There are lots of romantic images that spring to mind when you picture Venice, but when I meet Michelle Williams at a hotel near the city’s Lido (we’re both in town for the annual film festival), it couldn’t be more miserable outside. Rain and wind batter the seafront but in a spartan white room, the actress sits quietly at a round table. Dressed in a pink top and sporting a platinum pixie crop in preparation for playing Marilyn Monroe later this year, she’s calm and cool yet not nearly as serious or as intense as I expected.
Later, she will tell me about an inner turmoil that afflicts her every time she embarks upon a new role, but if she’s suffering at the moment, it doesn’t show. The only thing that seems to betray her gentle demeanour is an inner steeliness. The fact that she effectively divorced her parents when she was 15 so she would be free to go to Burbank, California to work as an actress and live alone, suggests she’s always been strong willed.
It’s perhaps what helped her to transcend the role of Jen Lindley, who she played for six seasons on the teen drama Dawson’s Creek, to become an arthouse favourite. While she admits the show once felt like a curse, today she regards it as a blessing, because it taught her to feel comfortable in front of a camera. The series also gave her something to react against, and if the films Williams has chosen since have not always been massive commercial hits, they have at least always been interesting. She tells me she simply makes the choices based on her “gut instinct”, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s esteemed filmmakers that draw her to projects.
In the eight years since leaving Dawson’s Creek the 30-year-old has worked with everyone from Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman (on Synecdoche, New York which he directed) to legendary directors Todd Haynes (I’m Not There) and Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island). In 2006, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress after she co-starred in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, while this year’s Blue Valentine earned her an Oscar nod for Best Actress.
Her latest film, the low-budget Meek’s Cutoff, reunites her with Kelly Reichardt, the director she first worked with on 2008’s Wendy And Lucy. Another fascinating choice, Meek’s Cutoff is a hypnotic Western that sees Michelle play a woman who finds herself stranded on the Oregon Trail in 1845 when the party she is travelling with is led into danger by a hapless guide. Though the women are confined mainly to doing domestic chores, Williams’ character proves herself every bit as tough as the men.
The actress, too, has had to be strong in recent years. In the midst of forging her career she was struck by a very public tragedy when her ex-fiancé and father of her now five-year-old daughter Matilda, Heath Ledger (whom she met on Brokeback Mountain), died in 2008 of an accidental overdose on prescription drugs. Williams threw herself into her work and burned out, forcing her to take a year off. Today, she admits to struggling to balance work and motherhood, but is passionate about both. As for the future, the role of Monroe in My Week With Marilyn suggests that we can expect to see her continuing to take risks, while her casting alongside Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman in this year’s Take This Waltz could prove to be her most left-field choice yet – and a long, long way from Dawson’s Creek.
You worked with director Kelly Reichardt on Wendy And Lucy and now you’ve reunited for Meek’s Cutoff. You must admire her work?
Absolutely. And I’m just so glad that she thought I had more to give and wasn’t bored of me! I do worry about that – sometimes you feel a bit like used goods at the end of filming, like you’ve spent yourself with a director. I’m glad Kelly had faith in me, that she thought I could put everything I have into a movie and regenerate; offer her something different.
You take on some difficult parts – your next movie will see you play Marilyn Monroe. Do you ever get nervous after committing to a part?
Before I work I always have a crisis of faith and I start to deteriorate mentally and physically. Then the job starts and everything’s OK.
Are you difficult to be around then?
Mostly I’m worst with myself. Sometimes I keep it to myself if I feel like I don’t know the people around me well enough. It doesn’t make me mean or anything. It’s just like my own mind is under siege.
Meek’s Cutoff is a Western. Are you a fan of the genre?
I would say no, actually, because I feel a bit kept out from them.
Why choose it? Isn’t it true that you also had to work in severe heat and cold while making it [the film is set in the punishing Oregon desert]?
[Laughs] Oh god, where do I start? The conditions were so extreme, and dangerous. Physically it was arduous. In retrospect it’s hilarious. In independent filmmaking, when there’s not a lot of money to go around, it starts to feel like there’s no real safety net to catch you if you fall. Everybody’s stretched and everybody’s doing two jobs.
Is a tough role attractive to you?
It is, yes. I think hard work makes good people. That’s one idea that I inherited from my upbringing and decided to stick with. I think it’s meaningful to do tasks yourself and to understand how your life operates. Blue Valentine was a totally different labour – an emotional labour. But it is satisfying to see your physical progress and have tangible results to hang on to. My character in Meek’s Cutoff does a lot of knitting and when I started I was lousy – it all came out crooked. Then somewhere in the middle I broke through it and now I can knit a passable scarf. So it’s rewarding to see you can exert effort and improve.
“Learning to live with the imbalance of being a mother and working is very difficult for me”
You took a year off acting in 2008. Did it teach you anything?
I learned to bake. I’ve never really been much of a cook and at the beginning I would put dinner on the table and both Matilda and I would sort of [turns her nose up]. She would gamely take a bite and then say, “Not so good,” and I’d go, “You’re right, it’s terrible”. It would take me three hours to make something really simple. But by the end of the year I had a few things in my back pocket.
Do you like learning new things?
Yes, but it’s also so terrible to start something new as an adult because you feel like a dunce. I realised I always have a hard time and I’ve just had to come around to the fact that sometimes you’re just going to suck at it, you’re going to feel like a failure, but if you persist you’ll come out the other side of it.
When did you first get into acting?
I started doing plays when I was eight. I always wanted to act. First I wanted to be a boxer, though. I don’t know why but I wanted to fight Mike Tyson. That was the dream.
What are your childhood memories?
The first part was spent in Montana and I’m grateful for that connection to grass and trees and sky. Then we moved to San Diego – my father’s a treasure hunter and had so many jobs. He fostered a sense of independence in all of us. Then at 16, I moved away to Los Angeles.
At that point you chose to become emancipated from your parents. What does that involve?
It’s basically like divorcing them. You have to prove that you are emotionally and financially stable and independent. You have to have graduated high school and you have to prove that you can live alone.
How did you support yourself?
I did one commercial every six months and that was enough.
Why did you want to divorce your parents?
What teenager wouldn’t want to? It’s just that not a lot of teenagers’ parents let them.
Has becoming a mother yourself changed any of your feelings about acting?
Not my feelings but the way I work. Now I try and work in the summer when my daughter’s not in school and condense it to make it as short a burst as possible. It’s like running a sprint or something instead of a marathon.
Do you find it difficult to balance work and parenting?
It can be a struggle and it’s something I’m always asking questions about. Whenever I meet a mum in a similar situation, I always say, “How do you create a space where your child feels sane and secure?” My goal, like I said, is to give her the continuity of an entire school year. There is going to be a period in the year where the balance is hanging in favour of my work; and then there’s going to be a more meaningful period where the balance is hanging in my daughter’s favour.
How do you explain that to her?
I try to explain to her a struggle one morning and I need to walk out the door and go to work… I tell her, “You know that feeling that you get about yourself when you’re doing really hard work and you’re getting better at it? That’s the feeling I get and that’s why I go to work: to be challenged.” Learning to live with the imbalance of being a mother and working is very difficult for me, and probably very difficult for her. [Pauses] But I don’t have anything else to sell!
Meek’s Cutoff opens in cinemas nationwide on 15 April
Words: Stephen Applebaum, picture credits: Rex Features