07/24/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
The Patriot may be Heath Ledger's Declaration of Incandescence—given the heat he throws as Mel Gibson's itching-to-fight son—but the 21-year-old Aussie won over just as many hearts and minds offscreen. During filming in South Carolina last year, he met real estate agent Connie Lee-Campbell, 39 (who found lodging for much of the cast), and her daughter Emily, 10; they had seen a tape of Ledger's 1999 high school comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, in which he croons "Can't Take My Eyes off You." Says Lee-Campbell: "I said, 'Emily, just for fun, let's call him and sing him this song.' Well, he got the biggest kick out of that. When you would call his machine after that, he was asking people to leave him a message and sing him a little song."
With critics squealing his praises ("hunk"—The New York Times; "hunk"—USA Today; "hunky"—The Washington Post), Ledger might fear that the tape is full of fame's siren songs. "It's in a weird transition stage right now," he says of the attention. "When I come home, people recognize me. It does frighten me and it's not fun." Less fun, though, is not being in movies at all. After 10 Things I Hate About You, he rejected every teen-themed script sent his way. "I didn't want to get stuck in that rut," he says. For a year he auditioned for meatier roles while his savings dwindled: "I was living off two-minute noodles." When he auditioned for The Patriot, he knew how Washington felt at Valley Forge. After fumbling his lines, "I just stopped, dropped my head and said, 'Sorry, but I am wasting your time, this is hopeless,' " and walked out. The phone rang two days later: Would he care to try again? "They must," Ledger notes, "have been curious."
Maybe they sensed some of the pluck that made Ledger, at 16, hop in a car in his hometown of Perth, Australia, and drive 2,600 miles to Sydney in search of acting gigs. The second child of divorced parents—father Kim is an engineer who loved to take the boy to stock car and go-cart races; mother Sally teaches French—Heath (named for Heath cliff, the brooding hero of Wuthering Heights) knew he would miss older sister Kate, 25 (an ex-theater director who passed him the acting bug), and half sisters Ashleigh, 11, and Olivia, 3. "I feel like I'm a stranger to them; that's why I try to get back as much as possible," says Ledger, who now lives in New York City.
On his first day in Sydney he met model Christina Chauchi, his girlfriend until a recent split, and almost as quickly started getting small parts that led to the starring role in Roar, FOX's 1997 dragons-and-damsels show. Period pieces have since become second nature: Ledger (who, when out of vintage costume, likes to paint, tap-dance and collect old Mustangs) is currently shooting the feature film The Knight's Tale, about jousting in the Middle Ages, and after that he'll be on horseback again for another historical film, Four Feathers.
Casting directors love his boy-to-man personality, though it has its drawbacks. Longing to slake his thirst at a tavern after a long day of shooting The Patriot, he still—as he should have—got carded. On the other hand, he didn't mind being a kid. Says Bryan Chafin, 11, who plays Ledger's younger brother in the film: "He took all the kids bowling—no moms, no adults. He was really cool."
Darren Lovell in Sydney, Don Sider in Rock Hill, S.C., and Sue Miller in New York City