A lot can change in 10 years: fashion, technology, politics, gas prices. And an unknown Australian actor can make a film in Tacoma, become an international superstar and then join the ranks of legendary Hollywood icons who die too young.
Heath Ledger was just 19 when he came to Tacoma during the summer of 1998 to film the high school romantic comedy “10 Things I Hate About You.” In his review of the movie, News Tribune film critic Soren Andersen said, “The City of Destiny has rarely looked better on film.”
Though already a successful actor in his home country, this was Ledger’s first significant work in America. “10 Things” was the movie that supercharged his career.
After Ledger wrapped up work on “10 Things” and left Tacoma, offers for other teen movies came his way. He turned them down, preferring to remain idle rather than sign on for projects he didn’t like.
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Though his leading-man looks and abilities soon propelled him to stardom in films such as 2001’s “A Knight’s Tale,” his career took a notable turn toward dramatic and brooding performances with 2001’s “Monster’s Ball.” “Brokeback Mountain,” released in 2005, would be his breakthrough role, establishing him as one of his generation’s finest talents and earning him an Oscar nomination.
The penultimate film of his career, 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Ledger died of a toxic combination of prescription drugs at his New York City home on Jan. 22, 2008.
Ledger’s final film – he died halfway through filming – came out last week: Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” Reviews have been mixed.
Perhaps it’s timely then that Disney has just released “10 Things” on DVD and Blu-ray. The package includes interviews with the actors, director and screenwriters, deleted scenes and screen tests of Ledger and other actors as they auditioned for their roles.
A modern-day version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” the movie was primarily filmed at Tacoma’s Stadium High School and at the North End home of the William McGovern family. The family and students worked as extras in the film.
Directed by Gil Junger, “10 Things” stars Julia Stiles (“Bourne” trilogy) as shrewish high school student Kat Stratford and Ledger as Patrick Verona, the student who tries to tame her. Joseph Gordon Levitt (“3rd Rock from the Sun,” “(500) Days of Summer,” “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”) plays the wannabe love interest of Kat’s sister, played by Larisa Oleynik.
A lightweight flick compared to some of the serious and darker roles Ledger took on later in his career, “10 Things” is nevertheless a well made and escapist romp. The hardest hearts will have a hard time not cracking a smile when Ledger dances across the concrete bleachers of the Stadium Bowl while singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to Stiles.
Though the film was mostly shot in Tacoma, the City of Destiny apparently wasn’t ready for its closeup – it stands in for Seattle. And so it still grates to hear director Junger in his video commentary telling the story of finding the location “in Seattle.” He talked Disney into moving production to Washington to give it a distinctly different look from the recently released L.A.-set “Clueless.”
Beginning a tour of potential locations, Junger’s first stop was at Stadium. “I saw the high school. … I turned to the producer and said, ‘Let’s go back to L.A. … I’m shooting the movie here. This school is magical. This school feels Shakespearean,” he says on the commentary.
While Tacoma’s identity remains shrouded in the theatrical release (though end credits thank Stadium and the City of Tacoma), the actors have a lot to say about the city and Stadium on the audio commentary – a must listen-to for South Sound fans.
Actor David Krumholtz begins, “Seattle was awesome. The smell though. I always remember that smell.”
“That’s Tacoma! Tacoma aroma,” one of the female actors corrects him.
“It was a paper mill. It smells like sulphur. It was nasty though,” Krumholtz adds.
And then another voice chimes in: “I’m sure the people in Tacoma are going …” and then someone shouts, “We love Tacoma!”
The actors talk about a mysterious “ghetto” in Tacoma. Actor Andrew Keegan who plays the vain cad, Joey Donner, relates that he made friends with a local police officer who took him on a ride-along. “There are some dark sides to Tacoma,” Keegan says ominously.
When Stadium appears, Krumholtz says, “That’s an actual high school in Tacoma, right? It’s cool. It’s a cool place.”
The group heaps praise on Stadium’s architecture, location, and history. It was renamed Padua High in the movie.
“The kids that go there are pretty proud of the legacy,” one of the screenwriters adds, noting that most of the “students” in the film are actual Stadium students.
The commentary is refreshingly unscripted, filled with information, gossip and the occasional rearing of egos.
Keegan tells an amusing story of finding a group of Disney execs in a hot tub.
The cast talks about partying. “They hooked us up in Tacoma. We were the biggest thing in Tacoma.”
Ledger fans will enjoy the snippets of gossip from the set. Apparently, everyone had a crush on the actor. Stiles and Ledger began dating during the production, the actors tell us.
Ledger arrived in Tacoma a week into shooting. Krumholtz first met him in the hotel’s elevator where Ledger was carrying a didgeridoo, the distinctive native wind instrument of Australia. The cast soon bonded and dined together every night: “We hit every restaurant in Tacoma,” one of them says.
Ledger, new to America, was unable to completely erase his Australian accent, so the screenwriters were asked to tweak some dialogue to reflect that. In a scene with Stiles, his character tells her that he lived in Australia until he was 10.
Near the end of the movie, the actors finally speak on one subject they’ve been avoiding: the loss of Ledger.
“He became kind of the leader of that group. He was the center of attention for a reason,” Krumholtz says. Near the end of Ledger’s life, Krumholtz says the two actors began to hang out together again.
“He was always really, really proud of this movie. … He just loved the experience.” After Ledger died, Krumholtz says the movie became “that much more poignant and profound and powerful.”
There’s a certain nostalgia about watching an idealized Tacoma and the fictional students of Padua High in “10 Things I Hate About You” since its release more than 10 years ago. So much has come and gone since then.
Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541