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Michelle Williams owns a series of photographs by her friend Dan Estabrook, titled Nine Symptoms, that depicts, in the style of a Surrealist Victorian medical textbook, the physical manifestations of falling in love: shortness of breath, heart-rate increase, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, weakness, fever, chills, delirium, and euphoria. On a sultry Saturday night in July, I find myself experiencing at least six of them as I ring the doorbell to Estabrook’s Brooklyn brownstone, where I am about to meet Williams for the first time. She’s invited me for a picnic dinner in the backyard, on loan for the evening, to talk about her latest project, My Week with Marilyn, in which she brings to life the doomed star whom Norman Mailer once called “the sweet angel of sex.” So I’ve put on my favorite shirt (a checked seersucker number), combed my hair, and brought along two bottles of chilled rosé, which, like me, are beaded with perspiration.
Suddenly there is a slight, luminously beautiful girl with very short, very blonde hair, a vintage flowered sleeveless dress, and bare feet. “Hi,” she says, smiling. “I’m Michelle.” A few minutes later, we’re sitting in a brick wall–enclosed garden, talking over glasses of wine in the muggy twilight. It could be a scene out of a bohemian Brooklyn remake of The Seven Year Itch, the Billy Wilder classic featuring Marilyn Monroe at her most luscious as a model who bedazzles a married man during a New York heat wave.
On-screen, Williams often exudes a bruised, wary fragility, whether as a betrayed wife in Brokeback Mountain or a young mother watching her marriage crumble in Blue Valentine. Here, though one can still detect a faint undercurrent of melancholy, she is bright and animated, quick to laugh. She gestures with small, slim, expressive hands as the conversation ranges from her affinity for dresses from the 1930s and long-discontinued Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencils (“I love things that are old and beautiful and tell a story, even if it’s a sad one”) to the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, whose notoriously complex Ada is a favorite. “I think Nabokov once said that genius is finding the invisible link between things,” she tells me. “And that’s how I choose to see life. Everything’s connected, and everything has meaning if you look for it.”
Williams has been described as guarded in interviews, but her mood now seems relaxed and open. “I feel like something has changed for me, but it’s a new change, so it’s going to be hard for me to describe,” she says. “Maybe it has something to do with turning 30. I don’t feel as shy or nervous or self-conscious. I have more confidence that I can handle what life brings me. I don’t feel scared to have an idea and express it.” She adds, “I feel giddy about it because it’s a complete transformation. It’s like I’ve found my voice.”
With My Week with Marilyn, she’s also just come off a role that required the biggest transformation of her career. The idea of playing such an iconic figure was daunting. “As soon as I finished the script, I knew that I wanted to do it, and then I spent six months trying to talk myself out of it,” she says. “But I always knew that I never really had a choice.” And, she adds, “I’ve started to believe that you get the piece of material that you were ready for.”
Williams, who was born in Montana but raised in San Diego, grew up with pictures of Monroe on her bedroom wall. “I had one of her in a field of trees in Roxbury, Connecticut. She’s wearing a white dress and she’s barefoot and she’s got her arms spread and she’s laughing. There was just something about that image of her—so lovely and joyful and free. I’ve always thought of her as that woman-child, not an icon, which is probably why I let myself approach the role.”
As an icon, of course, Monroe continues to loom over our cultural landscape (her unforgettable billowing dress from The Seven Year Itch just sold at auction for $4.6 million), and the unhappy trajectory of her short life—from the traumatic childhood to the broken marriages to the pill overdose at 36—has become a kind of American myth. “Everybody has their own idea of who Marilyn was and what she means to them,” Williams says. “But I think that if you go a little bit deeper, you’re going to be surprised by what you find there.”
Based on a pair of slim memoirs by the late documentary filmmaker Colin Clark (son of Sir Kenneth), My Week with Marilyn chronicles the turbulent story behind the shooting of The Prince and the Showgirl, the 1957 comedy in which Monroe starred opposite Sir Laurence Olivier (played here by Kenneth Branagh with rueful élan), who was also its director. The promising collaboration between England’s greatest actor, who hopes to become a Hollywood movie star, and America’s blonde bombshell, who wants to be taken seriously as an actress, quickly devolves into a clash between an autocratic director and a woman constitutionally unable to show up on time, learn her lines, or come out of her dressing room without an entourage that quells her emotional storms with pills, booze, and flattery. As Colin, a 23-year-old gofer on the set, played with offbeat, bright-eyed fervor by Eddie Redmayne, tells Monroe, “This film won’t help either of you.”
It is Colin’s brief encounter with Monroe as her confidant, protector, and almost lover that gives My Week with Marilyn its tender heart. Dougray Scott stars as Monroe’s aloof husband, Arthur Miller; Dominic Cooper as her anxious business partner Milton Greene; and Zoë Wanamaker as her Svengali-like acting coach Paula Strasberg; there are stylish cameos by Simon Russell Beale, Sir Derek Jacobi, and, as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Dame Judi Dench.
If the film never quite achieves the high drama and urgency of a period piece like The King’s Speech, it does glowingly evoke a vanished era in filmmaking. But the main attraction is Williams, who brings Monroe to life with heartbreaking delicacy and precision without resorting to impersonation or cliché. It’s not hard to see why the film’s director, Simon Curtis, wanted her. “Not only is she beautiful and brilliant,” he tells me, “but she brings such intellect to her work along with an intuitive grasp of character, extraordinary depth of feeling, and a kind of innate glamour—I guess we call it star quality, don’t we? For a director, it’s the dream package.” Curtis recalls their first meeting at her house in upstate New York. “It was a wonderful, almost magical day,” he says. “And I thought, My God, I pray she wants to do the part, because I can’t imagine making it without her. We stopped somewhere on the way to dropping me off at the bus back to the city, and a fan asked for her autograph. Then the fan turned to me and said, ‘Is this your father?’ That brought me back down to earth instantly.”
Williams spent six months immersing herself in all things Monroe. She read biographies, diaries, letters, poems, and notes, pored over photographs, listened to recordings, watched movies, and tracked down obscure clips on YouTube. “I’d go to bed every night with a stack of books next to me,” she recalls. “And I’d fall asleep to movies of her. It was like when you were a kid and you’d put a book under your pillow hoping you’d get it by osmosis.”
Her turn from indie waif to Hollywood sex goddess involved working with a choreographer to perfect Monroe’s walk and gaining weight to approximate her curves. “Unfortunately, it went right to my face,” she says, puffing up her cheeks to illustrate. “So at some point it became a question of, Do I want my face to look like Marilyn Monroe’s or my hips?” (She opted for the former and filled out the latter with foam padding.) In the end, she says, “it felt like being reborn. It felt like breaking my body and remaking it in her image, learning how she walked and talked and held her head. None of that existed in my physical memory, and I knew I needed as much time as possible to make it part of me.”
Williams may have become a star as a blonde teen siren on Dawson’s Creek, but since then, despite plenty of on-screen nudity and some graphic scenes, she has studiously avoided trading on her sex appeal. She cites a story that Monroe used to tell about walking down the beach in a bikini as a teenager and suddenly feeling the whole world open up to her. “Any messages that I got as a child about what it is to have a woman’s body or to be sexual were all negative—that people wouldn’t take you seriously or that they would take advantage of you,” she says. “So I couldn’t relate to that at all.” But surely she took some vicarious pleasure slipping into Jill Taylor’s lush period costumes? “The expectation to be beautiful always makes me feel ugly because I feel like I can’t live up to it,” she says. “But I do remember one moment of being all suited up as Marilyn and walking from my dressing room onto the soundstage practicing my wiggle. There were three or four men gathered around a truck, and I remember seeing that they were watching me come and feeling that they were watching me go—and for the very first time I glimpsed some idea of the pleasure I could take in that kind of attention; not their pleasure but my pleasure. And I thought, Oh, maybe Marilyn felt that when she walked down the beach.”
Her costars were in awe of her daily metamorphosis. Branagh, who passed the time getting into makeup by listening on headphones to Olivier reading the Bible, says, “I’d look over and there is Michelle. Half an hour later, Marilyn has arrived but is a bit sleepy. Half an hour later, I look round and Marilyn is now very frisky. And finally, just before we’re due to be called, Marilyn is fully there—the dress is on, the hair is in place, there’s a glint in the eye.”
Williams’s transformation is all the more remarkable because she disappears into it so completely, managing to capture the essence of a glamorous, mercurial creature with the simple, unadorned truthfulness that is the hallmark of her acting. She is as captivating gazing forlornly into a dressing-room mirror as she is re-creating Monroe’s famously winsome dance routine from the original film. Williams has always had an astonishing gift for revealing the inner lives of her characters in unguarded moments (watch her near-solitary performance in Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 indie feature Wendy and Lucy). Here she brings it to the portrayal of a woman who lived through the gaze of others. “Someone once said that Marilyn spent her whole life looking for a missing person—herself. And so she cobbled together what people thought, felt, saw, and projected onto her and made a person out of it. She had no calm center inside herself that she could come home to and rest.”
Williams’s working home during the shoot was Pinewood Studios, where The Prince and the Showgirl was filmed, and Parkside House, where the newly wed Monroe and Miller spent a tempestuous four months. But more than the physical setting, “it was a very moody, needy, desperate, insecure place that I was in playing Marilyn,” she says. One can’t help thinking, given her personal experiences, that it must have been particularly wrenching to play a scene in which Monroe appears to have overdosed on pills, prefiguring her death six years later. Whatever her struggles, Williams apparently didn’t alienate her all-English costars the way Monroe did. “She brought that very American spirit of play to a British set,” recalls Redmayne, “charming us completely and making us step out of our comfort zones.”
Redmayne recalls with particular fondness shooting a sequence in which his character and Monroe escape for an idyll in the English countryside—skinny-dipping in a lake, sharing a kiss, visiting Eton and causing a small riot among the students. “I happen to have gone to Eton,” Redmayne says. “So it was very weird returning and walking around with Michelle Williams looking like Marilyn Monroe. The boys were so excited to see Michelle—the hormones were really flying—and she was flirting with them, signing autographs, blowing kisses, and sort of loving it. There wasn’t too much acting needed.”
As Williams recalls, “It was lovely to connect with that happy, free Marilyn I knew as a little girl.”
In the days after our alfresco dinner, Williams and I exchange e-mails about where we should go to continue the conversation. I suggest Far Rockaway, a longtime mecca of surfing, sunbathing, and seaside frolic near Kennedy Airport that has lately become a destination for food-obsessed hipsters. Williams seems up for the idea, writing, “It sounds like an adventure and I need one.”
On a bright and sweltering Sunday, I meet Williams at the three-story brownstone in Boerum Hill where she lives with her daughter, Matilda. Reminders of Heath Ledger, from whom Williams was separated when he died in 2008, are everywhere—in family photos, in the oversize stuffed animals that he bought for Matilda, in the large, brooding mountainscape by the Australian photographer Bill Henson that hangs in the living room. The most vivid reminder, of course, is Matilda herself, a spirited, sunny six-year-old whose face, a felicitous mix of both her parents, lights up when Williams walks into the room. “Supermommy!” she shouts, running to throw her arms around her mother’s waist. “Hiya, Superdaughter,” Williams says, kneeling down to kiss her forehead.
Williams tells me that they split their time between their place in the country and Brooklyn, where, she says, “I wanted her to have the warmth and bustle and security of family.” Out on the ivy-covered terrace, I’m introduced to said clan—Williams’s younger sister, Paige, and her husband, Zach, and their friends Jeremy and Lauren, all of whom live in the house, and Williams’s half-sister Kelley, who is visiting with her five-year-old son, Evan—and I get recruited to shoot a group portrait. Before we leave, Matilda proudly shows me two new teeth. She giggles when I tell her that they’re the most grown-up-looking grown-up teeth that I’ve ever seen. Out on the sidewalk, Williams says, “Is there anything better than making a kid laugh?”
On the A train to Rockaway, we compare iPhone music playlists (on hers: soul, R&B, and her daughter’s current favorite, Stevie Wonder) and discuss which artistic heroes of one’s youth it’s still OK to like (yes: Diane Arbus and J. D. Salinger; no: Hermann Hesse). No one on the crowded train takes much notice of Williams, who’s dressed for the occasion in a vintage red sundress and pale-pink ballet flats.
At the beach, we stroll along the hot, teeming boardwalk among throngs of cool kids eating locally sourced tacos. Williams puts on a pair of large black Ray-Bans—and not just because it’s sunny. She gamely jokes that she’d imagined a scene “more like Coney Island in the winter, or something out of Stardust Memories, with a dilapidated boardwalk and deserted beach.” Suddenly, she seems vulnerable. I think of a sequence from My Week with Marilyn in which the screen goddess’s attempt to go shopping in London sparks a near riot of hysterical fans, ending with Williams as Monroe staring sadly out a limousine window behind a pair of dark glasses. Nothing like that happens here. But after years of having her personal space breached by strangers, most of them with cameras, Williams can be forgiven a certain skittishness in crowds. “You feel like you’re in the zoo,” she says matter-of-factly.
While she understands that it comes with the territory, Williams hates seeing her daughter subjected to the same relentless invasion of privacy. “That’s what seems the most rotten thing about it to me,” she says. “And I’m going to do everything in my power to make her feel safe and protected, and to extend her childhood for as long as possible.”
The hurricane of grief that came with Ledger’s death seems to have finally passed. “Three years ago, it felt like we didn’t have anything, and now my life—our life—has kind of repaired itself,” Williams tells me later that evening over dinner in Brooklyn. “Look, it’s not a perfectly operating system—there are holes and dips and electrical storms—but the basics are intact.” Still, she says, in a fundamental way nothing will ever be the same: “It’s changed how I see the world and how I interact on a daily basis. It’s changed the parent I am. It’s changed the friend I am. It’s changed the kind of work that I really want to do. It’s become the lens through which I see life—that it’s all impermanent.”
Williams shuts her eyes, then opens them again and says, “For a really long time, I couldn’t stop touching people’s faces. I was like, ‘Look at you! You move! You’re here!’ It all just seemed so fleeting, and I wanted to hold on to it.”
My Week with Marilyn opens at the New York Film Festival this month, but Williams is already back at work, playing another iconic blonde—in this case, Glinda in Sam Raimi’s big-budget Oz: The Great and Powerful, which is shooting in Detroit. Her costars include James Franco as a con man from Kansas who becomes the great wizard of the title, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis as Glinda’s spell-casting frenemies. Williams describes the state of mind in which she usually starts a film by pretending to claw her face and moaning, “Uuuuuurgh!” But this time it’s different. “I think I’d forgotten somewhere along the line that work could be fun, and this is really fun,” she says. “And it’s much nicer to exist in the space of a good witch who grants wishes and tries to help people than in the space of a human mess, like pretty much all the characters I play.”
Williams is obviously hardworking—she’s made 25 movies in the last ten years, and she’s about to come out opposite Seth Rogen in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, a mournfully comic look at a couple whose marriage is in crisis. But she’s not, she says, particularly ambitious, and she recently told herself, “It’s time to quit or take on the classics.” Lo and behold, one of her idols, an actress turned director whose memoir Williams had been carrying around with her wherever she went, offered her a role in an upcoming film adaptation of a nineteenth-century stage classic. Williams asked me not to reveal any more than that, because nothing’s been finalized and, she says, “it’s just too precious to me.” But let’s simply say that of all the movies she’s made about relationships that end badly, this one turns out the worst.
Williams speculates that she may be drawn to stories about the vicissitudes of romantic love because “relationships have always seemed very mysterious, and therefore worth exploring. I’m single, so it’s still kind of a mystery—a worthwhile mystery, one that I want to be on the scent of.” She confesses that she misses having a guy around when it’s time to haul wood at her house upstate. But, unlike Monroe, she doesn’t define herself through the men in her life: “I’m not lonely, and I think that has a lot to do with what’s on my bedside table rather than what’s in my bed.”
In the meantime, Williams hasn’t entirely let go of Marilyn. Not long after our trip to Rockaway, she invites me to go with her to Feinstein’s, an old-school supper club in the Regency Hotel, to hear a jazz singer named Rebecca Kilgore perform songs made famous by Monroe. Williams sways her shoulders in time to such numbers as “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Every Baby Needs a Da-Da-Daddy.” Afterward, we stop for a drink at a bar in the East Fifties that Williams likes because it evokes the New York of another era, complete with a corny piano player, tin ceilings, and walls lined with faded photographs of long-dead personalities. We’re seated at a table near the back of the room beneath, as it happens, a photo of Joe DiMaggio, Monroe’s second husband. “I wish that I could play her for the rest of my life,” Williams says. “Because when can you say that you’ve really solved the riddle? When can you say that you really know her?”
One of the riddles Williams still hasn’t solved is how a creature filled with so much life and joy could also be filled with so much misery and pain. “Her deepest desire was to be taken seriously as an actress, but she doesn’t really shine in her serious roles,” she tells me. “Where she happens to shine is in comedy and in song and dance, but she denied that. She essentially said, ‘It’s not what I’m good at.’ She didn’t know it, but she clearly was incandescent.”
Michelle in Elle Magazine September 2011
A still of Emma Watsona and Eddie Redmayne