Michelle Williams Is Ready to Lead

Consider the curious career of Michelle Williams. She is, at 37, regarded as one of the best actresses of her generation, with four Oscar nominations to prove it. She is private but well-known, with the sort of fame that requires little upkeep because, after coming of age on the youthquake TV show Dawson’s Creek and raising the daughter she had with the late actor Heath Ledger, she will always be a figure of public interest. She starred in two big Broadway productions, was nominated for a Tony, sings quite charmingly, and has been the face of three separate Louis Vuitton campaigns.

And yet, somehow, she is underrated. Williams is an acclaimed young actress, but she is rarely given the chance to headline the blockbuster films that come so often to her contemporaries and, until this past year, Williams had only two lavish studio productions to her credit, 2010’s Shutter Island and 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful. (Even Tilda Swinton, high priestess of all that is weird and unclassifiable in Hollywood, has made more big-budget and big-studio movies over the last several years.) Williams has spent most of her recent career tracing a path through the world of independent film, though even in that space, she leaves you wanting more: As astonishing as she was in her most recent Oscar-nominated role as Casey Affleck’s grieving ex-wife in Manchester by the Sea, she had just three scenes in the movie, and even less screen time as the mother in the Todd Haynes film Wonderstruck this past fall.

Williams is ready for all that to change. She is ready to do more, be seen more, and to feel the weight of an entire production on her back. “Some movies, you just do these little snippets, and it feels like you’re sending a text,” Williams told me last month, curled up on the couch in a Beverly Hills hotel room. “And honestly? It’s boring. It’s not a fun way to spend your life.”

So when Ridley Scott offered Williams a meaty lead role in All the Money in the World, she was thrilled to take it. In the true-life thriller, Williams plays Gail Getty, who married into the powerful and wealthy Getty family yet benefits not a lick from their largesse. When her son is kidnapped, Gail must convince father-in-law J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, who replaced Kevin Spacey in the part) to pay the ransom, all the while dealing with a former CIA operative (Mark Wahlberg) who is tracking the boy and a press corps that vilifies Gail for not breaking down in front of their cameras.

It’s the latter quality that Scott said made Williams perfect for the role. “She suits me down to the ground because she is not sentimental,” he said. “To get a tear out of her? Impossible, but if it comes, it comes for the right reason, and you have to earn it.”

Surprisingly, I got those tears 20 minutes into my conversation with Williams. She had up till then been pleasant and polite but exhausted, having worked nonstop as of late: In addition to co-starring in the comic-book movie Venom, Williams had been called back to film scenes with Plummer for All the Money in the World just weeks earlier, when Scott decided to snip Spacey after the actor’s multiple sexual-assault allegations had come to light. (Those reshoots earned additional headlines this week when a pay disparity between Williams and Wahlberg was revealed.) Williams told me she had not watched the stitched-together final cut of All the Money in the World yet, and wondered if all of their efforts had been in vain. “I do want to see it, but it’s jarring,” she said. “It’s so discordant with the experience. I had the best time making this, and I feel like if I think I suck in it, I’m going to be so disappointed.”

I assured her the reshoots were incorporated seamlessly, then told her that our critic David Edelstein was going to name her a late addition to his list of the year’s best performances. She was startled.

“Really?” she said, as if I were pulling her leg. “Really?”

Her eyes welled up, and she let out the big breath she’d been holding for months. “It’s just been such a strange saga of highs and lows and ups and downs,” she confessed. “To go from what was surprisingly one of the most exciting and creative experiences of my whole life with [Ridley Scott], who I wouldn’t have expected to have as my compadre … and then, to have it kind of skid into the dirt with Kevin Spacey …”

Williams paused and collected herself. “It’s just been up and down, up and down, and has meant that I’ve worked every day for the last two months,” she said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster.”

Williams as Gail Getty in All the Money in the World. Photo: Fabio Lovino/Sony Pictures

Like many of her characters, including the indelible wronged wife she played in Brokeback Mountain, Williams cuts a deceptively modest figure until she summons the courage to erupt. She is petite and pixie-cut, solicitous but shy in person. She wields no star attitude, and more often than not while talking to Williams, I found myself trying to reassure her of her talent. It isn’t just that she shares the same feelings of insecurity that we have watched her characters wrestle with onscreen, though she will readily admit to those doubtful moments. It’s that Williams, with her quaking determination, possesses that ineffable quality that makes you root for her and hope she will come out of things okay. Coupled with her talent, it’s what makes her a movie star.

When I first spoke to Williams in late 2016, not long after she had come off two stints working on Broadway in Cabaret and the sexual-abuse two-hander Blackbird, she was concerned about what a return to big-scale moviemaking might entail. “I’ve enjoyed that whole trajectory of not being in a close-up and not having people scrutinize your face on a day-to-day basis,” she told me then. “I kind of lost my muscle, my ability to be able to watch myself in a movie. It seems so foreign and so odd to me that I just don’t know if I could handle it.”

A year later, though, Williams credits those demanding theatrical experiences with giving her the confidence she needed to take on a more substantial movie like All the Money in the World. “My inclination is to hate on myself, but when you work that hard for that long, it gets harder to discredit your own progress and intelligence because you’ve proven something really difficult to yourself, time and time again,” she said. “I think I formerly would have felt so intimidated by working with Ridley Scott. I would have felt like I didn’t deserve to be in the room, or too shy to try things, but after doing eight shows a week on Broadway, it kind of beats the insecurity out of you. There’s no magic, no score, no pretty lighting or editing. It’s just me sustaining something.”

So, after filming a supporting role opposite Hugh Jackman in the musical The Greatest Showman — a high-spirited gig Williams described as a “palate cleanser” — she went to work on All the Money in the World, and what Williams has delivered is a powerhouse tribute to Gail Getty’s resolve. In scene after scene, we watch Gail as she processes a new bit of bad news, and the principal thrill of the film is how Williams takes it in, allows herself a deep breath, and then hurls herself into a new negotiation. “When you’re in the midst of a trauma, that’s really not the time you can break,” Williams explained. “You’re just in survival mode, and becoming a puddle doesn’t do anyone any good. There’s a saying that I love: ‘If you find yourself in hell, the best thing is to keep moving.’”

Production on the film was brisk: Scott filmed it over the summer and planned for a quick turnaround in the editing room so that the film could come out in late December, qualify for awards, and beat an FX series on the same Getty kidnapping to the punch. And then, just weeks before a planned premiere at the AFI Festival in November, Spacey was accused of sexual assault, and the stories continued to grow in number. Given how crucial his character is to the film, many thought Sony would respond by delaying the film or shelving it entirely, but instead, Scott asked his actors to reunite for a nine-day reshoot that would allow Plummer to assume Spacey’s role. “It was a nightmare,” Williams admitted. “But as soon as they told me about the idea, I said, ‘Take whatever you want.’”

Williams offered to forgo both her salary and Thanksgiving holiday if it meant the film could make it over the finish line, and the production took her up on both offers. It’s since come to light that though Williams worked only for her per diem during those days — a fee of around $1,000 for the reshoots — her co-star Wahlberg, who like Williams and Scott is repped by WME, negotiated an extra paycheck for his services to the tune of $1.5 million.

(A rep for Williams had not responded to our inquiry about the pay gap by press time, though when we originally spoke, Williams had plenty to say about systemic sexism and the widespread problem of women making less money than men. “Sexual harassment is a branch on the tree, and the tree is the power imbalance,” she told me then. “It really is across industries. It’s women who are trying to keep their job in a factory: How do they placate the power dynamic that exists just so they can get a paycheck?”)

In order to save the movie, “I had to break the news to my family and tell them I wasn’t going be home [for the holidays] and make alternate arrangements for them,” Williams said. “But everyone was so supportive, no one more than my 12-year-old daughter, who said, ‘You worked so hard on this. Don’t let it be ruined because of one bad man.’”

Of course, Spacey is just one of many high-profile men in Hollywood who have been accused of sexual assault over the last few months, an ignominious list that includes former studio head Harvey Weinstein, with whom Williams worked with on her Oscar-nominated films My Week With Marilyn and Blue Valentine. “It is gutting to read the stories of people who have come forward,” she told me. “It’s been gutting to think of my own experiences and how I would want to deal with them publicly or not. Thinking about what I’ve seen, and what I’ve endured over the last 37 years as a woman … if that was my daughter’s experience, I just wouldn’t be able to live with it.”

So, like Gail Getty, she has resolved to keep moving, to seize the opportunity for change. Brutal as the stories of sexual assault have been, Williams is heartened by the feeling of sisterhood that has emerged among her peers. “It’s like being kicked in the face but then having ten people come to your rescue to help you,” she said. At the Golden Globes this past weekend, where she was nominated for All the Money in the World, Williams brought as her date the civil-rights activist Tarana Burke, who created the “Me Too” movement that has spurred women to share their stories like never before. “I feel really buoyed by the camaraderie and the across-the-board resolve, and not just from women but from men who are saying, ‘We want it to be different, too,’” said Williams. “It just feels like maybe those deals with the devil are done, that those abusers might just have it scared out of them at this point. They didn’t have that fear before, and they sure do now, because people are finally talking.”

Williams smiled. “I feel like this opening has been created where we can re-create the world,” she said. And if she needs to take a bigger role than she’s used to in order to secure that future, at least she’s finally ready.

Michelle Williams Is Ready to Lead