Waking up with Michelle Williams
The star of 'Brokeback Mountain' and 'Wendy and Lucy' lights up the blistering, warts 'n' all romance 'Blue Valentine' opposite Ryan Gosling. Tom Huddleston caught her as she rubbed sleep from her eyes
This sense of disarming openness is one of the many things that distinguishes Williams from her fast-living, media-savvy Hollywood peers. She’s a famously private figure, and one suspects her blanket refusal to speak about her personal life, and particularly her relationship with the late Heath Ledger, stems not so much from a mistrust of the press but from a concern that she might get too comfortable and say the wrong thing.
But it’s this same absence of guile that makes her such a remarkable actress. Starting her acting career at 13 with a bit part in ‘Baywatch’ before graduating to the teen-TV big leagues with ‘Dawson’s Creek’, it would’ve been easy for Williams, who turned 30 in September, to squander her talents in long-running serials and mainstream Hollywood trash. Instead, she chose the opposite route, cherry-picking tough, often unflattering roles in small, prestigious movies like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and last year’s extraordinary ‘Wendy and Lucy’, culminating in a painfully honest performance in new indie romance ‘Blue Valentine’.
The film follows two characters, Cindy, played by Williams, and her paramour, Dean, played with equal conviction by Ryan Gosling, through two different periods in their lives together: the beginning and the end of their five-year marriage. Co-written and directed by music-doc maker Derek Cianfrance, it was largely improvised by the two actors, which came as a surprise to the improv-shy Williams.
‘I first read the script when I was 21 and fell in love with it,’ she says. ‘And then when I showed up on set, Derek said, “I wrote this 12 years ago, it’s dead to me. All those words are dead, if you say any of them I’ll be bored. Now go out there and surprise me!” I’ve always had a secret fear of improvising, so this knocked the wind and courage out of me.’
But Williams didn’t let this turn of events hold her back. ‘It was jump and learn how to fly on the way down,’ she recalls with an audible shudder. ‘Here I was with Ryan, who feels very at home in that world, going through this trial by fire. One night we showed up at work when the sun was going down, and Derek said that we were going to shoot until it came up. There were no parameters, no instructions, no nothing. Of course, now it’s the only way I want to work!’
During the shoot, she took the time to explore her character, filling in the blanks between the ‘past’ and ‘present’ segments of the story. ‘For me, this movie is partly about women and rage, which is something that I’ve seen in life but not so much on the screen. It’s the least feminine quality there is, but I was interested in showing somebody who was on this slow burn.’
Listening to Williams, there’s a strong impression that she doesn’t just play a role but loses herself within it – several times, when asked about shooting a scene, she can’t recall a single detail. ‘I don’t really remember as I was somewhere else,’ she says. ‘My favourite thing about acting is that when it’s going well, what happens between “action” and “cut” is a mystery. You’re in a heightened state – in a good way. It’s like falling asleep for three minutes and being unable to remember your dreams when you wake up.’
Arguably, the woman most responsible for Williams’s current contentment is independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. The pair have made two films together – ‘Wendy and Lucy’ and western ‘Meek’s Cutoff’, due here in April – and Williams lights up the moment Reichardt’s name is mentioned. ‘I’d go anywhere for her!’ she enthuses. ‘Getting the script for “Meek’s Cutoff” was one of the top five happiest moments of my life, just because she wanted to work with me again. As an actor you lay yourself bare, you exhaust your abilities, and sometimes you feel like you have nothing left that a director would be interested in. So when she handed me that script, it was like she wanted to marry me instead of just date me!’
And this ‘marriage’ shows no sign of breaking down: just 24 hours previously, the director had been on the phone to congratulate Williams on her Golden Globe nomination for ‘Blue Valentine’. ‘Kelly’s a bit of a sceptic about those things, but she was so genuinely thrilled that I allowed myself to be pleased about it for the first time. She said, “You can’t feel any other way than proud, and I hope you’re drinking Champagne!”’
The nomination caps a remarkable year for Williams: she spent the late summer and autumn playing Marilyn Monroe opposite Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier in London-set drama ‘My Week with Marilyn’, living in Richmond during the shoot. More than anything, she comes across as someone amazed by success, but equally proud of the choices she’s made. ‘From where I started to where I find myself, there’s great distance,’ she admits. ‘And no one is more surprised or happy about it than me.
I remember what it was like to burn with desire, and to have no fulfilment. It’s all I ever wanted, to be respected as an actress.’ Then she catches herself, and laughs. ‘I’m afraid I take these things a little too seriously!’
Read our 'Blue Valentine' review here
Author: Tom Huddleston
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