Oscar-Worthy: An Interview with Michelle Williams

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Bringing realism to the screen is one of the biggest challenges for any actor and in Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams portray Dean and Cyndi, a married couple both in the early stages of falling in love and years later when cracks have started to appear in their marriage.

This wouldn’t be the first time Williams has played “the wife”–she was nominated for an Oscar for playing that role in Brokeback Mountain–and it probably won’t be her last, but having been attached to the movie for nearly six years before filming began, it shows the type of commitment she put into a role which often involved going off script and experimenting with improvised scenes with her co-star in order to find just the right mood. The results are incredibly realistic, almost to the point of discomfort, but it’s riveting filmmaking nonetheless, and the movie wouldn’t be the same without an actress like Williams willing to do whatever it takes to keep the audience invested in the characters’ lives.

ComingSoon.net attended a roundtable interview with the actress last month where she talked briefly about the role as well as the film’s NC-17 MPAA rating, which has since been appealed and overturned.

Q: You seem like such a shy person, so was the attraction to this role because it was so outside yourself in what it would require of you?
Michelle Williams:
I just find my work very liberating, and I find that I make allowances for myself, find space for myself and permission for myself in my work in a way that for some reason I don’t in my life.

Q: I’m not sure in which order Derek filmed the segments of the older characters or younger ones but which was harder to do? Was it harder to play someone young and in love or was it harder to get into the shouting matches?
Williams:
I don’t know. They both have their difficulties in a sense that they asked a lot. I’ve been wanting to make this movie since I read it which was six years previous to starting to film it, and I loved it because of the script that I read, because of the words, because of the story, because of all this blah blah blah. I show up to set for the first day and Derek says to me, “I wrote that script twelve years ago, that script is dead and if you say any of those words, you’re going to bore me! So go out there and surprise me!” And I was aghast. I was like, “But I’m here because of the script!” (laughs) “What do you want me to do?” And he wanted us to improvise and I do not like to improvise. I’ve never improvised before, I’ve been secretly terrified of it my whole life and anything I could do to avoid it and found myself in a situation where I had absolutely no choice but to go forward and bravely, so that part of the movie was a challenge for me, because it’s me doing something for the very first time. It’s me as a five-year-old learning to read, and so I had to exercise a lot of will to stay at the task, to be willing to be a beginner, to be willing to push through mistakes, discomfort, so that had its own kind of fear factor involved in it, but on top of that was the fact that I was getting to work with Ryan, that we were exploring what it felt like to fall in love, that we were liberated. The thing about improvising is that it actually requires a lot of preparation, you have to come fully loaded with the character so that you can respond in the same situation. So there was that kind of preparation, but what we were really doing was things for the first time.

Everything was new, and so that’s exciting and it makes you feel… you know, it’s like life when you’re saying something for the first time, when you’re discovering it is a thrill, so that certainly felt better than hating each other, fighting, getting everything wrong, not being able to say the right thing, having the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up when you see the person enter the room. I would rather live in the past, I’d rather make that movie for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to make the present. I actually think I legitimately petitioned Derek and said, “Please, I don’t want to make the rest of the movie. We have a lot of footage here. Let’s just make a movie here and call it ‘Valentine.'” (laughter) “And just stay in the happy part, because I’m so happy and I’m so free and I’m so liberated, and when do you feel like that and I don’t want it burn it down. I don’t want to go there, because I know there, I’ve been there, I don’t want to go there.” And that’s kind of why we had this month off in between. It was supposed to be a week, it turned into a month so we could sort of do the physical change, transformation, whatever you want to call it, the physical changes, and also learn how to fight, learn what to hate about each other, learn how to disintegrate and destroy what would take six years in a marriage in one month.

Q: So you lived together in that house and had a “fight day” and things like that?
Williams:
When I say “live” I do want to be clear that I didn’t live THAT side of the marriage if you know what I mean, like after hours? (laughter) l would go home every night, but yes, we inhabited the house like Dean and Cindy would or our imagination of Dean and Cindy would during the day.

Q: With the little girl?
Williams:
Yeah, she would come do a half-day. So he drove us up to the house, blank canvas, and told us to make it a home, to decorate it, to take care of it, make a budget, do the dishes, grocery shop, take out the trash, do all of that stuff to basically fill it up. I mean, we did. We actually made a house a home. I’m just thinking about that house now and it was nothing when we started and I feel like that’s a place I lived now, like I would include that in my stops through life if I feel like it… “Oh, yeah. I lived outside of Scranton for a couple months.”

Q: You mentioned how you discovered that you could handle improv really well. As an actress, what else did you discover you could handle emotionally doing such a role?
Williams:
As much as I can handle in life, I can probably handle in my work. I think it’s a privilege to be able to work like this; it’s not a burden to me. There is some kind of cost or something involved, but it’s not… like I said, it’s a privilege.

Q: I read somewhere that you listened to music to unwind, so what did you listen to?
Williams:
I did. I listened to… oh, what’s her name? I think that music is a really good conduit. I’d listen to music on the way to work and that would be different than the music I would listen to on the way home from work. On the way home from work, I would turn up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as loud as I possibly could, and I’d unroll the passenger side of the window and hang my head out, like a dog, and scream, and it was the only thing that made me feel better. In the middle of the day, when we were in the throes of the decline, I would think, “In a few hours I get to hang my head out the window…” And I’ve never needed to do that before and I’ve never needed to do it since, but the wind that fast, 60 miles an hour, against your face, is the only thing that made me feel clean.

Q: Have you heard people choose sides between the couple on who is right or who is wrong?
Williams:
Yeah, I was listening to Ryan talk about this movie as a whodunit. Okay, so somebody’s murdered love. Love has gone missing. Who is to blame? And there are all these clues in the movie. Is it him or is it her or is it the kid? Is it their parents, is it the economics? Is it the other guy? “Baby, baby, where did our love go?” It’s a question and you’re the detective in your own life when you have a relationship that falls apart, you try and put it together and solve the mystery, and you wind up being the detective in the movie.

Q: What about the controversy surrounding the movie originally receiving an NC-17 rating? (Note: That rating was overturned the day after we conducted this interview.) Having waited years to make this movie, did you expect there’d be so much attention to the sex scenes and how the MPAA reacted to them?
Williams:
My first reaction to it was not to get upset, but I think that’s because I’m a girl and that’s the way that I’ve been socialized, that you don’t fight, that fighting gets you nowhere and instead, you accept and you learn how to work within the world that you’ve been given. And that is very different from the reaction that Ryan and Derek had, but I think that’s because I’m a girl and that’s how I was raised. Recently, I started to change my mind, because I also thought, “You know what? Movies have a long life and they’re judged over and over again through time and so this is just one stage of this movie’s release and perhaps people will feel differently in ten or twenty years, they have a long life.” But what I’ve come to understand about that rating now is that it limits where your movie can be seen and that it means you can only see it if you live in a major city with an arthouse theater, and that also you’re not allowed to play the ads for an NC-17 movie on television. I didn’t understand in the beginning that it was a censorship issue, that it’s not actually about whether or not a child under 17 should be allowed (to see it). We’re not saying that you should take your 15-year-old or your 16-year-old to go see this movie. (laughs) I’m not saying that. That’s not really the argument, although it is a cautionary tale and one of the aspects of the story is a girl who makes a decision, who has had a past, and she makes a decision at a young age and then has to stand by that decision in conflict for the rest of her life with how she really feels. So it is about action and consequences and that’s never a bad lesson for a kid, but yeah, the overall question of the censorship is what is upsetting. Ryan and Derek have some hilarious speculation on it so I’ll let them answer that question, because they have some ideas. I don’t know. It’s hard to put my head around that situation. It’s impossible for me to say. There’s something about a consensual act, that’s about a woman’s pleasure and the sense of herself and a releasing of herself. I’m stuck on where the harm is, where the danger is, where the violence is or really even where the sex is in it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because it’s a first. Whoever likes anything in the beginning? Firsts always frighten people because they don’t know it so they don’t know what to call it, how to process it, so maybe it’s because it’s their first time coming across that or they haven’t had that issue in a movie before, I dunno.

Blue Valentine is now playing in New York and L.A. and opens in more cities on January 7. You can also watch our video interview with director Derek Cianfrance here.