‘Girls today aren’t prey. They are victorious’: Michelle Williams on #MeToo, money and playing Spielberg’s mum
Michelle Williams is apologising for the camera angle. She’s cross-legged on a bed and her iPhone keeps slipping down the pillows. Sometimes all I see is the duvet, sometimes something more mysterious. “It’s hard to find a place to put this,” she says. “I don’t want to breastfeed you.”
It’s 7am in Palm Springs, California. Last night, Williams was at a film gala. This morning, she’s been up for two hours already. “I thought I would be super-accomplished and do this before he [the baby] woke, but he’s jet-lagged and already woke at five.” Williams’ son was born last October; his brother, Hart, is two-and-a-half. Their father is Williams’ husband, the director Thomas Kail; she also has a 17-year-old, Matilda, from her relationship with the actor Heath Ledger.
Williams wears a baggy white T-shirt and an expression of shining exhaustion. She speaks slowly: half-artist carefully considering her craft, half-drowsy from juggling red carpets and sunrise parenting. “It’s a really difficult age,” she says, massaging her temples. “To be able to work and meet the needs of both a toddler and an infant is pretty confounding.”
Any solution? She shrugs. Only to abandon any sense of achievement. “When you add small children into the mix, all of that vanishes and you feel like you’re kind of no good at anything. I don’t think there’s really anything to solve, other than getting comfortable with that sensation.” She sits back and pours a pot of coffee down her throat.
Williams is back on the awards circuit for The Fabelmans. Two years ago, Steven Spielberg called to tell her he was making an autobiographical drama about his childhood. They chatted. Williams began to twig. “For clarity’s sake,” she asked him, “if I’m understanding correctly, are you asking me to play your beloved mother?” He was. She still pinches herself. “It’s such an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime role,” she says. She’s right. If Cate Blanchett hadn’t made Tár last year, it’d win her an Oscar. It yet might.
Williams is a powerhouse. Now 42, she commits to the women she plays with an emotional immediacy as ferocious as it is effective. Her 11 minutes in Manchester By the Sea, as a woman who has lost all three children in a house fire, will upset me for ever. She’s clearly nice: sensitive, an empath. She’s also tough. Ryan Gosling called her a cross between Brigitte Bardot and Clint Eastwood.
Mitzi Fabelman – the character based on Leah Spielberg, later Leah Adler, who died aged 97 in 2017 – is also pretty formidable: camp, theatrical, impulsive. A tornado zips past her house and she piles the kids into the car to chase it. “Of course it’s safe!” she exclaims. “I’m your mother!” Every meal is served on disposable crockery then grandly gathered into a plastic tablecloth and trashed. She suddenly buys a monkey.
“I think the way that she looked at her children was the first thing that I connected to,” Williams says. “She got down on her hands and knees with them, and she let them be the most important thing in the room. Not the dishes, not the vacuuming, not the kind of mundanity of daily life that we all so easily get absorbed in and overwhelmed by. She allowed herself to let those responsibilities fall away and become her children’s playmate.”
Leah Spielberg redefined what a mother could be. She didn’t let the times tell her how to behave
Leah’s dreams of being a concert pianist were shelved to care for her four children and devoted husband, Arnold, a computer scientist (renamed Burt in the film and played by Paul Dano). But she still approached life as a series of crescendos, highly conscious of the power of performance.
“She redefined what a mother could be according to who she wanted to be,” Williams says. “She didn’t let the times tell her how to behave. She made her own culture inside of her family, and then her children went on to make their own culture in the larger world, because it started in their home.
“That actually gives me the chills as I talk about it,” she continues, proffering an arm, “because I have young children and I have an older child and so I’ve gone through one childhood, and now I’m back in childhood thinking about how to make this experientially rewarding and fun for all of us.”
Before we talk, I’ve been advised not to ask about Williams’ children. In fact, she is blearily frank about being a nursing mother, and theorises about parenthood with the fluency of someone who’s been at it a while. Who’s her best audience? “I’m sure it’s my daughter,” she says like a shot. “She is the person I have spent my adult life with.”
What first made Spielberg think she’d be a good match for his mother, he has said, was “the secret energy that poured from her” as Gwen Verdon in a mini-series about the dancer’s marriage to Bob Fosse. Well, that’s nice to hear, Williams says, raising an eyebrow. She never yawns, by the way. My sense is she’s so tired she’s beyond yawning.
“Life requires energy to live it. And when you have children, while they take energy from you, you also have to find a way to keep the energy in the room up, to meet them where they are with understanding and joy. The only way to get through early childhood is to find a way to engage deeply with the play and wonder that children offer us.”
She wedges her phone by the headboard. It keels slowly over. Such gadgets are the arch enemy of creative child-rearing, she says. What she fears is “becoming a list-making, goal-driven human robot. Because the phones and the computers are telling us that they are more important than we are, and that the world is inside of them, and they’re so alluring and they have so much power.” A still gaze down the lens. “I find myself in a struggle with it, and I want to win.”
* * *
When she was small, Michelle Williams wanted to be a boxer. Heavyweight, not feather or welter. Mike Tyson was her idol. Home was rural Montana. “My very early memories are of riding bareback on horses and wandering the plains looking for arrowheads. What I want for myself in my work is to feel like that again. To feel open-ended. What drives me is to taste that again.”
The horizons narrowed when she was nine and the family – her mother, Carla, father, Larry, his three older children and a younger sister, Paige – moved to San Diego. Larry is a financial guru who twice stood for Republican office and co-authored a book seeking to prove the historical veracity of the Bible. He currently runs a thriving website offering market forecasts, trading tips and an online course that culminates in graduation from the Larry Williams University, which has its own heraldry.
His daughter is a good advert for his skills. Aged 16, a young Michelle won the Robbins Trading Company World Cup Championship of Futures Trading by turning $10,000 into $100,000; the second highest profit in the tournament’s history.
Larry and Carla are now divorced and he and Michelle are no longer close. At 15, she legally emancipated from her parents with their approval, so she could work adult hours in Los Angeles, having notched up enough credits as a child actor – Lassie, Baywatch – to suggest she could make a living.
Williams moved, solo, at 15, to Burbank, California, AKA Studio City. “There are some really disgusting people in the world,” she has said of the experience, “and I met some of them.” The emancipation from parental oversight appears to have stretched a little further than formality. Supper was always pizza – as was breakfast, and lunch. She didn’t see a dentist for a decade.
At 17, she won the part of wealthy newcomer Jen on teen drama Dawson’s Creek. It jump-started her career and parachuted her to the safety of small-town North Carolina, where the show shot for nine months a year. But Williams was less at ease with the glossy snogging than her co-stars. She queried the scripts and asked questions about motivation, later saying, “My taste was in contradiction to what I was doing every single day.”
These days, she’s more reconciled to her soapy origins. “Without having first played Jen,” she said last November, she never could have attempted Marilyn Monroe or Gwen Verdon. Nor would she “have known how to handle being Steven Spielberg’s mother without having been Mary Beth’s granddaughter”.
Mary Beth is Mary Beth Peil, the Broadway stalwart who played Williams’ on-screen grandmother and to whom Williams recently dedicated an award. “I was totally alone,” she said in her speech. “She was gripping and bursting with energy. She showed me that creativity was more than a mere profession. And all of this vitality was miraculously turned in my direction. Her smiling face was looking at me, and she called me ‘her girl’.” Williams blossomed in her warmth.
After the show ended in 2003, she went full throttle with the artist’s life: moved to New York, starred in The Cherry Orchard, made movies with Wim Wenders (Land of Plenty) and Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent). In 2004, she signed on for Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s gay cowboy film, in which she plays the wife of Heath Ledger’s closeted Ennis.
The pair fell in love after Williams twisted her knee in a snow scene and Ledger took her to hospital. They got engaged and, at the end of 2005, Matilda was born. Two years later, they split up amicably; five months after that, Ledger died of an accidental drug overdose. He was 28, Williams 27.
Everything changed. Paparazzi camped outside her Brooklyn home. A conveyor belt of houseguests didn’t staunch the scrutiny or the loneliness. “That feeling of being watched goes very, very deep,” she says today, “because it cuts you off from living your life. And for a while it felt like such an impediment to being natural and unguarded that my daughter and I moved outside of the city.” This meant a farm in upstate New York. “We lived in the country because I felt more capable of living an unobserved life there. The particles shift under observation. I certainly felt that when we were living in Brooklyn.” Now, she has returned to the same neighbourhood she lived in with Ledger. “I feel strengthened and more capable, but I certainly have an awareness I wish I could shed, because it does change how you move through the world.”
In fact, Williams has always trusted her own compass. Just before Ledger died, she made her most grubby and naturalistic film yet: Wendy and Lucy (2009), about a homeless woman and her lost dog. Crew of six, no makeup or hair-washing for three weeks.
“Back then,” says its director, Kelly Reichardt, “she had heavy people on her team and they did not want her to come to Portland to make this film. I was amazed that someone at that point in her career and at her age did it, despite that. She’s always been a very independent thinker. Very no-bullshit. She’s a weird mix of very trusting and very confident.”
Very on-the-button, too. Wendy and Lucy was a big hit at Cannes where, last year, Williams and Reichardt’s fourth film together, Showing Up, also premiered. That early self-reliance was paying dividends, likewise Peil’s ad hoc conservatoire.
In 2009, after seven years of trying, Williams, Gosling and Derek Cianfrance finally had the chance to make Blue Valentine, an indie drama about a crumbling marriage. But Williams felt that she couldn’t leave Matilda for the shoot and, heartbroken, pulled out. Cianfrance drew a circle on the map of everywhere an hour’s drive from her home and the production relocated to accommodate her. Her performance, raw as a fistfight, led to her first best actress Oscar nomination; she earned her second a year later as Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn, a film about the making of The Prince and the Showgirl.
Blue Valentine meant living with Gosling as his wife for a month (during the day, anyway). My Week With Marilyn sounds less pleasant. “I cried every single day leaving that set,” she says today. “And probably a few times during the day, because I was in the midst of growing pains.” Maturing as an actor felt, to Williams, akin with growing into her body as a child. “It’s like how it feels to have literal growing pains where your bones are stretching and you wake up in the middle of the night crying and crawling to your parents because you are in so much pain.”
It’s an abruptly horrible image. And it’s hard not to feel that Williams would, at various points in her life, have benefited from better protection. “I should have said no,” she says of Marilyn today. “I had no training, no mode of preparation. No business in doing it.” Williams did not attend drama school; she only finished high school by correspondence course. Any attempt at impersonation of the most iconic star of the past half-century was likely to be highly scrutinised. So why say yes? Her eyes flutter shut. “I want something for myself that is beyond what I know I am capable of. She opens her eyes, face fantastically wide and peaceful. “And now, 12 years after having played that part, I have my legs under me and I can come and go to my work in a state of joy.”
* * *
Speak to any of Williams’ Fabelmans co-stars and, unbidden, they talk about this joyfulness. Reichardt, too. “She’s definitely more happy,” she says. “She always seemed very longing when I first knew her. She had a lot to prove. Now, she’s able to relax into the moment.”
Seth Rogen emails to say: “Michelle has a genuine love for performing that’s infectious. She’s joyful on set, focused, and exudes an energy that makes you feel lucky to be there because she genuinely seems to feel lucky to be there. Also, her ability to fully commit to a character at the drop of a hat is truly a wonder to behold.”
In The Fabelmans, Rogen is the fly-in-the-ointment: Burt’s best friend, Bennie, a de facto member of the family, and the reason it falls apart. Spielberg has said he initially blamed his father for the split; the film reassesses that through 76-year-old eyes and finds no one at fault – least of all Leah. Her decision to leave was agony, but to stay might have killed her.
“When she gave up her dream of being a concert pianist, she experienced a premonition of death,” Williams says. “She allowed part of herself to fall off. That experience, I think, made it impossible for her to live through that again. She did something that caused pain, cleaving, alienation, but she did it because she was deeply in touch with who she was. It was all truly an act of love. She loved herself enough, she loved this man enough, and she had put enough love into her children to know that they were going to survive this thing. I think that that kind of courage can be very inspiring.”
* * *
Many magazine covers have been devoted to Williams’ love life. She’s been linked to actor Jason Segel and film-maker Cary Fukunaga, the artist Dustin Yellin, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and musician Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes). In 2019, there was a short-lived marriage to the songwriter Phil Elverum. She and Kail met on the set of Fosse/Verdon and married in March 2020. Hart was born that summer. Reichardt reports theirs is a house of much contentment and not a lot of sleep. “But I think Tommy only needs four winks a night.”
Kail is Jewish, working on a movie of Fiddler on the Roof, and the couple are raising their sons with Judaism as “part of our family culture and their childhood education”, Williams says. She is not Jewish. Given recent Jewface controversies, such as Helen Mirren in the imminent Golda Meir film – plus the fact Leah was sufficiently devout to later open a kosher cafe – did Williams ever have qualms about playing Spielberg’s parents?
“You know,” she says, “I didn’t. My feeling was: these are his parents. And if he has chosen myself and Paul, I’m going to trust him.” Plus, it was a world she had experience of: growing up, the neighbours on both sides were Jewish. “The discourse, the tradition – the rituals spoke to me. It resonated very differently from my family. I have a Nordic background,” she grins. “I come from a people who hold things in.”
I was raised in the 80s. Selfhood wasn’t put into young women. And now it is. I get to see it in my own daughter
Yet in 2017, she had evolved sufficiently to effect real-world change by speaking out. Williams had learned that while she was reportedly paid $1,000 for her reshoot work on Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (they had to hastily swap Kevin Spacey for Christopher Plummer), her co-star, Mark Wahlberg, received $1.5m. She blew the whistle on the discrepancy and said it had left her “paralysed in feelings of futility”. The case kickstarted Hollywood’s pay parity revolution.
On Fosse/Verdon, Williams made the same as her co-star, Sam Rockwell. Does it feel good or bad to have money now? For the first time in our conversation, she stalls. “It’s a hard question. It’s something I’d have to reckon with before I really know how to talk about it.”
She also edges around specifics on #MeToo. But when I say I’m surprised more people weren’t brought down, she has the look of someone who knows where the skeletons are buried. “Maybe there’s still hope for that.”
What she will say is that she sees the fruits of the movement all the time. “Boy, oh boy, do I ever!” she says when I ask if the young actors on The Fabelmans were more confident than she used to be. “I did not possess any grace or calm, nor did any of my contemporaries. I was raised in the 80s. Selfhood wasn’t put into young women. And now it is. I get to see it in my own daughter and I can’t take my eyes off her. It is a glorious miracle to behold that I never thought I would witness in my lifetime.”
When Williams talks about Matilda, rather than about being her mother, she speaks slightly differently. She speeds up. Concerns over exact expression are overtaken by enthusiasm. “I thought I would have to teach my daughter how to subvert herself and crawl underneath the system to keep herself safe. And, instead, the system has exploded and these young people act with compassion, integrity and righteousness.
“I have the chills talking about it. These girls aren’t prey. These girls are already victorious. I love to sit back and watch them in the world and know that it is safer and more inclined in their direction than it was for me.”
I wonder how different Williams would be, as both person and performer, had she been born 20 years later. After an hour talking to her, I’m still not quite sure what she’s like, beyond friendly and intense. I think that’s partly because she wants to be a work-in-progress.
“My work over the last decade is to grow my own forcefield and allow my spirit to expand,” she says. “I think energetically I’m a much smaller person than Mitzi or Gwen or Marilyn. But these women have worked on me. They have worked through me. They have made me a better person and mother and artist because I’ve been able to be under such deep influence. I find that while I am learning how to become them, they are also teaching me how to expand my definition of my own selfhood.”
She rubs her forehead and smooths her hair. It’s 8am and soon it’ll be feeding time. She starts to shuffle towards the end of the bed. Does she ever find herself feeling maternal towards Spielberg, too?
She pauses. “Yeah, you know, I do,” she says. “As recently as yesterday we were in a room and I caught a feeling from him and I wanted to be there for him in a certain way. But more as Michelle than Mitzi,” she adds. She adjusts her T-shirt and smiles. “And not that maternal.”
• The Fabelmans is released on 27 January.