Phrases like “one of the finest actors of their generation” get tossed around with abandon and free of context these days, but in the case of Michelle Williams it’s the kind of hyperbole that can be tempting to succumb to. Over the course of her recent film career she’s quietly but assuredly built an impressive resume, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role opposite Heath Ledger in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, garnering accolades for her beautifully calibrated turn in Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, and lending emotional weight earlier this year to Martin Scorsese’s pulp thriller, Shutter Island.
But it’s her performance in this week’s Blue Valentine that’s really going to elevate Williams in the acting pantheon. In Derek Cianfrance’s painfully micro-detailed indie, she and Ryan Gosling inhabit a relationship simultaneously blossoming and crumbling to dust, realistically acted out across a before-and-after timeframe that requires some heavy emotional lifting from both stars. The year-end nominations and notices are already flooding in — and you can expect a Best Actress nod to follow suit.
RT: How did you and Ryan prepare for a film like this, in which there’s such an intimacy of performance?
Michelle Williams: There are a lot of answers to that question. The first one is, when I thought about making this movie I said to Ryan, “You know that game of trust, when you fall backward into somebody’s arms? That’s the first exercise that I want to do with you — over and over and over again.” And in some way — quietly, without even sometimes knowing it myself – I’d been preparing for this film for six years, because I read this script for the first time when I was 21 or 22, and then went to make the movie when I think I was 28 [the film was completed in 2009]. So it’s been in the back of my mind; some part of my brain has been toying with it for six years or so.
The movie’s kind of a duet between two time periods, which I think is kind of interesting — because I think the beginning anticipates the end and the end recalls the beginning. Somebody once said to me that in the first two weeks of a relationship you will establish the dynamic that will play out ’til the end. And also that somewhere you always know — and it may be very varied, and you may not be able to admit it to yourself — but somewhere you know what the problems are gonna be, and you choose to ignore them. I was trying to meet the end of a relationship, thinking “Oh, how did I get here? It started out like this, you were such-and-such and I felt such-and-such a way.”
We also sometimes thought of [the events in the film] as the present — as a dream, or a premonition. You know, like it didn’t actually happen, it was like a nightmare of what could happen if we didn’t take care of our love, that kind of thing. None of these are answering your original question. [laughs]
No, they’re more interesting. It’s strange you say that about the movie “present” because the stories in the film feel like they could all be happening at the same time — almost in parallel dimensions.
That’s what I mean. You feel like that happens in your head. When you’re breaking up with somebody it’s almost like dying. They say that when you die you recall things; that it’s things flashing in front of your eyes — the best moments, maybe the happiest moments, playing in your mind on a screen, and lasting only seconds. I don’t know. Also, when something is the opposite of something, it also means that it’s close to something, so the beginning and the end are actually perfect partners.
What did you think of the script when you read it at 22? Did you feel prepared to play that character then?
At the time I thought I was ready to play the character. Looking back, I don’t know. It would have been a stretch, maybe. I don’t know. It would have just been a different movie. I’m glad that we made this movie instead.
Was it hard playing the more emotionally intense scenes in the movie?
Yes. I remember doing this play when I was 22, or 23 maybe, I was young; I did this play called The Cherry Orchard. And at the end of the Cherry Orchard, Fiers, the butler, is left alone, forgotten about in the house and left there to die. And the actor who played the part would come off the stage every night shaking, and beyond touch; nobody could comfort him. I was young then, and I didn’t understand why, and I finally said to my friend who was in the play, “What’s the matter with him?” And she said, “It’s costing him.” Because he went out there, bravely — he was an old man, in his 80s — and imagined his end, every night there on stage. And it took from him. So I think that when you work like this, yeah, I think that there’s a trade-off, really — it takes from you. You give it one thing but it gives you back another. It’s also regenerative, though, because it’s a blessing. I was an out-of-work actor for so many years and I remember what it’s like to want to work and not being given the opportunity to. Sure, there’s some kind of cost involved, not to be too pretentious about it, but it’s also a dream come true, to be given the opportunity to work in a way that you always wanted to — because I know the opposite of it. It’s not a burden, is what I’m trying to say. It’s not “poor me”; it’s “lucky me.”
What was the most difficult part of the film to shoot?
To me they’re all the same. To me a small scene is a s difficult as a big scene, because they all end up in the movie.
Which sequence was shot first?
We shot the past first, then the present. We took a hiatus in between the two.
And what did you and Ryan do in between? Fight?
Yeah… we learned how to fight, basically. We spent time building up our relationship and our friendship and essentially learning how to love each other, and then spent the hiatus learning how to tear all that down.
So it was not a happy set when you came back.
No, unfortunately. The one that we left was not the one that we returned to. We were just asked to live as our characters would. It’s this actorly nonsense that you wonder if it really has an effect or if it’s worth it or makes an impact on the screen — but I discovered that it did. I’ve wanted to act my whole life and I grew up reading biographies about Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, these kinds of Actors Studio heavyweights, and this is the way they were encouraged to work. People like Elia Kazan. This is, I suppose, the Method. So I’d always secretly, embarrassingly, dreamed of working like that, because of what I’d read about. But it’s not the fashion now. It just happened to be what Derek was interested in also.
Do you do that for your other films, or was it just that Derek encouraged you on this one?
Well it was the way that we were allowed to rehearse, really. It seems somehow embarrassing to admit because maybe it seems indulgent or something — like maybe you should just show up and turn it on and turn it off. But it means something to me as an actor to surround myself with as much truth as possible, because it makes my job easier and more fun. So I like to do that “sleep in your [character’s] car and wear your [character’s] clothes”… and some of that I do anyway. It was just more intense, forming that relationship between Ryan and myself.
How had Ryan changed when you came back to set?
Well we were changing together. I was there observing his changes every step of the way, as he was mine. So we didn’t go into separate corners or anything for months.
Well he changed physically a lot more than you. You didn’t seem to change much there.
Hey now, I put on 15 pounds! [laughs] I suppose for me it was more about a kind of weariness — somebody whose light has gone out.
Blue Valentine is in theaters this week.