TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Michelle Williams is nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in the film "My Week with Marilyn." We're going to listen back to the interview we recorded last April after she finished making the film. She got her start when she was a teenager and starred in the 1990s TV series "Dawson's Creek." Her films include "The Station Agent," "The Baxter," "Wendy and Lucy" and "Meek's Cutoff."
Williams received her first Oscar nomination for her supporting role in the 2005 film "Brokeback Mountain." On that film she met Heath Ledger, to whom she was engaged. Their relationship and his death are topics she still prefers not to discuss. Last year, Williams received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance in the film "Blue Valentine."
Michelle Williams, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you knew you wanted to act by the time you were 13. By the time you were 15, you were on "Dawson's Creek," the TV series.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So how did you know?
WILLIAMS: Well, I imagine I knew in the way that a lot of young girls say that they want to be actresses. It's just that I had, because of the way that my life and my family situation and where I was living all conspired together, I had the actual opportunities in front of me.
So I wouldn't say that I had more desire than any other 13-year-old girl. It's just, it was in front of me.
GROSS: How did it get in front of you?
WILLIAMS: Well, we moved from Montana. I grew up in Montana, and I most closely associate to being from Montana. But we moved from there when I was eight. We moved to San Diego.
And there was a kind of wave of kids who were being driven to Los Angeles by their parents for auditions, and I got swept up in it. I wasn't unlikely or unusual for doing it. But you know, I did that for -my mother packed me up in the minivan for two years before I ever got a job, even a commercial job. So it wasn't - it certainly didn't happen quickly or naturally or easily.
GROSS: I don't think I could take that much rejection, especially when I was that young, when you don't...
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think that's the most dangerous part of it and why it's something I wouldn't want for my own daughter, family or friends, because that rejection really leaves its mark on you.
GROSS: Now, you went to a Christian school before starting on "Dawson's Creek"?
WILLIAMS: I went to a lot of schools. I went to - I was homeschooled quite a bit for three or four years. I went to a Christian school for a couple of years. I went to a public school. I changed schools almost every year, every two years.
GROSS: So why were you homeschooled for a while?
WILLIAMS: For a few reasons, I think. A lot of it, I think, had to do with the fact that I was auditioning, and it was a bit of a nuisance to be dragged in and out of school. And when you're homeschooled, obviously there's nobody really to answer to.
And then when I was 15, I got emancipated from my parents. And when you're emancipated, you have to either have your GED, or you have to have graduated from high school. And so from the back of a magazine, we bought this education through correspondence school. It was called ICS, International Correspondence School, bought it for $300, and I finished three years of high school in nine months.
I couldn't - you know, I can barely add and subtract now. It was - it's nothing to write home - my classmates were truck drivers, housewives and inmates. And we would get - I would get sort of monthly updates on what everybody's GPA was.
GROSS: So do you feel like you missed out on something, either on the school experience or on a good education?
WILLIAMS: I feel like I missed out on a good education, but it's a trade-off. The plus is that then I got this TV show. It afforded me six and a half years of practice of work. It was like an acting class, being on "Dawson's Creek," and being able to experiment and say: Am I better when I know all of my lines and I've really practiced them or am I better when I'm kind of off-balance a little bit because I'm tired? Or how about if I try this? Or how about if I try this? What does it look like when I walk like this?
So I got that - you know, it's that Malcolm Gladwell thing of 10,000 hours or something. I definitely have 10,000 hours in front of the camera thanks to that show. So I got a different kind of education, but I do find myself - now I'm 30 - feeling frustrated with the limitations of my own mind.
GROSS: To which I'd say who doesn't.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: But you mentioned you were emancipated from your parents. This is a legal separation that you did for what reason?
WILLIAMS: It was done for work. The notion is that it makes you more appealing, that people are more apt to hire you because they don't have to pay for a teacher, a guardian, and you - a teacher or a guardian, and you can work you can work as an adult. You can work the same amount of hours as an adult. It obviously...
GROSS: So, like, if you legally divorce your parents, so to speak, then you're not treated as a minor on the set?
GROSS: So that enabled you to work more?
WILLIAMS: It did. You know, I think it actually is the thing that got me "Dawson's Creek." All the other kids were 18, and I was - I think I was 16, actually, when I got the show. And I don't think I would have been hired had I been a minor. But, you know, there's obviously a lot of danger in that - a kid on their own - basically a kid on their own on a film set. Movie sets are very adult places.
GROSS: Your father had money, at least he did part of the time, because he was a stock and commodities trader and wrote a very successful book about how to prosper in the coming years. And then you had made money on "Dawson's Creek." I'm sure you did well on that. So was it easier for you to reject the commercial route as an actress and take the more, you know, like small theater, independent film route for some of your work because you knew what money was and you had some money?
WILLIAMS: My father grew up very poor in Billings, Montana. He, I think, carried that mentality with him while we were growing up, and that was passed on also. I had started auditioning for things when I was, gosh, 10 years old and didn't get a job until I was 12 or 13. So I had this idea in my head that money is something that comes in and out of your life. And I also had this idea in my head that I don't know where my next job is going to come, and that I'm more used to not getting things than I am to getting things. And so when I got "Dawson's Creek," I spent those six and a half years as a bit of a hoarder or something.
WILLIAMS: I was always trying to find the most - the least expensive apartment and moving from place to place so I could get a lower rent, get a better deal. And also I was on "Dawson's Creek" for a very long time without getting movie parts or theater parts or anything that I really wanted. So I felt like I had to be very careful with what I had.
GROSS: That's not your typical picture of the teenage star - that kind of frugality.
WILLIAMS: I suppose also we didn't really identify as teenage stars. This was before the onslaught of sort of the weekly tabloid magazines that have made I don't know what they've made. We didn't identify, and I think I speak for us as a group, with being teenage stars. There were no paparazzi sent out to Wilmington to take our pictures and follow our every move. We were kids who were allowed to behave in a way, in a normal way without the kind of scrutiny that I think exists now.
GROSS: Though it wasn't, I mean you're post "Beverly Hills 90210," so -and that, they got all the tabloid coverage though.
WILLIAMS: I wonder if it was because of being in Wilmington, North Carolina, because we were so removed.
GROSS: Yeah. That might be it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That might have something to do with it.
My guest is Michelle Williams. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview with Michelle Williams that we recorded last April, after she finished shooting "My Week with Marilyn." She's nominated for an Oscar for her performance in that film. She received Oscar nominations for two earlier films, "Blue Valentine" and "Brokeback Mountain."
Let me play a scene from "Brokeback Mountain." And I think this is a movie that really established you as a movie actress. It's also the movie where you met Heath Ledger, with whom you had a child, and he played your husband in the film. So in this scene - just a little bit of background on the movie. So the movie is about Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal's characters, who fall in love while on a summer job herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. And - but homosexuality is so taboo, they can't carry on the relationship outside of Brokeback Mountain, and the Heath Ledger character is really confused about who he is sexuality.
So each of those characters marry. Heath Ledger's character marries you, your character. But at one point you see him kissing Jake Gyllenhaal. And in this scene you're divorced. Heath Ledger's at your house visiting with the kids on Thanksgiving. You're doing the dishes. He's standing by the sink, and you tell him that you know what he and Jake Gyllenhaal, the character's named Jack Twist, were really doing on their fishing trips together.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN")
WILLIAMS: (as Alma) You ought to get married again, Ennis. Me and the girls worry about you being alone so much.
HEATH LEDGER: (as Ennis) Well, once burned...
WILLIAMS: (as Alma) You still go fishing with Jack Twist?
LEDGER: (as Ennis) Not often.
WILLIAMS: (as Alma) I used to wonder how come you never brought any trouts home. You always said you caught plenty, and you know how me and the girls like fish. So one night I got your creel case open, night before you went on one of your little trips - price tag still on it after five years - and I tied a note to the end of the line. It said, hello, Ennis, bring some fish home. Love, Alma. And then you come back looking all perky and said you'd caught a bunch of brownies and you ate them up. Do you remember? I looked in the case first chance I got and my note's still tied there. That line hadn't touched water in its life.
LEDGER: (as Ennis) That don't mean nothing, Alma.
WILLIAMS: (as Alma) Don't try to fool me no more, Ennis. I know what it means. Jack Twist.
LEDGER: (as Ennis) Alma.
WILLIAMS: (as Alma) Jack Nasty. You didn't go up there to fish. You and him...
LEDGER: (as Ennis) Now, you listen to me. You don't know nothing about it.
WILLIAMS: (as Alma) I'm going to yell for Monroe.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)
LEDGER: You can't. Or I'll make you make a (bleep) fool out--
WILLIAMS: (as Alma) Get out of here! Get out!
LEDGER: (as Ennis) You too...
WILLIAMS: (as Alma) Get out! Get out! Get out of my house!
GROSS: Great scene. That movie was so life-changing for you in terms of your personal life and in terms of your profile as an actress. And for all the wrong reasons you became even more famous after Heath Ledger died. Does it amaze you the way one film can change your life? The way one choice, the choice to do this movie, can totally change your life?
WILLIAMS: I feel like yes, it did, it changed my life. But I also feel like every movie that I've made. I mean that was just in a very sort of public way.
GROSS: After "Brokeback Mountain" and after Heath Ledger's death, you had to learn to live with the tabloids, the kind of thing that you avoided on "Dawson's Creek," maybe because of where it was shot. You got the full force of it, you know, later in your life, and it's a part of celebrity tabloid culture that both worships and bullies celebrities for entertainment. How did you learn to live with that?
WILLIAMS: I suppose I haven't. Trying to think about how I would expand on that. No, that's pretty much the full answer. I haven't learned to live with it.
GROSS: Right. I will move on.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: And ask you about your actually lovely singing voice.
WILLIAMS: Oh, really?
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I mean it's not like I've heard you sing a lot but at the end of the comedy "The Baxter"...
GROSS: ...you sing and you have a really lovely voice. And to prove that...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: ...I'm going to...
WILLIAMS: No. Oh no, please don't.
GROSS: Why? Why, why? Why do you feel that way? And let me expand on that.
WILLIAMS: My mommy would be so happy.
GROSS: You know, you are so - you will take any risk for your acting and are so shy about your singing or so uncomfortable with it.
WILLIAMS: I am. Well, I think I'm a much riskier actor than I am a person. There's this Flaubert quote that I love, that I'm going to get slightly wrong. But it's something about I want to live - I want to live the quiet life of the bourgeois so that I can be violent and unrestrained in my work.
That works for me. And for some reason I let myself between action and cut go into a kind of freefall, a place in a space where I am allowed to think, behave, move, appear in any way that I see fit. Unfortunately, I don't let myself do that in my own waking life. But at least there's some place for it.
GROSS: Is singing not a part of your work to you? Is that much more personal?
WILLIAMS: I had to do it again recently in the last movie that I did. I had to sing. And I would put so much work into it, a lot of rehearsals and recording it around the piano and with technicians. And when the day came and they started to do the playback on the set and I had to hear my own voice and then move my mouth to it, I couldn't take it and decided that it was going to be easier for me to just sing live.
And so that's what I did and that's the performance that, well, you'll see in the movies...
GROSS: Is this the movie where you play Marilyn Monroe?
WILLIAMS: It is. Yes.
GROSS: So Marilyn, I find Marilyn Monroe a fascinating actress. I didn't like her when I was growing up because I always thought, like is that what a woman is supposed to be? Is that what a man expects? But now that her era is over and I can look at it more from a distance, it was such an interesting construct. I mean I think it was Gloria Steinem who once described Marilyn Monroe as like a transvestite.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Like a certain construct of a woman. A kind of a woman who doesn't really exist but you could create her, you could create those hips and that bosom and, you know, the hair. And so tell me what it was like for you to try to embody this creation of what an ideal woman is.
WILLIAMS: Well, one of the fascinating things about it that I didn't realize is that I didn't assume going into it is that it was a creation. Marilyn Monroe was a shtick. Like Groucho Marx, like Charlie Chaplin. It was something that she put on. It was a character that she had honed and developed with such attentiveness and such detail.
She spent so much time developing this persona, learning how to hold herself, learning how to walk correctly, learning how to move her head like a queen when she walked into a room, tricks that she would keep in her mind to appear a certain way. But what was on the inside was as ordinary and as confused, or maybe even more so, than you or I.
So Marilyn Monroe was something that took four hours to get ready in the morning and probably an hour to take off at night.
GROSS: So to become her, you probably had to wear like hip padding and a bullet bra.
GROSS: And did it change like the way you walked, the way you moved, to suddenly have that shape - the Marilyn Monroe shape?
WILLIAMS: It did, because I like to disappear, personally. I like to go - which, and also she did too, mind you, but not when she was Marilyn. But I like to kind of slink through the streets and, you know, hope that nobody sees me and use my invisible powers. But I have to say, the reaction that you get when you put on these hips and you cinch up your waist and you put your shoulders back and you let yourself be observed, it's intoxicating.
GROSS: Did you just automatically have a wiggle when you...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: ...when you put all of the Marilyn Monroe accoutrements on?
WILLIAMS: No, I had to work for my wiggle. I remember that I turned 30 while I was making the movie and I remember on September 9th I found my wiggle on my birthday.
GROSS: How did you find your wiggle?
WILLIAMS: You know, it's a feeling. You just have to catch the right feeling. It can't – you can't really have any – the technique has to sort of lay somewhere underneath, ideally. And, you know, it came from watching her movies and trying to study how she's moving her hips that makes this sort of undulation happen.
I read somewhere that she had shaved off half of an inch on one of her heels to make this kind of unevenness, but then I read that that wasn't true. And I'm practicing, practicing, constricting my knees. So all this is behind it, but then really you've just got to breathe it.
GROSS: Well, Michelle Williams, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure. Thank you.
WILLIAMS: Thank you. It really is all mine.
GROSS: Michelle Williams, recorded last April. She's nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe in the film "My Week with Marilyn." Here she is singing in a scene from the film.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "MY WEEK WITH MARILYN")
WILLIAMS: (As Marilyn Monroe) (Singing) Started this heat wave by letting my seat wave and in such a way that the customers say that I certainly can can-can. We're having a heat wave, a tropical heat wave. The way that I move that thermometer proves that I certainly can can-can. We're having a heat wave...
GROSS: Michelle Williams in a scene from "My Week With Marilyn." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)