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Late Nights With Heath Ledger: Stories From the Set of ‘A Knight’s Tale’

Twenty years ago, Ledger flexed his leading-man talents in an absurd-yet-fun action movie about medieval jousting. But the real takeaway is the friendships he made along the way with Paul Bettany, Mark Addy, and Alan Tudyk.

Sony Pictures/Ringer illustration

Heath Ledger couldn’t wait to get to Prague. The actor wasn’t expected there until production started on A Knight’s Tale in the spring of 2000, but he was anxious to explore what would be his home for the next five months. After a quick call with writer-director Brian Helgeland, who was on location developing the medieval action-comedy, Ledger flew out to join the filmmaker and prepare for his first leading role. Considering the city’s cheap accommodations, Helgeland realized he might as well invite the rest of the cast to keep Ledger company. “There wasn’t some big fancy hotel where we were blowing our budget every night,” Helgeland says. “So everyone just started showing up.”

Under the impression they needed to spend a few weeks learning to work with horses, actors Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk, who’d play Ledger’s two lifelong pals in the movie, hopped on planes to Prague and found they had nothing to do. The pair attended some costume fittings and briefly trained for an early sword-fighting scene, but otherwise, their days were wide open. “We learned that fight, which took an afternoon, and then that was it,” Tudyk says with a laugh. “The rest was just to go hang out with each other, drink and become friends. And that’s what we did.”

Over the next couple of weeks, the main cast—including Rufus Sewell, Shannyn Sossamon, Laura Fraser, and late-arriver Paul Bettany—built a quick rapport throughout the Czech capital. “They were out carousing, shutting down night clubs and bars and stuff like that,” Helgeland says. Because the Velvet Revolution had taken place just a decade earlier, Prague had retained all of its medieval architecture, and without a busy tourism industry, daily walks through its winding streets and nightly pop-ins to local pubs helped everyone get into character. “None of us knew anybody that was there at that time, so it gave us a chance to bond and get all that introductory stuff out of the way,” Addy says. “It was useful in terms of what it allowed us to bring to the table. We were already a unit.”

Before shooting had even begun, Helgeland had a massive head start. After all, A Knight’s Tale is built on the relationships of its cast members, particularly the motley crew that surrounds its dashing protagonist. Released 20 years ago this week, the movie follows William Thatcher (the late Ledger), a peasant who assumes a noble identity with his two squires, Roland (Addy) and Wat (Tudyk), in order to compete in traveling jousting tournaments. Along the way, the trio inherits Geoffrey Chaucer (Bettany), a gambling-addicted writer, and Kate (Fraser), a widowed blacksmith, into its faux-knightley family. Though the plot centers on William’s quest to “change his stars,” win over Princess Jocelyn, and defeat a villainous jouster, its heart and soul belongs to William’s makeshift band of misfits.

Helgeland’s script pivots from the period’s stuffy cinematic tendencies to highlight the jovial nature of its ragtag group—its easy camaraderie, impromptu shenanigans, and unique talents. As a result, the ensemble leaves an indelible mark on a movie that has over the years grown into a beloved hangout classic, one tethered to the idea of “living life with the fullness of each other’s company,” Addy says. Against its anachronistic, rock ’n’ roll soundtrack and upbeat, modern riffs, A Knight’s Tale “just looked like a bunch of friends having a laugh making this preposterous and fun movie,” Bettany says. “And that’s because that’s exactly what was going on.”

Brian Helgeland and Heath Ledger on the set of A Knight’s Tale
Columbia Pictures

By the mid-1990s, Helgeland had established himself as a prolific Hollywood screenwriter. Within the span of a year, he’d earned writing credits for 1997 thrillers L.A. Confidential, Conspiracy Theory, and The Postman, before making his directorial debut with Payback two years later. But near the end of the decade, he was ready to switch up his hard-nosed repertoire.

Inspiration struck after picking up a book on the Middle Ages. Helgeland read about a knight named William Marshal who had made his fortune winning jousting tournaments, and became intrigued by the idea of knights traveling from city to city to participate in deadly, horse-drawn battles. He scribbled down some ideas about what a fun jousting movie might look like. “Every time you do a medieval movie it’s about freedom,” he says. “Nothing against Braveheart, but is that all they thought about in medieval times? If someone farted in 1370, everyone laughed.”

Later, flipping through other books, he discovered a new tidbit, which stated that tournament jousters “needed to be of noble birth.” “I read that line and basically the whole movie kind of popped into my head,” Helgeland says. “Everything went right from that point.” He crafted a 14th century–set screenplay interested in more than just war and revolution. Leaning into the comedic side of Chaucer and drawing on his English studies, he supplied his identity-thieving protagonist, William, with a diverse group of friends, knowing they would be instrumental to his jousting journey. “He can’t run around pretending to be a knight unless he’s got coconspirators, and the coconspirators have to be his friends,” Helgeland says. “They all, in a way, reflect off each other and off of him—who he chooses to be friends with [and] what those dynamics are are important to the lead character.”

Of his numerous period alterations, the most distinct change was the musical cues. Working under the idea that “the ’70s are always the ’70s,” even 600 years apart, Helgeland incorporated classic rock songs—from Queen’s “We Will Rock You” to Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business”—into specific scenes. “If you lived in 1370, you still wouldn’t like the dance the parents liked, it would be something new, some variation,” he says. “It really was an attempt to add a rock ’n’ roll spirit, with the youth and the rebellion and identity and all those things.” After sending the spec script out to studios, Helgeland was invited to lunch by Sony executives Amy Pascal and John Calley, who bought his screenplay at the table. “They were basically like, ‘We love this, go make it,’” Helgeland remembers. “It didn’t change much at all.”

When it came to casting William, Ledger was an easy sell to the studio. During a three-week break from shooting The Patriot in South Carolina, and on his way home to Australia, Ledger agreed to meet with Helgeland for lunch in LAX’s spiral restaurant Encounter as the actor waited out a long layover. Ledger had read the script and expressed his enthusiasm ... then he unpacked a long wooden tube at the table. “He ended up playing the didgeridoo,” Helgeland says. “I just said to myself, ‘This is the guy.’”

Helgeland and casting director Francine Maisler filled out the remainder of William’s squad during auditions in California and England. Addy, who’d made a splash in the ensemble comedy The Full Monty, appreciated that the script “wasn’t a history lesson, [but] about people living in the world they live in.” He made a strong impression as Roland, while Helgeland believed that Tudyk’s improvisational take on Wat was “comic genius.” Wanting to feature another woman besides a princess, Helgeland wrote Kate, a blacksmith carrying on her late husband’s trade (technically she creates Nike, but that’s another story for another time). Fraser immediately grabbed his attention for the role. “There’s such a toughness to [the profession] and she was so tough, and I just believed her as a blacksmith,” Helgeland says.

Bettany, meanwhile, had a trickier time joining the group. After failing to collaborate on a project a couple of years earlier, Helgeland had promised the English actor he’d write him a role in his next screenplay. He didn’t, however, tell him his character would be nude in the very first scene. Not long after sending the script to Bettany, “He called me up,” Helgeland remembers. “He goes, ‘You fucker … I’m fucking naked the first half of the movie.’ I’m like, ‘You want to do it or don’t you?’”

Bettany couldn’t say no. “He explained to me that if you can do the first half of the movie naked, covered in shit and dirt, and maintain a smile on your face, the audience is going to fall in love with you,” Bettany says. “And I went, ‘Well yeah, that’s probably true.’”

Though he would steal every scene as Chaucer, Sony struggled to grasp Bettany’s humorous appeal at first. So Helgeland flew the actor to his home for a few days with the challenging task of “trying to convince [the studio] that someone who’s funny is funny.” In his kitchen, Helgeland took out his camera and suggested Bettany record some physical comedy for his nude scene, in which Chaucer trudges barefoot down a dirt road. “He puts his foot up to his mouth and pulls the thorn out with his teeth. The next day at Sony, when that scene comes up, everyone starts to laugh,” Helgeland remembers. “I called Paul like, ‘It’s going to work, they’re going to go with you.’”

The wild nights and bonding sessions came soon after. Tudyk remembers taking pedicabs around town during the day with Ledger and Sossamon, then barhopping at night, getting easily lost in Prague’s circuitous streets. “Well, we’ll just have one pint here, and three bars later ...” he jokes. It didn’t help that the beer at some local establishments cost only 12 cents. “It was good Czech beer with no artificial additives,” Addy says. “They’ve got strict purity laws, and we were making the most of that hospitality.”

Bettany had trouble remembering his daily adventures—“probably because of the amount of Czech vino that we were drinking,” he says—but he was taken by Prague’s hidden charm and oddities, yet to be overrun by tourists. “It was a magical time in a really magical city where you could walk into a bar, go through the back of a bar, walk through a courtyard, into somebody’s house, through their house where they’re all eating, and end up at a party in another house,” he says. “The nights felt labyrinthian and full of opportunity and fun. I think everybody availed themselves of that.”

One night in particular, Tudyk recalls, the whole group went out to a family-style pizza joint. At the end of dinner, Sossamon convinced him to visit a burlesque club below the restaurant, where she had been earlier in the week. “We go down in the basement,” Tudyk says, “and on the stage there was a sex show. She was there on a Wednesday when it was burlesque, and we were there on a Saturday—and it was no longer burlesque.” Tudyk promptly returned to the family restaurant and tried to make sense of the juxtaposition. “Where are we?” he thought. “What the hell is this place?”

The strange experiences only served to bond them more, helping them survive six-day work weeks for almost five consecutive months. As shooting began, it was hard to tell how deeply each of them had taken their characters home—or, more accurately, out—with them. “Even after the movie started, we would go out together, and if there was trouble, which there could be in those bars, we all stood up as one,” Tudyk says. “It was like the movie never stopped.”

Alan Tudyk and Brian Helgeland on the set of A Knight’s Tale
Columbia Pictures

When William arrives at his first tournament, his entourage quickly turns into a well-oiled PR machine. Chaucer provides forged lineage documents—officially changing William’s name to the noble-sounding Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein—while Roland and Wat enlist him into competition. In the brief aftermath of William’s first sword-fighting victory, Chaucer then quickly introduces his unknown champion to a crowd of peasants. When an awkward silence ends his speech, Roland astutely takes it upon himself to clap and cheer, encouraging the hesitant onlookers to applaud and embrace their new knight. The moment functions as a microcosm of the tightly knit unit. Just as they’ll do in the ensuing tournaments, Chaucer delivers captivating and legitimizing oration, while Roland and Wat (and later, Kate) provide William emotional—and occasionally physical—support.

Appropriately, the scene’s thoughtful chain of events turned out to be a happy accident. Because the crowds were filled with Czech-speaking extras, they didn’t understand any of Bettany’s English. “Obviously they didn’t realize they were expected to break into applause,” Addy says. “So I kind of led the way and Brian said, ‘I like that, we’ll keep that.’” Eventually, Helgeland figured out a better system for the larger jousting arenas. “We created all these laugh boards that assistant directors would hold up when the punch line would happen,” Bettany says. “I’m so shallow that I suddenly felt like I was killing them. I was just brilliantly funny and they didn’t understand a word.”

Of course, they were missing out. Arguably the most memorable and enjoyable parts of A Knight’s Tale are Chaucer’s poetic, pithy, and outrageous introductions before William’s jousts. In what now sound like precursors to the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials, Helgeland fit four speeches into the movie, incorporating medieval-inspired anecdotes that “didn’t feel absurd, but when you broke it down, you’re like, ‘That’s kind of absurd.’” Though he fiddled here and there with his lines, “[Brian’s] a very full and muscular writer,” Bettany says, “and the speeches were shaped well; you didn’t have to mess too much with [them].”

The longest and most comical one takes place before William’s first jousting competition. After listening to his opponent’s mundane introduction, Chaucer takes his proverbial stage with some pleasantries directed toward the lower class, a nod to John Lennon at the Beatles’ Royal Command performance in 1963. Then, Bettany says, “I just kind of went for it.” The writer establishes how he met Ulrich, and how the knight once saved the virginity of a young Italian woman from her Turkish uncle, getting more and more outlandish. “In Greece, he spent a year in silence just to better understand the sound of a whisper,” he softly intones, grasping everyone’s attention, before cranking up the decibels to finish his intro to thunderous cheers. “The thing that helped a lot was we had tons of crowd reaction,” editor Kevin Stitt says. “It didn’t necessarily mean [the extras] were reacting to Bettany’s speech, but if it worked, we used it.”

Sometimes mimicking Michael Buffer to get Bettany in the mood, Helgeland had effectively turned a revered literary icon into a ring announcer. “They’re little individual showstoppers aren’t they?” Addy says. “It was always entertaining to watch those speeches because he’d do so many different versions [in so many] ways.” Though some thought Bettany had damaged his vocal cords by the end of shooting, the actor remained strong. “I’ve never had laryngitis in my life,” he says. “I had to do the speeches a lot of the time, [but] the main issue was people understanding what the fuck I was talking about.”

Staying true to the ensemble picture, Helgeland distributed evenly. Throughout each jousting tournament, Roland and Wat chew up their own scenes as William’s corner men, keeping their knight in good spirits after each spar and giving his horse an extra kick out of the gate. “They just felt like old friends, like they’d been together for years,” Stitt says.

Once Kate joins the party, making William a personal plate of armor and later teaching him how to dance, the group begins to feel like a family. No moment better epitomizes that than when William enlists everyone’s help in writing a love letter. Each character gets its own moment to share an idea, and some personal heartbreak, to craft an effective romantic message. “It’s kind of the pinnacle scene of their friendship,” Helgeland says. “Each one of their contributions is about a love that’s gone from their lives, or was unrealized. You learn more about who they are in that scene than any other scene in the film.”

“[Brian] was good like that,” Tudyk says. “He gave us some little moments to shine.”

Director Brian Helgeland
Columbia Pictures

Despite the heavy pressures of leading a cross-genre movie, Heath Ledger likely had the most fun of anyone making A Knight’s Tale. At just 21 years old, “He was like the golden child,” Tudyk remembers. And yet, “he wasn’t at all bothered by it. … He was generous and cool and fun and liked to fool around and prank.”

That included fastening an unliked producer’s jacket to the top of a flagpole (“We used a lance to put it up,” Tudyk says with a laugh) and later taking a selfie with Tudyk during a scene in which Wat kisses William. But one meaningful stretch in the midst of filming will always stick with Tudyk. “I had a very close friend of mine die of a drug overdose during the shooting of that movie,” he says. “Heath called me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He actually knew him, [and] I was drinking. He said, ‘Buddy, get in a cab and come over to my place,’ and he took care of me for three days. He was younger than me, but he took care of me. He was a leader.”

Throughout the movie, Addy plays the “mother figure” of the group, often giving the go-ahead for his friends to gamble or enter competition. “There’s a subtle dynamic in a lot of the group scenes where they’re looking to Mark to see what Mark thinks,” Helgeland says. “It makes it feel like there’s a hierarchy.” Off set, however, Ledger took on that paternal role, carrying the mood of the cast through the long summer days. “That smile—it would cheer up anybody,” Addy says. “That filters down from the top. If your lead man isn’t happy, then nobody is having a good time.”

“I remember he went off and got a tattoo, much to makeup’s distress,” Bettany says. “It was concentric circles—there was one circle, and then another circle, and then a little filled-in circle, almost like a target. And I said, ‘Well what’s it mean?’ And he said, ‘This is the universe, and this is the earth, and then this is me.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine having that much confidence,’ but he really felt at the center of his world.”

In the same way Helgeland had written parts of himself into William (the director started out as a scallop fisherman like his father before jumping to Hollywood), he couldn’t help but also see Ledger as someone who had “changed his own stars.” “He hadn’t gone to acting school, his dad was in the pit crews of these low-rent Australian dirt-track racing circuits, and then he drifted into acting,” Helgeland says. “He was playing himself in a lot of ways.”

After production finished in August, the studio held the movie to be released the next spring. But when the cast reunited for its press tour in advance of the premiere, Ledger was irked by the movie’s poster. Instead of an ensemble, featuring an illustration of the cast, the one-sheet only had Ledger’s stern mug with the tagline “He Will Rock You.”

“I don’t think Heath liked that at all,” Tudyk says.

“He knew what the film was, which was a movie about a group of friends,” Bettany says. “I’m sure it just felt odd to him. Suddenly your fucking face is everywhere and you’re 21 years old and your world is getting larger and smaller at the same time.”

The movie’s May premiere, at least, helped ease those tensions for one night. As he drank with old friends, much like he had throughout Prague, Ledger found solace on the screen. “Heath used to say what he loved about the movie was that when he watched it, it was like a photo album of making it,” Helgeland says. “It reminded him of how much fun he had making the movie.”

Brian Helgeland and Heath Ledger
Columbia Pictures

There was going to be a sequel.

At the end of A Knight’s Tale, William defeats the villainous Count Adhemar, kisses Jocelyn, and then shares his prize winnings with the group in celebration. But Helgeland wanted to tease another adventure. As Tudyk remembers it, the director shot a brief alternative ending to the movie in which the group discusses how they’re going to spend their new riches. “And I say, ‘I bought a ship,’” Tudyk says coyly. “[The sequel] was going to be called A Pirate’s Tale.”

Helgeland eventually pitched the studio a story in which Adhemar kidnaps Jocelyn and takes her to Constantinople, where William and the gang must sail to rescue her. The opening scene featured William, Roland, and Wat as slaves on their own ship, which had been overrun by pirates. “There’s a guy with his eyes sewn shut, ears sewn shut, and tongue cut out, who’s sitting in front of Heath and I, and he’s got this very complex tattoo on his back,” Tudyk says. “He keeps getting whipped because he’s a mute. And at a certain point, it’s like, wait a minute, does that look like the chain of islands just off Capri? Wait a minute, this is a treasure map [on his back].”

“Each time he gets whipped, more of the map is missing,” Addy says with a laugh. “So each of us go, ‘I’ll take the blow.’”

The studio ultimately passed. A Knight’s Tale brought in $117 million at the global box office, less than double its budget, and received mixed reviews—a tepid reaction that quieted any sequel potential. But the enthusiasm to keep the film’s world alive was a by-product of how much everyone enjoyed making the movie. Thanks to an ongoing cable run and deepened love for Ledger, its infectious spirit eventually reached younger audiences well after its release. And in spite of original complaints about its inconsistent modern elements, the movie now seems timeless, unique, and thoroughly entertaining.

“There’s nothing cookie-cutter,” Bettany says. “It’s very quirky, and probably because the studio just thought, ‘This film is going to be a disaster,’ they just let it go. It was lovely to find all that quirkiness embraced over the years, that it’s blossomed into a sort of cult classic. I think that’s largely because [studios] try and iron out so much of the quirkiness in the idea that it will appeal to a broader audience and stuff, but I think that the opposite has actually proven true.”

As Helgeland notes, the idiosyncrasies were always meant to bolster the story’s friendships. Without the burden of extensive studio notes, he had the rare opportunity to fill up 132 minutes with fun detours, fully realized characters, and lines of dialogue. “You could cut 20 minutes out of it, but I bet if I did, I wouldn’t be talking [about it],” he says. Stitt agrees, remembering how well everyone’s performances jelled together right away. “In some respects, you could look at the love story in A Knight’s Tale as a MacGuffin and keep making room for the character actors,” Stitt says.

For everyone involved with its making, the movie’s legacy is measured equally by the relationships it fostered. Though the nature of Hollywood means “you’re not putting roots down,” Bettany says, he and Helgeland remain close, and Addy and Tudyk always make time for a visit when they’re in each other’s neighborhood. “I’ve not had a time as comparably enjoyable,” Addy says. “It was just a magical mixture of the right people in each other’s company sharing an ambition to make a fantastic movie.”

“It was just joyful—the most fun I ever had making a movie,” Helgeland says. “It was the best year of my life.”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

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