didn't look at life," says Ledger, who developed different struts and squints for living in town and the wilderness. ''I also wanted to stage his accent in tones and pitches to kind of subtly age him, and went through the script and quite literally staged how he changes through the years."

Ledger has gone through quite a transformation himself in the past decade. A native of Perth, Australia, the actor moved to the United States in the mid-1990s and made his feature film debut in 1999's ''10 Things I Hate About You," a ''Clueless"-style take on Shakespeare's ''Taming of the Shrew." A series of roles designed to make him a heartthrob -- ''The Patriot," ''A Knight's Tale" -- quickly followed, as did a series of box office clunkers, including the failed epics ''The Four Feathers" and ''Ned Kelly." Only from 2001's ''Monster's Ball," in which he played Billy Bob Thornton's pushed-too-hard son, did he emerge unscathed.

''It's a fortunate and unfortunate thing to have all your mistakes on film, but I prefer it," says Ledger, who has no tangible answer for his transformation from ''Knight's" Chaucerian cheesecake to newfound critical darling (though he does point out that he filmed ''Brokeback" immediately after this summer's less than well-received ''Lords of Dogtown").

''Acting is not necessarily like cooking; you can't go to a class and then know exactly what to do," he says. ''You need to know how to adapt. [With 'Brokeback'], I think the script was just asking a lot more of me, and it was more complex than anything else I'd ever had to gain an understanding of; there were so few words on the page to express, I really had to think about it."

Next up for Ledger, much to his delight, is more egg scrambling and baby chauffeuring. For although he shot the as-yet-unreleased Australian drama ''Candy" -- an ''intense, dark, yet beautiful" film costarring Geoffrey Rush and directed by Neil Armfield -- immediately after ''Casanova," the new father is in no rush to return to acting.

''I try to work in clumps," says Ledger, who likens his preference for heavy workloads to powering through a marathon. ''I've almost had a year off now, but I have to pay off the house [Michelle and I] just bought in Brooklyn. To be honest, I actually haven't read any scripts in the last year. When I'm not working, I like to really de-attach myself. I don't want to be tempted either.

''In my personal life, however, I want to achieve more babies!" Ledger says, his impish grin returning. ''But I'll probably go back to work mid-next year."

Until then, Ledger will have to settle for attending awards ceremonies for ''Brokeback" and preparing acceptance speeches. Not that Hollywood accolades are foremost on his mind.

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