Heath Ledger is looking directly at the camera in a quietly confident pose. He is wearing black and up against a wall.

Heath Ledger on playing Ned Kelly

Heath Ledger in Ned Kelly: costume sketches and continuity polaroids

Ned Kelly Costume sketches and Continuity Polaroids
 Jennifer Coombes

Jennifer Coombes looks at costume sketches and continuity polaroids of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Ned Kelly, as featured in the exhibition Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures at the NFSA from 10 August 2018 until 10 February 2019.

Polaroid photo of a bearded Heath Ledger in Ned Kelly costume.
Continuity polaroid of Heath Ledger as Ned Kelly, 2003. NFSA title: 606154. A good example of how these photos are used for instructional purposes on set. Note the handwritten addition of where the gun should be placed.

Heath Ledger: A Life in Pictures offers an intimate portrayal of his life and work as an actor. Curator Allison Holland also sets out to show in the exhibition the immersive and collaborative nature of filmmaking.

One of the films featured is Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly (2003). Based on Robert Drewe’s novel Our Sunshine, it imagines Ned Kelly reflecting on his dramatic short life the night before his fateful battle with the police while holed up with his gang at Glenrowan.

For the exhibition Holland located significant costumes, armour and props from the film in private and public collections. The NFSA had also acquired a range of on-set materials from the film including costumes.

Character Clues

One of these costumes is on display for the first time – a lavender dress worn by Ned’s fictional love interest, Julia Cook, played by Naomi Watts. Anna Borghesi won an AFI award for her costume design on the film. She is quoted in the exhibition:

'My interest is in finding a timeless truth of each character, working out what the audience will identify with, clues about the character they will be able to pick up on. Regardless of the character, actors will bring who they are to the role and you have to respect their physicality when designing for them. It’s a process of negotiation and improvisation – change is fundamental to any creative activity.'

The NFSA holds four portrait sketches of Ned Kelly made by the art department that imagine a blend of the real historical individual, the fictional figure imagined in Drewe’s novel and Ledger himself (see gallery below).

It could only be Heath

When making the film, Heath was reunited with his Two Hands director, Gregor Jordan. At the time Jordan admitted, ‘The only way I’d be interested in doing the film was if Heath could play Ned Kelly. Once Heath came on board then I knew we had a movie’. In an interview in 2003 with the BBC he explained:

'After Two Hands, Heath and I became really good friends … We were always looking for something to do together again … I didn’t think there was anyone else who could play the role because he had to be the right age, he had to be the right physical size, he had to have enough star power to command the budget … it’s only Heath.'

Ned Kelly was an important role for Heath. ‘I wanted to find the character, stick to it and give a consistent performance’. Playing the part left a lasting impact on the actor:

'I’ll certainly take a piece of Ned away with me … he’ll be carried around inside my heart and mind for a long time and just what he stood for. It’s given me the courage to stand up and be true to what I believe in.'