Back in the 90s, when Michelle Williams starred on the TV teen drama Dawson’s Creek, two things became increasingly evident: the woman could cry on cue and she could eclipse any co-star during a scene that called for a sulky fit or a frantic rage. Twenty-five years later, Williams’ gift for emoting on camera has landed her roles in more than 50 films, as well as two Oscar nominations for best actress. One of the most credible performances of her career so far—which matches the intensity of her appearances in Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine—is in the upcoming film, Manchester By The Sea. The family drama, which is directed by Kenneth Lonergan, casts 36-year-old Williams as Randi, a mom of two children who tragically die in a house fire.
There are very few close-ups in this film, which means Williams had to work that much harder to get the audience to empathize with her. A day after walking the red carpet for the TIFF premiere of Manchester By The Sea, Williams sat down to talk about the excruciating sources she drew from in order to deliver her best scenes. Sporting a floral dress—not unlike something her character Jen Lindley would wear mid-season in Dawson’s Creek—Williams says a news story she read days before they shoot ended up giving her character the cues she needed. “There was a house fire in Brooklyn I happened to come across online,” she says. “It was a Hasidic family who had left their hot plate on and they had eight children. Their mother was in a similar situation as [Randi],” she says, awkwardly wringing her hands. “It’s such a strange experience to be a voyeur on somebody else’s pain [but] when you’re trying to lift something and take it more broadly, you do what you have to. It made me feel very uncomfortable to be making notes on that but I always want tell the truth.”
Williams also sought out people who witness these kinds of tragedies daily. “I talked to firefighters about what the levels [of danger] would be and at what stage in the fire can [someone] go in and [save] potential victims,” she says. What Williams also found intriguing—yet challenging—was imagining what it was like to be the woman who had to recalibrate her life after having so much taken away from her without a moment’s notice. Many people will make the connection with Williams’ own past. In 2008, fellow actor Heath Ledger—her former partner and the father of her daughter, Matilda—died accidentally while mixing prescription drugs. The event made Williams weary of talking to the media for years and she still seldom grants many interviews, regardless of the project she’s promoting.
William’s onscreen fragility is no doubt inspired by this loss; in fact, director Lonergan says her greatest weapon was communicating her character’s comeback plan. One of the most instructive parts of the film for me was how insightful Michelle was when it came to how she thought we should arm [Randi] after the tragedy, since she would have to go out in the world after rebuilding her life,” he says. “Michelle thought she needed to try a little too hard with the way she presented herself. She said ‘she’s not going to throw a t-shirt and jeans on like before because now she’s transformed.’ After what had happened to her, it’s a big deal for her to go outside and present herself.”
Williams also underwent a drastic physical transformation for the role. She cut her hair (i.e., long locks were shorn into a pixie cut), had a different makeup approach (a heavier palette after the loss) and outfits that were bolder and less muted than before tragedy struck. “It was all to show Randi chose to stay with the living—she’s making deliberate choices with how she looks. She put on these clothes and availed herself to love and having another family…she’s a survivor,” Williams says with a knowing nod. “They usually start from scratch.”
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