She’s got a CV brimming with Hollywood hits and looks set to add to her collection of awards with her latest role but, as Stylist discovers, Michelle Williams is much happier living the normal life
Words: Debbie McQuoid
Photography: Jennifer Roberts
Michelle Williams is looking at me with sympathy in her eyes. She offers me a cup of tea and I half expect her to reach across and place a comforting hand on my shoulder. My slow descent into being an emotional wreck is a result of Williams asking me if I enjoyed her latest film, Manchester By The Sea.
In it she plays Randi, the estranged wife of Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler. Their story is told in flashback after Lee, an aimless, erratic handyman, returns to the working class fishing town where he grew up outside of Boston after his brother dies of a heart attack and leaves him as the guardian of his 16-year-old son, Patrick (new talent Lucas Hedges). Without spoiling it, there are very valid reasons why Lee seems haunted with no chance of – and no interest in – redemption and why the town’s residents aren’t exactly thrilled to see him. And while Lee’s relationship with his nephew provides some light relief, ‘enjoy’ isn’t a word I would use to describe watching the film. Put it this way: afterwards I had to recalibrate with 15 minutes of cat videos on YouTube.
That’s not to say it isn’t brilliant. Produced by Matt Damon, it’s already been nominated in all the pre-Oscars awards and will no doubt feature across several categories at the Academy Awards in February. And if there’s any justice in the world, Williams will win Best Supporting Actress, thanks largely to one particular heart-wrenching scene towards the end that will leave you breathless. It is a tragic film that explores loss and grief, something that Williams has experienced first-hand in her 36 years with the death of former partner and father of her daughter Heath Ledger, in 2008.
Sitting opposite me in London’s Corinthia Hotel, in person Williams is an amalgamation of the many roles she’s played over the years. The quiet reserve of Alma in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, the wide-eyed vulnerability of Monroe (My Week With Marilyn, 2011) and the almost ethereal glow of Good Witch Glinda in 2013’s Oz: The Great And Powerful. She is predictably petite but her poise and posture make her seem larger than life and, as shown by her concern for my emotional wellbeing, she seems genuinely kind and thoughtful.
Speaking slowly, carefully, she reveals she was cautious of the emotional tsunami that came from playing Randi. “[The role] is not that difficult of a place to go to, but it’s a very difficult place to get out of because it’s such a black hole of emotion. The emotional impact was so strong that I had to kind of keep it at bay a little bit because… it’s a place where you just don’t want to let yourself go.”
When you see the film – and you should – you’ll understand why Williams was so affected. As was Affleck, who Williams tells me spent his time on set, “… underground. He was in a really removed place”. It was writer/director Kenneth Lonergan who also wrote Analyze This (1999) and Gangs Of New York (2002) who figuratively held her hand through the tough shoot.
“Whatever place you were in, Kenny was behind the camera literally crying too, so there was a soft place to rest at the end of the day,” she says.
After making on average two films a year for more than a decade, and a lengthy promotional tour and awards circuit for My Week With Marilyn, Williams has seemed quiet recently. In fact, Manchester is her first film since the fairly low-key release of Suite FranÇaise in 2014. But it’s no surprise that the girl who legally emancipated herself from her parents at 15 (with their blessing) so she could bypass child labour laws and work more was not sitting at home binge watching Gilmore Girls. Having spent time with acting coaches while in London filming Marilyn, Williams turned to theatre and made her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles in Cabaret in 2014, followed by Blackbird opposite Jeff Daniels for the first part of 2016.
“When you do a play nobody wants to talk to you about it, which is great because you do no press at all,” she laughs. “So maybe it feels like I took a break but actually I’ve just been working in a different way and a different place.”
The medium might be different, but her role in Blackbird – a sexual abuse survivor – together with Manchester’s Randi adds to the professional niche Williams has carved for herself by playing tragic characters.
“I like to be affected by something,” she tells me. “I like to be picked up and put back down by something that I see; to be a little bit displaced by it.”
Does she challenge herself this much in real life? “Everything else I keep it real safe, real simple,” she laughs. “I never attempt elaborate dinners or intrepid travel. I am, like, safety first; safety, simplicity, and making ‘good enough’.”
That doesn’t mean she’s not open to exploring different film genres. But getting her hands on lighter scripts has proven tricky. “It must be more difficult to write a really funny movie than a really sad one,” she shrugs. “Or they just don’t come my way, because I just never see them. I’d love to do more.”
And she’d be great because, in the flesh, Williams has a lightness about her; a mischievous sense of humour and great comic timing. If you need more convincing just Google her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Cougar Town. And once we move away from discussing the emotional bleakness of Manchester she seems genuinely happy and relaxed, most noticeably when talking about her daughter, Matilda Rose. Whatever else she is, she is 100% parent. It doesn’t matter what the subject, she is always only a beat away from mentioning the 11-year-old and the impact she has had on her.
“As a parent, you watch your f**king step,” she says. “Your first responsibility is ‘keep them alive’. Everything that you do is, ‘Is this safe?’ ‘Did I do enough?’ You live with the understanding that bad things happen to people all the time.
“Having a kid is like someone holding up the mirror every single day,” she continues, warming to her theme. “You’re really forced to hold yourself accountable for who you are and how you behave. It’s a constant desire to be your best self. Because [your child] is showing you who you are by the way they behave, by the way they think and feel about themselves.”
It’s becoming quite clear that – in the nicest possible way – Williams is a bit, well, square. When she tells me her best friend, fellow actress Busy Phillips, is always including her in her social media posts, she makes a point of saying Snapchat like it’s two words: Snap. Chat. She’s only 36 but sounds 86.
“[Busy] is always pulling [her phone] out,” she says. “I don’t even know the name of it… I literally have no spare time. I don’t read books anymore except those that are about parenting. I find it semi-enjoyable when there’s time to pick my clothes up off the floor. I get to organise scattered piles of things into more organised piles of things. I’ve given up having a tidy home but I still enjoy those moments when you can clean out your cupboards. Like, ‘I know what I’ve going to do tonight,’” she says, rubbing her hands together with mock glee.
Unexpectedly, Williams is most alive now, talking about the domesticity of life. Not how she gets into character while delving into depths of despair, but how she re-organises her spice rack. She’s almost giddy.
“And oh my god, I’m also, like, an expert napper,” she reveals. “I have a special talent for it. It’s almost like being narcoleptic,” she deadpans. “I could do it for you now; I’d be snoring in five minutes. I count backwards from 200. That’s my ‘thing’. I’m usually asleep by the time I get into the 140s. It’s foolproof.”
In fact her home life is so treasured, her Brooklyn apartment block has become the focus of her social life too. “I live next door to one of my best friends so I meet her on the roof,” she explains. “Or going over to her apartment feels really exotic. That’s the extent of it.”
So what would be her drink of choice for those occasions?
Red or white?
“Anything that’s called wine,” she laughs.
No stranger to awards – including 10 for My Week With Marilyn alone – when it comes to the Oscars, Williams has previously been nominated three times with no win. The buzz around Manchester is such that this could be her year. When I bring it up, she pretends to spit out her tea, like she’s acting out a Pictionary clue that is code for ‘are you serious?’ But after giving so much to a character with months of research, and an exhausting emotional journey, is it really possible to detach and ignore the hype?
“The last few years have been a really quiet time for me with regards to being a public person – in a lovely way,” she says after taking a deep breath. “I’ve tried to apply myself in a different area [theatre] that’s pretty foreign to me. I haven’t made that many films and have found it, truthfully, quite hard to get a movie job. So at this point, I’m so used to the ebb and flow of this career. When I started on Dawson’s Creek, nobody liked me,” she recalls. “Everybody hated my character. They said I was fat and stupid and ugly and untalented and worthless and insignificant. There were websites dedicated to how horrible I was. That was 20 years ago. The good things and the bad things, they come and they go and you can’t really predict when your tide is going to come in or out. I’m just a little rock in the water letting things go out and come in as they will. And I’m trying to be the best little rock I can be.”
With this kind of philosophical attitude, born of being on the receiving end of what sounds like a pretty awful time by the viewing public of Dawson’s Creek, I wonder how happy Williams would be if Matilda decided to follow in her parents’ footsteps. At 11, she’s not a million years from when Williams started out herself.
“It’s too early. She’s still just finding her way,” she says after a thoughtful pause. “She has wonderful people in her life and a wonderful school and lovely friends. There’s a variety of activities that she’s interested in so…” she tails off.
Despite her Dawson’s Creek experience, Williams does not rule out returning to TV like other acclaimed Hollywood actors such as Matthew McConaughey, Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal have done with huge success.
“If it worked for me…” she says when I ask if it’s a move she’s interested in. “It’s a completely different landscape now. [But] one of my big priorities has been keeping us at home; staying in New York and having that consistency and routine.”
For now Williams has three more films (Janis – about music legend Joplin, Wonderstruck with Julianne Moore, and Certain Women about three women navigating life in the American Northwest) due for release and is burying her head in the sand over the imminent inauguration of her country’s new president (“I [was] so confident he [wouldn’t] get elected. Like, how am I so out of line with the popular consensus?”). She is also preparing to shoot The Greatest Showman, the all-singing, all-dancing, family-friendly story of Barnum’s Circus with Hugh Jackman.
“It’s a happy movie!” she cries, clapping her hands. “We’re rehearsing right now so I sing and dance all day and then go home feeling so happy.” No need to take solace in wine then? “Well, not as much,” she smiles.
Manchester By The Sea is in cinemas nationwide on 13 January
Photography: Jennifer Roberts/Contour by Getty Images
Illustrations: Clym Evernden