WEIRDLAND: It's all personal for Michelle Williams

Sunday, September 07, 2008

It's all personal for Michelle Williams

MICHELLE WILLIAMS has an Academy Award nomination, the open adulation of major filmmakers and a résumé that is striking in its worldliness and creative ambition. But if her career has seemed to progress almost inconspicuously, it is partly because of its introspective bent — small movies, subtle performances — and partly because it has lately existed in the shadow of her personal life.Ms. Williams’s maturity and capacity for quietly wrenching pathos were apparent even on the teenage soap “Dawson’s Creek,” on which she played the troubled Jen Lindley. In her film roles she has revealed a gift both for screwball comedy (“Dick,” “The Baxter”) and bruising emotional drama (most memorably in her Oscar-nominated performance as the spurned wife Alma in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain”). She has repeatedly taken chances on under-the-radar indies (“The Station Agent,” “The Hawk Is Dying”) while catching the attention of auteurs like Wim Wenders (“Land of Plenty”), Todd Haynes (“I’m Not There”) and Martin Scorsese (the forthcoming “Shutter Island”).
But Ms. Williams, who turns 28 on Tuesday, has become a very public figure for reasons that have little to do with her work. While shooting “Brokeback Mountain” in 2004 she fell into a much-chronicled romance with her co-star Heath Ledger. Stalked by paparazzi, their every move monitored in the gossip pages, the couple set up house in Brooklyn and had a daughter, Matilda. It has been a difficult year, to say the least, and Ms. Williams acknowledged in a recent interview — her first in eight months, since Mr. Ledger’s death — that she has coped to some extent by throwing herself into her work. She has shot four films in quick succession since last summer, two of which had their premieres at the Cannes Film Festival in May and are due to open this fall.In the anguished, comic head trip “Synecdoche, New York” the directorial debut of the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”), she is part of a vivid ensemble cast orbiting around Philip Seymour Hoffman’s harried theater director. In “Wendy and Lucy,” the independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to the acclaimed “Old Joy” she’s in every scene as a young woman living hand to mouth on the road when her car breaks down and her dog goes missing in a blue-collar Oregon nowheresville.

“I thought a lot about what you look like when you think nobody’s looking at you, when you feel completely invisible,” Ms. Williams said of her character Wendy. “Your entire life happens inside because you don’t think anyone notices you. Which is very different from me. Not that I don’t have any inside life, but I feel watched, all the time.”

As she spoke over a long lunch at a restaurant near her home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, Ms. Williams occasionally paused and smiled wryly as if to acknowledge the unspoken connections with her off-screen life. “It’s all so personal, isn’t it?” she said. “It’s hard to talk about work without talking about things that are personal. Work is personal. I don’t want to talk about my personal life, but it’s on my mind, and it’s in my work.”

Confessing to being apprehensive and out of practice, she thought long and hard before answering questions, searching for the right words — “I want to actually represent how I feel” she said at one point — but also taking care to avoid unintended disclosures. “It’s a fine line between wanting to be known and understood but also knowing what’s sacred,” she said.

One subject on which she willingly opened up was “Wendy and Lucy” — “probably the smallest film I’ve made” she said, “and I’ve made some pretty small films.” (It is set to open Dec. 10, and will be shown Sept. 27 and 28 at the New York Film Festival.) Ms. Reichardt was worried that Ms. Williams would have trouble adapting to the microbudget conditions and to her plain-Jane role. “I feared that she was too pretty for the part sometimes, and I was concerned about asking her to go without makeup and not wash her hair for two weeks,” Ms. Reichardt said. “But I think she found that completely liberating.”

Ms. Williams said she relished the intimate scale. Shooting a tiny film on the outskirts of Portland at a time when she “felt particularly adrift” — she and Mr. Ledger had just broken up — she was grateful to find her character’s anonymity rubbing off on her. “I didn’t stand out in that community,” she said. “It was this perfect safe haven.”

“Making something out of nothing,” she added. “I’ve always liked that phrase, and I feel that way about this movie. We were working with so little in every way.” That minimalism extends to her tamped-down performance. Wendy is allowed one outburst but otherwise endures her downward spiral with stoic resilience.

To convey the character’s stubborn sense of purpose Ms. Reichardt showed Ms. Williams films like Max Ophüls’s “Reckless Moment,” with Joan Bennett as a suburban supermom driven to protect her family at all costs, and “Mouchette,” Robert Bresson’s single-minded portrait of a teenage outcast. “Kelly called me her Mouchelle,” she said.

Ms. Williams related to the self-sufficiency of her character: Wendy, heading north to find a job in the Alaskan fisheries, is something like a pioneer heroine for these depressed and exhausted times. “Maybe I read too much Emerson and Whitman at an impressionable age,” Ms. Williams said, referring to her tendency “to do everything” by herself. Her independent streak dates to her teenage years. After a childhood in rural Montana, she completed a high school correspondence course and moved to Los Angeles at 15, declaring herself legally emancipated from her parents.
Mr. Kaufman cast her in “Synecdoche” (Oct. 24) partly because he had fond memories of her oddball turn in “Dick” as a nerdy teenager who lives at the Watergate and develops an improbable crush on Richard M. Nixon. “She can be really funny in really surprising ways,” he said. “I love watching her face change.”

Mr. Wenders, who wrote “Land of Plenty” with her in mind, spoke of her honesty, which “transcends any beauty and turns it into goodness, for lack of any other expression.”
There has been no shortage of fulfilling work, especially since her widely praised performance in “Brokeback Mountain.” Mr. Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel that also stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, is due to open next year, and two other films are awaiting United States distribution: “Mammoth,” directed by the Swedish provocateur Lukas Moodysson, and Sharon Maguire’s drama “Incendiary,” which had its premiere at Sundance.

Ms. Williams would seem to be entering her professional prime, but she is reluctant to capitalize on her recent successes. “I’m going to take a year off,” she said. “I think I stopped feeling creative a while ago, and I’m just realizing it now.”
She admitted to feeling the strain of being a working single mom. She reads bedtime stories to Matilda, now nearly 3, in whatever accent she’s practicing — East London for “Incendiary,” Boston for “Shutter Island” — but has had a hard time balancing the immersive demands of acting and the consuming duties of motherhood. “I used to have all the time in the world to daydream and even just to dream and let your unconscious do some of the work for you,” she said. “Now I’m up at 5 in the morning, and I don’t remember what I dreamed about.”

The bleakness of some of the roles has also taken a toll. In “Incendiary” she plays a wife and mother who loses her family in a terrorist attack; while preparing for “Shutter Island” she read case studies on infanticide. “When I work again maybe it should be a comedy,” she said. “I’ve always had a tendency for darker, more lifelike material. I think I had this sense that important things are heavy things. I don’t know if that’s true any more.”

In person Ms. Williams seems like nothing so much as your average 20-something Brooklyn hipster, which should perhaps be no surprise since she has been a New Yorker all her adult life. While making “Dawson’s Creek” she split her time between Wilmington, N.C., where the series was shot, and New York, where she found “wonderful friends who were all orphans in some way, not just actors but writers and musicians and painters.”

She is a little resentful but mostly rueful that she can no longer experience the city the way she used to. “I feel like that’s been taken away from me,” she said. “I’m worried what people are saying or thinking, or if they’re going to follow me, or if someone is going to pop out of a bush with a camera. I’ve started to shut down, but I also know I can’t let it dictate my life.”

She still finds herself reacting to the tabloid intrusions with bewilderment. (In recent months the talk has turned to a rumored relationship with the filmmaker Spike Jonze.) “It feels so surreal,” she said. “How is this my life? When did it get so out of control?”

To be a celebrity is to negotiate a gulf between private self and public image. “It’s a bit of an isolating problem to have,” Ms. Williams said, and so she was gratified to find that this was among the themes of Milan Kundera’s novel “Immortality,” which she read on the plane to Cannes, though she said she wasn’t sure she agreed with the book’s conclusion, “that the self people perceive is just as real because it exists.”

She is an avid reader who favors poetry over novels while filming so she’s not distracted by competing narratives. Looking ahead to her year off she said that she wanted to pick up a skill, some kind of handicraft. “I want to humble myself in front of a task like embroidery,” she said. “I like how physical work can really free your mind.” At a low point last year she signed up for night classes in bookbinding and calligraphy. “I was prouder of my little foldout book than of some movies that I’ve made,” she said.

Despite her claims of burnout, she still talks about acting with a kind of reverential awe. “I’m a Virgo, and I want everything to be fair and equal and clear, and acting just isn’t,” she said. “It’s kind of an incantation or a rain dance.” She loves the research process but is less thrilled about watching the end results (and often doesn’t). “If only the damned things never came out,” she said. “I get far too self-critical when I watch myself.”

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