INTERVIEW: MICHELLE WILLIAMS (“BLUE VALENTINE”), RELUCTANT STAR
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of spending about 45-minutes on the telephone with Michelle Williams, who is not only one of America’s finest actresses — and, at 30, will probably remain one of them for decades to come — but who is also a deeply intelligent woman; a devoted single mother; and a real survivor. (She’s also not bad on the eyes!)
Williams became a star at the tender age of 17 on the hit TV show “Dawson’s Creek” (1998-2003) — I remember when it happened because I’m about the same age as her and often tuned in. She proved that she had the acting chops to match her looks in a number of early films, but especially “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), for which she received a best supporting actress Oscar nod. She attracted the interest of the tabloids when she first began dating her “Brokeback” co-star Heath Ledger, with whom she would eventually have a daughter, Matilda — and again in early 2008, when Ledger died suddenly. After a period of mourning and seclusion, Williams reemerged in a series of roles that brought her widespread acclaim — from the bare-bones indie “Wendy and Lucy” (2008) to the eccentric ensemble piece “Synecdoche, New York” (2008) to the Martin Scorsese-mystery “Shutter Island” (2010) — and, before long, she’ll be seen portraying another movie star who died far too young, Marilyn Monroe, in a biopic entitled “My Week with Marilyn.” Things have never looked better for her in terms of her career, but she’s not ruling out the possibility that she might wake up one day, decide that she’s had enough of it all, and call it quits. There’s more to life than being a movie star, she has learned.
Over the course of our conversation — a full transcript of which follows — Williams and I discussed virtually all of the above. We focused particularly, however, on the pinnacle achievement of her career up to this point: her remarkable performance in Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” (The Weinstein Company, 12/31, NC-17, trailer), a gritty, honest, adult drama about the complexities of a relationship. (To me, at least, it’s somewhat reminiscent of a play and film that preceded it by half a century, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”) To play the part of a woman who falls in — and, six years later, out of — love with the same man (Ryan Gosling), a lot was asked of Williams — extensive emotional and physical nakedness, a quick weight gain, and even some tap-dancing — and, as anyone who has seen the film can attest, she certainly rose to the occasion.
I always like to begin by asking this question: Did you go to the movies as a kid? And, if so, were any films or actors particular favorites or influences?
Oh, good question. Let’s see. I wouldn’t say that I went to the movies a lot as a kid, but I remember— Let’s see, which movies are, like, really burned in my brain? Well, “Back to the Future” I remember really well. And what else did I see in the movie theater when I was a kid? I remember going to see plays, weirdly, a little bit more than movies. But I remember seeing “Empire of the Sun,” and that probably had, like, the biggest effect on me as a kid. I think I saw it when I was maybe seven or maybe eight or something like that, and that was the first movie to, kind of, rock my world, and, kind of, keep me up at night—or, maybe I should say, had a power that extended beyond pleasure and fun.
I understand that—not professionally, obviously, but just for fun—you were acting when you were very little, so maybe you can talk about what your earliest memories are of your first entrée into it, and when you first realized that it was something that you wanted to do seriously—that you wanted to be, or were, an actress…
Let’s see. I remember doing plays, and I remember one of the things that I liked most about it was the community. I liked being backstage; I liked being in a crowd of people; I liked the anticipation; I liked getting ready, I liked— I don’t know, I just have, like, really specific sort of memories about, like, the smell of, like, the makeup box, you know; or, like, the crowd of girls, sort of, all in this thing together; and, like, this transformation from school kid to, you know, whatever kind of little part I was playing. I remember loving that, and I feel like—I’m always surprised, like, every movie that I make—I still have that feeling. Like, I feel like I return to it every time, as a child, like, with so much wonder, and so much excitement, and such a thirst to get better, and the optimism that I will, like, if I just, kind of, stick it out. And I’m happy that that quality has maintained itself, somehow, for, like, twelve years now.
I’ve tried to read as many previous interviews that you’ve done as possible to prepare for this, and one of the things that I’ve gathered is that, in order to get to that next level of doing this professionally, you elected to go through this process of being “emancipated” from your parents. I’m not quite sure what that means, and I’d guess that others may not be, so I wonder if you could explain what it was and what led you to take that course of action…
It’s a little bit like divorce. It was a few things. It was, kind of—it was in the air, a little bit, I would say. I wasn’t really the only one; there were a couple of other kids that I knew that were thinking about doing the same thing. I think I’d seen a TV movie about it, and so it made it seem like a possibility. [laughs] And it was for a few reasons—one, because I was headstrong, and what teenager doesn’t want separation and independence from their parents? I was just, kind of stubborn enough to do it, and had one parent that didn’t think it was a bad idea and another parent that thought it was an awful idea, but the parent who thought it was not a bad idea was the stronger voice. So it was a combination of my being headstrong and that when you’re auditioning, and you’re fifteen, you get told, like, “Oh, well they’re just gonna hire somebody that’s eighteen for that part, because then they don’t have to have a teacher on set and they don’t have to have a welfare worker on set. And so it’s something that you do to basically, like, increase your shot at getting a job. And it paid, actually—when I got cast on “Dawson’s Creek” I was fifteen or sixteen and everybody else was eighteen, and they cast me because, you know, they could work me like an adult, basically. I would not recommend it; I would not suggest it as, like, a path or, like, a thing to do. I feel very lucky that it did happen to work out for me, and that everything is okay, but it was a little touch and go there, and I don’t know many fifteen years olds that would be as responsible as I was.
It sort of seems like that independent streak has continued throughout your career since then. I mean, when you look at the choices of so many other young actresses, it seems like they or their “people” have some sort of grand plan of how to become a movie star, you know, as opposed to a serious actress. I don’t see any sort of pattern when I look at your choices—and that’s not a criticism at all, it’s just sort of unique, or rare. Do you feel that there’s a reason for that? Are you consciously trying to buck the system, or has it just worked out that way?
I think I probably have that a little bit in my blood, but I think that mostly it’s because I don’t look at it as a career. I don’t see it as something to “build on.” I just make choices as they come, in a moment, day-to-day, how they suit my life, how they suit my interests, and not really about how it effects my future. So it doesn’t really have a, kind of— There is no plan, basically.
Before we get to “Blue Valentine,” I hope I can mention a few of the most “celebrated” roles that you’ve played and ask you to share how you first heard about them, and how they impacted things afterwards, and really just what stands out in your memory when you look back at the time your were inhabiting them. You just mentioned “Dawson’s Creek,” and that was going to be the first one. You and I are roughly the same age, and I really remember spending a lot of my teenage years with my friends watching you on that, so I’m particularly curious to hear how you regard that one…
[laughs] Let’s see, where do I start? This is the first time that one’s come up in a long time. Let’s see. I see it as, kind of, like, the greatest long-form acting class that any kid starting out could really hope for because I got so much experience—it’s invaluable. The kind of time that I got to spend on-camera has been invaluable. The ability to learn, you know, simple things, like learn your lines, or block the camera and pretend that it’s not there. You know, I really couldn’t do any of that before I made that show. And because I have so much practice, now that stuff is, kind of—I really don’t have to think about it; I can just trust it like it’s in my bones. Do you know what I mean? And, also, you know what the other thing that was really great about it for me? I got a lot of bad acting— I mean, I’m still capable of bad acting, don’t get me wrong, but think I got a lot of it out of my system because it felt like learning, you know? When you learn anything, you’re not particularly great at it, you know? Like, watching a kid, like, learn how to write their name or something? It starts of pretty shaky; it’s endearing, and it’s a sign of what’s to come, but, you know, it’s shaky. So, for me, I feel so lucky that I got to, kind of, get a lot of that out of my system, make a lot of mistakes, and, like, kind of, try and hone something on that show, because I never would have gotten that much practice if I had just, you know, made movies or something like that. Not that I think that it was a bad show; I just mean that I got to work out a lot, I got to work my talent out.
I don’t know if you feel this way, but at least in terms of how some of the awards groups responded, “Dick” was sort of a breakthrough on the film side of things, wasn’t it?
“Dick”? I don’t know. I didn’t know that. [laughs]
Well, that was just my impression. What was your transition from television into movies like?
I think that maybe the biggest job that I ever got up to that point was this doing this play off-Broadway called “Killer Joe.” I was maybe seventeen—no, I was eighteen—and it was the first opportunity that— Somebody was telling me that they saw the director, this man Wilson Miliam, saying he was in town in London, and I said, “Oh, Gosh, I feel like I owe that man pretty much everything,” because it was my first shot at doing something that was a little grown-up, or a little risky, or something that, like, stretched me in the direction that I wanted to go. And I feel like was really, truly the first person to give me the chance, and that’s all I really needed, you know, was just, like, one person to say, “Yes, you can do this.” I mean, I don’t know how to say it without being, like, cheesy about it, but that’s when everything started to change for me, internally and externally. And “Dick” was, too, in a way. I mean, when I met with Charlie Kaufman about “Synecdoche [, New York],” he was like, “I want you to do this movie because of “Dick,” because I loved that movie so much.” So “Dick” blessed me twice. “Dick” was a double—wait. It’s really hard to talk about the movie “Dick” and then say a sentence and, like, not make it sound crude! [laughs] You know? “’Dick’ was a double blessing.” I don’t know how to say that. Please don’t make it sound like I’m being dirty. [laughs]
[laughs] I got you. So “Prozac Nation” was the other early one that I wanted to ask you about. It was pretty well received, I think, at least critically…
Wow, it’s so funny thinking about these old movies. I like it because it kind of puts you back in touch with, you know, your fighter spirit, because you were auditioning constantly, and being rejected, getting fewer jobs than you auditioned for—I mean, like, rejection was the norm, and getting the part, you know, was unusual. And so thinking about, like, oh, “Killer Joe,” “Prozac Nation,” “Dick”—those were all things that I fought for, and it excites me, still, to kind of think back to them, because now my fight is in, like, different arenas. Like, now my fight is actually, like, in giving the performance. I mean, I have auditioned recently—I kind of actually enjoy it now—but when you talk about those movies, it just makes me remember how much I burned to do what now I kind of—I don’t take it for granted, but what now is, like, kind of, more everyday, you know? I don’t know, it excites me to think about the way that I used to feel.
I don’t know if you were still having to audition by the time the next one that I want to ask you about came along, but I would imagine it’s the highest-profile role that you’ve played, or certainly one of them—“Brokeback Mountain.” There are still people who get into the equivalent of fistfights on the Internet, on sites like mine, arguing, “How the hell did that not win best picture?!”
Yeah. It’s five years later, but it’s like it happened yesterday. Anyway, that one I’m very curious to know what that one represents to you when you look back…
That one’s tied up in so many things. I don’t know. I always used to say that after I made that movie I felt like I could quit; I felt like I would be perfectly satisfied to, sort of, hang up my acting hat, and say, like, “I did that, and that’s enough,” like, “I can rest easy now because that movie was something I was a part of, and everything else is just, kind of, icing on the cake, really.”
Just to follow up on that, as someone who’s not, sort of, like, fighting to be the big movie star type—you know, pretty girl, rom-com type roles, just more conventional stuff—what did it mean to you to get an Oscar nomination, to get that sort of real recognition, for a real performance like that one? You know, a lot of people dismiss the whole awards thing, but I think it’s gotta be kind of nice…
You know, it’s weird. Thinking about those romantic-comedies and stuff, like, whenever I’ve read them—how do I say this? When you read scripts, you immediately get a kind of—it’s about the writing, you know? You have no idea what the director’s gonna make of it; you have no idea who you’re gonna be working with; so the big thing that you get is about, like, “How well is this written? How do these words flow together? How is this story told?” And whenever I read something like a romantic-comedy, I think, “Holy crap, they should totally give out awards for this stuff!” Because it’s so hard to make, like, really bad dialogue and impossible situations work. It is beyond me. Like, I go for good words; like, those are easier to say. I don’t know, if somebody can pull that off and, like, make me feel that it’s romantic and funny, more power to them. That ain’t easy.
I’ll only bother you with two more and then we can get down to the meat and potatoes of “Blue Valentine,” but the next one that I have to ask you about is honestly one of the most misunderstood but terrific movies I’ve ever seen, “Synecdoche, New York,” a completely one-of-a-kind movie…
I know, isn’t it? There’s nothing else like it in the whole world. In, like, the whole history of filmmaking, there’s nothing like that movie. I can’t think of, like, a higher compliment to pay something. I just love it. I wish I could do it all over again. Mostly I was just, kind of, in shock every day—like, “I can’t believe that there’s not, like, a pane of glass between me and these people.”
[laughs] Well, you’ve joked about where you found yourself on the second day of that one—
Where was it? I don’t remember.
Well, you mentioned in one of your interviews that there you were, having to do the last speech from “Death of a Salesman,” and you looked out into the audience—
Oh, yeah! It was like, “I’ve had nightmares that go like this!” Like, I’ve woken up in cold sweats thinking that I’m doing an Arthur Miller play with Phil Hoffman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Catherine Keener watching me! [laughs]. That was a big act of— I mean, it’s all an act of bravery, you know, everything is—work and life, it all is—but that took some extra courage.
Okay, last one that I’ll torture you with here: “Wendy and Lucy.” Incidentally, I can’t wait to see “Meek’s Cutoff“—I wasn’t able to see it at the New York Film Festival, but—
Oh, I hope you like it!
I can’t wait, I can’t wait. Just as an aside, when I thought back to “Wendy and Lucy” after seeing “Blue Valentine,” I was like, “I hope they never let Michelle have a dog!”
I know, I know, I know! Oh, my God, that’s so terrifying—and we actually are getting a dog! [laughs] Oh, well then, what you don’t know, actually—or maybe you do know and you were just kind enough to not mention it—is that I was in “Lassie” when I was, like, twelve years old. And nothing bad happened to Lassie, so I’m not actually that dangerous to dogs everywhere!
Oh, okay, well then we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, as long as you took care of Lassie…
Yes, I did.
Well, back to that movie, I’m just curious what you think of it, and also of that collaboration with Kelly Reichart—is it going to continue beyond those two movies?
You know, I don’t know. But how do you describe that? You know that feeling—like, the thing that I loved so much about doing these plays when I was younger, the community, and the continuity, and the kind of sense that you’re all in it together, and you go from one play to the next, and you do it all together, and you know each other, and you can change in front of each other, and you can take off your makeup with each other, and it’s, like, this group feeling? For some reason, that means a lot to me, it really resonates with me, and I found it with Kelly. When she handed me the script for “Meek’s Cutoff,” it was, like, one of the top five happiest moments of my life—it fits right in there. Because I think, like, when you’re an actress, you give so much to a movie, and sometimes you, kind of, feel like, not “used” when it’s over, but like you’ve exposed everything that you have to give, and then the director, kind of, moved on—like, they’re, sort of, done with you, like, they’re bored with you, like, they’ve gone into all of your secret hiding places and they’re ready for somebody else’s mysteries to unfold. So when Kelly handed me a second script, I felt like, I don’t know—like she wanted to marry me instead of just date me or something. [laughs] So, yeah, I feel, I don’t know, I just feel grateful to her, honestly.
Well, I almost feel guilty about asking you questions about “Blue Valentine” because I know how many times you’ve had to answer them over the whole year since Sundance, but I’m gonna do it and hope that you won’t mind. You talked about the relationship between a director and an actress—this one must have felt like a really long-term relationship, having been involved with the project for so long. Can you talk about how it first came to your attention?
I first read it, you know, just the normal way—your agent sends you it. There was nothing extraordinary about how it came to me, but then I read it and everything changed. I remember so many details—I remember where I was when I read the script for the first time; I remember when I met Derek for the first time; I remember—and I have, like, the memory of a firefly—what I was wearing; what he was wearing; what we ate; the things we talked about; the games we played; the weather. Like, it’s indelible, and it just, sort of, became my reason for living, was to make this movie, was to tell this story. And then it just, kind of, faded, you know, it went away, and I never heard about it for a long, long time. And then it came back and it was the wrong time for me; and then it came back again and it was the wrong time for Ryan and the right time for me; and then it finally, at last, six or seven years later, came together. And I’m glad—you know, Ryan and I always said, “Thank God we didn’t make this movie when we were twenty-two like we wanted to—thank God!—because we probably wouldn’t have been able to tell both sides of the story. And it’s really a testament to Derek, the director, because he always said— You know, when it would come back around, it wouldn’t be the right time for life reasons, for family reasons, for heart reasons, and he would always say, “You know, I don’t care about this movie; I care about your life. We’ll try it again.” You know? He never lost faith in me or in Ryan, even though we, kind of, danced around it for so long. He’s who really ultimately stuck with it.
Well, one of the things that I’ve been curious about since I saw the film was how you guys logistically approached the film. So often films have to be shot out of chronological order for financial reasons, but I can’t imagine how that would have worked on this movie because you have to get so into very different phases of their lives…
The movie is told in a non-linear way, but the first part of the relationship, when they’re younger and just discovering each other, we shot first; and then we had a hiatus that was supposed to be ten days but wound up being something like three or four weeks; and then we shot the present, when they’re married, entangled, and in a, kind of, pot of boiling water. We were supposed to have just a short little time off and then do our, you know, physical transformation into our older selves, and Derek, four or five days into the rehearsal, realized that we needed more time for a lot of reasons. Ryan and I had a hard time fighting with each other—like, we built up this really beautiful thing, and neither of us were so quick to want to destroy it, so we weren’t fighting with each other like we should be fighting with each other—and then I also had this idea that I wanted to put on as much weight as I could, so Derek bought us time. I still don’t know how he did it or, like, who he convinced that this was, like, a good way to spend time and money, to take a month hiatus, but he did. He fought for us, and so we wound up having all this time to first of all gain weight—we had an eating contest, which I won; to also, like, live in this house together and to make memories in the house; and to learn how to hate each other.
During that hiatus, I know that you did a number of things to the house, some with and some apart from Ryan. It does feel like the house was very lived in, and I guess that’s because it was, so perhaps you can share a few examples of what took place there…
Let’s see. Boy, oh, boy, there was so much. I went to the mall and shopped for my clothes. We went to a family portrait studio and had our picture taken together as a family. We decorated the house. We threw our daughter a birthday party in the house. We made home movies in the house [laughs], which are, kind of, rad, and I hope they have, like, a life of their own, maybe, someday. We slept in the house. We had to clean the house. We had to make a budget for how much we made each year and how much we were allowed to spend. Cooking. Cleaning. You know, basically, like, to learn all this stuff—it was all, really, to learn how to fight, you know, and, like, how a relationship gets mired in the details in the living stuff—who took out the trash last, or, you know, who’s gotten more sleep—to learn about, like, those discrepancies between our characters. What else did he have us do?
I heard something about wedding photos?
Oh, yeah! So we were having, like, a really hard time learning how to fight with each other, so Derek decided that we should have a ceremonial burning of our wedding pictures. We’d gone grocery shopping, like, I don’t know, a week before, and as a surprise I’d put fireworks in the cart for Ryan-slash-Dean—like, I knew it would make him happy, so I put fireworks in the cart—and then he saw them, and then he went back and, like, got, like, the bigger fireworks set. You know, it was just like that little stuff, but that’s, like, the perfect thing to fight about—like, I think it’s gonna be really sweet to buy him fireworks, and so I get this, like, thirty dollar fireworks set, and then he looks at it and says, “That’s not big enough,” and he goes for the hundred-and-twenty dollar fireworks set, and I’m like, “We can’t afford that!” You know? And, “Why do you have to top me?” Like, “Why does it have to be bigger?” You know, so that’s an example of where something can turn in a relationship. He won the argument, so we had a hundred-and-twenty dollars worth of fireworks, and we put them in a wheelbarrow, and we put our wedding picture on top, and we dropped a match on it, and it exploded. And the crazy thing about it was that we watched our wedding picture burn, but the whole thing wouldn’t burn—it burned into a heart-shape around our faces in a kiss. I think Derek has the evidence somewhere.
One thing that I have to ask you about, because it’s really sort of an ongoing issue, is this decision by the MPAA to give the film an NC-17 rating, which is obviously gonna limit its audience. I just wonder what your take on that situation is, and if we were talking about your kid, what you think that the appropriate age would be…
How old do you have to be to see a rated-R movie?
I think that you have to be seventeen unless but you’re with an adult, in which case it’s okay to be younger, but you’re absolutely not allowed into an NC-17 under any circumstances if you’re under seventeen…
Oh—weird. Gosh. I don’t know, man. To be honest, it’s like, I feel like there are so many people that are on top of that—it’s not something that I really worry about. Like, I know that Harvey’s into it and I know that he feels really optimistic about it. I mean, I was disappointed when I heard about it—and kind of surprised—but there’s nothing that I can do. I mean, I know that it effects people’s ability to see movie, and I think it probably effects the way that they can sell the movie, but it doesn’t effect the way I feel about the movie, or the experience that I had on the movie, or the work that we did together on the movie. So I just feel like it’s being taken care of by some really smart, passionate people, and I hope that they get what they want out of it. It is kind of scandalous, isn’t it?! [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah! Well, the MPAA has pissed off a lot of people recently because they gave “The King’s Speech” an R because the main character, to overcome his stutter, has to say a bunch of swears, and they gave “How Do You Know”—a James L. Brooks romantic-comedy—an R for equally silly reasons. So they’re kind of under the gun right now…
One thing that I am interested in—and, you know, I don’t know how much longer it’s gonna be a topic of conversation, I guess until something changes—is how the ratings are handed out for sex and profanity, as opposed to violence, you know? I mean, I’m not gonna say anything more about it than any other semi-intelligent person has already put on the record, but I do think that’s what’s really what’s, like, the remarkable thing about it—that you can, you know, shoot somebody in the face and you get a PG-13 [laughs], but God forbid that there be, like—yeah, whatever.
Well, tying into that, as an actress do you have any inhibitions about doing nudity or sex scenes? This one obviously called for a lot of it, and you’ve done it in other plays and movies, but is it something that you can ever not think about or is it always a little weird to have to reveal yourself in that way?
You know, it’s strange. You know, I don’t want to—like, I don’t get excited to do it. It’s basically just, like, a byproduct—like, I read a story, and then there’s nudity in it, and I see a reason for it, and I’m like, “Oh, well, darn it! I have to.” My fear of doing it, or my insecurity about doing it, or my ambivalence about doing it is overridden— Is “overridden” a word?
Yeah, I think so!
“Overridden,” “overridden,” “overridden”—I hope so! If it’s not, will you put another word in there for me? “Overridden.” –is overridden by my desire to tell a whole story. And so I’m not going to let my feelings— My feelings about that aren’t great enough to stop me from doing something. Like, after “Blue Valentine,” I was like, “Oh, phew, am I ever done with nudity!” Like, “That takes its toll!” And then I read this script that Sarah Polley wrote called “Take This Waltz ,” and there’s nudity all over it, and I thought, “Well, here I go again.” You know? I swore I wouldn’t do it, but then I read a great piece of material, and my desire—my excitement—to play the part overrides it. And so I feel like my decision-making ability isn’t something I really have to question, you know? I mean, like, I question a lot of things in my life, but my instinct about choosing work or not isn’t something I’m gonna question. So I’m not gonna let the nudity thing really make decisions for me. Because I don’t have, like, a moral stand against it or anything.
Do you find it to be easier to portray a relationship on-screen when you’re actually involved with the person off-screen or when you’re not? I could see it being either way—on the one hand, the feelings are actually real, so maybe it’s easier to convey them; on the other hand, you inevitably bring baggage that’s unrelated to the relationship that you’re actually portraying. I’m just curious what your feelings are on that, having done it both ways over the course of your career…
I’m trying to think about what’s my honest answer for that because I’ve never really considered it before. My first reaction when I think about it is there is no— I don’t really see a difference because, again, like, the work overrides. It overrides my—well, it pretty much overrides everything in my life when I’m doing it. So I don’t know. I mean, I would have to think about it, like, a little bit longer and harder to give you, like, the most comprehensive answer because I haven’t really ever considered it, but, at this moment, I would say that I don’t think that it makes a difference.
On the personal side of things, I know that you have had to deal with a lot of paparazzi in your life, who have hounded you and not always made life particularly easy for you. On the professional side of things, you’ve said that it can wear you down to portray characters who are going through really tough things, like the one in “Blue Valentine” and many others that you’ve played. So I’m curious: when you look towards the future—and I know you already have a couple of really exciting projects lined up—do you anticipate that you’re going to want to continue to act and put yourself out as a public figure for the indefinite future, or do you think that a time might come when you’ll say, “I’ve had enough with this”?
It’s so hard to say. The kind of work that I like to do, in general, does take— I don’t know, “take its toll” sounds really dramatic; like, it’s a give-and-take. It does wear down some part of you, but it also replenishes another, so I don’t think of it as, like, a chore at all; I mean, it’s work, so it’s hard, and it, like, brings it complications, but I don’t think of it as, like, something that I have to do, or a burden, or anything like that, you know? I wouldn’t stop acting because the parts themselves are so hard; I might stop acting because it doesn’t suit my family, you know, it doesn’t like suit the kind of life that I want to have. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I ask myself the same question all the time, honestly—all the time, you know—“Could I have a full and happy life without acting?” I’m looking for the answer to that. I think I could, you know? I’m not sure. I mean, I bore my friends to tears with this conversation—of like, what would I do if I gave up acting. Yeah, the simple answer is, “Yes, I can imagine it.”
And for those who hope that you don’t, the next thing that they’ll see you is in “Meek’s Cutoff” and then the Marilyn Monroe movie?
Yeah. I think it was after “Blue Valentine” that I made “Meek’s,” and then I made this movie with Sarah Polley, and now I’m in the throes — in the thick of it — with Marilyn Monroe.
That’s so cool. I don’t know if it was leaked or if it was promotionally released, but I saw a photo of you as Marilyn and it’s scary how much you look like her—
Yeah! So I can’t wait to see what you do with that one. It’s exciting…
It’s so scary. [laughs] Oh, God, it makes me, like, sick to my stomach most days at work, but yeah, it’s a good script.
Does it focus on her whole life or just a part of her life?
No, thank goodness, it’s just a month. You know, it’s basically a month—maybe two months—in her life. I keep telling myself that over and over and over again. Yeah, two months, when she was married to Arthur Miller and making a movie in London called “The Prince and the Showgirl.” It’s a little-known film but you should totally check it out—her performance is just radiant.
I definitely will — and I think I’ve interviewed somebody who was in it with her. I’m working on a book about old movies for young people, you know, to try to get them interested, and I believe that movie came up in one of my interviews. I can’t remember who else was in that, but I interviewed somebody else who was in that movie…
It was Laurence Olivier— Who else would you have known in it? I think everybody might have died.
I’ve been working on this book for a few years, so it’s possible that I got whoever it was before they left us, but—
My daughter’s seen it. She really likes it.
Is it for all ages?
I mean, the movie itself is not, like, a great work of art at all, and it trails off, and it loses its momentum. But, really, the thing that, kind of, survives, though, is her performance—she’s never been more beautiful; she’s totally incandescent; her comic-timing is, like, out of this world. It’s really something beautiful to watch, to see her perform in this way. But I want to get a copy of your book! I feel like I’m constantly trying to, like, supply my daughter with old movies to watch, and she likes them! She likes “Some Like It Hot” — she really likes “Some Like It Hot.”
Yeah, she’s still around! You might—well, you know what you’re doing a lot more than I do, but you might have fun speaking with her. There’s very few other big-name actresses from the forties who are still around—
I didn’t know that she was still alive!
Yeah. And she’s living in—I forget the name of the city, but it’s about an hour north of Los Angeles, and I went up there about a year ago and met with her for this book, and her memories of Marilyn are unbelievable. What’s most interesting to me about her is that at the time when “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was released in 1953, she was the higher-billed actress—she was the bigger star; she was above Marilyn—and yet, today, if you ask the average person who Jane Russell is, they have no idea. It kind of makes you wonder about the nature of these things—if Marilyn had lived and Jane had died young, you wonder if it might have been Jane who people would look at as this great icon. I don’t know, it’s just something I’ve always thought about…
I know, isn’t that interesting? I’ve wondered the same thing. What is it that makes an icon? Is it, you know—I don’t know, it makes me sad. Like, I don’t really know how to answer the question. Is it, you know, the moment in time that they’re kind of frozen in? I don’t know.
I think so, because I’ve interviewed so many of these once-big stars who lived into old age, which is what you would think all of them would want to do, but the ones that we remember most—whether it’s James Dean or any number of others—are the ones who died young. Just about everybody from “Rebel Without a Cause” died young…
It’s true—yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, what is it? So it’s Natalie Wood, Elvis Presley, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn—
It is weird…
It’s unsettling. It’s unsettling to me for some reason. I don’t know why.
It is. All things being equal, I think the better thing is to live a full, happy life, you know?
Anyway, I will let you go on and live a full, happy life without taking up any more of your time, but thank you very much for doing this!
[laughs] Likewise. I hope you go on to a full and happy life.
Thank you. And congratulations again on the movie…
Thanks very much, I appreciate it. Thanks for talking to me.
Photo: Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine.” Credit: The Weinstein Company.
Tags: A Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller, Back to the Future, Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain, Catherine Kenner, Charlie Kaufman, Dawson's Creek, Death of a Salesman, Derek Cianfrance, Dick, Elvis Presley, Empire of the Sun, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Heath Ledger, Interviews, James Dean, Jane Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kelly Reichart, Killer Joe, Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Martin Scorsese, Meek's Cutoff, Michelle Williams, Montgomery Clift, MPAA, My Week with Marilyn, Natalie Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Prozac Nation, Rebel Without a Cause, Ryan Gosling, Sarah Polley, Some Like It Hot, Synecdoche New York, Take This Waltz, The Prince and the Showgirl, Vivien Leigh, Wendy and Lucy, Wilson Miliam