Michelle Williams on Making Things that Feel Definite
This Week on the Talk Easy Podcast with Sam Fragoso
Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
As we begin the new year, we’re returning to our conversation with brilliant actor Michelle Williams.
We walk through the making of Showing Up, Williams’ fifteen-year partnership with director Kelly Reichardt, and her upbringing in Montana and San Diego. Then, she describes coming of age on the set of Dawson’s Creek, her pivotal turn in Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, and her path to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.
On the back-half, we discuss a healing passage from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Williams’ memorable performances in Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn, and her final day shooting The Fabelmans. To close, she shares how she remains present as a mother, a formative Walt Whitman quote, and how—at age 42—she’s begun to create from “a place of peace.”
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Sam Fragoso: What’s the Flaubert quote you always use?
Michelle Williams: Ugh– “I want to live the quiet life of the bourgeois, so I can be violent and unrestrained in my work.”
SF: Why don’t we talk about that work? Because there’s a shift that happens, from naturalism to expressionism. Or, at least that seems like the aim in projects like My Week with Marilyn, Fosse/Verdon, and now, most recently, The Fabelmans. Was that the aim?
MW: That’s what happened to me when I made Marilyn. Before that, in my late teens and my twenties, I wanted to—because I was coming off of a teen drama—I wanted to learn naturalism. I wanted to tell the truth. And then, when I went to make Marilyn, I realized I was missing some tools in the kit. I hadn’t played someone who was far from me physically, and I had to unlearn myself. I had to break myself down, get rid of myself, and then rebuild myself in this person’s image. That work was so painful. It hurt to find new positions. I’d been assembling myself for thirty years, and all of the sudden, I had to change things that were inherent and structural. I started working with teachers in London—movement teachers, Alexander teachers, dialect—and I got so excited! The possibilities it would open up, that I’m not bound to myself. I became hooked on this kind of training and studying an external way of approaching a character.
SF: You have a quote, you said, “I wanted to make work that an audience member had to deal with, where there was less interpretation on their part because the interpretation was really my work.” What do you mean by that?
MW: I didn’t want people to be able to project things onto me. I wanted to make things that felt definite. And I’m interested now in both, for sure, but I didn’t want to be pure projection.
SF: And you felt like you were.
MW: Yes, and I didn’t want to just be that. Film is a medium where you are asking people to relate to it personally, so there’s an amount of projection that’s necessary in the audience-performer relationship. But I didn’t want it to be just that. I wanted to risk how much an audience member could love the person that I was making. I wanted to risk their love and earn their respect.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.