Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Michelle Williams

Brit Player

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Gwyneth Paltrow won an Oscar for her portrayal of an Englishwoman in Shakespeare in Love -- she repeats the trick in the upcoming Possession -- and Renee Zellweger was nominated for her English-accented turn in Bridget Jones's Diary.

For my money, however, Michelle Williams blows them both away. In her new film Me Without You, which opens tomorrow in Bay Area Theaters, she so completely becomes an Englishwoman in every way that I began to suspect that she had been faking an American accent this whole time.

The 21 year-old Williams is probably best known for her role as the tough, sassy city girl Jen Lindley on TV's "Dawson's Creek." But she's also appeared in such wildly disparate films as the hilarious 1999 political satire Dick, the 1998 splatter flick Halloween: H20, and the social-minded HBO film If These Walls Could Talk 2. She will also be seen in the upcoming film Prozac Nation, opposite Christina Ricci.

In a recent phone conversation Williams shyly accepts the compliment on her performance and sleepily drinks coffee in-between her sentences. She says that the new film, directed by Sandra Goldbacher, turned her on to the joys of 80s music. "The Clash. The Stranglers. There's a song on the soundtrack that I've been listening to a lot, the Wreckless Eric song (called "Whole Wide World"). I have a mass of CDs all over the floor and it's one of them," she says.

The real-life Williams had a brief rebellious spurt as a teenager, getting herself emancipated from her parents at age 15 so that she could work as an adult in the film industry. She never even attended acting school; she just went straight to work. However, she chooses not to recall those years. Rather, she cherishes her childhood memories and still considers her birthplace of Montana to be her home base (she lived there until she was 10).

As of today, Williams feels she has now settled into a comfortable balance of work and life. On her summer break from "Dawson's Creek," she has just finished working with director Mike Leigh on a play called Smelling a Rat. Working in the theater allowed her to develop a whole new set of skills.

"I made lots of mistakes and I learned how to fix them and move forward," she says. "There's a Kermit the Frog puppet that's really integral to the play, and I have this whole monologue about Kermit the Frog. And it wasn't on stage one night. So I'm standing there trying not to get too frantic but looking for it. And I can't find Kermit the Frog anywhere. So I had to do something else, and I did."

"It's terrifying. I came off stage and I wanted to throw up. But I hope those things continue to happen. They just make you sharper."

For her new film, Williams not only speaks in an English accent but also ages about 20 years, from middle teens to early 30s. The story involves her relationship with her best friend, played by Anna Friel, and how they thrive upon each other at first but slowly come to drag each other down.

"She was amazing to me right off the bat," Williams says of her co-star. "She took me to stay at her house, took me around town, made me practice my accent."

For her awesome take on the English accent, Williams used a dialect coach, listened to books on tape, watched movies, and drove her friends crazy by speaking it 24 hours a day during production. She says she tried to pass for an Englishwoman while staying there, and eventually pulled it off. "For the first few weeks I was there, they didn't know where I was from. They thought I was from Australia."

Williams comes across as remarkably grounded for someone so young. Growing up in a small town and getting her rebellion out of her system early probably helped. She tries to explain what it's like for her family dealing with her success.

"My mom follows everything that I do. She watches all the 'Dawson's Creeks' -- every single one of them. But I was her kid first before anything else. So I think she's a proud mom. But she also has had a hard time dealing with it -- just being funny about it. My sister is 18 and she had to go to high school while 'Dawson's Creek' was at its peak and people were being weird to her. So it's sort of a weird thing. It's an oddity -- like having an extra limb."

Other than that, Williams is an ordinary girl. She loves wearing Chuck Taylor tennis shoes. She owns two pairs: one high top and one low top, both black. She wears them every day.

"I don't ever need another shoe. They stopped producing them in America. I've had these for quite awhile. But apparently you should go stock up," she warns.

She also loves reading, and she's just as interested to know what I'm reading as she is in telling me about what she's reading. An Irish cast member on Smelling a Rat recommended two Irish authors -- Dermot Healy and Martin McDonagh -- that Williams has devoured. She also recently read the biography of poet & playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, "which was cool because I was in New York," she says.

"I've been reading things on the subway on the way to work, things like short stories. Have you gotten into the 'Best American' series? There's this one that's so good -- "The Bone Garden of Desire" by Charles Bowden. I've been re-reading that. It's so good! It's my favorite short story."

What it all comes down to is that the beautiful, blonde Williams has made a diverse, interesting career for herself, remaining true to herself and to her intelligence without getting stuck playing models or bimbos -- even if some of the chances she took along the way turned out to be wrong.

"I'm not embarrassed about stuff like that movie Timemaster (1995), because it's something that I did and it's a part of me and I was really young. I've been doing this for 11 years and for it to be interesting, it should be varied. And there are things like Timemaster, that are a part of what I've done," she says.

"I guess it's been the last three years I've been really happy with the way things have turned out."

July 30, 2002

Partial Michelle Williams Filmography:
Lassie (1994)
Species (1995)
A Thousand Acres (1997)
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)
Dick (1999)
But I'm a Cheerleader (2000)
If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000) (TV)
Me Without You (2001)
Prozac Nation (2001)
The United States of Leland (2003)
The Station Agent (2003)
Imaginary Heroes (2004)
Land of Plenty (2004)
The Baxter (2005)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The Hawk Is Dying (2006)
The Hottest State (2006)
I'm Not There (2007)
Deception (2008)
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Wendy and Lucy (2008)

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