The Heath Ledger I Knew

Christen O'Brien
5 min readJul 25, 2018


“Everyone you meet always asks if you have a career, are married, or own a house, as if life was some kind of grocery list. But no one ever asks you if you are happy.” — Heath Ledger

This is probably the story I most wanted to keep to myself, partly because celebrity stories tend to be shallow pits, but mostly because Heath is gone. And his death makes it feel that much more private.

Except, this isn’t really about Heath. It’s about the human condition.

It’s about the struggle to become who you already are.

I met Heath when I was in my early 20s, a few years before he became the Heath Ledger the world knows. Even then though, he had the kind of magnetic charm that only true movie stars have, a radiating aura that can beam its way through a crowded room and inexplicably compel you inwards toward them.

That’s really the only way to describe him. Magnetic force.

Heath was a star, but in time, I began to also think he was…well, not a very bright one. He bumbled through conversations, floating above substance without ever exploring depth. This is basically a poetic way of saying — he was a Hollywood actor.

One day while we were talking on the phone, just as I’d decided our friendship had hit its intellectual ceiling, I heard clicking noises in the background.

“What is that?”, I asked.

“Oh, it’s my new camera”, he said in his low voice and Aussie accent.

“You like photography?”, I asked, surprised he knew how to work anything other than a room.

“No”, he replied. “I love photography. It’s my true passion.”

And so began my acquaintance with the real Heath Ledger. Not the one the world wanted him to be, but the one he actually was.

Heath started showing me his photography, and we would talk about lighting and shadows and texture and form. I would ask him to teach me the technicality behind a photo, and he would launch into an avalanche of math and art, slinging terms I’d never heard yet speaking a language I somehow understood.

Until that point, I didn’t realize I was mildly fluent in art. I’m not an artist, but I know words and tone. So I could keep up with Heath, and even challenge his perspective, which I could tell surprised and delighted him.

I didn’t know Heath for long, but what I most remember is how much I could see the true him when he spoke of his art, yet how quickly he disappeared otherwise. It was like watching Pinocchio become a real boy for a minute, and then turn back into a puppet.

The thing is - I’m not so sure Heath was any different than the lot of us. In varying degrees, we are probably all burdened with the delta between who we think we’re supposed to be, and who we actually are.

I’m also not sure I’ll ever understand why it’s so hard to just live our truth. Why so many of us can go years, even decades, trying to quiet an inner voice in order to satisfy an outer force. Only to return — in the best case — to where we started.

Yoda said, “You must unlearn what you have learned”. In the last years of his life, it appeared that Heath started to do exactly that. He took roles that pushed the edge of societal and cultural norms. He started spending more time behind the camera, directing and producing. He fell in love with someone who seemed genuine, and seemed to genuinely get him. He began to look less like the actor he felt encumbered by, and more like the artist he was.

We all know how the story ended, though.

Looking back 10 years after Heath’s death, I realize that perhaps the most confusing part is not that we must all go to battle, but that some never make it out. And the most tragic part is that the soldiers who lose do so in vain, because the battle cry is merely an illusion.

I can’t claim to be a Master Jedi yet, nor even close, but seeing the struggle in such an extreme example as Heath Ledger jolted me to the core.

For me, my truth is a lot less dramatic than Heath’s. Over the last few years, I’ve found myself returning to the places where I started — steeped in creativity, and writing, and learning. I find myself caring less about impressing others, and more about pushing my own boundaries. I no longer want to be smart — I want to be informed. I don’t need to be admired — I need to be respected. I don’t care about screwing up — I care about not taking risks.

And above all else, I’m not interested in what others think I should be. Rather, I’m committed to continuously becoming who I actually am.

Perhaps if Heath had been kinder to himself, perhaps if he’d given himself permission to break free of expectations and become who he already was, he would have seen the truth.

That the real Heath wasn’t just an actor, or even an artist.

He was sublime.



Christen O'Brien

Writer & Collector of life stories. Work featured on The Today Show, NYT, CNN, MSNBC, Medium. Documentary coming out 2022. (