Michelle Williams opens up about new work


Michelle Williams would like nothing more than for this article about her to start and end with her "Wendy and Lucy" director, Kelly Reichardt, a self-described "film-industry phobic" whose previous movie, 2006's "Old Joy," grossed just $256,000 in the U.S.

"For myself, I want a simple, private life for a lot of reasons," Williams says. "But I am proud of the movie, and I am so impressed with Kelly, who's never made a dollar off anything she's made. This is the first time I've taken an interest. I want it to do well. But I also want to keep my life small."

That is the conundrum Williams faces during this strange bend in her career, one that has veered between obscurity and the limelight. There have been some tight turns: It was just two years between the end of "Dawson's Creek," the television show that made her a starlet-to-watch, and the standout performance in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" that garnered her an Oscar nomination. Then came four relatively unnoticed performances (this year's "Deception," from Fox, 2007's "I'm Not There," and 2006's "The Hawk Is Dying" and "The Hottest State") -- and a relationship with her "Brokeback" co-star Heath Ledger, whose untimely death has left her a single mother.

But on a cool October evening, the 28-year-old appears to not be carrying any of that with her as she enters a local Brooklyn bar not far from her home. Wearing brown knee-high boots, a scarf around her neck, and an easy, wide smile that she flashes frequently, she repeatedly jokes that she doesn't belong next to Frank Langella in this issue of THR.

She is, however, deeply thoughtful, speaking cogently over a cup of chamomile tea about writer Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink," and delineating "the difference between Malcolm and Michelle" when it comes to her belief in trusting one's instincts. Often when she talks, she fully closes her eyes, as if shutting out the world can help her focus on her thoughts. About four months into a self-imposed year off work, she's had plenty of time to think, particularly about why she was drawn to the part of Wendy in Reichardt's $300,000 film.

"We were trying to see how far we could go with someone who keeps everything on the inside," she says of her character, a woman who is traveling toward Alaska, and who loses her dog Lucy in a depressed, nowheresville part of Oregon. Williams first heard about this austere slice-of-life story through her "I'm Not There" director Todd Haynes, who is good friends with Reichardt.

"One thing Michelle and I attributed to Wendy is she saw herself as being invisible," Reichardt says. "And that appealed to Michelle. She talks a lot about feeling so scrutinized and watched and on display. To play someone invisible was appealing."

Rather than be turned off by the "microbudget," Williams found it "very attractive." She took her young daughter, Matilda, and a babysitter, and spent a month with a close-knit crew of six. "Kelly promised me good coffee and good sandwiches," Williams says. "And both came true."

What surprised Williams was the setting: "Old Joy" was shot in the Oregon forest, and she expected a similarly rural location. "I thought it would be a nature film," says Williams, who found herself mostly in Portland, Ore., parking lots. "That threw me a little bit. I wasn't prepared for the lack of beauty. But then you start to look for it."

Williams found the greatest depths to plumb in Wendy, whom she describes as "a lone wolf, set adrift without attachments to family, friends, a job, money." She talks of becoming Wendy with a religious fervor. "You can't have a goal for where you are going to take your character in a particular scene. When I do my best, it's utter mindlessness. I can't get there all the time. It's this surrender. You have to be comfortable in that mystery without breaking it down. But you can create conditions to set it up.

"It's the best. It's what gives me hope," she continues. "When you can step into that space and everything else disappears. And when it's over, you can't duplicate it."

Williams is not sure whether audiences will find Wendy as satisfying. "You have to live in the mystery, and not ask too many questions," she says. "I don't know if it's frustrating for an audience member, but as an actor, I thought it was interesting that the script didn't offer a denouement of: 'Here is why I am who I am.'"

Perhaps Williams felt less of that need because, upon reading the original story, she felt she "had always known her. I had a real yen for the road. I thought I would become a truck driver while I was acting on 'Dawson's Creek' -- really."

As absurd as it sounds, it's not such a departure for the independent Williams, who grew up in Montana and found a love for acting following her family's move to San Diego when she was 9. Williams emancipated herself from her parents at the age of 15, and, she says, "not to be dramatic, but acting did nothing less than save my life. It gave me a sense of purpose, and it physically transported me out of bad situations, like (away from) Los Angeles to North Carolina."



After landing roles in features (1995's "Species," 1997's "A Thousand Acres"), Williams headed to Wilmington, N.C., to be on location for "Dawson's Creek." The show lasted five years, and it put her on the map. "It was a lesson in craft," she says. "Simple things: memorizing stuff, marks, knowing how to pace yourself. It also defined the kind of work I didn't want to do. It threw me in the opposite direction."

During the show, which ended in 2003, and after, Williams acted in a wide variety of films, from the bubbly comedy "Dick" (1999) to Wim Wenders' somber "Land of Plenty" (2004).

Working with director Ang Lee on "Brokeback Mountain" "felt safe and creative," she says. But getting the nomination for best supporting actress was nothing short of incapacitating. "After the Oscars, I felt like I didn't know how to make choices anymore. I felt stymied," she says. "The advice I was getting from various people was, 'Move up, take a leading-lady role.' I felt like I had to hit the ball out of the park, and that pressure made me want to bunt."

After more than six months of indecision, Williams opted for a small role in Haynes' film about Bob Dylan, "I'm Not There." "I had to do something," she says, taking a sip of the red wine that has now replaced the warm-up tea. "I thought, 'Todd is a good man, and a good director.' It loosened things up."

Six films followed in snowball fashion that allowed Williams to lose herself in her work, including Charlie Kaufman's "Synedoche, New York" (Sony Pictures Classics), which opened last month. Williams again has a part in an ensemble cast that surrounds Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has high praise for his co-star. "Her instincts are impeccable," he says.

Hoffman can empathize with Williams' off-road career choices. "She's someone who's going to do what she wants," he says. "That doesn't mean she won't get lost like all of us once in a while."

Williams says she learned a lot from working with him. "He's militant about it being quiet and people staying out of his eyeline," she says. "It's something I had always felt strongly about, but I didn't want to say anything. But Phil gave me the bravery to ask for the same thing."

She says she has been able to maintain the same militancy on other films, which include a role as a surgeon in Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's upcoming "Mammoth." She laughs at the idea of playing the part, admitting she asked Moodysson to write into the script that she was a prodigy to make her character more believable.

"I'm seven years too young for the part," she says. "Oh, who the f--- knows? You have to be allowed to make mistakes. I have to be able to experiment.

"That's what 'Wendy and Lucy' could have been," she adds. "I wanted to go back to the way that I worked when people weren't watching."

Except that they are. And they will continue to through 2009, as Williams' films are released, including the last one she shot before her year off, Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island." Williams plays a ghost, a deceased spouse opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. Working for Scorsese was "a crazy honor," Williams says, but she falters when trying to describe making the film, which began its March production soon after Ledger's death. "It was a hard time," she says. "I don't know how to talk about that because ... I don't know where I was."

Williams seems to have a much stronger sense of where she is tonight. She is coming to terms with her own power as an actor, something she has always denied, having associated power with "Republicans," she says laughing, "and dirty men."   

She'll be packing tonight: She's flying to Paris tomorrow to act in a video art project that will be shown in museums. But it's not quite the familiar jump into oblivion it sounds like: The director is Roman Polanski and her co-star is Natalie Portman.

She's looking forward to Paris, happy to have found a loophole in her self-imposed downtime. And she's even willing to enjoy some of the positive buzz circling "Wendy and Lucy." "The thing that tickles me about it," she says, "to think in a million f---ing years that we'd be having a conversation about this thing that we did in a Walgreens parking lot. I am so invested in Kelly and everyone who worked on this, so I feel doubly excited."

To Williams, the talk that she may be in the running for another Oscar nomination is bizarre, but she's toying with the idea that it might be a sign: "I can't say it doesn't tickle me that I'm hearing people are responding," she says. "It's hard to talk about these things without being pretentious, but trust your own instinct and follow your own path. What makes you different from anyone else is how you react to a given situation."

Rebecca Ascher Walsh contributed to this report.
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