How Heath Ledger's Daughter Matilda Has Enjoyed a Private Life With Mom Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams has pulled off the impossible, raising her now 15-year-old daughter with the late Heath Ledger entirely out of the public eye.
Michelle Williams went through the unimaginable, and then she proceeded to accomplish the impossible.
The actress' now 15-year-old daughter Matilda Ledger was only 2 when her father, Heath Ledger, died of acute drug intoxication on Jan. 22, 2008, an autopsy later finding a cocktail of prescription medication in his system.
Heath was 28. The movie he would posthumously win an Oscar for the following year, The Dark Knight, was still months away from its theatrical release. And not just one but a trio of actors were enlisted to fill his shoes in what would be Heath's final screen appearance, Terry Gilliam's then-unfinished The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
But while Hollywood was devastated by the loss, and people started to dig into what the actor was doing in the months, weeks and days before his death in the hunt for some sort of traceable route from A to B, it was the loved ones left behind whose lives changed forever.
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
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Heath and Michelle had fallen in love on the set of Brokeback Mountain—and they couldn't have looked or sounded more smitten with each other as they navigated, first, the film's festival circuit, and then the 2006 awards season together, culminating in the first Oscar nominations for both.
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Michelle, in particular, was positively radiant—not least because they were in the midst of becoming a family of three at the time—and every chance she got she talked about how proud she was of Heath's performance.
"It's just deserved," she told E! News in December 2005, two months after Matilda was born. "It's sort of obvious after you see what he does. I forgot he was my boyfriend when I was watching it, I really did." And Heath was equally congratulatory, saying about Michelle, "She's a phenomenal actress. It's boring to say she's at a turning point—she's always been turning a corner and she'll continue to turn corners.
"She's incredibly talented and beautiful, and her performance in this movie is incredibly controlled and deep, and full of emotion. I'm incredibly proud of her."
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Because the entire first year of their relationship was inextricably tangled up with the monumental film—which won three Oscars and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Drama—it gave interviewers plenty of opportunities to ask personal questions.
"We started promoting the movie about three weeks after she was born, which was too soon," Michelle said on The Oprah Winfrey Show in January 2006 during an appearance with Heath and their Brokeback co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. "I'm just learning lessons now, like learning how to be a working mom."
Asked about Heath and Michelle's on set romance, Jake recalled the trailer count going from four to three, and Anne said, "There were sparks immediately. It was adorable."
Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain
As for Heath, he called Michelle the "perfect mom" and said, "I'm so proud. I just fall deeper and deeper in love with both my girls."
There were frequent sightings of the family of three in their Brooklyn neighborhood, and anyone with access to the internet was able to see that Michelle wasn't kidding when she told Oprah that Matilda looked like her dad.
But in September 2007, the news broke that Heath and Michelle had split up. "It was rocky for awhile," a source told People at the time. "They did what they could to make it work." Only in hindsight would it become apparent that Heath's issues had started to get the better of him.
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After his death, Michelle said in a statement: "Please respect our need to grieve privately. My heart is broken. I am the mother of the most tender-hearted, high-spirited, beautiful little girl who is the spitting image of her father. All that I can cling to is his presence inside her that reveals itself every day.
"His family and I watch Matilda as she whispers to trees, hugs animals, and takes steps two at a time, and we know that he is with us still. She will be brought up in the best memories of him."
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Michelle gathered with Heath's family for a memorial in his native Australia and otherwise grieved as someone who was still very much in love with the actor when he died. It wasn't difficult to imagine that she would never have broken up with him in the first place if she didn't feel she had no other choice—and that hopes of a reconciliation were still on the table.
In 2010, she would talk about immersing herself in loss after reading The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's memoir of grief written after the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, and how feeling better was also a strange beast to confront.
"In a strange way I miss that year—because of all those possibilities that existed then are gone," Williams said on Nightline in her first TV interview after Ledger's death. "It didn't seem unlikely to me that he could walk through a door or could appear from behind a bush, it was a year of very magical thinking. In some ways I'm sad to be moving further and further away from it."
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But first and foremost, Williams had a child to raise—as a working mom, a single mom and, no small obstacle, as a famous mom.
Though his films, of which Ledger made enough to suit any movie-watching mood, gave him cinematic immortality, it's Matilda who remains the human embodiment of Ledger's legacy. So Williams quickly had to get used to public interest in her and her daughter increasing exponentially after they were on their own.
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And somehow, she has since managed to give Matilda a quiet, private life while only getting more successful, breaking free of any lingering WB-drama attachment and cementing her own reputation as one of the finest actresses of her generation as a star of film, TV and the stage, as well as becoming a longtime face of Louis Vuitton. She's since been nominated for three more Oscars and has won two Golden Globes—including one last year, plus a SAG Award and a 2019 Emmy, for her turn as musical theater legend Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon.
"It's a very hard thing for me to navigate," Williams told Vanity Fair in 2018, referring to the necessary public side of her life, "because my instinct is to keep my life very, very private. But I also need and want certain things out of my career that demand I assume a more public voice."
But she also trusts her instincts, which is probably why she managed to get married, divorced, engaged and pregnant with her second child without the public knowing about any of those steps along the way until she decided to share.
Taking a break from the spotlight and getting Matilda out of the city certainly helped her pick up the pieces in those early days—while staying off social media entirely has helped keep her daughter off the radar ever since.
"We moved—we left Brooklyn and lived in the country for six years because it was an intolerable state of existence," Williams told the New York Post in June 2016, referring to the constant paparazzi escort in the days after Ledger's death. "I wish I was more of a go-getter," the Montana native added. "I just sort of sit and wait for things to come my way."
She had to navigate the usual New York-L.A. gauntlet for work, but her habit of choosing only the projects that called to her obviously served her well.
Craig Barritt/Getty Images
Only in 2014 did Williams sell the Boerum Hill townhouse that she and Ledger moved into together in 2005, reportedly getting $8.8 million—17 percent over ask—for the six-bedroom home. According to Curbed New York, she purchased a 114-year-old Colonial-style mansion—a $2.5 million, eight-bedroom fixer-upper—in Ditmas Park in 2015, the local real estate blogs hanging on every step of the renovation process.
And choosing the East Coast over the West Coast is always a smart move if you want to be relatively left alone. While the Big Apple, Brooklyn included, isn't exactly devoid of Hollywood-type activity, Los Angeles remains the biggest fish bowl.
Williams told Elle, "If you feel like people are watching you, it's impossible to have an authentic experience of being alive. There's a performative aspect and a guardedness, and that's just death. I don't know how to live like that, and I don't know how to give a life to my child like that."
She previously called Kristen Bell, who was instrumental in getting a number of media outlets to stop publishing unauthorized photos of celebrities' children, her "personal hero." (E! News was among the outlets that implemented the protocol accordingly.)
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