Michelle Williams: "It’s unnatural to see yourself large on a screen"

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 03 Jan 2017

From Dawson’s Creek heartbreaker to indie royalty, we speak to the incomparable Michelle Williams, who gives a stunning performance in Manchester by the Sea, the new film from Kenneth Lonergan

Michelle Williams is haunted. Spectres of film roles past hang around her psyche like benevolent Banquos. “I think about all of them,” the 36-year-old actor tells us during her visit to 2016’s London Film Festival, “and the harder that you work on something, or the more time you put into something, the more deeply ingrained they become inside of your own body memory.”

One character who's been particularly limpet-like is Cindy Heller, the young woman who falls in and out of love with Ryan Gosling’s ukulele-playing Dean in Derek Cianfrance’s bittersweet romantic drama Blue Valentine. “I didn’t take off [Cindy]’s wedding ring for like a month after that movie; I just couldn’t let it go,” Williams recalls. “But it gets to a certain point where you have to go back and be yourself. One does really need to make an effort to not allow all these people to hitchhike inside of your soul; it’s not a healthy way to live.”

From where we’re sitting, Williams looks pretty well adjusted. She’s made the transition from the young star of 90s teen phenomenon Dawson’s Creek to formidable indie actor without seeming to break sweat. Part of her success might be down to her refined taste in collaborators. Since Dawson’s Creek wrapped in 2003, Williams has worked with some of the great auteurs working today, filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), Todd Haynes (I'm Not There), Lukas Moodysson (Mammoth), Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) and Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche, New York); and her three films with Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cuttoff and the upcoming Certain Women) represent the most rewarding director-actor collaboration in US cinema right now. In other words, Michelle Williams is an actor with an uncannily sharp nose for quality film projects.

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea

We suggest this to Williams, but she’s skeptical. “Did you see Suite Française?” she laughs. “Wow. Ouch. That one hurt.”

To make or to watch back? “Both,” she says without missing a beat. “You can never have a sense when you read something – or even while you’re making it – if it’s going to be good or not. You really can’t tell. And you work just as hard on the movies that are bad as you do on the ones that are good. So it’s alway sort of a surprise how they turn out.”

Her approach to choosing roles is more instinctual. In fact, it’s positively physical. “I can feel my heart might want to jump out of my chest,” she says, describing how she feels when she reads a good script, “and my brain starts working on it as if it’s a little puzzle and I need to solve it. And that’s how I know that I want to do something and it just becomes a part of my thought process. Even if I don’t have the role, or even if I don’t get the role, it’s just something that I’m drawn to and then start thinking a lot about.”

In the case of Manchester by the Sea, the brilliant new film Williams is in London to promote, she didn’t even wait for this reaction. “I knew that I would say yes to it before I even read it, simply because of the kind of artist Kenny is. You’d be foolish to turn down an opportunity to work with him.” The “Kenny” Williams refers to is Kenneth Lonergan, the playwright, screenwriter and director who, thanks to the recent acceleration in productivity of Terrence Malick and Terence Davies, is western cinema’s new snail’s pace genius, having managed only three features in 16 years – each one a masterpiece. In addition to Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan’s golden trio is completed by 2000’s You Can Count on Me and Margaret, which was shot in 2005 but not released until six years later, where it disappeared from theatres almost immediately. The scarcity of a Lonergan film makes being in one all the more special. “I had always wanted to work with him because his worlds are so complete and so authentic,” explains Williams, “and I really wanted to be a person in one of them.”

Williams screentime in Manchester by the Sea isn’t substantial – she’s only in a handful of scenes – but her character, Randi, packs a punch. We see two versions of her in the film. In flashback there’s firecracker Randi, the foul-mouthed mother of three who’s in a lively and loving marriage to Lee, the film’s main focus, played by Casey Affleck. Then there’s the Randi of the present, who’s less rambunctious than her former self and now married to another man with whom she’s had a child. The reason why Lee and Randi are no longer together is revealed piecemeal throughout the film. We won’t divulge the circumstance for their breakup here, but we will say it’s devastating.

Manchester by the Sea is a film filled with wonderful moments, but if only one scene from the last 12 months of cinema had to be locked away and preserved for eternity it has to be the one in which Lee, who’s been emotionally stunted by the event that caused his marriage to crumble, meets Randi by chance in the street of their hometown, the fishing village of the title, which Lee has reluctantly returned to to see to his brother’s funeral arrangements.

The scene is the fulcrum of the movie. Lee’s emotions have remained pent up until this point, but this encounter with his ex-wife is where they’re released. “I think we were both nervous because there’s just a lot going on in it,” Williams explains. “It’s very technical, a very tricky scene to learn because of all the overlapping dialogue.”

It’s also a long scene, perhaps the longest in the movie. Up until this point Lonergan’s edits have been as sharp and curt as the surly and taciturn Lee has been. But in this scene Randi is in control; it plays out to her rhythms. “You don’t often get opportunities like that in movies, to work with so many words and to work on something that lengthy,” she says. “Movies tend to be so much about what people aren’t saying or the spaces in between lines, but there is a dynamic verbal exchange in that scene, and it has to be performed in a very specific way. Everything is important to [Lonergan], the oohs, the aahs, the mms; those are all scripted.”

Get used to seeing this scene: it’s surely the clip the Academy Awards will play when Williams receives her fourth Oscar nomination.

When we ask Casey Affleck what makes Williams such a special actor he points to the realism of her performances. “She just inhabits the role and instantly you feel like, Oh, here’s a real person who’s treating me like I’m a real person in the world,” he says. Her secret, he reckons, is that she can communicate several emotions at once. “There’s a lot going on in her eyes and in the way she says stuff. She can convey both annoyance and love in the same sentence. So it starts to feel like, Oh, that’s how my wife talks to me.”

Since its premiere at Sundance, Manchester by the Sea has earned rave reviews and was picked up by Amazon Studios for nearly ten million dollars. Williams sheepishly confesses that she’s in no hurry to see it herself, however. “It’s been three years since I’ve seen a movie that I’ve been in – I just find the whole thought of it too jarring.”

You should watch it, we tell her. It’s pretty good. “I was joking with Kenny about not having seen it last night. I told him, ‘I’m going to see it, I just need to see it small and contained and privately.’ Kenny was like, ‘so on an iPhone,’ and I said, ‘That would be perfect! Yes!’ It’s so unnatural to see yourself so large on a screen and I don’t have the stomach for it right now.”

Normally we’d never condone watching a film on a phone, but such is the power of Williams’ performance, she’ll blow you away, even on the puniest of screens.

Manchester by the Sea is released by StudioCanal