It’s hard to believe Australian actor Heath Ledger has been gone six years but his legacy lives on with scholarship in his name that is given annually by Australians in Film. The sixth annual Australians in Film Heath Ledger Scholarship was awarded June 12th to Cody Fern.
The 25-year-old actor grew up in Southern Cross, a small mining town in the outback of Western Australia, and Fern says he was always inspired by the Oscar-winning actor best-known for: Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight also because he was a fellow West Australian. When Heath’s father, Kim Ledger, called to tell him he had won the scholarship, Fern felt it was a serendipitous moment in his life. “Heath’s story certainly made me think my dream could be a reality and was always the driving force behind that thought,” Fern elaborates shortly before the event at SLS Hotel in Los Angeles in which Emile Hirsch - Heath’s co-star in The Lords of Dogtown - presented him with the honor. “So to have Kim give me the news and invite me to come visit them when I’m back in Perth, so he can nurture and support me through the process, that was incredibly special.”
Fern is the first in his family to attend University, graduating with a degree in commerce. After working in that field for a year, he decided to quit his job, sell everything and move to Sydney to finally pursue an acting career. “It sounds like a cliché but I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else growing up,” Fern says. “I did a play in school where I got to play Winnie the Pooh and I remember even then thinking, ‘this is the best!’ but I didn’t start acting till I was 21 because where I was from, it’s just not possible. There was no arts program and my entire school had less than 100 students so it was always something I had belief in that I wanted to do, but it wasn’t possible till then.”
After touring Australia in the National Theatre of Great Britain production of War Horse, Fern starred in the short film The Last Time I Saw Richard, which became a festival darling and also earned an Australian Oscar award. “I think as actors you see a lot of people working but it’s still kind of this elusive dream and just out of your reach,” he adds. “But we played to over half a million people in that play and it was the first time I really thought, ‘maybe it’s not just a pipe dream but I can really do this.’”
The scholarship - established in 2008 in memory of Australian actor Heath Ledger, who served as an ambassador for the organization – was chosen by a prestigious panel of judges including: Colin (Total Recall) Farrell, Miranda (The Lord of the Rings) Otto, Wes (The Hunger Games) Bentley and directors Gregor (Ned Kelly) Jordan and Robert (Legally Blonde) Luketic. Prizes included a $10,000 cash fund, a two-year scholarship at Stella Adler Academy of Acting and Theatre in Los Angeles, two return flights to Los Angeles on Virgin Australia, a 10-day California trip from Visit California, $5,000 worth of Visa and Immigration services from Raynor & Associates and complimentary lifetime membership to StarNow. It also included mentorship from professionals in the industry including talent manager Rob Marsala and Heath Ledger’s former agent, Steve Alexander, as well as personal mentoring from Heath Ledger’s father, Kim Ledger, who is patron of the scholarship. Kim Ledger was unable to attend this year but sent a video message to congratulate Fern and the two runner-ups, Axle (Home and Away) Whitehead and Charlotte (Puberty Blues) Best.
“Congratulations to Charlotte and Axle as Runners Up in a super amazing field of applicants. We were so excited by the sheer numbers across such a broad range of talent, in every sense,” said Kim Ledger. “To the final winner, Cody Fern, we have no doubt you will gently lift the mantle from (Previous winner) James Mackay and project forward your fabulous talent in Heath's good name, and go on to carve a place in film history.”
Fern says he first discovered Heath Ledger’s work watching the Australian film Two Hands (1999) and the American film Ten Things I Hate About You (1999). “But I remember the moment he really became an inspiration for me was the (2006) Australian film Candy,” he adds. “Heath in that role was just phenomenal with the artistry and the sense of rawness. And tragically his last role in The Dark Knight was the seminal villain role in any film as the joker. Heath was unique because he never got caught up in everything else but it was always about the work for him, and when people wanted him to go one way in his career, he went the other way and beat the odds to give the performances he gave.”
Despite this being his first trip outside Australia, Fern is now excited about the prospect of moving to Los Angeles in the near future with the resources of the scholarship to support him. “We will see how everything goes in terms of being embraced here, but having the judges say ‘we believe in you’ and having the support of Australians in Film is a huge step forward and gives me the confidence to make the move,” he says.
Fern, who names Cate Blanchett and Sean Penn as two of his acting inspirations, says he also shared the news with his family back in Western Australia. “My family had a hard life growing up and so they were scared for me giving up a stable job and pursuing what they thought was a whim,” he says. “My dad cried when I told him - and he’s not an emotional person - so I think they are finally realizing maybe this is a real job and now a real possibility.”
Previous recipients of the Scholarship are Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows), Ryan Corr (Wolf Creek 2), Oliver Ackland (The Slap, Cloudstreet), Anna McGahan (House Husbands) and James Mackay (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Tomorrow People).
Jenny Cooney Carrillo