Michelle Williams has no sooner walked into Ryan Gosling’s uptown hotel room before the 30-year-old actor immediately starts shadowboxing with his slight blond costar. (To be fair, he was pumped up from listening to REO Speedwagon seconds before she entered.) Then Gosling smiles warmly and give Williams a large bear hug. You couldn’t ask for a better summation of the extraordinary double-act this duo does in Blue Valentine, director Derek Cianfrance’s scathing look at a crumbling marriage that flips between the older couple at each other’s throats and their younger selves falling in love. The twosome talked to TONY on the eve of the film’s release.
What was your first impression of this script? Because it’s a pretty brutal look at falling out of love.…
Michelle Williams: I first read the script when I was 22 years old; I’d just come off Dawson’s Creek and hadn’t really had the opportunities yet to make the sort of movies I’d wanted to make. So when I read Derek’s script, it was like, Light on yonder mountain! [Laughs] It gave me something to hold on to for a long time: “If I can just make this movie…” [Pause] I actually remember everything about meeting Derek for the first time. I still have the dress I wore that day. It doesn’t fit me anymore, but I kept it, simply because I wanted to remember everything from that day.
Ryan Gosling: Wow, really?
Williams: [Embarrassed] Yeah. I just wanted to have something that would let me go back to that moment immediately. It was one of those ordinary-day-that-ends-up-changing-your-life kinda days, you know?
Given that this movie hinges on a few days like that, it seems highly appropriate.
Williams: Right! We just bonded immediately. Derek and I ended up going on this long walk all through lower Manhattan, and at one point, we’re both looking out at Brooklyn. And he tells me, “I live over there, and I’m going on this date with this girl tomorrow night, to go see a movie.” Cut to years later, when I end up living several blocks away from him in Brooklyn, and he’s married this woman and they have two kids together.
Gosling: So this was before Derek met Shannon [Plumb, his wife]?
Williams: They’d just started dating after he’d finished his first few drafts.
Gosling: That’s wild. I was just struck by the questions it posed: What happens to love? Why do these things fade? How can two people who have such deep affection for each other end up wanting to kill the other person? I always viewed it as a murder mystery, in which you are essentially sifting through clues and retracing the steps to find who killed this relationship. Is it him, her, their kid? Is it work, or money, or time?
It’s a relationship whodunit, in other words.
Gosling: Yeah! It feels like a genre piece…though I couldn’t tell you what genre that is.
Williams: The relationship-slowly-deteriorates thriller… I think we just made up our own genre, Ryan.
You both lived in a house for four weeks with your onscreen daughter (Faith Wladyka) as a mock-family prior to shooting the later-years scenes, right?
Gosling: I mean, you hear about Dungeons & Dragons fans doing this kind of stuff all the time, right? [Laughs] We just put ourselves into a real-life fantasy like they would. “Hey, Michelle, I just rolled a 17 on this 20-sided die…”
Williams: “…And that means you have to take out the garbage tonight.” [Laughs] I don’t think we could have done those scenes without that sense of trust. I remember feeling sick the whole time we shot those later scenes.
Gosling: Really? Every day?
Williams: Yeah. Especially when we did the darker stuff. [Visibly shudders] But by that time, I felt like I had someone to hold my hand and guide me through the tunnel.
Gosling: I held your hand and you held the flashlight. We got out of there together.
Why do you think the MPAA originally gave Blue Valentine an NC-17 rating?
Gosling: I really have no idea. I mean, look, no one from the movie was saying that kids under 17 should be seeing this movie. But a lot of people don’t realize what an NC-17 rating means to a smaller film. You can’t buy TV ads; your film won’t be advertised in certain newspapers. The message that gets delivered isn’t really “Kids can’t see this movie.” It’s “No one can see this movie!” [Laughs] And it’s not like we were told exactly why it got this rating.
Because there’s an oral-sex scene in it, I’m guessing?
Gosling: Maybe, but if that was the case, there are still unanswered questions: Why is it okay for a film like, say, Black Swan to feature an oral-sex scene between two women, whereas we can’t show a scene of a married couple having oral sex without risking an NC-17 rating?
Good question. Because Black Swan treats that in a more fantastical sense…
Gosling: …and Blue Valentine treats that moment more realistically? We can only speculate. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little accountability from the MPAA in cases like ours. We could tell you every thought that went through our heads in terms of why we made this film the way we did, why we decided to show the things we showed. And yet the ratings board can make all of these decisions behind closed doors. Let’s start a dialogue about this. Don’t just deliver this verdict from on high and not tell the filmmakers why. The whole process is just so confusing to me.
Williams: My immediate reaction was, it’s another group of people making decisions about things that affect all of us behind closed doors. But the more you both talk about it, the more it incenses me. It’s ridiculous.
What do you feel Blue Valentine says about the nature of relationships overall?
Williams: We always talked about it in terms of what happens when two people get so caught up in the details of life that they stop having anything to give. I don’t think every relationship is doomed, of course, but these things happen.
Gosling: To me, it kept coming back to the song my character sings while they’re courting: “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” Always.