Interview: Michelle Williams on Blue Valentine, Oscars, and Heath Ledger

The Oscar-nominated star of Blue Valentine talks to Kevin Sessums about her NC-17 sex scene, playing Marilyn Monroe, and how Nightline distorted her comments on Heath Ledger.

The Oscar-nominated star of Blue Valentine talks to Kevin Sessums about her NC-17 sex scene, playing Marilyn Monroe, and how Nightline distorted her comments on Heath Ledger. Michelle Williams discusses • The interview that made her wary of discussing Heath Ledger’s death. • Why her nude scene was like an out-of-body experience. • Losing her sense of humor and struggling to find it again. • Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and its influence on whether she’ll hold her daughter back a year in school.

(UPDATE: In response to Williams' comments about Nightline, ABC News told The Daily Beast in a statement: "The interview, like all our work, was done fairly and thoughtfully. She most certainly was asked questions about Heath Ledger, which she answered. Her one-on-one interview lasted one hour, not three.")

Michelle Williams is giving the performance of the year in Blue Valentine. Directed and co-written by Derek Cianfrance, the film co-stars Ryan Gosling, who is so good so often he has become reliably brilliant. That has the sound of mundanity about it, but for a movie actor as handsome as he who no doubt is pushed daily to commit his talent to the crassest of commercial movies, it is the rarest of accolades.

It is Williams, however, who is a revelation. She has shown her range as an actress in, among other films, Wendy and Lucy, The Station Agent, Shutter Island, Synecdoche, New York, and Brokeback Mountain, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. But nothing has prepared us for the rawness and courage she shows before Cianfrance’s camera in her characterization of Cindy Periera. Not since Gena Rowlands roiled the 1970s with those lacerating parts given to her by her husband, John Cassavetes, has an actress put such rigor into a role that we half expect a rip in the screen to appear. Williams has been rewarded with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her work in Blue Valentine, as well as nominated in the same category in 10 critics’ polls around the country. In San Francisco, the critics have already given her the award as Best Actress. Let’s hope the Oscar voters follow their lead.

Together, it is Williams and Gosling who are gracing movie screens this winter with the truest of pas de deux. Goosy and gorgeous as they fall in love as young innocents, they are, years later, pulvinated with the bile and venom that love can curdle into when a couple collapses in on itself. There is a gracefulness even to their fighting and desolation as we watch their marriage dissolve before our eyes in a narrative span of days.

Indeed, grace is a word that comes to mind when thinking of Williams as a woman as well as an actress. One can’t help but think of her own relationship with Heath Ledger—the actor with whom she fell in love while working with him on Brokeback Mountain and who fathered her child, Matilda, now 5 years old—as we watch the couple she and Gosling portray onscreen and contemplate what exactly played out in the privacy of her real life. She and Ledger had broken up before he died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in 2008, but so many still consider her, because of Matilda, his widow.

All that extra flesh ironically made me feel less nude.

Williams is a big reader of poetry and collects first editions of books—one of her prized possessions is a first edition of The Great Gatsby—so I foraged around in the poetry stacks of a used-book store near her house in Brooklyn and found a first-edition Ferlinghetti to give her as well as a selection of poems by my first mentor in New York City, the late Howard Moss, who for 40 years was the poetry editor of The New Yorker. As we settled onto the sofa in front of the fireplace on the second floor of the house she had shared with Heath in their happier days, I presented her with her gifts. A gasp escaped her as she saw the Howard Moss book. Her eyes had already begun to mist as she ran her finger down the Table of Contents through the myriad titles and allowed it to come to rest at one of Moss’ most beautiful poems, “ The Pruned Tree.” She turned to its page. There was one tear. Then there were two. But that was all. She flicked them away. It was her smile that now registered such wonder.

This is so odd. My God. This has been in my mind so much recently. There it is. This is a poem that ... well... helped me heal. And I couldn’t remember where I had found it or who wrote it or what the name of it was even. I only remembered its effect on me. I just could remember its first four lines:

As a torn paper might seal up its side, Or a streak of water stitch itself to silk, And disappear, my wound has been my healing, And I am made more beautiful by losses.

I have been looking for this poem for so long. Thank you.

Thank Howard and Heath. I was just their messenger.

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I don’t believe that life is linear. I think of it as circles—concentric circles that connect. This just proves it to me. There are certain things that replay themselves in my subconscious without my asking them to be there and those lines from that poem are an example. Especially “my wound has been my healing and I have been made more beautiful by losses.” Thank you so much for these books. I needed some new ones. I’ve been living too much in the world of Mary Oliver and Frank O’Hara. Not that there is anything wrong with their worlds, but I needed a couple of new ones. I love those lines from Mark Strand: “Ink runs from the corners of my mouth. There is no happiness like mine. I have been eating poetry.”

You never have indigestion?

No. But sometimes I do have nightmares.

Is it hard to live in the world of this house? Are there just too many memories everywhere?

Do you see the mess you’re sitting in right now? This is a lived-in house. There are seven people living here at the moment. I couldn’t live here alone. You could live here if you want. We have a very open-door policy.

How was your Christmas? Did Matilda have good one?

We had a really good one. She wrote two letters to Santa the night before. The first one was “Dear Santa, How is your wife, Mrs. Claus?” The second was “Dear Santa, I hope you have a good summer next year.”

She starts school next year. That must be as big a deal for you as it is for her.

Did you read that Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers? She’s on the cusp so when she goes into first grade next year she’ll be the youngest in her class. Outliers would say wait. Hold her back a year. When you are in those early grades there can be up to a year’s difference in ages and when you’re that age a year is huge! So there is an argument for my waiting to put her in first grade.

Michelle talks about Heath's death on Nightline, December 2010.

We were talking earlier today about your having left your private Christian school in ninth grade and graduating from high school by correspondence course when you were 16, which was also around the same time you sued to emancipate yourself from your parents. When I hung out with Heath in Prague for a week to do that first cover story on him for Vanity Fair years ago, he told me he felt as if he had divorced his own parents in a way when he left Perth for Sydney when he was still a teenager. You had that in common with him. You said though that you had once defined yourself by that emancipation but you no longer did. How do you define yourself now?

As a mother.

Talk about poetic ironies. As a mother, when you look at your child are you able now to see only the joy her father brought into your life, or do you still see a bit of the sadness when you catch a glimpse of him looking back at you sometimes from her eyes?

How do I talk about this? I experienced a lot of loss after his death. I lost my city because of all the paparazzi descending upon us. I actually lost my journal during that time, oddly enough. I literally couldn’t hold on to anything. It felt as if things were literally slipping through my fingers. Things were just streaming away from me. I lost my sense of humor. I’m still sort of looking for that.

A quote from The Great Gatsby is that “it takes two to make an accident.” You had already broken up when he accidentally died, yet did you still feel as if somehow you were a part of his accidental death? I know this is difficult to discuss. We can move on if you wan.

I wish I could just have this conversation with Kevin and Michelle because I know from our other conversations and from your memoir how much you know about loss and grief. Just recently I felt as if I did cross a line about all this. Yet if I’m going to do interviews and be in this world, I don’t want to seem as if I’m just taking a party line. I want to say something that is representative of who I am and what I’m thinking about and what matters to me in the same ways that I want to do that in my work because my work and my life do feed off each other. The two do go together. But when it comes to interviews, it all becomes rather tricky because I don’t want to say something without resonance but then I don’t want to go too far. I just had an experience with Nightline that got edited in such a way that seemed as if I did go too far. It was a three-hour interview that was edited in such a way that was devastating to me. I mean, I am still such the-good-girl. I want everybody to like me. I want everybody to be happy. I want to please people. So that desire in the moment overrode that “me” that is on top of myself, that “me” that is on top of a situation. Then they used those few quotes and the way they edited the piece to sell the interview, and it appeared as if I were breaking some kind of silence and sitting down with the express purpose to discuss something that is very private to me. So then I withdraw and I say, “OK, this subject is off limits if it is going to be convoluted and re-contextualized. I will close myself off as a torn paper might seal up its side or a streak of water stitch itself to silk.” But then I sit down with you and feel compelled to talk about it. So it is a struggle.

OK. I’ll honor that struggle. Let’s lighten up. Let’s move on to some shallow show biz shit. Blue Valentine initially got an NC-17 rating because, it is reported, of the cunnilingus scene before it was changed to an R on appeal. And yet Black Swan has a cunnilingus scene and it only got an R rating from the first. Why is your vagina more verboten than Natalie Portman’s? They can’t taste that different.

(Laughing) Talk about lightening up. Let’s go back to my struggle. I think maybe it was because her scene was more about a fantasy and mine was more about reality.

Plus, your character lets out a whoop of enjoyment. Natalie’s character had more guilt about it.

Yeah, maybe it all comes down to my finding the pleasure in it. Who knows.

Did you find pleasure in your nude scenes?

Well, the nude scenes were in the later part of the relationship so I had gained some weight and the pudginess I was feeling was almost like a costume, so it didn’t really seem as if I were nude but some other person was. All that extra flesh ironically made me feel less nude.

You’re such a gamine right now. You are so thin and have such a great haircut. Did you put on any extra pounds or have any padding in certain areas to portray Marilyn Monroe in your next film, My Week With Marilyn? It is based on the diaries of Colin Clark who was Sir Laurence Olivier’s assistant during the original film of The Showgirl and Me, which starred Monroe and Olivier. Clark claims to have had an affair with her after her husband at the time, Arthur Miller, left her alone in London to make the movie.

So either he is the luckiest son of a bitch or the greatest fabulist who’s ever existed.

It’s a great cast. Kenneth Branagh as Olivier. Eddie Redmayne is playing Colin Clark. I hope this time you get to suck some dick instead of getting your pussy eaten.

(Laughing) Exactly. We want to get a PG-13 rating.

You’ve also finished Take This Waltz with Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman. It’s your second film with a title taken from a Leonard Cohen song.

It is?

Yes. You’ve made so many movies you’re starting to forget them. There was also Land of Plenty directed by Wim Wenders.

God, yes. I’d forgotten that title came from a Leonard Cohen song. I am maybe his No. 1 fan. I am a huge Leonard Cohen person.

Well, he could be described as a poet. It’s understandable.

When I was filming the Marilyn Monroe movie, I was listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen.

There is a line from his song Save the Waltz —“there is a shoulder where death comes to cry”—which has always sort of haunted me. But that shoulder, Michelle, is certainly not yours. No longer. No more. You’re filled now with too much happiness. Too much life.

That’s my cue to get to my daughter upstate. I have to get on the road. I’m taking those books you gave me as my upstate reading.

Heath and Howard are happy to hear it.

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Kevin Sessums is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy, a memoir of his childhood. He was executive editor of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and Allure. He is a contributing editor of Parade. His new memoir, I Left It on the Mountain, will be published by St. Martins Press.