Everett actor shares memories of Heath Ledger

Jay Zorich looks like everyman, a character straight out of central casting. In fact, he has played lots of characters, in TV shows, commercials and movies.

He didn’t contact me Wednesday to chat about playing a nerd and a human resources guy in corporate videos for the Microsoft Corp. — he did get to meet Bill Gates. It wasn’t to brag about Kelsey Grammer or Heather Locklear, stars he saw on the sets of “Frasier” and “Melrose Place.”

Zorich had no dirt to dish. The Everett man wanted to talk about Heath Ledger, the gifted, 28-year-old actor found dead in his New York apartment Tuesday.

“He was the nicest guy,” Zorich said. “He was approachable, very unassuming, not pretentious at all.”

The middle-aged movie extra appeared briefly with Ledger in “10 Things I Hate About You,” a 1999 teen romance filmed at Tacoma’s Stadium High School. It’s supposedly set in Seattle, but Tacoma’s century-old landmark is central to the film, based loosely on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Renamed Padua High in the movie, the Tacoma school’s stadium is the setting of a memorable scene that Zorich and another extra share with Ledger.

“I had the part of Roland, a security cop at Padua High School,” Zorich said. “In my scene with Heath, another actor and I grabbed him and tried to carry him off because he wasn’t supposed to be using the PA system.

“As we grabbed him, he broke off from us and continued to run away, then came around again and smacked me — taunting authority in a way. We took most of the day, and about 30 takes from different angles and such. But between the actual filming of each take, I got to have moments with Heath on a personal level. He was really down-to-earth,” he said.

A member of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Zorich doesn’t share his age in hopes of landing a range of roles. He’s now considerably slimmer than when “10 Things I Hate About You” was filmed in 1998. He’s had laproscopic band surgery to help him shed 163 pounds.

In Zorich’s scene, the bad-boy character played by Ledger is approached on the stadium steps by security guards coming from either side — one of them fat, the other thin. Now, Zorich said, he might qualify for the thinner one’s role.

Zorich owns and operates Mailboxes Plus on Mukilteo Speedway. He credits his shipping business with boosting his film and commercial work. “One of my box holders worked for an agent,” he said.

He landed the “10 Things” part after being rejected for a role in “The Muse,” a 1999 Albert Brooks comedy. “I had an audition in California, but didn’t get the part,” he said. After his flight home, he answered a phone message and went straight from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Tacoma.

Of the short time he spent with Ledger, Zorich said it was mostly “small talk.”

“He wanted to know if I was from here,” said Zorich, a Seattle native. “I told him I had to keep my day job. He was very approachable, he didn’t run off to his trailer.” Ledger’s part included a bit of dancing on the stadium steps. Zorich recalls the Australian actor, then 19, thinking it was silly that a Hollywood choreographer was brought in to stage a few moves.

Once he saw “10 Things I Hate About You,” Zorich could tell he’d worked with a star in the making. “The camera really liked him,” he said of Ledger, nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his anguished performance as a gay cowboy in 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

Tuesday, Zorich could hardly believe the sad news of Ledger’s death. “I was shocked,” he said. Still, he smiles remembering his brief brush with a fine young talent.

“It’s a fun scene,” he said. “I had no idea of his potential.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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