Brokeback Mountain’s Ang Lee On ‘Friction’ Between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal And How Heath Was A ‘Natural Cowboy’

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain
(Image credit: Focus Features)

There’s been a ton of conversation over the past few years about the power of onscreen representation, and it seems like Hollywood is becoming a more diverse place. But there was a time when telling a queer story was a risk, like with Ang Lee’s acclaimed drama Brokeback Mountain. And the Academy Award winning filmmaker recently spoke about the “friction” between stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. What’s more, he reminisced about how the late actor was a “natural cowboy” while filming one of his most iconic roles.

Brokeback Mountain was a groundbreaking movie when it was released in 2005, with both of its leading actors receiving universal praise for their portrayal of gay cowboys in the 1960’s. While they brought their characters’ complicated relationship to life on screen, filmmaker Ang Lee admitted that there was a bit of conflict during the process. As he explained to Empire in a recent interview,

One aspect I cherish was getting to witness Heath and Jake [Gyllenhaal] develop that relationship between their characters. I saw it unfold right in front of my eyes, from rehearsal all the way to filming. Michelle Williams broke her knee during pre-shooting, but Heath was always looking after her. He was so naturally caring towards Michelle. When it came to Jake, Heath had a very different attitude towards their work. Sometimes there was friction – not quarrelling, but a clash of styles. Sometimes I would mediate that, but they were both good in different ways. They would always make the effort to find a way through.

Pretty interesting stuff. In the end this give and take created something explosive on camera, and actually mirrors the way that Jack and Ennis’ relationship plays out throughout the course of Brokeback Mountain’s 134-minute runtime. The movie ended up being a critical darling and Awards Season favorite, although it famously lost to Crash for the Best Picture Oscar. 

Ang Lee’s comments about Brokeback Mountain obviously have more weight given the passing of Heath Ledger. His legacy is tied to the lengths to which he went to transform into his characters, including his Oscar- winning work as Joker in The Dark Knight. And while working on the queer western drama, he clashed with the actor playing his closeted lover, while tending to Michelle Williams who played his wife. 

Later in that same interview, Ang Lee also explained the way that Heath Ledger was able to instantly snap into character when it came to Ennis’ cowboy vibes. Namely because he was comfortable around animals like horses, as Lee shared:

I gave both men a couple of books about the rural Midwest, and they went to a cowboy camp, too. But Heath grew up on a ranch in Australia – he was a natural. He didn’t need to do a lot of the work, but he took the training in good faith. He was so good with animals, too. When he sat on that horse, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind. He was a cowboy.

In the end Heath Ledger earned a ton of nominations for his work in Brokeback Mountain, and became the ninth-youngest Academy Award Best Actor nominee at the time. While he didn’t win, he’d end up getting the Oscar posthumously for his Joker. 

Ang Lee’s next movie project Thrilla in Manila is currently in development, with his last movie being Will Smith’s Gemini Man. In the meantime, check out the 2023 movie release dates to plan your trips to the theater in the New Year. 

Corey Chichizola
Movies Editor

Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated with degrees theater and literature from Ramapo College of New Jersey. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBlend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his favorite actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid. He's particularly proud of covering horror franchises like Scream and Halloween, as well as movie musicals like West Side Story. Favorite interviews include Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Jamie Lee Curtis, and more.