Oscars: Michelle Williams on "Allowing Myself to Make Mistakes" and Her "Perfect" Awards-Show Seatmate

Manchester By The Sea - Michelle Willams and Casey Affleck -Still 4-Close up -H 2017
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

"I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to layer in things that aren't really spoken about," says the actress of her role in 'Manchester by the Sea.'

While Williams' performance in Manchester by the Sea lasts only about 11 minutes — she plays Casey Affleck's ex-wife Randi, who divorces him after a family tragedy — it nevertheless packs a punch, earning her a fourth Oscar nomination (her first since 2011's My Week With Marilyn).

What was the hardest part to get right? The look? The accent?

I think they all really go together. Without a carefully constructed building, the whole thing falls apart. I treated all of the aspects equally seriously.

Nicole Kidman has said that shorter roles can be tougher than longer ones. Do you agree?

I think what is difficult about shorter roles is that they still require the same amount of preparation. You have to communicate an entire person in a very short span of time.

Since you have less of the character on the page to work with, do you spend more time in your head thinking about who she is?

It was really important that I spend a lot of time thinking about the intervening years and the difference between who she was then and who she is now. None of that was written in the script. [Writer-director] Kenny [Lonergan] didn't offer any of those ideas. I knew that was my job. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to layer in things that aren't really spoken about.

What helped you prepare?

What I really tried to think about was how to put this person back together. How did she decide to get out of bed? After that, how did she decide to get dressed? After that, how did she decide to go to the mall and get a haircut? How did she choose life? I really thought about step after agonizing step. To stay alive after that kind of tragedy takes concerted, conscious effort. That is survival on an extraordinary level.

Do you have a favorite scene?

I don't know that I ever necessarily look forward to doing a scene. I find enjoyment in the moment between action and cut, but thinking and anticipating the moment is a little stressful, especially when you have Kenny's script. You want to fulfill the promise of it all. The moment between action and cut is like a deep state of forgetfulness and remembering at the same time. You sort of let go. I let myself, for a brief period of time, suspend all my self-judgment and self-criticism and insecurity. I am always willing to risk embarrassment — like it is a part that I want until the very end. What is the worst thing that can happen? That I do a bad job? I forget a line? I am trying to allow myself to make mistakes.

In what ways are you like Randi?

The ways that you are similar to a character, you never really have to think about. It sort of comes for free. The ways that you are different are the things you need to concentrate on. That's the ground you really need to make up. So I don't think too much about the similarity, I just think about where my understanding hits a gap and what I need to do to fill it in. That's the fun of it, really.

How does this Oscar nomination compare to the others?

I'm the happiest and luckiest girl in town, and I don't take a second of it for granted. I feel so fortunate to be in this position; I really cannot believe my good luck.

What have you learned about the Oscars that's helpful now?

It is sort of like acting. You know as soon as it's over you're going to wish you had lived inside it fully. You may be a little bit afraid or a little bit nervous, but it's going to be over so quickly, so make the most of what you have. 

If you could choose the seating chart at the Oscars who would you sit next to?

It is already perfect for me cause I get to sit next to my best friend Busy Philipps, so I wouldn’t change a thing. 

A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.