First published by The Pool on 31 December 2016
When I meet Michelle Williams, to discuss her new film Manchester By The Sea, we’re at a press junket for the movie. It’s a strikingly weird set-up: first I wait in a luxurious hotel room that has been turned into a holding pen, cluttered with the bags and notes of other journalists. Then I am shown down a corridor into a second suite, guarded by a publicist, and when I finally make it into the cavernous room, I see Williams, reclining on a chaise longue in the middle of it. In front of her is an upright chair for me, the interviewer. It’s all a bit surreal.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I get the comfy seat!” she says, sitting up to greet me. It’s a Sunday morning, and in contrast to some of the men I’ve passed in the waiting room – who look like they’ve just rolled out of bed – Williams is dressed like she’s on her way to a special occasion. She is wearing a black mini-dress with a jewelled collar and spike-stilettoed ankle boots; she has cropped, ice-blonde hair and heavy sweeps of eyeliner. How strange it must be, I think, to be dressed up to the nines and wheeled out to meet scruffy, nonchalant journalists.
Luckily, it’s a movie that’s worthy of the effort. Manchester By The Sea is the latest by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan, a highly acclaimed playwright who also crafts nuanced, unflinching films – this is his third, after 2000’s You Can Count On Me and 2011’s Margaret. Williams has only a handful of scenes, but her role is crucial and memorable: she is Randi, the ex-wife of protagonist Lee (Casey Affleck), and as the film unfolds we learn that they share a horrifying history.
It’s a powerfully constructed story about the unbearable burdens of grief and guilt – I wept through much of it, but there are also lovely moments observing the absurdity and humour of daily life. Affleck, whose performance is very moving, is tipped for an Oscar nomination; it’s hard to wholeheartedly champion this, in the knowledge that he has also settled two lawsuits for sexual assault. Williams, who has secured a Golden Globes nomination already, may also be in the running for an Academy Award, for her heartbreaking portrayal of Randi – a tough woman hit by an event so awful, it’s hard to comprehend. When I address this with the actor, she nods: “It’s your worst nightmare.”
Playing a character in such extreme circumstances, she says, can be a positive experience for an actor – a kind of flexing of the muscles. “On one hand it’s really harrowing, and it’s just the worst thing in the world to have to imagine, and the darkest place that you can think of putting yourself in,” she begins. “And on the other hand, it’s sort of… liberating to have that kind of expressive ability in your life, you know? And also to be able to practise what you do. I don’t necessarily mean that all acting is about emotion – I’ve made a lot of movies that are really quiet and sort of buttoned down, but there’s something kind of good about it. It’s sort of like shouting – like every once in a while, it’s really good to do, to get it out.”
There is one particularly devastating scene, about a third of the way into the film. Dwelling on it after the screening, I wonder how an actor can summon such pain and then return to normal life at the end of the day’s work. “That was just so upsetting, and I remember feeling incredibly, incredibly alone afterwards,” says Williams. “We shot it in Boston, which is four hours away from New York, so I’d just take these small, two- or three-day journeys up there at a time, and after that scene I got in a car and went back to my tiny little rented room, and tried to let it go. I do find the journey aspect of it quite helpful, in terms of… there’s a bit of separation. There was a four-hour train ride to leave that life and get back into my own. I really like to use that time as a kind of portal to shed one thing and enter another.”
Williams is charming and kind, but I do not get the sense that she’s an extrovert. She is guarded – which is entirely reasonable: it’s only a few years since she was hounded by paparazzi after the death of her daughter’s dad, Heath Ledger. She speaks deliberately and slowly, choosing her words with caution, and her sentences sometimes tail off into such a quiet whisper that my recording device doesn’t catch the audio at all. She has also mastered the art of saying only what she wants to, and not being drawn into longer answers; there are a few occasions when I stay quiet, hoping she’ll elaborate further, and she steadily holds my gaze and says nothing until I move on. It’s impressive.
She has an admirable CV; the films she has appeared in include Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine, Meek’s Cutoff, My Week With Marilyn and Suite Française. She has repeatedly chosen interesting, independent projects (as well as occasional mainstream hits like Oz The Great And Powerful). Does she have a guiding philosophy, I ask her, that helps her make good career decisions? “I don’t know that I always do – I don’t know that I’m always that successful,” she says, with a wary smile. “I love a challenge. I’m really excited about things that I don’t know how to do, or that seem like they’re going to be a little bit beyond me, because I know that inside of it I’m going to find growth, and I am hooked on that, you know? It’s such a wonderful thing that as you get older you can expand rather than contract, and you don’t start to narrow and harden – and so I really look for those things in work that are going to ultimately make me better.”
The pleasures of ageing are something that our conversation returns to again and again. Williams has been acting since she was 12 – two thirds of her lifetime. She has found the process of getting older to be a happy one. “It’s a real shame that culturally women tend to be devalued as they age, while we all know as women that it just gets better and better,” she says. “You feel more and more like yourself; you have, dare I say, a shred of confidence after getting through your twenties, and greater relaxation and authority in your work.” Earlier in her career, she says, she was always frightened to speak out. “I use my voice more now that I’m older. I’m not as meek or shy or insecure or scared… I’m much better in my work at having an idea, recognising that I have an idea, finding the words to communicate that idea and then letting my voice rise up out of my throat and be heard. I struggled with that so much in my twenties – I was like a mute.”
In my experience, I say, young women are often discouraged from taking part in serious conversations, and Williams nods. When we meet, there is still a month to go until the American election, and she is confident that Hillary Clinton will win. “I love raising a daughter right now at this moment in time, when very likely our next president will be a woman,” she says cheerfully. “We listen to Beyoncé in the car every morning – ‘Who runs the world? Girls!’ And I just love having that experience with her, because it certainly wasn’t the culture when I grew up.” Listening back to this after the result, I feel sad for her; when Trump’s name comes up in conversation, she simply laughs and says, “What a fool! What a fool.”
Williams has not gone public with a romantic partner since she broke up with the director Spike Jonze in 2009; the relationship she mentions now is with her friend Busy Philipps, with whom she worked on Dawson’s Creek. “Pretty much every red carpet that I go to, I go to with my best friend Busy,” she says. “So no matter what happens, I’m holding the hand of someone that I love and loves me back, and I know we’ll have a laugh later.” Award ceremonies, I sense, are not her favourite part of the job; she sighs when I ask. “It’s a lot of pressure to wear a dress well.”
Most of the time, she is comfortably removed from the merry-go-round of Los Angeles life. Williams lives in Brooklyn, and treasures being in a place where “your merit is about a lot more than your physical appearance,” she says. “I don’t feel in the same way scrutinized or judged or observed. I have no problem getting on the bus or getting on the subway and looking like crap. And I feel free to do that. I feel like I am allowed to be a messy human.”