Who knew that when actress Michelle Williams first appeared as the bad girl in Dawson’s Creek, she would have the uncanny good sense to take on roles which offered her real challenges? From a supporting part in Brokeback Mountain to the lead in Wendy and Lucy, she rose to the occasion.
So now, another year, another Williams’ award nomination. Last year, her star turn in Blue Valentine garnered this former small town Montana native various noms; now she’s up for the Best Actor Oscar for playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn.
Without making her Marilyn simply an "incredible simulation," Williams rendered as authentic a performance as an actor can give of such an iconic chameleon. But given Williams' ever-arching resume, she has developed the chops to validate such an achievement.
Born in 1980, Williams’ strong characterizationas Dawson's Jen led to film appearances in the comedic Dick and depressive Prozac Nation before the series even ended.
Since then she was in such quality indie films as The Station Agent, Imaginary Heroes, and The Baxter. But real success happened in 2005 when she starred in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain as a woman who realizes her husband is in love with a man.
That role landed her an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress as well as an intro to Heath Ledger who fathered daughter Matilda Rose. They split and when Heath died, she withdrew only to come roaring back, including this many-nominated role.
The following Q&A was drawn from a press conference before the the film's 2011 New York Film Festival premiere, red carpet comments and a session before its New York opening.
Q: What was the most difficult part about channeling Marilyn Monroe?
MW: Maybe letting myself just believing that I could. Previous representations of her were more [like impersonations so] I felt maybe there was room. That was the first thing that made me think, "Okay, I can explore this."
It was a decision made in the safety of my own home, and I didn't really consider the larger implications of it. It was a very, very slow process.
It started at home with watching movies, listening to interviews, poring over books. [I would] try and mimic a walk, or figure out how exactly it was that she was holding her mouth.
The first big discovery that I stumbled on was that "Marilyn Monroe" was a character that she played, and that [despite] the image that you're most familiar with, there was a person underneath it. That [persona] was carefully honed, but it was artifice -- and it was honed to where you couldn't tell that it was artifice. It felt so real.
It was something that she'd studied, perfected and crafted. So once I discovered that that was a layer, and then finding out what that layer was and then getting underneath it -- it was a long and ungainly process.
Q: It seems almost like this is a multiple role -- you're playing someone who's playing a role who's playing a role. Did you think of it in those terms?
MW: In some way it's not, when you think of them separately. You want to think of them together because they need to adhere. But I don't know how much it helps me to think of them as three separate people because they are, of course, connected.
Q: It's a hard thing to do singing, and then to do it in someone else's voice.
MW: Well, like I said, Marilyn Monroe was a creation, and that creation took a lot of personal work. She also had teachers. Trainers were more common then, professionals who would help make these stars and help develop these talents. So I was -- as she was -- very lucky on this movie to be surrounded and supported by great people.
A wonderful man, David Crane, worked with me every day for a couple of weeks and he taught me. I have not sung since I was [about] 10 years old. So he taught me about breathing, how to deliver emotion on lines instead of just [sound].
And then in my ears, I listened to her. It comes up on my iPod all the time, all the Marilyn Monroe. And she was very influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, so I listened to a lot of her music.
Q:how difficult was it to learn the choreography and then to perform the opening musical number as Marilyn -- which you did so well?
MW: I'm not a singer or a dancer. So, like everything else in this movie for me, they took a tremendous amount of preparation and willingness to start at the very beginning. [I had to be willing] to not know what to do, to make mistakes along the way and to not be hard on myself and to realize that they're a part of the process.
In some ways because of that, when I was able to put the nerves aside, I really felt a tremendous outpouring of joy. I felt like a little girl whose dreams came true for the first time. I was able to tap into what I imagine made Marilyn Monroe so luminous in those singing and dancing numbers.
What I experienced is that when you're in that state, your critical mind has to turn off. There's no room for it because you're remembering steps and lyrics. It's like learning to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. Maybe that's what makes those performances of hers so magical -- that she's not thinking.
Q: A lot was made about Method Acting in this movie. What are your thoughts on Method?
MW: I suppose, yeah, whatever works. I'd never done anything that had ever required so much technical know-how. This was the first attempt that I had made, really the first time, that I had actually, admittedly, started from the outside in because I knew that I was going to have a very, very long way to go.
Where I, Michelle, have wound up after 31 years physically is very different from Marilyn. So for the first time, I started externally, which was a switch to me.
Similar to Marilyn, I suppose, I'm not trained. I sort of popped into classes now and then. I read books. I read a lot of books.
I have made some kind of amalgamation, some sort of hodgepodge of my own personal experience, what I know works for me in the moment, what I've learned from other actors.
I certainly don't know what I'd call it, but at the time the people who were driving the Method were actually live in the room, [I think] how exciting would that have been to be directed in class by [Elia] Kazan, to have [Lee] Strasberg by your side.
Now we get secondhand information. It's like the soup of the soup. It's been sort of passed on.
I'm not beyond doing rain dances or throwing the [cards] or whatever. And I'm still experimenting. I'm still finding out what works for me.
That's the reason that it keeps me acting, and keeps me excited. I'm still learning, and those answers change and new information comes in all the time that transforms my idea of how I'm going to do what I'm going to do.
Q: Has Marilyn Monroe influenced you as an actress as well?
MW: She hasn't, to be honest. I had a picture of her in my bedroom when I was growing up, and so I've always had some sort of response to her, but only because of her image. I wasn't aware of her movies.
When I had that picture in my bedroom, I hadn't really seen any work that she had done -- although at that time, I was very interested in the Method. God knows why, but at 12 that's what I was reading about.
I was reading about James Dean and Montgomery Clift, [Marlon] Brando and thus Marilyn, but I didn't know her body of work. Really, I only came to it as a result of taking on this film.
Q: Of her films, which one was your favorite and why?
MW: I wish I could say Prince and the Showgirl. Some Like It Hot -- how can you not? And I also am pretty fond of The Misfits. It was still a shot at a serious part.
Q: How did you and Kenneth Branagh develop the relationship of Monroe and Olivier -- you had to establish that distance between you?
MW: The only distance that we might have kept was because we were both so absorbed in our process. We sat next to each other in the hair and makeup chair and it was like Command Central Number 1 and Command Central Number 2.
We both were kind of married to our computers, headphones in our ears, and constantly watching, listening, absorbing and then going out and doing.
So the only kind of separation [that] occurred is a part of trying to capture somebody who was. And that that requires a certain amount of technical attention.
Q: Eddie Redmayne said one of the great things with the whole production was the sense that you shot in the same studio that The Prince and the Showgirl was shot in.
MW: My dressing room was Marilyn's actual dressing room when she was making The Prince and the Showgirl.
Q: Was it hard to leave Marilyn behind at the end of filming?
MW: In some ways, something that I like so much about what I get to do is that you never have to leave people behind. There's not a part of my contract that says, "You must abandon your character when you finish shooting." So I get to keep her with me in any way that I choose.
Q: There's a difference in celebrity culture between the '50s and today. The film seems to to comment on that. What do you feel is the difference in celebrity culture now versus then?
MW: The internet. It's the acceleration and proliferation of information. It has always existed and it just has more forms to take.
Q: How have you viewed her as a woman from a very different time with very different expectations of women?
MW: I wish that she could experience what I've been able to, which is to work outside of a studio system, to not be bound to playing the same role, to not be a contract player, to not basically have to be on salary and have to take what's given to you.
I wish that [she] could experience choice and independence and exert her sort of creative will, like I feel very lucky to have been able to.
Q: Why do you think the world continues to be fascinated with Marilyn?
MW: Because there's something indescribable about her, even though she's been so examined and so much has been made of her. There's still something mysterious.
For more stories by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com