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December 2005
Brokeback Mountain: An Interview with Michelle Williams

Brokeback Mountain: An Interview with Michelle Williams

By Wilson Morales

After playing Jen Lindley for six seasons of TV’s Dawson’s Creek, Michelle Williams has been creeping up the film industry doing small roles in independent films rather than use her popularity from the show to be in big budgeted studio films. The gamble has paid off in that the films that she’s been in, from Imaginary Heroes to Me Without You and the critically acclaimed, The Station Agent, has garnered the attention of director Ang Lee, who has cast her in probably her best film to date, Brokeback Mountain. Williams plays Alma, the wife of a closeted gay man (Heath Ledger) who has a lifelong affair with a rodeo man (Jake Gyllenhaal) and discovers his secret. Williams met and fell in love with co-star Ledger and recently gave birth to their daughter, Matilda. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Williams speaks about her character and how America will respond to a love affair between two men.

There are two great tragedies in this movie obviously with [Jack and Ennis] but the women too.

Michelle Williams: Yeah.

Now Anne Hathaway wouldn’t say if her character knew about her husband’s extramarital affairs. Why does she stay with him as long as she does?

MW: I think she loves him. It takes a long time for her fantasy -- for the reality to catch up with her fantasy. For so many reasons she still stays mwwith him. She’s really attached to this idea of a husband, and a family, and something that lasts. Everything that came before her was lasting. Her great-grandparents, her grandparents, her parents. Everybody had something that lasted whether or not it was good, you know, you stuck it out. I mean Jack and Ennis even talked about something like that but that was, you know, people weren’t getting divorced willy-nilly back then. What would she do? Where would she go? How would she be provided for? What would happen if people found out? Would her, how would her girls’ lives be affected? My mind just starts to pinball when I think about all the reasons that [] go into another relationship, into another household.

The flipside of that question is, obviously she sees them kissing, do you think that it might have saved their marriage, if she had called them out? And said what’s going on? Ennis is the kind of guy that would have ended it, that was his priority, that’s something that she could have done. Right?

MW: Hmm, that’s interesting. It’s hard for me to deal with shoulda versus coulda because I don’t see it as a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ ending. I feel it was, it’s the only way you saw, it’s the only one possible outcome. But I don’t know that’s hard for me to imagine. I can’t imagine that it would have saved their marriage. It certainly wouldn’t have made him stop loving Jack.

What were your personal feelings on watching Heath and Jake together when they had to be intimate?

MW: Honest to God I did not see the two boys I know. I did not see Jake and I did not see Heath when I saw that movie. And I know both of them well - one of them better than the other. [laugh] I did not see them anywhere on that screen.

I read in EW that during shooting of their first reuniting, you had said, you wanted, you know, “give me something boys, give me something!”

MW: Yeah, Ang loves to tell that story. That’s not exactly how I remember it. But he likes that story so I’ll let him have it. What I remember is just asking them to so often when you’re doing a shot like that, the other actors aren’t there and you’re forced to look at a piece of tape or another crew member’s hand or something and it’s lonely and boring and it’s not acting at all. And but they, I was lucky enough that they stuck around and I just asked them to embrace, to just hold each other.

When you finally left Ennis do you think that just it’s an economic reality for her daughters or do you think that the love is no longer there?

MW: I think personally I think Alma will never get over losing the only man she really wansted. You know, her marriage with Monroe wasn’t what - wasn’t one of deep passion. It was convenient, and it was safety and it was the reassurance that she would never ever experience the kind of pain that she’d been put through previously.

Did you get a chance to see what kind of effect this will have on general audiences? And what kind of effect you hope it’ll have once it gets out there?

MW: I mean as of now the only people who have seen the movie are the press and friends. And that was response has been awfully buoying and positive but I don’t know what the general response will be but even in anticipation of it, it’s awfully cool to just walk down the street with Heath and have men come up to you and thank you. Before, just because they don’t, how lonely would it be if you had never seen yourself on screen? How lonely would it be if you had never seen something that you can deeply truly identify with? I can see that all the time. I’m a straight woman. And so we’ve had a few people come up and say thank you. Awfully rewarding. For him but you know me too.

There’s already Oscar buzz for your performance. How are you feeling? Are you?

MW: [laughs a little] I don’t know. Funny? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t really believe it so much. I said earlier that I just don’t really like the fact that I don’t want to be disappointed and I don’t want to disappoint anyone else.

So much about Alma’s relationship is about not saying or being unable to say for the things that are most important.

MW: Yeah.

Is that harder to play or is that more refreshing for an actor? How do you respond to that character?

MW: I relate to it. I’ve had that feeling of sort of choking yourself and for reasons you don’t really understand why, but you’re just too afraid, you’re too afraid to spit one thing out and when you swallow one thing, it becomes a reflex or a habit. But I do find that to be the most difficult work, as an actor. The silences the things you have to make up all by yourself without the aid of written words. That’s always the work that keeps me up and plagues me and makes me wonder if I’ve done, if I’ve done the right thing, if I’ve done a good job.

How’s working Ang Lee and what kind of things did he tell you to find your character?

MW: Before we started shooting, we rehearsed a bit and he, what did he give me? He asked me to come up with the things you usually come up with. Like specific fun things that only you really know about your character. But he gave us all his trust freely. As soon as he got the job, it felt like, it felt like that was it. He gave us a lot of freedom and a lot of room and working with him honestly the thing I remember was sitting with him and having him hold my hand and looking deep into my eyes and not really saying anything verbally but trying to communiscate something emotionally. And he just gave me support like that. And just a sense of freedom. It wasn’t something; there weren’t things I could do that would be wrong.

Did you do a lot of reshoots? He said when he’s shooting he doesn’t know what he’s going to get until the editing room so I was wondering if you did a lot of cut takes?

MW: There wasn’t a ton of time. It was a small - I mean I’ve worked on a much, much smaller budget - but it was small for the scope of what it, for the scope of what it was and the things it wanted to accomplish. We didn’t have a ton of time. I don’t think there were there weren’t widely varying directions that we took the characters in from take to take.

You spend so much time in misery. Was there any sort of amusement?

MW: Well, we say, the very first scene that I’m in, going sledding downhill and we sort of took it as a metaphor that it was all downhill from there [laugh]. But were there any sort of, anything fun, yeah, yeah, it was nice seeing everyone come in and out. It was nice being injected with a little bit of Anne and a little bit of Jake and but there weren’t a lot of antics or hijinks.

Did you ever use the term ‘fishing trips’ to gossip about someone?

MW: Fishing trips. No I think maybe they used that term to talk about us. [lausgh]

Now they’re very happy that there was love on the set? Did it help your performance?

MW: Performance. No I cannot I can say enough how separate the two experiences are for me. It’s just like they’re two different time planes. And I think we’re both serious professional people who would put our work first. And that you know that one thing didn’t really affect the other.

In a broader sense, was it a loving set?

MW: It was a loving set. Heath was the captain of the ship and he’s a soft-spoken loving guy and that’s what he emanated and what everybody else followed suit.

Do you still feel like you need to shed that image from Dawson’s Creek? Anne (Hathaway) had mentioned that you girls had talked about that a little bit.

MW: No because I don’t feel bound to it anymore. I spent enough time feeling in its clutches and the second that show ended, the very second it ended, I was set free. It was a weight, a perceived weight that I sort of put on myself. I left as quickly as it came. And I haven’t, I barely thought about it and you know my hope is that other people can do the same.

You really seem to go for the smaller indie films. Are you totally against big Hollywood as far as aliens and guns? Is that totally of disinterest to you?

MW: Yeah I guess so. That work seems really hard for me. I think I would do really bad at it. Acting with an alien or acting with a gun. I just, I can’t you know I’ll read those scripts but I just can’t see myself there and I don’t think I would serve the story better than any else could. That’s just not for me right now.s

There was never a decision in your life, well if I do this big budget Hollywood movie, it’ll send me to this stratus or whatever.

MW: Yeah, I felt like I gave up so much time doing something that I wasn’t 100% invested in being on Dawson’s Creek that I don’t have any time to waste any more.

James was talking about his ambition being along the lines of Doctor Zhivago or Casablanca, Gone with the Wind comparison. Do you see it as that kind of story or do we dare to nourish that kind of hopes for it for the future?

MW: That’s cool. I like that. Yeah I - James is a smart guy and if he says so, I stand by him.

It’s possible that we’re actually dealing with bisexuals.

MW: I’d never, yeah.

I think the sex scene is interesting in that he actually flips you over at some point and that’s when we know that he’s not thinking about you, he’s replicating his first scene with Jack. And I thought that that really pinned it in that direction.

MW: Yeah, you’re right. You’re right. That’s interesting. I hadn’t really applied that term to Ennis. I’ve never heard that before but I think that you’re right, that’s makes it clear, draws the line.

There’s a lot of technique. Like Woody Allen apparently gives his actors a lot of time to do whatever they want. Does Ang fall into that category where he’s leading you specifically, or is he giving you the freedom of okay, go out there and give me something and I can pick it apart later.

MW: No, I felt like he gave us a tremendous amount of freedom. As far as the other stuff, I don’t really know what he’s doing. I don’t know what he’s hoping to achieve by placing the camera in a certain direction. Ysou know that’s all stuff I get to enjoy as an audience member. I don’t really know what he’s, I know he’s thinking about a lot of other things when we’re working together but I don’t know what they are.

When you first see the film, is there continuity between what you’ve done and what you expect?

MW: Well the first time that I saw it, it was hard and I actually, I didn’t - I walked out and immediately forgot everything I had seen, I had no idea what I had just spent two hours in front of because the first time you see something like yourself so big, it’s upsetting. It’s strange and weird and you never get over the fact that it’s a little bit unnatural and you can’t have, I can’t have a pure experience like you guys can because well that’s me and I can’t fool myself. I KNOW I’m not that person. But the second time I watched it, I’m so lucky that this happened. I got to see the film. I moved past whatever judgments I could make on myself. Whatever hard time I would want to give myself. I flew by it because I got swept up in the movie and I got swept up in what the other actors were doing and I got swept up in this story that Ang was telling. It was greater and bigger and better than I had ever imagined. And that is why he’s a genius.

Do you think America’s going to respond to the tragedy in the right way? I’m already seeing some responses online the other way. Well if he wasn’t a queer to begin with or if she could have done better, really shown him.

MW: Straightened him? I can’t accept that their lives are miserable because he can’t be gay. So if he wasn’t a queer, he’d be happy.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN opens on December 9th, 2005


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