Michelle Williams doesn’t do Instagram. It’s not that she looks down on it—after all, her best friend, actress Busy Philipps, is such a bravura expert at filming off-the-cuff Instagram Stories that she parlayed her 1.6 million followers into a book deal and a late-night talk show on E!—it’s that she just isn’t very good at it. “I haven’t figured out how to use [social media] as a source for my own good or to find something inspiring or beautiful,” she says. Instead, she relies on Philipps to text her the important news of the day so she can stay in the loop.
We are sitting together early one morning in New York City, sandwiched into a corner banquette inside the low-lit back room of the Marlton Hotel in Greenwich Village. Williams is nursing a cappuccino and wearing simple tailored high-waisted black trousers and a striped boat-neck sweater; with her pixie cut, she looks a bit Marcel Marceau meets Audrey Hepburn. She chose this spot for us to meet because she loves its history. (Built in 1900, the hotel was once a hot spot for urban bohemians Edna St. Vincent Millay and Jack Kerouac.)
“I’m just not a techy person,” she continues. “I grew up on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. They meant so much to me; they planted seeds and they’re sort of still there. Those seeds don’t really grow on the internet.” She pauses, grins and wrinkles her nose, realizing she has just (quite passionately) compared not having a Twitter account to living like Henry David Thoreau, alone in a log cabin. “It’s a little ridiculous to be so unknowledgeable about the thing that has sort of taken over the world,” she says with a sigh. “I guess I don’t relate to it, which probably makes me irrelevant.”
It doesn’t. In fact, after an hour of sharing a pistachio-hued vinyl booth and hearing about her unplugged-life philosophy, I’m tempted to throw my digital devices into the Hudson River. In a world of noise and information overload, Williams has chosen to hold something back— she may just be one of the last actors in Hollywood to maintain an aura of total mystery.
Now 38, Williams is a working mother of a teenager. (Matilda, her daughter with her ex-partner, the late Heath Ledger, is 13 years old.) She’s currently starring as legendary Broadway dancer Gwen Verdon—who was married to renowned choreographer Bob Fosse, played by Sam Rockwell—in FX’s Fosse/Verdon. The show, which is executive-produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, has proven to be an intense grind, requiring hours of daily rehearsal at New York performing-arts school Juilliard. Right after we meet, Williams tells me, she is going to grab the “giant dance bag” from her car and head to a Midtown studio, where she will change into tights (and maybe even a bowler hat) and shimmy around to mambo beats while holding her elbows at a precise right angle.
Williams’ fascination with leaping into others’ lives began when she was around 10 years old, when she “dressed up as an old lady” one year for Halloween. Her family (including her father, a commodities trader, and mother, a homemaker, who have since divorced) had recently moved from rural Kalispell, Mont., where she grew up learning to fish along alpine trails, to the sun-baked seaside San Diego, Calif., and she was still adjusting to her new surroundings. Playing dress-up made her feel powerful and able to cope with change. “The idea of becoming someone else through an internal and external process hooked me at an early age,” says Williams. “What does it feel like to put on the costume of somebody else? How do these clothes change me, how does this wig change me, how does this walk change me? As I’ve gotten older, that’s the work I’ve been most interested in—that transformation instead of repletion or endless self-replication.”
After performing in local theatrical productions, Williams convinced her parents to shuttle her to Los Angeles for bigger auditions. At 13, she landed her first television role: an episode of Baywatch. (She had to run down a beach in a floral bikini, which she has not done on camera since.) By 15, she had appeared in several more TV shows and films and relocated to Los Angeles permanently, finishing high school by mail.
At 17, she was cast as the brooding, rebellious Jen Lindley in a new teenage soap opera called Dawson’s Creek. Of course, she had no idea that the show would become the international phenomenon it did or that it would bring the kind of sudden stardom that most young actors only dream about—the kind where your face appears on the bedroom posters of teenagers across the world. Some actors who experience that kind of success so early keep trying to chase it throughout their lives, but Williams had a different reaction. She understood its value—the regular paycheque gave her freedom—but mostly she understood the limitations of being that kind of celebrity.
Image by: Mariana Maltoni
Instead, she decided what she wanted was to do work that challenged her, that pushed her into new corners of empathy. Williams found this type of work when she moved to New York City at almost 19 to star in an off-Broadway play called Killer Joe. She has never felt the need to live in L.A. since. “I like my friends there, but that’s kind of where it ends,” she says. “Even the weather, that eternal sunshine, I can do without.”
Over the past two decades, she has consistently selected roles that take her into new terrain. In 2005, she played Alma Beers del Mar, the ruddy, long-suffering wife of a closeted gay man in Brokeback Mountain opposite Ledger, whom she began dating on-set. (She earned an Oscar nomination for the role, appearing on the red carpet in a gorgeous, now-iconic mustard-yellow Vera Wang gown.) Williams then swerved from that hyper-realistic role into the absurdist world of writer and director Charlie Kaufman in Synecdoche, New York and then into a series of heart-wrenching films with indie director Kelly Reichardt. She worked with the legendary Martin Scorsese on Shutter Island and opposite Ryan Gosling in the heartbreaker Blue Valentine. In 2011, she veered again, taking on the glamorous task of emulating Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn.
Of all her roles, Williams tells me, she may cherish her time as Sally Bowles in a revival of the musical Cabaret the most. She still keeps the shoes she wore onstage—shoes she wore for eight shows a week for months—next to the fireplace in her Brooklyn home. “They’re my prized possession,” she says. “If my house were on fire and I could only get one object, I’d take those grimy shoes.”
Williams says that theatre was where she really learned how to be present in her work. “You can have a real understanding of how you did—if you were on it or off it or if you caught the wave or you didn’t,” she says of doing a live show. “And you can do it again the next night and sort of tinker with it. You get to continually refine your experience of the performance, which affects the audience’s experience, and that energetic transmission between the two is what’s so satisfying. In fact, it’s the thing I like about being a parent; it’s the thing that all humans like about being in human relationships.”
This reflective approach to work is something she shares with Nicolas Ghesquière, artistic director of women’s collections at Louis Vuitton. Her relationship with the fashion house is long-standing, and it’s the perfect fit: the intelligent, otherworldliness of Ghesquière’s creations chiming with her personality.
Williams seems to understand that in order for her to give everything away on camera, she needs to maintain a healthy distance from the rest of the world. A lot of this knowledge has come with age: “My 20s felt like ‘Who am I? What am I going to make of all this time on the planet? What do I want? What is happiness? Who are my friends? What’s wrong with me? How do I fix it?’” she says. Yet today, her mindset couldn’t be more different. She got married last year to Phil Elverum of the band Mount Eerie. She moved house (well, within her beloved Brooklyn), and she’s working more than ever. She is even appearing in blockbusters—last year, she starred in Marvel popcorn flick Venom and also played her first daffy comedic role: an ice-queen makeup magnate in I Feel Pretty.
In the era of the #MeToo movement, she is also embracing her role as an influential woman working in Hollywood whose actions might be an example to others. In 2017, after abuse allegations against Kevin Spacey led to his removal from the film All the Money in the World, the studio asked Williams and her co-star Mark Wahlberg to return to set to reshoot some scenes. Williams took $1,000 for her labour, assuming Wahlberg had received the same fee. When she discovered the studio had paid him a whopping $1.5 million for the same job, she spoke out publicly about the discrepancy. “I do feel a responsibility,” she says. “It’s been really heartening and rewarding for me to hear from other women—how they heard what I went through and how it gives them an example [of how] to ask for reparation and to be able to institute that tiny little model in other scenarios. That has really been one of the most rewarding things, not just of my career but of my life. Also, to have things flipped. Because I went from feeling very helpless, and now I feel helpful.”
Nevertheless, Williams still doesn’t think of herself as a “powerful” person. “‘Power’ is such a funny word; I never really felt connected to it,” she says. “I think it’s because when I saw examples of it in my life, it was misused. Power was never something I wanted in the way I had seen it represented. So I think a kind of redefinition of power—what that might mean personally for me—has taken place. I guess I could call it power, or just the ability to support my family in a meaningful way. The ability to ensure that the workplace is safe and fair, the ability to make choices not from a place of fear.” Williams is now making all her career choices, she says, from a place of joy and daring. She has signed on to play Janis Joplin in a new biopic, a role that she has wanted to do “so badly” for years. “[Joplin] was so prophetic, and so young, and what was coming out of her mouth was ahead of her time,” she says. “It’s a voice that should be re-revealed. She gender-bended. People love it when the androgyny is a man becoming a woman, but they don’t have the same sort of reverence or desire for it when it’s a woman embodying her masculine side. I’d like to go into that.”
She is also attached to a film in which she will play an abortion activist in 1960s Chicago. “It feels like something I wouldn’t have been able to do five or 10 years ago,” she says. “It feels like pressure I wouldn’t have been able to handle—the largeness of it.”
Williams tries to offset it all—the weighty women’s stories, splashy television series, embodying rock icons—by allowing herself quietness when she’s off-set. This year, she will appear opposite Billy Crudup and Julianne Moore in After the Wedding, a film about a woman who runs an orphanage in India who must travel to New York to meet a benefactor. While filming in India, she became obsessed with the Upanishads, a series of ancient Sanskrit texts. “I was really into it. ‘Relent and enjoy’ is what Gandhi said—that was his summation. Wait, no. It was ‘Renounce and enjoy.’”
I ask what she feels she is supposed to renounce. She stops for a moment, sips her coffee and then answers with a single word: “Attachment.” This, it seems, is life for Williams. She attaches herself completely to a role, letting it absorb and envelop her. And then, just like that, she lets it go.