After sitting for early graduation exams at age 17, Ledger left school to pursue an acting career. With Trevor DiCarlo, his best friend since he was three years old, Ledger drove across Australia from Perth to Sydney, returning to Perth to take a small role in Clowning Around (1992), the first part of a two-part television series, and to work on the TV series Sweat (1996), in which he played a gay cyclist. From 1993 to 1997, Ledger also had parts in the Perth television series Ship to Shore (1993); in the short-lived Fox Broadcasting Company fantasy-drama Roar (1997); in Home and Away (1997), one of Australia's most successful television shows; and in the Australian film Blackrock (1997), his feature film debut. In 1999, he starred in the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You and in the acclaimed Australian crime film Two Hands, directed by Gregor Jordan.
In his penultimate film performance, Ledger played the Joker in Christopher Nolan's 2008 film The Dark Knight, which was released nearly six months after his death. While working on the film in London, Ledger told Sarah Lyall in their New York Times interview that he viewed The Dark Knight's Joker as a "psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy". For his work on The Dark Knight, Ledger posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, which his family accepted on his behalf, as well as numerous other posthumous awards, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor, which Christopher Nolan accepted for him. At the time of his death on 22 January 2008, Ledger had completed about half of the work for his final film performance as Tony in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Gilliam chose to adapt the film after his death by having fellow actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell play "fantasy transformations" of his character so that Ledger's final performance could be seen in theatres.
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Ledger was an avid chess player, playing some tournaments when he was young. As an adult, he often played with other chess enthusiasts at Washington Square Park, though the level of his play has sometimes been exaggerated. Ledger also had a keen interest in the West Coast Eagles, a professional Australian rules football team that competes in the Australian Football League and is based in his hometown of Perth.
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Ledger's death affected the marketing campaign for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) and also both the production and marketing of Terry Gilliam's film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, with both directors intending to celebrate and pay tribute to his work in these films. Although Gilliam temporarily suspended production on the latter film, he expressed determination to "salvage" it, perhaps using computer-generated imagery (CGI), and dedicated it to Ledger. In February 2008, as a "memorial tribute to the man many have called one of the best actors of his generation," Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell signed on to take over Ledger's role, becoming multiple incarnations of his character, Tony, transformed in this "magical re-telling of the Faust story". The three actors donated their fees for the film to Ledger's and Williams's daughter.
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Ledger was quoted in January 2006 in Melbourne's Herald Sun as saying that he heard that West Virginia had banned Brokeback Mountain, which it had not; actually, a cinema in Utah had banned the film. He had also referred mistakenly to West Virginia's having had lynchings as recently as the 1980s, but state scholars disputed his statement, observing that, whereas lynchings did occur in Alabama as recently as 1981, according to "the director of state archives and history" quoted in The Charleston Gazette, "The last documented lynching in West Virginia took place in Lewisburg in 1931."
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Portraying a variety of roles, from romantic heroes to the reluctantly oppressed, Ledger created a hodgepodge of characters that are deliberately unlike one another, stating "I feel like I am wasting my time if I repeat myself". He also reflected on his inability to be happy with his work, "I feel the same thing about everything I do. The day I say, 'It's good' is the day I should start doing something else." Ledger liked to wait between jobs so that he would start creatively hungry on new projects. In his own words, acting was about harnessing "the infinite power of belief," thus using belief as a tool for creating.