It’s after 9pm on a Friday. Michelle Williams has just finished work and is pottering about the house, cracking open a bottle of wine and putting out a cheese plate. Dressed in ballet pumps, jeans and a soft, stripy sweater, she looks beautiful in an effortless way. She slips away to check on sleeping five-year-old daughter Matilda (whose dad is the late actor Heath Ledger). Mom, daughter and an au pair recently decamped from New York to this rented home in London while Williams shoots the title role in My Week with Marilyn, co-starring Kenneth Branagh. Her blond locks, which have been dyed Marilyn’s platinum and cut in a neat pixie, frame her porcelain face. “I’m so hungry,” she says as she curls up into an oversized armchair and reaches for a hunk of cheese.
Despite the late hour, Williams is open and talkative, especially on the subject of Matilda. “Her hair is down to her chin and she has decided she can have her bangs trimmed, but she doesn’t want a bob anymore. A bob is cute for a three-year-old but she is five now...” She pauses. “It’s crazy how fast time is going for me and how agonizingly slow it is going for her. When she was four she would say ‘I am four and a half,’ ‘I am four and five-sixths,’ ‘four and seven-eighths,’ because all the increments mattered. They brought her one step closer.”
It is often said of certain film stars that they seem “normal,” when what is really meant is that for a person inhabiting the strange and rarified universe that is celebrity, there is still something relatively normal about this actor. But as Williams goes about settling in for the evening it is instantly apparent that she actually is normal. Really. The kind of normal that means you can imagine being her friend, even doing the laundry or cooking a meal with her.
And it’s this entirely natural quality that has made the 30-year-old actress so remarkable to watch over the years in films such as The Station Agent, Brokeback Mountain (which earned her an Academy Award nomination in 2006), Shutter Island and her latest Oscar-buzzed movie, Blue Valentine. Out December 31, the film is an intimate, naturalistic portrait of a marriage just as trouble hits and “after the love drugs have worn off.” Williams is riveting as Cindy, a nurse who feels there must be more to life, many years after falling slap-bang in love with Ryan Gosling’s once promising, but now merely dependable, Dean.
Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance says he had always imagined the character of Cindy as someone who was “a pot of boiling water with a lid on it: still and calm outside but raging on the inside.” Williams, he adds, “has such a ripe inner life and imagination that I don’t think it was difficult for her to do that.” Williams agrees that the role struck a chord with her. “She was suffering under the casualty of her first big love, when you have these feelings so strong that they overwhelm all your sensibility. It rearranges the entire world and shakes you up and sets you back down,” she says. “Cindy is at that moment in a relationship where you stop and take a backwards-facing glance and say, ‘What happened? How did I get from there to here? How did something that started off with all that promise and all that love and the best intentions end like this?’ I have faced it. And you cannot pinpoint the day, and you cannot work out how to go back and fix it.” She takes a moment, all calm and quiet on the surface.
As the whole world knows by now, Williams and Ledger broke up in September 2007, and he died four months later of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in January 2008. Since then she has quietly gone about being a single mom and pursuing her acting career. In that order. And yet it’s impossible to think about Williams without considering the tremendous joy and tumult in her life since she first met Ledger in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, a film that also established her reputation as a serious actress. “What does that movie mean to me?” she says carefully. “That movie is many, many things… It is a piece of cinema history and I happen to be involved in it. There’ve been a few films that I have been so transported by the filmmaking that I couldn’t focus. I was like a cog in the machinery in a really good way; I could just get swept up in the movie. I really did that with Brokeback Mountain. I felt like I got really close to the thing that I wanted to do and I was very proud of the director, proud to be associated with it.” Still, she had no idea at the time what an enormous impact the film would have. “I was just an actor who happened to be lucky enough to be in the right place, and it was the place where I met Matilda’s father, and that is a lot. It was a lot. And it will be a lot for Matilda too, when she gets around to watching it. I will watch it with her, when she’s ready. It is hard to imagine what that would feel like, but one day, yes, we will watch it together.”
Michelle Williams was born in Montana, the fourth of five children to a stockbroker father and a homemaker mother. She had what she describes as a normal, happy, outdoorsy and horsey childhood, which she loved. But like Matilda, she experienced it mostly as a long, slow wait for freedom. “When you’re a kid you are always waiting: for your birthday, for your driver’s license, to see an R-rated movie. There are so many thresholds you have to cross. I think I was always too eager to get ahead of myself.” When she was eight, her parents took her to see a play that she can’t recall—“Tom Sawyer or Annie or something like that”—but the experience had a profound effect. “I was on the edge of my seat. It seemed so exciting and brave and the actors seemed so vulnerable. Disaster could have struck at any minute and they’d have had to deal with it in front of the crowd. It thrilled me.” It also gave her a restless desire to become an actor.
When she was 10, her family moved to San Diego. At 15, Williams emancipated from her parents and moved to L.A. to be an actor. “It caused a fight with my parents. I don’t think I could recommend it unreservedly to anyone.” People often ask her if the emancipation felt like a brave thing to do at the time and she never knows how to answer. “I think bravery and foolishness must be cousins. There is a very fine line between them and teeter-tottering on that line was me at 15. It did work out well for me, but it just as easily could have not. I’m lucky. L.A. is not the kind of town to be 15 and on your own in.”
Williams’ big break came at 16 with the part of bad girl Jennifer Lindley in TV’s Dawson’s Creek. She soon graduated to a steady stream of roles in films as diverse as the Watergate satire Dick, the depression biopic Prozac Nation and much-acclaimed indies such as The Station Agent. Then, in 2004, director Ang Lee cast her as Ledger’s spurned wife in Brokeback. The film marked the boundary between the time she felt like a frustrated artist and the beginning of her feeling “very lucky to be a challenged artist.” Her work has since attracted the likes of such esteemed directors as Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese and Todd Haynes. Director Cianfrance first approached Williams nearly a decade ago with the script for Blue Valentine. “I must have been 21 when I read it,” Williams recalls. “And it affected me in such a way, that I memorized it and carried the story around in my head. It became the lens [through which] I saw the whole world.”
But as often happens in Hollywood, it took time for all of the elements—including finances and casting—to fall into place. Cianfrance says he called Williams in December 2008, “and I said, ‘Michelle, I have the money, I have Ryan [Gosling]. Pack your bags; we’re going to the beach. We’re going to California to make the movie.’ Blue Valentine was the film she felt she was born to make, but she said no to me. She’d made a promise to her daughter that they’d stay at home that year and she would be there to tuck her into bed every night and make her breakfast in the mornings.” Undeterred, Cianfrance called back the next morning. “She was the only person I wanted, so I asked her, ‘If I could get you home every night, would you do it?’ She agreed. So we set it in New York. To me, it’s a good example of her heart and soul. I have two kids of my own, and I admire her parenting to no end.”
It’s getting late and as Williams sweeps her hand across her face, she looks down and says, “I am still discovering Marilyn’s makeup under my eyes.” Williams’ earliest memory of the iconic starlet is from a photograph she kept in her bedroom growing up. “I don’t know how it got there or who picked it, but it was a very unknown photo. She’s in a white dress twirling in the grass at Roxbury, which is the house that she shared with Arthur Miller. It’s completely natural and she looks totally free,” she says. “I read this thing recently saying that everything is a sign and all signs can be interpreted as good. So the fact that I grew up with this picture of Marilyn Monroe in my room could just be like any other girl who grows up with a picture of Marilyn or it could have a special connection to me. Or maybe it means that I know her in a different way. You know, it is possible to think the world is not against you. And then it is also possible to think and know that the world is very against you.”
For a moment, just a moment, she looks a little unsettled and sad. There’s no doubt that she has been touched by tragedy. “I’ve done a lot. I have taken on a lot of things earlier than would be the standard in terms of working, of being in a serious relationship and having a child. I was 25 when I had Matilda and so I feel like I have caught up to myself, and 30 feels like a number that maybe matches all those things a little bit better.”
Williams took a year off after filming Scorsese’s Shutter Island to regroup and concentrate on Matilda. “I had a lot of grand plans! I thought I would accomplish a lot, you know, read such-and-such novel, do the embroidery on all the curtains. But I basically just embroidered little scraps of paper for a year. I wound up just pulling water, being very quiet. But I learned how to garden. That was probably the best thing I did.”
She is about to wrap filming on My Week with Marilyn and is delighted to have no set plans. Not even for the holidays. “I do love Christmas because of having a kid—it’s fantastic, isn’t it? But I have no idea what I’ll be doing then or at New Year’s. I definitely won’t be working—I do know that.”
She rises and goes to check on Matilda again. “She’s talking in her sleep,” Williams whispers as she stands by the door frame, the lamp lighting her platinum hair. And in that moment, she is cast in her three best lights all at once: nice, “normal” girl; loving mother; and beautiful, iconic movie star.