Michelle Williams was born in Montana in 1980. Her first major acting role was on the television show Dawson’s Creek from 1998–2003. Even while the show was still running, Williams was being cast in films. It seems directors (she’s worked with filmmakers such as Wim Wenders, Ang Lee, and Martin Scorsese, among others) recognized her ever-evolving talent from the start. Williams has been nominated for two Academy Awards, and her many films include Brokeback Mountain (2005); Synecdoche, New York (2008); Wendy and Lucy (2008); Shutter Island; and Blue Valentine. Later this year she will play Marilyn Monroe in the Simon Curtis–directed film My Week with Marilyn. But her newest film, Meek’s Cutoff, is about three couples in 1845 who, while traveling through the Oregon desert by covered wagon, begin to suspect that their guide, Stephen Meek, has led them astray. It’s a bold, beautiful story that deserves to be viewed on the big screen so you can better witness director Kelly Reichardt’s panoramic shots and the subtle expressions on Williams’s face.
I’ve talked briefly with Williams twice before conducting this interview. The first time I met her—in L.A., through a mutual friend—I remember noting to myself what a natural mother she seemed. During that initial encounter, I thought that our daughters, who were born two weeks apart, would want to play together, but they were only six months old at the time and just sat on the carpet looking at each other until my daughter tipped over. I have continued to admire Michelle Williams from afar, both because of the roles she chooses and because she brings grace and intelligence to everything she does. In her onscreen performances, she shows us how women, even at their most fragile and vulnerable, can be brave and resilient. She is one of the few contemporary actresses whose face can communicate so much emotion, so much thought, even when she’s simply looking out a window. Whenever I see Williams in a role—any role—I’m reminded of the complexity of women’s lives, of all the many responsibilities and joys a single day can contain.
We conducted this interview by phone—she from her home in Brooklyn, and I from a parked car in San Francisco. I suppose it’s little surprise that Williams brought grace and intelligence to our conversation—and a little humor, too.
VENDELA VIDA: I know you were born in Montana, but are you of Scandinavian descent?
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: I’m Norwegian.
VIDA: I thought so, because Ingrid is your middle name and your mom has a Scandinavian-sounding maiden name: Swenson. Did you ever hear Norwegian in the household, or did you ever go back to Norway?
WILLIAMS: No, I’ve never been, and my mom didn’t speak it. We made a lot of lefsa, a Norwegian dessert, to compensate. I was talking to my grandma on the phone maybe a month ago, and she said, “Did you ever hear this story about Inge? Inge Jacobin?” I said, “No, but it’s a great name, Inge Jacobin. Tell me about Inge Jacobin.” Inge Jacobin would be my great, great grandmother, I think, and she was a stowaway. At 15 years old, she got on a boat from Norway, made it to Ellis Island, and then hopped on a covered wagon, and that’s how they got to Montana. I found that out after I made Meek’s.
VIDA: That’s so weird. Traveling in a covered wagon is in your blood.
WILLIAMS: Yes, some part of me has done this journey before.
VIDA: And didn’t you go off and live on your own when you were 15, too?
WILLIAMS: I did. It gave me so much comfort. Why did I have that urge? I think it was Inge Jacobin’s bones kicking around in me.
VIDA: When you went to live on your own, did you go to L.A.?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I went to L.A. At that point my family was living in San Diego, so it wasn’t as big an undertaking as Inge Jacobin’s. I hopped around from crappy apartment complex to crappy apartment complex in the Los Angeles area.
VIDA: Were you still close to your family? Or was it one of those breaks you make when you’re 15 and later patch things up?
WILLIAMS: It was kind of a break. It didn’t last too terribly long, thank goodness, before I got Dawson’s Creek and moved to North Carolina. So I had about a year in Los Angeles solo.
VIDA: Do you remember anything about getting your first apartment? I ask because when I was 15, I somehow convinced my parents to let me go Eurorailing by myself, and I remember checking into an inexpensive hotel in Paris. First thing I did was buy a baguette and some YOP drinkable yogurt and place them on a windowsill with a view of Paris in the background. I took a picture of that image—to me, that photo symbolized freedom.
WILLIAMS: I had always been kind of obsessed with making a home of my own and was always drawing rooms that I wanted to live in, down to pictures on the wall and the faces that would be in the photographs, and how the couches would be situated. I just remember moving furniture around a lot. I remember that the tool included with the Ikea furniture promised to assemble everything but didn’t. It was all light wood, by the way. Norwegian looking, the sales guy told me. I sat in frustration with a lot of cardboard boxes around me, eating Clif bars for dinner because I couldn’t cook. I was making house, but at night, because no one was there telling me to go to bed. I still have a hard time giving up on the day and admitting exhaustion.
VIDA: Let’s talk a little bit about Meek’s Cutoff, which is the second film you’ve done with director Kelly Reichardt—the first being Wendy and Lucy. I was wondering what it was like to work on more than one film with the same director. Do you feel because you’ve spent so much time together at this point that you have kind of a shorthand when working together?
WILLIAMS: You know the safety you feel when a man asks you to marry him?
WILLIAMS: It felt like she doesn’t just want to date me. She wants to marry me.
VIDA: Did you know from the beginning that you’d be doing two films with her?
WILLIAMS: No, I had no idea. One day she came over to our house in Brooklyn with a manila envelope, and said she had something special to give me. So we walked upstairs and sat on my bed, and she handed me the first draft of Meek’s. It really is one of the top five favorite moments of my life—it’s right up there. Because I wasn’t expecting it. And I wanted it. I hope to make movies with her for a long time to come. So I guess at this point, knowing Kelly has been like an education in film. Not that she’s ever tried to teach me, but just sort of by osmosis, and being her friend, and understanding what she likes, and having her reference movies, and then going and finding them myself, I feel at this point I know how to fill her frame. I know what she wants. I know what she’s into. I know what her taste is. There are limitations when you work with Kelly. There’s a very specific style that she’s after. But in those confines you can actually find so much freedom because of the specificity.
VIDA: At first I couldn’t believe the film was shot in Oregon. It was really interesting to see the high-desert part of the state. As I watched these three families go across the plain, with their guide and the covered wagons, I just felt the heat and the toil and the immense effort of it. And the weight of those dresses!
WILLIAMS: I know! The dresses… I miss that. The only part of your body left exposed to the sun were your hands. My hands have aged at a rate disproportionate to the rest of my body because of being out there in the hot sun for two months. You couldn’t keep sunscreen on your hands; you were just sort of filthy all the time. But the dresses, they were ingenious for so many reasons. They actually do keep you quite cool, because they’re cotton, and they also provide cover. Privacy is important to women, and when you’re on the trail like that, so little is afforded. But with the dress, you can actually go to the bathroom in private. It provides an incredible shield. You could literally be in a conversation with somebody and just sort of drop down . . . I can’t believe I’m talking about this. I read once that when James Dean was feeling inhibited on set, he went off into a corner and urinated. I thought, How interesting! Then having that experience of peeing in private underneath the dress… [laughs] At first I was really scared. You’re out there in the desert all day. I mean, what are you going to do when you’re a girl? It’s hard. We were scared about snakes and all these creatures and critters, and it finally just became this weird joy to be out there, just stuck behind the bush… I can’t believe I’m still talking about this.
VIDA: This is the second conversation I’ve had in two days about peeing and long dresses. Yesterday a friend of mine was telling me that she lived in Rome when she was a teenager, and she had this really fabulous friend who wore long dresses, of the sort that were really popular at the time. Anyway, this girl was on a date and was too modest to tell the guy that she had to go to the bathroom—and she didn’t want to interrupt the flirtation—so she just peed as she walked down the street. My friend asked her, “Well, weren’t you afraid that he would smell the pee?” And the fabulous Italian girl said, “No, all of Rome smells like pee.” [both laugh]
WILLIAMS: I recommend it. Only men can really do… Okay, I’m going to stop talking about peeing and long dresses.
VIDA: What about the bonnets? In the production notes for the film, Kelly Reichardt talks about the scope of women’s eyesight, just even the frame of what they could see in front of them was limited by the bonnets.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it’s like wearing blinders, really. But again, the lack of privacy on the trail almost created a sense of privacy when there is none. Zoe Kazan and I became close during the movie, and we missed our bonnets. I missed the whole thing. There were two Winnebagos that housed hair and makeup, wardrobe, ADs, changing, everything… and we’d take our dresses off at night and I’d catch a glimpse of Zoe’s ankle, and it became like pornography. When you’re covered from head to toe all day long, you’re not used to the sight of skin, and I would sort of avert my eyes because I’d feel like I was seeing something inappropriate. But we bought bonnets. We’ve been threatening each other to wear them in Brooklyn, but so far neither of us have been bold enough to break them out.
VIDA: Emily, the character you play, and her husband don’t have any sexual interactions. They barely touch at all. Then when Emily interacts with the Native American, who the men on the trail capture and try to bribe to lead them to water, she gets up close to him and offers to fix his shoe. It’s actually a very tense sort of sexual moment, because nothing else in the film is like that. No one comes into the same proximity that you do with him. I thought that scene was really heightened by how repressed the rest of the people and interactions were.
WILLIAMS: I wasn’t expecting that, but toward the end of the movie we were all going a little nutty, having been marooned in the desert and replicating these conditions in real detail… It felt dangerous. The thing I hadn’t expected was that kind of quasi-sexual relationship with Rod [Rondeaux, the actor who plays the Cayuse Native American] but toward the end—and, as I said, I was feeling a little crazy—the movie started to take a turn in my own head. I felt like it was about one woman’s sexual awakening, a kind of spiritual-sexual experience she was having with this stranger, with this man.
VIDA: Especially given that Emily’s husband has been married before, but Emily is also much younger. This is a coming-of-age journey for her.
VIDA: In both Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, you’re often shot at a distance. Whereas in Blue Valentine the camera is so close it’s almost claustrophobic. How does that feel as an actor?
WILLIAMS: It was in the latter half of Blue Valentine that the camera started to encroach on us, which it seemed to me was part of Derek’s [Cianfrance, the director] intention for the look of the film and for the atmosphere he wanted his actors to live in. So the claustrophobia was something to absorb and work with. I try to practice two approaches when it comes to what to do with the camera in your face: One is to block it out—which is actually possible, because if you can believe yourself to be a child murderess or imagine that a spaceship is landing on your head, you can certainly do away with a pesky black frame in your eye line. The second is to incorporate the camera and the man behind it—I’ve yet to work with a female DP—and make them into an invisible dance partner. I prefer doing this. It can happen when you’re working with someone you genuinely like and trust, and it incorporates another dynamic of play within a scene. It was like this with Derek and his DP. I wanted to let them in. One of the best things—and something I’m grateful for every time I walk onto a film set—is my six and a half years on Dawson’s Creek and the experience it afforded me in how to get comfortable with the camera. Best acting classes I ever took.
VIDA: What did you and Ryan Gosling do to prepare for the second half of the film? Whatever you did, it was upsetting for the viewer, too.
WILLIAMS: We lived in this house, and what we really had to learn how to do, in the month or so that we had, was how to fight, because we had just come off the heels of making the first part of Blue Valentine, which was as fun and light and happy of an experience as I’ve ever had. I think Ryan felt similarly. So neither of us were quick to destroy that. We spent the first couple of weeks in the house just doing the dishes and making meals, taking out the trash and balancing out the budget and making home movies. But that wasn’t getting us to the place that we needed to go, so Derek had us step it up, and he would ask us to pick fights with each other.
WILLIAMS: Well, first he did this ceremony where he had wedding pictures taken of us, and he took a framed wedding picture and put it in a wheelbarrow with fireworks that we bought at the grocery store, and he doused it with kerosene and we lit it on fire and watched it burn. But the crazy thing is, it didn’t burn all the way—it burned into a heart around our faces, around our kiss. He couldn’t destroy it.
VIDA: It wouldn’t burn.
WILLIAMS: It wouldn’t burn. Which I think has something ultimately to do with the ending. It won’t burn. Then one day we were spending time together, and Ryan said something to me. It was a jab, and I took it hard, and then it ricocheted. From that moment the infection or something started, and we never were able to get back to a good place with each other, which is what Derek had been going for anyway.
VIDA: That thing he said to you that really got you going, was that directed toward you, Michelle, or was it directed toward Cindy, your character?
WILLIAMS: It was me… [laughs] It was me.
VIDA: So it hurt.
WILLIAMS: It hurt.
VIDA: I’ve had so many conversations with friends after seeing Blue Valentine about how people fall out of love. In your mind, was it a series of things that made Cindy fall out of love with Dean, or was there one thing that he did? Or was it just the fact that Dean made this heroic gesture, becoming a father to a child that wasn’t his and becoming so close to the daughter, that Cindy almost started resenting him for it?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I saw it as a deck stacked against them from the very beginning. I saw it as trying to outrun the ghost of your parents, and your parents’ parents, and these moods and behaviors and patterns that are handed down, and you’ve got to be so wily to outsmart them. I believe that they had a deep and abiding love that was real, but I thought that how quickly they came together, how little they had to work with, was where the downfall was… As you get to know somebody, there are ways that personalities don’t fit with each other. Also, I find it so important for me and for so many of my friends to talk things out. But Cindy didn’t have that luxury. She didn’t seem to be surrounded by friends. She doesn’t have family that she can lean on. And whatever she wanted to talk about wasn’t the right thing that Dean wanted to talk about—so she’s just stuck with herself.
VIDA: You said the first part of filming was fun. I just can’t imagine how hard the second half must have been. Even that room, the hotel room they go to that has no windows…
WILLIAMS: At the end of every day, on the drive home, it was like a decompression chamber, and I would roll down the window and hang my head out like a dog, and let the 60-mile-an-hour wind slap me. It was the only way I could get the day off me.
VIDA: I really admire the roles you’ve chosen and the career path you’ve carved out for yourself. I’m wondering what makes you take a particular role and what makes you turn a role down?
WILLIAMS: How do I say this? It’s like a mechanism in my life that runs on its own. When other things in my life don’t, and are broken and aren’t going well, for some reason my decision-making mechanism has a little engine of its own, and it’s fine. So I don’t overthink it. I’ve come to learn that the choices I labor over and go back and forth about and ask a million people for their opinions and make lists about… those are always the wrong choices. I’ve definitely made a couple of those, and that’s how I know now that it’s not the best way for me to decide.
VIDA: I can relate.
WILLIAMS: I don’t think of it as building, or really even a career. It’s just what appeals to me right now, without any real thought about how it’s going to affect my future, or even how it relates to my past work. I have faith in the fact that, as I change, so will the things that I’m interested in, as long as I keep up my own change.
VIDA: So what do you do or turn to to keep yourself growing and changing and evolving?
WILLIAMS: Stories. Keeping stories in my brain is important to me. I can get a story at the grocery store. If I’m paying attention, I can get it on the subway. I can get it in a book… Just catching a glimpse of how somebody is interacting with their child, or how they shape their nails or bop their head to the beat, and storing these little moments… Dreams… I’ll take it any way I can get it. But you also have to be paying attention and keep notes.
Vendela Vida is a novelist and screenwriter as well as a co-founder and co-editor of The Believer.