From Dawson’s Creek to her Oscar nominated role in Brokeback Mountain to 2010′s Blue Valentine with Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams has built herself a respectable career. A career that’s continuing to pick up speed and isn’t likely to putter out anytime soon.
Scott Feinberg catches up with Williams in a telephone interview covering her early life, her climb to stardom, and her role in Blue Valentine, “a film centering on a contemporary married couple, charting their evolution over a span of years by cross-cutting between time periods”.
As a child participating in small plays Williams caught an early love for, not only the craft of acting, but even the smaller nuances that go on behind the scenes. “I liked being backstage; I liked being in a crowd of people; I liked the anticipation; I liked getting ready, I liked— I don’t know, I just have, like, really specific sort of memories about, like, the smell of, like, the makeup box, you know; or, like, the crowd of girls, sort of, all in this thing together; and, like, this transformation from school kid to, you know, whatever kind of little part I was playing.” She began to develop a desire to improve her acting and the idea that with persistence she could make professional acting a reality — an optimism that she says has stuck with her over the years.
Becoming emancipated from her parents as a young teen, though not an easy reconciliation, proved to work in her favor career-wise; however, Williams is careful to add that she wouldn’t recommend this path. The decision to go ahead with the emancipation was based partly on being a typical “headstrong” teen and partly on the advancement of her career, as she was then able to avoid the usual setbacks teenage actors under eighteen face. Williams explains her reasoning and her frame of mind at the time of her emancipation: “‘Oh, well they’re just gonna hire somebody that’s eighteen for that part, because then they don’t have to have a teacher on set and they don’t have to have a welfare worker on set.’ And so it’s something that you do to basically, like, increase your shot at getting a job. And it paid, actually—when I got cast on Dawson’s Creek I was fifteen or sixteen and everybody else was eighteen, and they cast me because, you know, they could work me like an adult, basically. I would not recommend it; I would not suggest it as, like, a path or, like, a thing to do. I feel very lucky that it did happen to work out for me, and that everything is okay, but it was a little touch and go there, and I don’t know many fifteen years olds that would be as responsible as I was.”
Williams describes her years working on Dawson’s Creek as “invaluable” experience, and she views this time as a catapult in developing her acting ability as well as learning from her mistakes. “I never would have gotten that much practice if I had just, you know, made movies or something like that. Not that I think that it was a bad show; I just mean that I got to work out a lot, I got to work my talent out.”
When discussing her early roles, Williams enjoys the feeling of nostalgia it brings her. “Wow, it’s so funny thinking about these old movies. I like it because it kind of puts you back in touch with, you know, your fighter spirit, because you were auditioning constantly, and being rejected, getting fewer jobs than you auditioned for—I mean, like, rejection was the norm, and getting the part, you know, was unusual. And so thinking about, like, oh, ‘Killer Joe,’ ‘Prozac Nation,’ ‘Dick’—those were all things that I fought for, and it excites me, still, to kind of think back to them…”
It’s the off-Broadway play Killer Joe that Williams credits for bringing her talent and aspiration to another plane, “because it was my first shot at doing something that was a little grown-up, or a little risky, or something that, like, stretched me in the direction that I wanted to go. And I feel like [director Wilson Miliam] was really, truly the first person to give me the chance, and that’s all I really needed, you know, was just, like, one person to say, ‘Yes, you can do this.’” But her role in Brokeback Mountain is what she is most proud of. Williams explains that after that movie, she felt like she could give up acting and still hold a sense of genuine fulfillment. “I felt like I would be perfectly satisfied to, sort of, hang up my acting hat, and say, like, ‘I did that, and that’s enough…I can rest easy now because that movie was something I was a part of, and everything else is just, kind of, icing on the cake, really.’”
Williams must be relieved she didn’t quit acting; she would’ve lost the opportunity to get involved in Blue Valentine, a movie she describes as, at one point, becoming her “reason for living,” and which was in the works for more than six years before being green-lit. Williams talks about the lengthy and unconventional filming process of Blue Valentine, including breaks between filming that sometimes spanned weeks, and methods used to bring Williams and co-star Ryan Gossling into the necessary mind-set for their scenes. “The movie is told in a non-linear way, but the first part of the relationship, when they’re younger and just discovering each other, we shot first; and then we had a hiatus that was supposed to be ten days but wound up being something like three or four weeks; and then we shot the present, when they’re married, entangled, and in a, kind of, pot of boiling water.”
The reason behind the long hiatus involved physical changes as the characters aged, and Williams wanting to gain weight, but also, she says, “Ryan and I had a hard time fighting with each other—like, we built up this really beautiful thing, and neither of us were so quick to want to destroy it, so we weren’t fighting with each other like we should be fighting with each other.”
It was director Derek Cianfrance’s idea to burn Williams’ and Gosling’s wedding photo in order to help the two actors evolve to a place where they would be ready to fight. Although, ironically, this didn’t exactly go as planned, “…we had a hundred-and-twenty dollars worth of fireworks, and we put them in a wheelbarrow, and we put our wedding picture on top, and we dropped a match on it, and it exploded. And the crazy thing about it was that we watched our wedding picture burn, but the whole thing wouldn’t burn—it burned into a heart-shape around our faces in a kiss. I think Derek has the evidence somewhere.”
When asked on a personal level, considering an earlier statement of how portraying characters who face major difficulties tend to wear her down, if she’d ever give up acting, Williams answers, “It does wear down some part of you, but it also replenishes another, so I don’t think of it as, like, a chore at all; I mean, it’s work, so it’s hard, and it, like, brings it complications, but I don’t think of it as, like, something that I have to do, or a burden, or anything like that, you know? I wouldn’t stop acting because the parts themselves are so hard; I might stop acting because it doesn’t suit my family, you know, it doesn’t like suit the kind of life that I want to have.”
Michelle Williams hasn’t stopped. Her next endeavors include portraying Marilyn Monroe in the biopic My Week With Marilyn, and The Emperor’s Children, alongside Keira Knightley, Richard Gere and Eric Bana.