How Michelle Williams elevated her craft to become one of today’s best actors

Al Arabiya’s William Mullally sits down with Michelle Williams to talk about her latest film All the Money in the World. (Al Arabiya)

All the Money in the World is a movie about a kidnapping. In the first week of November, the movie itself was held hostage, too. Multiple people leveled serious accusations against its then-most heavily pushed star, Kevin Spacey. It seemed for a moment that the film might never come out.

You know the rest. Ridley Scott made history by immediately replacing Spacey with legendary actor Christopher Plummer, getting the whole crew back together to re-film all of Spacey’s scenes in nine days, and getting the film out by its scheduled release date just a month later.

“I was so grateful,” Charlie Plummer, who plays the kidnapped boy, tells me. “It was my first studio film period, and a film that hundreds of people worked on and a film I put my year into, and to that seemingly going to waste just to be saved by Ridley, by Michelle, Christopher and everyone that decided to get on board with the reshoots, I was really grateful for that. Without it, I was so worried that no one would get to see the film.”

The story behind All the Money in the World is great on its own, but once you see the film that they saved, as good as Christopher Plummer is, as good as Ridley’s filmmaking can be, it’s clear that the star we should have been talking about all along was Michelle Williams.

I was supposed to sit with Michelle to talk about her performance in New York at the end of November—things changed. Now it’s late December, and we’re in Los Angeles at the end of a very long day.

“I think I’m your last one,” I say.

“Yes you are!” Michelle sings, ebullient and dancing in her chair.

Michelle has always been a tremendous talent. From her days starring in Dawson’s Creek, to her first Academy Award nomination for Brokeback Mountain, she seemed to be one of the best actors flying under the radar.

This decade, however, Williams has hit a new gear. With films such as Blue Valentine (2010), My Week with Marilyn (2011) and Manchester by the Sea (2016), Williams has proved to be one of the world’s best actors.

I ask Williams if she noticed a change, too.

“Yeah, no, it has. For better or for worse. You know what? I love it more. I feel more relaxed in it. I feel more excited to go to work because I feel like I understand it just a little bit more,” says Williams.
“Something changed for me after I played Marilyn Monroe. All of a sudden a character, a performance, didn’t exist from here up,” Williams says, gesturing to her neck. “In s lot of movies, you just feel like a bobbing head in a frame. Marilyn was the first character I played where I felt like I really embodied something, and where my physicality changed drastically. That became really exciting because it’s difficult, and I like that. Since then I’m thinking about a more embodied performance.”

“Are you trying to choose roles that allow you to embrace the physicality of the role?”

“Yes, I think so. I get excited by that. That’s why I’ve been excited by theater recently, because the frame isn’t from here up, the frame is bigger than the eye can see. There’s more to think about, there’s more to express with, there’s more expression that’s available. It’s difficult. I’m like, the harder the better.”

Williams points to All the Money in the World-director Ridley Scott as potentially a kindred spirit in that regard.

“Ridley says he loves stress, that he eats stress for breakfast. I kind of know what he means. I don’t enjoy stress, but I do enjoy a challenge,” says Williams.

In All the Money in the World, Williams plays Gail Harris, the daughter-in-law of J. Paul Getty, the oil magnate who was once the world’s richest man. In 1973, Harris’ son, Getty’s grandson, was kidnapped. J. Paul Getty refused to pay the set ransom.

Williams performance as Harris is stunning in its aforementioned physicality. While the part has built-in emotional heft, as Williams plays a woman dealing with her son’s kidnapping in the harsh public eye, she brings to the role much more than you might expect, giving you the sense of a full, flawed, powerful person somehow navigating an impossible situation. It may be Williams' best performance—one that has already garnered her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.

When I spoke with Ridley Scott, he gave me a lot of quick, to-the-point answers. When I ask him about Michelle, he can barely contain himself.

“Absolute flat out talent. Multi-layered actress. Fantastic. In Gail Harris, you’re looking at a very strong woman. I think Michelle is like that, too. She’s a very—what I love working with Michelle is that she’ll discuss every layer that she’s about to do, and then, having done that, will say ‘well we haven’t done this yet. Do you want to do that?’ You’re always a part of the plan, which is very nice. Sometimes actors and directors can work quite separately and somehow get it done, but there’s a real complicity with her, and I find it very nice.”

Williams, too, is very focused on the actor-director relationship. When I ask her who she most wants to work with from here, she brings up the director of one of the year’s other most acclaimed films, Call Me by Your Name.

“I’m really excited that in the spring I’m working with Luca Guadagnino and I’ve wanted to work with him for a long time. I have to say, I’ve worked with her three times already, but any time Kelly Reichardt would like to call me I’d be very happy to work with her again,” says Williams.

“The more I think about it, I love repeat business. I love working with people that I know, that I’m comfortable with, that I’m intimate with, who there’s a kind of safety in. I’d love to work with Todd Haynes again. I’d love to work with Ang Lee again.”

“Kenneth Lonergan again?” I offer.

“Definitely Kenny Lonergan again. Definitely yes. That is right,” says Williams.

“I look forward to all those projects,” I say.

“Thank you so much! Me too! And now I’m looking forward to some Chicken Noodle Soup!” she sings.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:55 - GMT 06:55