One of the more intriguing aspects of this year’s awards season is the spotlight its put on some of the more adventurous thirtysomething actors working today. in one corner, “127 Hours'” James Franco is slowly becoming a legend based on his diverse (to say the least) body of work. “Blue Valentine’s” Ryan Gosling is known for going the extra mile for a role even when his director didn’t get the memo. And Gosling’s co-star, Michelle Williams, has shown an even greater propensity then her male colleagues to buck her Hollywood origins. Besides one cameo role in “Shutter Island,” Williams has pretty much stuck to indies since landing her first Oscar nominations for “Brokeback Mountain” almost five years ago. And that brings us to her acclaimed work in “Valentine.”
Sitting down to chat with Williams last month, I was struck by how genuine and unique she is. There are tons of actors who can go from one interview to another like just another performance on the stage, charming you with self-deprecation and witty one liners. But as the years go by you begin to wonder, “Wait, die he/she just say that to my buddy from that other outlet 15 min ago?” Williams is clearly not programmed that way. She was refreshingly blunt as we discussed the very particular rehearsals for “Valentine,” how she sees her frontier drama “Meek’s Cutoff” as a “director’s” movie and that in her opinion, she can’t see herself doing anything other than acting. Among other things…
I was at the world premiere of “Blue Valentine” at Sundance in January and at the time I was struck by how visceral and I guess ‘down and dirty’ both your and Ryan”s performances were. And having recently just learned of the process you went through making the film, I”m curious, have you ever gone through anything so intense for a movie?
Williams: No. I mean, this process was the filmmaking process of my dreams. I mean it might sound kind of fruity and a little indulgent and like you wonder if it really makes a difference to work in this kind of way where you live in a space together and where you really meet each other as the characters. It”s a dream way of working because, to be honest, it makes your job easier. It means you have to go deeper and things that cut closer to the bone and so that when you”re experiencing what the character is experiencing it adds up alongside your kind of life experiences because you”re working in this very kind of intense, intimate way. So, in some ways it makes your job easier and then in other ways it makes it..well, it just sort of costs more. It just kind of takes a little bit more from you. But, I”d always kind of secretly dreamed of working this way, or I thought you know like, ‘Oh, this is how like Elia Kazan must have worked’ or ‘This sounds like real acting.’ But there isn”t the kind of time and space for that sort of process anymore because the numbers of it don”t add up and there”s so little money to go around anymore in independent cinema that making a movie like this isn”t cost efficient. And so I never really dreamed that I”d be able to get to work like this. I mean I”ve done things that I thought came close to it in terms of preparation and circumstances and living environments and like trying to acclimate yourself to what your characters sort of circumstances are, but this took it to a whole other level. I”ve never been involved so thoroughly in every aspect of the creation. From picking out the clothes, from inventing the words, to having a hand in the location, to having to talk about how my [onscreen]daughter would have her hair cut. So, it was really all encompassing. And now I keep saying I wish I could make the movie all over again knowing what I know now.
Williams: Because I appreciated it and I thought it was very special at the time, but now if I could make it all over again, I would have it 10-fold and I wish I could go through that experience with less fear and more…more lust.
Williams: No, more desire to take. More desire to inhale.
Does this mean you feel more confident as an actress now moving forward?
Williams: I think I do. I think that making that movie was a real trial by fire for me. I”d taken a year off and this is what I went back to work with and I was beside myself with fear because I felt rusty. I wasn”t sure if I wanted to act anymore. I wasn”t even sure if I could act anymore. I didn”t know what I had…I didn”t know what was inside of me. I didn”t know what I was going to have to work with and I didn”t really want to leave home. And I”m a great admirer and fan of Ryan”s and I”ve experienced as an audience member the breadth of his talents and I was apprehensive about getting into the ring with him. And what I encountered was a master class and I went from being somebody who was scared of improvisation to the next day being somebody who loved it and felt free inside of it and I owe all that to Ryan because he was like the ultimate sort of partner/teacher. And it has made me a better actor, I hope. I mean that”s really my only goal is to keep getting better, so.
Which movie did you make after because I know that he shot this awhile ago and then spent a year editing it. I saw ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ in Toronto and that looked immensely difficult considering the environments.
Williams: That was the hardest physically movie that I ever did. That movie I felt like Chicken Little. I was like, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling. We”re all going to die out here.’ Yeah, that movie [you concerned for your] physical safety. Actually I made that right after. I made ‘Blue Valentine’ and then I made ‘Meek’ and then I made this movie with Sara Polley and I just finished a job a week ago. And I feel like since — and a few movies before that, too — like, I had been pushing myself. But like last four movies I made I feel like I am at the edge of my ability. I am pushed up against like literally like pushed against a wall and trying to move the wall at the same time. I just feel like I”m working with every resource that I have, which is actually very lucky.
So, in that respect though when you think about what you would do next or whenever you take a break and do anything do you think, “O.K., I want to take something easy. I want to do something like give me a studio flick’ or ‘No, keep going. Let”s do something else like in the same way. Is that sort of your mentality now?
Williams: It does both. On one hand it makes me wonder why I do this to myself because it”s not comfortable and it”s not necessarily like a happy place to live because you”re constantly confronted with your own shortcomings because you”re trying to call on all of your abilities and sometimes you find yourself wanting. And that”s when improvisation really comes into play. Sometimes I wonder why I put myself through this when I find it so stressful and hard. And I think to myself, ‘Maybe I should do something that leaves me some reserves,’ but I can never make those decisions. I just think I”m never drawn to something and having a little girl I feel like for me to spend time away from her and with my work, it”d have to be something with a profound explanation. Then when she”s older and she says, ‘Why were you gone for three months?’ I can say because of this. You know? Not a reason for money, not a reason for success, not a reason for fame but a reason for love and because I didn”t have a choice. Because it”s something my heart yearned for.
Well, that”s my question then. When you take these roles that are so challenging whether it”s emotionally or physically, is the joy knowing you got through it sort of like a marathon? Like a production? Or is the joy sitting and watching it? because I feel like I”ve run into too many actors who just refuse to see their work on-screen and I wonder well, where”s the joy for you?
Williams: Well, yeah definitely the joy is always in the doing. I take pride in the finished product for the director. Like I feel pride for Derek that that he made his movie and I feel proud of when I first saw the movie that Kelly Reichardt made, ‘Wendy and Lucy,’ I just felt so proud of my friend that she pulled it off. So, the joy isn”t in the finished product unless other people take joy in it and that”s very satisfying. But the joy is in the doing and that you”ve put yourself in an uncomfortable situation and moved through it. On one hand it is uncomfortable because you”re constantly changing and challenging yourself. On the other hand it”s the luckiest position in my life because all I ever wanted was to do exactly what I”m doing. To be taken seriously by just a couple of people and be allowed to make movies and both things came true. So, it”s not a burden in any way, it”s an honor.
You’ve made a number of acclaimed indie films over the past couple years and I”m curious now when you”re walking around New York or you run into people at a party or something, are you surprised, are you happy that so many of them say, ‘Oh yeah I did catch ‘Lucy’ it was on the Sundance Channel and it was great.’ Does that give you more sort of enthusiasm to move forward or encouragement to continue to do them? Or are you more like ‘O.K., if only five people saw it at one film festival I”m still going to make them because for me it”s what I get out of it’?
Williams: I think it”s again, it”s both things. It does go a long ways to know that people are being affected or enjoying or having any connection whatsoever to the thing that you do, to the noise that you make, to the, you know, to the pennies that you throw at the world, because that”s sort of what it feels [like]. It just feels like here”s my little offering. Like here”s what I”ve got to give. And so when somebody responds to it in a genuine way, it”s very encouraging. And that is part of why I do it to think that it doesn”t exist totally in a vacuum, but also simply because I don”t know how to do anything else. Never done anything else. I”m not very good at anything else.
I can”t believe that.
Williams: I”m not. There”s nothing else I can do. There”s absolutely nothing else I can do. I think maybe I could get better at gardening and I can sell vegetables. Maybe I could figure out how to, I don”t know, bake more than one pie at a time and sell them at the market. But it”ll just take me some time to get to the level where I can be a professional at something else. You know? This is the only thing where I can consider myself a professional. So, I don”t know if I”ll do it my whole life. I kind of doubt it.
You have no interest in producing or writing your own stuff? Or directing?
Williams: No weirdly, no.
What about — you say your daughter…it is your daughter right?
She”s almost what, five or six now?
Then you”ve got a good 10 years where you”re going to want to be around as she grows up. Have you thought, ‘You know what? They”re making great TV series in New York these days. HBO”s doing something. I should do something like that.’
Williams: So I could stay at home…
Does that ever come to mind or is that”s not challenging? Or, s it hard to find good material?
Williams: I have thought about it. I see the sense that that makes now because of having a kid means you get to stay in one place and everybody gets to sleep in their bed and you get the best of both worlds. You get to work and be at home. It”s still a constant sort of juggling act, but we are making it work in terms of how much time as a family is split between our home life and my work life. But she”s young still and that might change when she gets a little older. I expect it will and so at that point I can imagine that if I still want to act a good way to do it is to stay in one place and be on a TV show.
Yes, because obviously you’ve done that before (“Dawson’s Creek”), I just didn”t know if you had ever considered returning to it on a different level. It just feels like every acclaimed actor or Indie actor up there is on some show on HBO or Showtime like these days, and I just didn”t know if offers come your way and you”re just like ‘Hmmmmm…’
Williams: No, no. I haven”t been offered a TV show but I bet it is like a decision you make for your family. It”s a really smart decision you make for your family. In fact, somebody was telling me recently like you can…well it”s a money conversation.
I understand. Back to ‘Valentine.’ You were cast in the project way back in 2003 and director Derek Cianfrance had only done one Indie, amovie that didn”t get a lot of attention. What made you, first of all, agree to attach yourself to it and then how did you stay involved? That”s a tremendous commitment for six or seven years or however long it took to like go through that process. What about it made you want to be so close to it?
Williams: It”s mystery was never exhausted to me because I constantly re-evaluated that question. When I read it when I was 22 it was like a shot through my heart and it was important to me. I thought it was the best thing I”d ever read and I wanted to make it more than anything I”d come across. And it gave me a sense of purpose. It gave me something to focus on. It gave me like something in the distance to concentrate on. Like I really want to make that movie. And that was a time when I wasn”t really making a lot of movies. And as I re-visited…and then it would come together and then it would fall apart and each time I re-visited it, I found that some of my questions about it I had answered because I had aged and so I understood things more. And some of the mystery remained intact and I found that all the way up to the very end when I took my last look at it and said ‘Is this something I can still imagine making now at 27 or 28 however old I was?’ And the answer was ‘Yes.’ And the other part of the equation is Derek, who is a rare man. Who is a rare human being. At every point in time when it hasn”t been the right time to make the movie, he says ‘I don”t give a [expletive] about my movie. All I care about is your life. When it works for your life, it”ll work for the movie.’
Williams: He”s an exceptional father, husband, friend and director and that”s apparent from the moment you meet him. Like I always wanted to make a movie with him from the second I met him. And I hadn”t seen his [previous] film at all, but I didn”t have any doubt. And the way he”s able to talk about the movie and talk about the characters. And also keep a completely collaborative and I never really experienced that before. He just wanted to share everything with Ryan and I. And he made it a collaborative safe experience from beginning to end, which is rare in a man. Like I”ve seen it in female directors before but…
So, does that mean based on working with Kelly and other female directors you know, do you feel inclined to trust a female director more? That there”s something that you connect with more than most male directors?
Williams: No, I wouldn”t say on the whole. I hate to group them and Kelly would be so mad at me if I ever categorized her as a female director. So, I”d hate to say that. No.
No, no. I get it.
Williams: I”ll never make another movie with her if I call her a female director.
You’ve made two films together, is there a third one that she”s working on that you”ve already talked about that you guys would consider?
Williams: Not that I”m aware of.
Well, I hope so and I can”t wait for ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ to come out. I”d love to see it again.
Williams: Wow, you”re a glutton of punishment then. That is like [one tough movie].
Williams: I mean I love it, don”t get me wrong. I”m crazy about that and I cannot believe that well, I thought the sky was falling Kelly Reichardt was still making a movie.
You guys are all so good in it though. The performances are so great and…
Williams: Well, everybody goes ‘It”s not an actor”s movie. It”s not actually a movie about performances.’ It”s not very showy. It”s a filmmakers form and I think that”s what”s so uncommon about it. That”s what I like so much. I mean, yeah, everybody has their character blah-blah-blah, but I think that”s not really the crux of it. She”s made a feminist western. And it”s political. Like everything she”ll ever make is political.
Yeah, that”s true.
Williams: Like ‘Are you my enemy or are you my neighbor?’ ‘I can”t love you, how do you…?’
Well you were there and you were shooting it so I think that for other people watching though too it”s also that we”re seeing all the performances that you saw every day for the first time. So that”s my thing.
Maybe Williams will change her tune on “Cutoff,” we’ll see when it’s released next year. In the meantime, “Blue Valentine” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday.
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