Though already having the pleasure of speaking to Michelle Williams on camera, we were also granted the fortunate chance to speak to her again, in a more relaxed setting, while the talented actress was in London during the film festival.
Williams tells us why she would’ve signed on to the project before even reading the screenplay, and just how exhausting an experience it has proven to be. She also tells us which of her films she regrets making, and her thoughts on being involved in the Oscars conversation – and not for the first time. Finally, the interview has some minor spoilers – so be careful if you’re yet to see the film.
This is quite a special piece of filmmaking – when you first got the screenplay and read it, did you get that instant feeling that this was a project you had to be a part of?
Definitely, I knew that I would say yes to it before I even read it though, because that’s the kind of artist that Kenny is, you’d be foolish to turn down an opportunity to work with him. But you can never get a sense when reading something, even while making it, whether it will be good or not, you really can’t tell. You work just as hard on the movies that are bad as you do on the ones that are good, so it’s always a surprise how they turn out.
It’s funny you say that, because you seem to have a great sense for roles, you don’t seem to make many duds…
Did you see Suite Francaise? [Laughs[ Ouch. That one hurt.
To make or to see?
So what do you look for when picking a project?
I just try and be guided by a kind of instinctual response to the material, and it happens very quickly or it doesn’t happen at all. It really is an instinctual response and a physical response, I can feel my heart wanting to jump out of my chest and my brain starts working on it like it’s a little puzzle that I need to solve, and that’s how I know I want to do something. It just becomes a part of my thought process, even if I don’t have the role, even if I don’t get the role, it’s just something I am drawn to and start thinking about.
When playing a character of this nature, who has to go through so much, is it easy to switch off? Is it easy, when Kenneth shouts ‘cut’ to then go back to normal, or does it stick with you throughout the whole shoot?
It really sticks with you. It’s the thing that as a parent you’re always trying to avoid thinking about, it’s like the last thing in the world you want to let yourself consider, because just the thought of it is unendurable and can really bring you to your knees, so it’s not a place you can slip easily and effortlessly in and out of.
How did you go about getting in to this particular mindset?
Around the time we started filming there was a terrible house fire in Brooklyn, which was front page news, and I looked for more information about it, which is a macabre past-time because you don’t want to feel like you’re using someone’s personal tragedy, but I found it endlessly heartbreaking and my only hope is to be able to do something that anyone who’s been through this situation could recognise, and to do something that is truthful and honest, and hearing accounts, in detail, of what happened in that event definitely informed what I did in the movie.
You’ve said before you’re a riskier actor than you are a person, what did you mean by that?
I like to keep it real simple in my life, simple, safe, at the speed limit. For some reason in my work life I’m really drawn to things that I don’t know how to do, things that risk colossal failure and embarrassment, that’s not a conscious thought, but apparently that is the motivating factor for me.
Why is that?
I just don’t know, it’s just me. I think that perhaps in life you run real risks and the worst thing that could happen to me in my work is that I make a fool of myself, but I’m certainly not going to die. So it’s a place to take risks where nothing that can go wrong that seriously, you get over embarrassment and you actually learn a lot from failure.
Though the character is immensely important to the narrative, that goes without saying, there are large chunks of the movie you’re not in. So when watching this film back are you able to enjoy it like an audience member would, because there must be so much you’re seeing for the first time?
I haven’t seen it yet.
I haven’t made a movie for a long time, it’s been three years since I’ve seen a movie that I’ve been in. I just find the whole thought of it too jarring. It’s unnatural to see yourself so large on a screen and I don’t have the stomach for it right now.
You should see it, it’s pretty good.
The commitment to realism is striking, and Kenneth is a really important, unique voice in cinema right now. Have you ever read anything quite like this before?
There’s nothing like it, and there’s no-one like him. He has such a eye and such an ear for how people really talk and behave and he’s really, as a person, drawn to those moments of fumbling and confusion, or bad connections, clumsiness, and he experiences them in life and captures them perfectly in drama.
Three films in 16 years – he seems like the sort of filmmaker that will make films quite sporadically, a bit like Kubrick. It must feel cool to know you’re a part of one of probably quite few films that he makes in his career?
It’s really special, and I’ve always, always wanted to work with him because his worlds are so compete and authentic and I really wanted to be a person in one of them.
There’s a lot of Oscar buzz for this film, and that’s a road you’ve been down before – how do you look at this part of your life?
It’s such a funny thing, when you make movies like this you never in a million years think that people will even go and see it, they very rarely find an audience, let alone this kind of excitement. So it comes as a great surprise and I mean both of those words, it’s great and it’s very surprising.
We’ve talked about your great choices in your career – what would you say is the role you’re most proud of?
I don’t think I’m more proud of any one thing than another, I really feel like they’re all connected and each one leads to another. I don’t really know. Maybe the thing I’m most proud of is that I stuck it out.
Manchester by the Sea is released on January 13th and you can read our 5* review of the film here.