Who knew that when actress Michelle Williams first appeared as the
bad girl in Dawson’s Creek, she would have the uncanny good
sense to take on roles which offered her real challenges? From a
supporting part in Brokeback Mountain to the lead in Wendy
and Lucy, this 30-something rose to the occasion.
Now, another year, another Williams’ Academy Award nomination. Last
year, her star turn in Blue Valentine garnered this former
small town Montana native various noms; now she’s up for the Best
Actress Oscar for playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn
– a 1950s' chronicle of the making of the Lawrence Olivier-directed
film, The Prince and the Showgirl. The film is based on the
memoir of Brit Colin Clark, who had served as a production assistant
and Monroe's sometimes-companion/confidante during the shoot. The
film offers a gauzy behind-the-scenes look at the legendary actress,
as well as the great thespian Olivier and the era – as being more
than a star but also a celebrity came into its own.
Without making her Marilyn simply an "incredible simulation,"
Williams rendered as authentic a performance as an actor can give of
such an iconic chameleon. But given Williams' ever-arching resume,
she has developed the chops to validate such an achievement.
Born in 1980, Williams’ strong characterization as Dawson's
Jen led to film appearances in the comedic Dick and
depressive Prozac Nation before the series even ended.
Since then she was in such quality indie films as The Station
Agent, Imaginary Heroes, and The Baxter. But real
success happened in 2005 when she starred in Ang Lee's Brokeback
Mountain as a woman who realizes her husband is in love with a
That role landed her an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actress as
well as an intro to Heath Ledger, who fathered daughter Matilda
Rose. They split and when Heath died, she withdrew only to come
roaring back, including this oft-nominated role.
following Q&A was drawn from a press conference before the film's
2011 New York Film Festival premiere, red carpet comments and a
session before its New York opening.
What was the most difficult part about channeling Marilyn Monroe?
Maybe letting myself just believe that I could. Previous
representations of her were more [like impersonations so] I felt
maybe there was room. That was the first thing that made me think,
"Okay, I can explore this." It was a decision made in the safety of
my own home, and I didn't really consider the larger implications of
it. It was a very, very slow process. It started at home with
watching movies, listening to interviews, poring over books. [I
would] try and mimic a walk, or figure out how exactly it was that
she was holding her mouth. The first big discovery that I stumbled
on was that “Marilyn Monroe” was a character that she played, and
that [despite] the image that you're most familiar with, there was a
person underneath it. That [persona] was carefully honed, but it was
artifice – and it was honed to where you couldn't tell that it was
artifice. It felt so real. It was something that she'd studied,
perfected and crafted. So once I discovered that was a layer, and
then [there was] finding out what that layer was and then getting
underneath it. It was a long and ungainly process.
It seems almost like this is a multiple role. You're playing
someone who's playing a role who's playing a role. Did you think of
it in those terms?
In some way it's not, when you think of them separately. You want to
think of them together because they need to adhere. But I don't know
how much it helps me to think of them as three separate people
because they are, of course, connected.
It's a hard thing to do singing, and then to do it in someone
Well, like I said, Marilyn Monroe was a creation, and that creation
took a lot of personal work. She also had teachers. Trainers were
more common then, professionals who would help make these stars and
help develop these talents. So I was – as she was – very lucky on
this movie to be surrounded and supported by great people. A
wonderful man, David Crane, worked with me every day for a couple of
weeks and he taught me. I have not sung since I was [about] ten
years old. So he taught me about breathing, how to deliver emotion
on lines instead of just [sound]. Then in my ears, I listened to
her. It comes up on my iPod all the time, all the Marilyn Monroe.
She was very influenced by Ella Fitzgerald, so I listened to a lot
of her music.
difficult was it to learn the choreography and then to perform the
opening musical number as Marilyn – which you did so well?
I'm not a singer or a dancer. So, like everything else in this movie
for me, they took a tremendous amount of preparation and willingness
to start at the very beginning. [I had to be willing] to not know
what to do, to make mistakes along the way and to not be hard on
myself and to realize that they're a part of the process. In some
ways because of that, when I was able to put the nerves aside, I
really felt a tremendous outpouring of joy. I felt like a little
girl whose dreams came true for the first time. I was able to tap
into what I imagine made Marilyn Monroe so luminous in those singing
and dancing numbers. What I experienced is that when you're in that
state, your critical mind has to turn off. There's no room for it
because you're remembering steps and lyrics. It's like learning to
pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time. Maybe that's what
makes those performances of hers so magical – that she's not
A lot was made about Method acting in this movie. What are your
thoughts on the Method?
I suppose, yeah, whatever works. I'd never done anything that had
ever required so much technical know-how. This was the first attempt
that I had made, really the first time, that I had actually,
admittedly, started from the outside in because I knew that I was
going to have a very, very long way to go. Where I, Michelle, have
wound up after 31 years physically is very different from Marilyn.
So for the first time, I started externally, which was a switch to
me. Similar to Marilyn, I suppose, I'm not trained. I sort of popped
into classes now and then. I read books. I read a lot of books. I
have made some kind of amalgamation, some sort of hodgepodge of my
own personal experience, what I know works for me in the moment,
what I've learned from other actors. I certainly don't know what I'd
call it, but at the time the people who were driving the Method were
actually live in the room, [I think] how exciting would that have
been to be directed in class by [Elia] Kazan, to have [Lee]
Strasberg by your side. Now we get secondhand information. It's like
the soup of the soup. It's been sort of passed on. I'm not beyond
doing rain dances or throwing the [cards] or whatever. I'm still
experimenting. I'm still finding out what works for me. That's the
reason that it keeps me acting, and keeps me excited. I'm still
learning, and those answers change and new information comes in all
the time that transforms my idea of how I'm going to do what I'm
going to do.
Marilyn Monroe influenced you as an actress as well?
She hasn't, to be honest. I had a picture of her in my bedroom when
I was growing up, and so I've always had some sort of response to
her, but only because of her image. I wasn't aware of her movies.
When I had that picture in my bedroom, I hadn't really seen any work
that she had done – although at that time, I was very interested in
the Method. God knows why, but at 12 that's what I was reading
about. I was reading about James Dean and Montgomery Clift, [Marlon]
Brando and thus Marilyn, but I didn't know her body of work. Really,
I only came to it as a result of taking on this film.
Of her films, which one was your favorite and why?
I wish I could say Prince and the Showgirl. Some Like It Hot
– how can you not? I also am pretty fond of The Misfits. It
was still a shot at a serious part.
How did you and Kenneth Branagh develop the relationship of
Monroe and Olivier, in which you had to establish that distance
The only distance that we might have kept was because we were both
so absorbed in our process. We sat next to each other in the hair
and makeup chair and it was like Command Central Number 1 and
Command Central Number 2. We both were married to our computers,
headphones in our ears, and constantly watching, listening,
absorbing and then going out and doing. So the only kind of
separation [that] occurred is a part of trying to capture somebody
who was. And that that requires a certain amount of technical
it hard to leave Marilyn behind at the end of filming?
In some ways, something that I like so much about what I get to do
is that you never have to leave people behind. There's not a part of
my contract that says, “You must abandon your character when you
finish shooting.” So I get to keep her with me in any way that I
How have you viewed her as a woman from a very different time
with very different expectations of women?
I wish that she could experience what I've been able to, which is to
work outside of a studio system, to not be bound to playing the same
role, to not be a contract player, to not basically have to be on
salary and have to take what's given to you. I wish that [she] could
experience choice and independence and exert her sort of creative
will, like I feel very lucky to have been able to.
Why do you think the world continues to be fascinated with
Because there's something indescribable about her, even though she's
been so examined and so much has been made of her. There's still
Fellow actor Eddie Redmayne (who plays Colin Clark) said one of
the great things with the whole production was the sense that you
shot in the same studio that The Prince and the Showgirl was
My dressing room was Marilyn's actual dressing room when she was
making The Prince and the Showgirl.
There's a difference in celebrity culture between the '50s and
today. The film seems to comment on that. What do you feel is the
difference in celebrity culture now versus then?
The internet. It's the acceleration and proliferation of
information. It has always existed and it just has more forms to
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