Michelle Williams (Sunday Times Magazine, February 19, 2017)
Michelle Williams arrives at the restaurant. Her ultra-blonde boyish cropped hair strangely seems to make her look uber-feminine. She’s straight off a seven hour flight from New York to Los Angeles – and I mean straight. No make-up whatsoever, her skin has a luminosity that captures the whole room. Even the hip LA crowd can’t help but gawp. There was a time when she minded this. She minded it quite a lot. There was a time where she was hounded and hunted by paparazzi with giant lenses wanting to get a glimpse of her pain when her ex but much loved boyfriend and father of their daughter Matilda, Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose in January 2008. She’s wearing a denim jacket and a loose boho dress. Waif like, sure but even in her somewhat ordinary outfit and big bulging flight back there’s something about her. We hug hello. I’ve met her only once before but I feel that I want to. I love a Michelle Williams performance. Something about it stays with you long after the movie. She has flown to LA for the weekend of the SAG awards where she is nominated best supporting actress in Manchester by the Sea.
Her performance in Manchester is extraordinary. Not much screen time – it’s been estimated at only ten minutes – she manages to pack in a lifetime of emotions, grief, despair, loss, survival all into her character Randi: a woman whose husband was drunk (Casey Affleck) and accidentally set the house on fire, causing the death of their three children. What she brings to this part is her real life experience of loss that she was ready to confront and cauterise into her art for the very first time. Affleck said she told him that this was the part she wanted to leave as a record of herself for her daughter. She snuggles into the booth “I spent a lot of time preparing for it and I tried to squeeze a lot into those scenes.”
Sometimes her big bambi eyes look right at you, unafraid. Sometimes she closes her eyes while she’s thinking without any self-consciousness.
“I figured in my imagination over the years how much I wanted to work for (director) Kenny Lonergan (Margaret, Analyze This). While I was preparing for this I wasn’t doing anything else so I had time to spare. I spent hours and hours. It was my obsession, my daydream. You know you spend so much time waiting in lines, getting something fixed or cooking a simple recipe and SHE was what I thought about ALL of the time. I never treated it like a small part.”
And in this sense it wasn’t. Her characters’ presence was the essence of what Manchester was about – loss and how to survive it. She invaded every screen moment by not actually being there. “I like to spend as much time as possible before a project just easing myself in.” Because she wants to get it perfect or because she feels that she need to work so hard? She is after all one of those all thinking, all analysing Virgos. “I think research is helpful and it bears fruit, even in the most circuitous parts you take. I think it’s a way to work through anxiety. It’s also the only way I know how to construct a character.” Does she think it was kind of therapy to live out someone’s grief onscreen rather than her own private grief? “I never look at it like that. I look like how can I be of service to this character. Kenny wrote a character who was very different to me so it was interesting to find out more about her, not about myself.” But in so doing does that make her feel more or less of who she is? “It has nothing to do with me. I don’t think I understand myself through exploration of these characters. I use my life to understand myself better. My work is to understand other people.”
Of course it is. Williams is not a narcissist in any way. She’s all about other people. For instance, she’s worried how I felt waiting in a restaurant for her on my own, not about her eight hour plane ride and how she fell asleep with her neck in a funny position and now it hurts. She mentions it only when I notice she is cocking her head to one side unconsciously. Partly I’ll admit it. I have a girl crush on Michelle Williams and party because she’s the kind of girl who’s smart and funny and I think anyone would want as a girlfriend. Talking to her is easy. When we talk about risks she’s fascinated by the risks I have taken in life that she hasn’t. “I never want to go above the speed limit, that’s true, but obviously I’ve taken some risks in my life. I try to keep things simple, be at home a lot and only take the risks when I work. I knew there was a lot riding on my scenes in Manchester. Those scenes feel very loaded.” Was that what drew her to the movie? “I hadn’t worked in a very long time on a movie. And what drew me into it was the writing. It was Kenny. He was on my bucket list. Before I die it would be my dream to work with him. I like the feeling in life when you see circles close.”
She’s not very hungry but she doesn’t want me to eat alone. We order salad even though I see a box of supermarket salad in her bag, which she’d intended to eat on the plane but didn’t. It was a huge risk for her to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret in 2014 and then return to Broadway for Blackbird in 2015, singing on stage, certainly one of those work risks that paid off. It was also designed to keep her close to home and Matilda. It’s been an interesting and continuous transformation for her.
We next see her on screen in Kelly Rheichardt’s Certain Women. She worked with Rheichardt before (Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff) and has always been attracted to her poetic film making skills. Williams is a big poetry fan. When she wakes up she doesn’t go on Instagram or Twitter, she reads a poem. She likes the idea of a lot happening in a short space of time. And she likes to constantly challenge her intellect. Perhaps that’s something to do with leaving school at fifteen to come to LA to act before eventually ending up in the long running television series Dawson’s Creek. Her best friend form that show, Busy Williams, calls her now. She talks to her excitedly and says it’s the best part of coming to LA for awards. She gets to hang out with her friend.
Williams turns down wine. I ask her is that because she wants to look non bloated in her dress at the event? (And what a dress it turns out to be. Who knew sequins could look so cool). “Usually I’m a partaker of alcohol but I feel like I have more energy and it’s easier to get up in the morning and be bright eyed and bushy tailed without it. It’s also nice to have inhalation and exhalation.
There’s a few different ways to take care of yourself and sometimes it means indulging your desires and sometimes it means the opposite. I’m usually an indulger because I find it’s so comforting when life is stressful. Sometimes I think I’m going to take care of myself by letting myself have what I want, but recently I’ve been working with the idea that taking care of myself would be to give myself things that are healthy for myself,” she laughs, as if to imply she’s not been very good at it.
Certain Woman is based on the short stories of Maile Meloy. It’s three interwoven, loosely connected tales and Williams plays a wife and mother who wants to build a new home and keep things really authentic with natural sandstone but she’s less authentic on the inside. It’s the kind of ambiguous character that Williams thrives on. Also Certain Women is set in Montana, but for Williams it wasn’t just about the awe inspiring, bleak landscape and the vintage trucks. It was her childhood. She lived there until she was eight. “I have very, very, very happy memories. The happiest. I really loved being a kid there – lots of space and freedom.” Thereafter the family moved to San Diego. Michelle’s home maker mother, brother, sisters and father who had his own commodity trading business ran for Senate as a Republican twice and lost. “It was less happy probably by virtue of it being my preteen hears which are perhaps unpleasant wherever you go.”
At fifteen she got a legal emancipation from her parents. The primary reason was so she could work unrestricted hours as an actress in Los Angeles but there is sense of fracture. Her need to be alone yet she admits to being terribly lonely and that she had no idea how to look after herself, even by her Dawson’s Creek days. “I’d eat McDonald’s as a matter of course – cheeseburger, fries and I’d order two pizzas. One for dinner and one for breakfast with orange juice. I didn’t go to the dentist for ten years. I was a kid. I didn’t know going to the dentist was a real thing. I thought it was a scam. I had so many other things to take care of I wasn’t thinking about my teeth and then they started to hurt.”
We share experiences of dental trauma. “I am so dentist phobic I cry as soon as I sit on the chair. I found a dentist who gives you gas so you’re completely and totally out of it and you have no idea what’s going on. You get sleepy, warm and cosy. You should do it.” She’s worried that I have PTSD from a barbaric visit to the dentist when I was six. At this point we discover how delicious the flat bread is. “Surely it must have been fried.” We pluck bits off it so that it looks like a man with a beard and then we pluck off another bit and it looks like a bird with a beak.
“I’d forgotten how truly beautiful Montana is. It’s truly majestic and felt like home. Of course I admire Kelly so much as a film maker. I always want to surprise her and come up with things that she might not have expected. But ultimately Kelly has a very clear picture in her head and I’m just trying to understand what it is so that I can give it to her.” Her character in Certain Women is not very likeable. “I don’t care at all if people like me as a character because that’s real love. Real love is when you accept the totality of someone – when you see their darkness and their lightness. Real love is saying I see you for you and I still love you. I guess that’s what I’m still looking for.” In this instance the words are so resonant I’m not sure if she’s talking about a character or herself. Her intelligence is fierce and I think she enjoys a little ambiguity. “When you don’t pin something down directly it opens up to so many interpretations.”
Williams strikes me as a woman who can love fiercely and deeply. She has been romantically linked to Spike Jonze, Jason Segal and Jonathan Safran Foer. And while she’s happy to talk about what love means, the concept of love, she doesn’t want to talk about these individuals. You can see it’s a conflict for her. She rarely gives interviews and she wants to give her all in every moment in everything she does but she has learnt there has to be boundaries. After Heath Ledger’s death she almost gave up acting all together, then she realised it was just the attention she didn’t like. It was a double loss for her. She lost him when the relationship ended and then he died and she lost him all over again. They met on the set of Brokeback Mountain which she has described as “a very charmed time in my life.” They both got Oscar nominations. They fell in love, she fell pregnant. The paparazzi were fascinated by this couple because of its normalcy. They went out to breakfast with their Stroller to local diners in Brooklyn, their kid cuddling giant stuffed animals in her McLaren buggy. It seemed real, grounded and like it would go on forever.
In a statement shortly after his death she said, “My heart is broken. I am the mother of the most tender hearted, high spirited little girl who is the spitting image of her father, all that I can cling to is the presence inside her that reveals itself every day. She will be brought up with the best memories of him.”
She’s checking her phone to see how her daughter is. “She’s with friends. Everything is OK. OK. She’s eleven so we’re not quite pre-teens yet. She’s just a kid right now.” So what is she like? Do you think she’ll want to act? She has the genes. There’s a pause and Williams is thinking. She’s very careful what she says about her daughter because there was a time when “men and women in suits were cashing cheques off my daughters face.” There were also other horrible moment where a little girl at Starbucks approached Matilda and asked her what it was like to be famous because she had a daddy who died like Michael Jackson.
“She’s not looking to declare herself. She’s really still a little girl.” Williams was ready to declare herself as a kid but maybe Williams was never a kid. She’s told me before that she thinks we have many ages within us all the time. She strikes me as someone who is both young for her age and old.
She knew growing up that she wanted to be away from San Diego. Acting wasn’t always her passion. She wanted to box. “I wanted to be a boxer. I think that was kind of sad because at the time I didn’t distinguish between sexes and weight categories. I was going to go out there and fight the champ Mike Tyson. I was a big fan of his growing up and I wanted to be against someone really tough.”
“Matilda has all kinds of hobbies and passions. I don’t want to make a strong statement on her behalf in one direction or another.”
Her daughter is the reason that most of her projects have remained on the East coast. She lives in Brooklyn and has another place in upstate New York. “We have stayed home. I haven’t made a movie that has taken us on the road for five years. I’ve been doing plays and small parts in movies. For Manchester I would just go to Boston for little day trips and for Certain Women it was shot over the Spring break so she came with me.”
It’s extraordinary to think that Williams has garnered so much critical adulation and awards nominations over the last five years and has rarely been far away from home. That requires extraordinary juggling skills. She was Oscar nominated for Blue Valentine in 2011 in which she starred with Ryan Gosling – a relationship that went from happy passion to toxic chaos – and again for playing Marilyn in My Week with Marilyn. Certainly she must have identified with the much loved tragic heroine. For Marilyn she would go to sleep watching her movies. “Like when you’re a kid and you put a book under your pillow hoping you’d get it via osmosis.”
Williams is a pretty powerful sponge. Even jetlagged and exhausted she seems able to absorb everything. It’s not long before she is dissecting my love life and is giving me advice. At the moment she’s working in Brooklyn again on a movie called The Greatest Showman in which she plays Charity, the wife of P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman. It’s a musical. She says, “Have you ever interviewed Hugh Jackman? I love that man.” I tell her we sang during the interview – An Englishman in New York, except I can’t really sing. “But I bet he made you feel good about it.” Apparently Jackman made Williams feel good about her singing because her next role is playing Janis Joplin. “Nothing like a challenge. It’s gonna get me going,” she says, pulling a scared face.”
Her desire to challenge herself with singing happened when she sang in Blackbird on stage. “I fell in love with singing and now I just want to sing. I find it terrifying too but once you do it it’s not like the dentist – it’s kind of fun. Don’t you ever sing to yourself in the shower and it kind of makes you feel good?” No, sadly not. “OK what about dancing? There are just certain things that make me feel I’m a kid, that make me feel I’m a little bit free and a little bit unbound and I love it. “I dance with Hugh Jackman.”
I tell her my parents were champion ballroom dancers. Her eyes open wide. “Were they really in love?” Only when they were dancing. “Dancers always look so in sync with one another. There’s so much communication that happens when you dance.” Then she looks sad for me. “And you never felt the rhythm?” No, not at all.
I want to talk about her family, not mine. “I have an older brother, two older sisters and a little sister who just had a baby. My parents are divorced, each doing their own thing in different places.” Were you more like one parent than another or an alien? “Nobody in my family ever acted or wanted to act. My mum sings though. She has a lovely voice and her dream when she was growing up was to play the cello on the Lawrence Welk show, so I like to think in some small way, me singing and dancing with Hugh Jackman is giving her something she missed out on.” And her father, what does he do now? There’s a sticky pause for the first time. “I really don’t know,” she says and shakes her head and she shakes it a second longer to be emphatic in a quiet way. You can see there’s something painful that went on before but the ‘I don’t know’ is as far as she takes me.
This is a woman who has turned her vulnerability inside out to survive it. A woman who was on her own in Los Angeles when she was fifteen. It’s a place of broken dreams and nasty egos. She must have felt alone, lonely and then of course there’s her more public loss of the partner, months after they had split up. And if that loss itself didn’t tear her down, being hounded by the paps almost did. “If you’re never left alone to live your life, you don’t feel alive.”
Anyone else I might push a little harder to find out what went on with her dad, but Williams feels everything so sharply and it feels cruel. Instead she spies me looking at her big plane bag, stuffed to the brim. “I bought this book of poetry with me. I’m very excited. It’s one hundred poems. I truly love them. When I don’t have time to pick up a novel or I’m doing other things I can dip into a poem. I always have time to read a poem – that’s what I tell myself and I get an email from Poem a Day that I subscribe to. Does she ever feel like writing poetry? “No. I’ve read enough to know that I’m not capable of writing one. Where would I start?”
One gets the impression that Williams could tackle anything. I like the metaphor of this waif like creature wanting to be a boxer. She’s ready to fight for anything. She’s ready to plunge into something that terrifies her, like a biopic of Janis Joplin. “It’s going to be a lot of work but I’m thrilled.
“I do like to fight. Not with people but for things that I want. I really enjoy the experience of wanting something and crossing the distance to get it. I don’t want a lot of things but the things that I do want burn me up inside and I get very excited about trying to reach them. I wanted to play Janis badly and I reached for it.”
“I don’t mean I want objects. I want experiences and people. It’s nice to want something and think about what you could do to pull that thing closer to you.” She’s a dazzling presence, this waif like creature that seems such a fighter and very far away from that time where she felt it was hard to be alive because she was being watched all the time. “That was hard. You feel self-conscious. You don’t want to jump outside the box. You don’t want to embarrass yourself. You don’t want to make a bold move. You just want to spend your life staring at your feet so people can’t catch your eyes. Not a nice way to live.” Especially not if you’re already sad. “Yes.” She closes her eyes again as if to remember the pain so she can digest it, expel it.
How did she get out of that? “We moved outside of the city.” There’s a little pain when she says the words and I recall an article in a glossy where she talks about when she had to move and she worried “How would he find us?” meaning Ledger. It wasn’t an easy move but it was a move that was needed. And now they have another place in Brooklyn in a different area. “We don’t get hassled in the same way. It’s really quite manageable.” How did she succeed in getting it to be manageable? “I really try not to attach any feelings to a state of being, not success or failure. So when somebody says I’ve succeeded I don’t hang onto it because I know that life is long and things are bumpy and when somebody says I’ve failed I don’t hang onto that either. I try to let things bounce off me so I don’t become locked in one identity. I’m too afraid to let things go and be comfortable. It’s a fact of life. Everything goes up and down.”
Wise, heartfelt, vulnerable, strong. And off she goes to bed with her book of poems.