Onscreen, Michelle Williams has a girl-next-door familiarity about her. It’s what bagged her the launch pad role of Jen in Dawson’s Creek. And made her perfect casting for her Oscar-nominated turn as spurned wife in Brokeback Mountain.
Off-camera, though, 27-year-old Williams is a complex character. Shy and insecure, she is also fiercely independent and has been since, at 15, obtaining “financial emancipation” from her parents. Recently separated from her Brokeback co-star Heath Ledger, the father of her three-year-old daughter, Williams is busy putting her house and head back in order. So, what’s a girl who’s happy folding laundry at home in Brooklyn doing at the top of Hollywood’s hotlist? Ben Cobb calls to find out…
How are you this morning?
I’m trying to wake up. My brain doesn’t quite function until late afternoon. I just dropped my daughter Matilda off at school and now I’m tidying up the house, drinking coffee and rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.
Is it hard balancing your work with your daughter?
It’s not easy. Last April I was over in London doing a movie called Incendiary with Ewan McGregor. It’s about a woman grieving after losing her husband and son in a terrorist attack. It was a brutal role and arduous: six-day weeks, 14-hour days. I was like the walking dead towards the end. Matilda would visit me everyday on-set for lunch and I’d race home to put her to bed. My only days off were Sundays and as much as I’d want to pass out, I’d try to take her out somewhere fun so she didn’t associate me with boredom. The only time that is really my own these days is after I’ve put her to bed and until I go to bed. That’s about two hours.
Which actors do you look up to?
I worked with some of them recently on Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York. The story involves a few women orbiting around Philip Seymour Hoffman. I play one of his wives, an actress. On my second day of shooting I did this scene where I’m performing the last speech from Death of a Salesman. I had to do it in front of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I was so terrified. I mean I’ve had nightmares like that where I go on stage and Philip Seymour Hoffman is watching.
Why did you get ‘financial emancipation’ from your parents when you were 15 years old?
We were living in San Diego at that point and I’d had bit-part acting jobs on and off. There were other kids around me who were making commercials and going to Los Angeles for auditions. The idea was that I could get more and better jobs if I became emancipated because then you don’t need a social worker and you can work longer hours. My dad is very work-oriented and I think I picked up on that. It was for practical reasons but as a parent myself now, it’s hard for me to understand. I don’t think that I would let my own daughter do that. I’ve always been strong-willed. It served me well.
Were you ready for the fame that came with Dawson’s Creek?
We were all living in North Carolina and so we were really insulated from it. Also the media culture now is so different from what it was even five years ago when Dawson’s Creek ended. People weren’t paying attention to who we were dating, what we were wearing or drinking. We were pretty much left alone. We got off scot-free because if the paparazzi had come down then there certainly would have been things to talk about.
Did you go to Katie Holmes’ wedding?
Everybody wants to know that. No, I didn’t go because I was working on The Tourist. To be honest we’re not really in touch.
Following Brokeback Mountain, your old headmaster voiced some anti-gay views in the press… Were you surprised?
I was more disappointed. It didn’t bother me what my old headmaster said. I never really liked him much anyway. It wasn’t a stab in the back or anything. There are always going to be people with contrary opinions but I’m awfully proud of the film.
Do you act to get attention or to disappear into a role?
It’s a generalisation but actors are either extroverts or introverts, it’s true. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I act because I think of myself as more of an introvert. I embarrass easily. I have such problems with people looking at me. So I think, ‘Why do I do this to myself? Why do I do something so public?’ But I never expected it to be this public. It does seem like a funny choice for somebody who doesn’t really like attention.
You stripped off on stage for Killer Joe and on the big screen for Brokeback Mountain… How does that work if you’re so easily embarrassed?
There’s a strange and curious spell that happens between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ For some reason the time that I’m working is the only time when I can exist completely without judgement. That judgement exists right up until a take and immediately after a take. But it’s glorious in the moment of work because I’m not questioning it so it doesn’t make it that difficult while it’s happening. It’s like nirvana. When it’s good, that is.
Last year People magazine voted you in the top 100 most beautiful people and in 1999 you were voted one of the 21 hottest stars under 21… Do things like that mean anything to you?
I didn’t actually know about the most beautiful people thing. The positive comments and good feedback never really touches you. There can be 100 great reviews but you only listen to the one bad one. I can only absorb the negativity, which is a flaw. I wouldn’t recommend that approach.
Photography: Miguel Riveriego
Words: Ben Cobb
The full version of this interview first appeared inWonderland #12, April/May 2008