Despite personal tragedy, including the passing of her ex-partner Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams has continued to endure, much to the delight of millions who have watched her films. So what is her story? What did it take to get to where she is now? Here are 50 little-known facts about Michelle Williams.
1. She's Willing to Take Risks
In 1999, while Michelle Williams was just finding her place as an actress in Hollywood, she starred in an off-Broadway play called Killer Joe. This violent play is about a truly dysfunctional family who plots to kill one of their family members for a big payout. It was an opportunity for Williams to show off her skills as a serious actress—but there was just one problem.
2. One of Her Early Roles Was Scandalous
Michelle Williams was cast as the youngest daughter in Killer Joe, a role that required her to appear unclothed onstage, which her conservative parents had more than a few issues with. However, Williams found the experience "cathartic and freeing". Despite that positive experience, however, she did not appear in the movie adaptation of the play which came out in 2011.
3. Her Early Years in Hollywood Were Dark
Moving to Los Angeles ultimately led to Michelle Williams successfully establishing her acting career. However, it also had a terrifying dark side. Her early years in Holly weren't easy, and it involved Williams taking early work that she later described as "embarrassing". In addition, her early search for an acting career led her to meet "some really disgusting people" in LA.
Safe to say we believe her.
4. She Got Caught In Someone Else's Scandal
In November 2017, the usually media-shy Williams made headlines for some behind-the-scenes drama regarding the movie All the Money in the World. After a scandal involving other actors in the movie, the studio decided to undergo extensive reshoots for some scenes in the film. That meant that all the actors had to put aside time in their schedules to come back and finish the movie—but the story doesn't end there.
5. She Fought Back
But when some critics took the time to investigate how the actors were being paid for those reshoots, something a little disturbing came to light: The pay discrepancy between Michelle Williams and her co-star, Mark Walberg, was enormous. Walberg was earning $1.5 million for the new scenes they were forced to film. Michelle, meanwhile, was being paid just an $80 per diem (essentially an allowance for living expenses). That meant her paycheck for the entire reshoots was just a little more than $1000!
6. She Bounced Back
Shortly after Heath Ledger's passing, Williams started a relationship with the auteur-director Spike Jonze. Both Jonze and Williams are decorated movie-makers who are beloved by film critics, and each has a reputation for shunning blockbuster movies in favor of making smaller, more intimate films. It seemed like a good match on paper, but it was doomed to a sad end.
7. Coming Back From Ledger's Passing Was Difficult
Despite all that the relationship had going for it, things between Williams and Jones ended fairly quickly, all for a heartbreaking reason. Williams later said that the timing of the relationship, so soon after the demise of her ex-partner, made it "impossible".
8. She Went Method
Williams starred with Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine, a movie that follows the beginning and end of a couple’s relationship. While they were involved in filming, Williams and Gosling went to extreme lengths to make sure they got the story of the beleaguered couple right. They lived in the same house together for four weeks while making the film.
In addition, they had to live on a budget that matched the characters in the film, which led to some fruitful real-life spats for the production.
9. She Was Scared to Leave Her Daughter
Speaking of Blue Valentine, Michelle Williams initially didn’t want to make the movie since its filming location in California would mean leaving her daughter in Brooklyn, and she didn’t want to be separated from Matilda just two years after the passing of Heath Ledger, Matilda’s father. To assist her, director Derek Cianfrance moved the production to Brooklyn so that Williams could have it both ways.
10. She's From the Treasure State
Michelle Williams was born in Kalispell, Montana, on September 9, 1980. Williams’ father is a stock trader and author, while her mother is a stay-at-home mother. In addition, Williams’ father unsuccessfully ran for a spot in the US Senate two different times. The Williams family lived in Montana until she was 9 years old, when the family moved to California.
11. She's Not Just a Pretty Face
In 1997, Williams followed her father’s path by entering the Robbins World Cup Championship of Futures Trading. Williams took an amount of $10,000 and turned it into $100,000, giving her a return of more than 900%. She became the third most profitable winner of the competition since its inception in 1984.
12. Don’t Let the Bullies Stop You
After moving to California, Michelle Williams was enrolled at Santa Fe Christian School in Solana Beach—but her family's big move quickly turned into a nightmare. Williams was subjected to such severe bullying that she left after finishing grade 9. She finished the rest of her education being home-schooled and eventually graduated with a GED from a correspondence school.
13. She Almost Missed Her Big Break
Michelle Williams’ first credited role on film was the 1994 film Lassie, but she almost didn't get the role—it was originally supposed to go to My Girl star Anna Chlumsky. It was clear that Williams was meant for a career in Hollywood, but things aren't always so easy for child stars...
14. She Emancipated From Her Family
When Williams was 15 years old, she filed for emancipation from her parents. Before you think the worst, though, rest assured she did this with her parents’ approval. Emancipating herself meant that she could pursue an acting career without having to deal with child labor laws hindering employers from hiring her.
15. She's Got a Lot of Famous Friends
At one point in her career, Williams was actually roommates with fellow actress Jessica Chastain. Not only are they still friends to this day, but both women would go on to receive Academy Award nominations in 2012. Williams was also roomies with Christina Ricci while the two made the film Prozac Nation.
16. She Wrote Her Own Script
In 1997, Williams was getting increasingly frustrated by the roles she was being offered. When she found that a few other actor friends of hers were in the same boat, they decided to make their own screenplay together. Titled Blink, the provocative script about working girls operating out of a Nevada bawdy house was never put into production.
17. She Didn't Love Dawson's Creek
In 1998, Williams got a role that would change her life forever when she was cast as Jen on the teen drama Dawson's Creek—but behind the scenes, she found the whole experience punishing. While she credits the show for being her big break and even called it "the best acting class," she has lamented that her heart didn't really belong to that series.
However, the financial stability of the show’s production meant that she could spend her off-time making indie films that she felt more passionate about.
18. She Has a Thing for Musicians
At least for awhile, Michelle Williams had a type: musicians. She dated Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes during her Dawson’s Creek days and singer/songwriter Andy Herod of The Comas. Herod even wrote an album about their relationship after they broke up. On top of that, her first husband Phil Elverum is a musician who performs under the name Mount Eerie.
19. She Has Dawson’s Creek to Thank for Her Best Friend
It was on Dawson’s Creek where Williams met one of the most important people in her life: actress Busy Philipps. The two have been best friends for over 20 years, and the usually media-shy Williams often makes appearances on Philipp’s social media. Philipps is also godmother to Matilda, Williams’ daughter with Heath Ledger.
20. She’s a Serious Reader
Apart from music, Williams is a also a big book lover and has been for a long time—diving into Dostoevsky when she was only 12. She said that one of her big childhood crushes was on a boy who gave her a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Obviously, the way to Michelle Williams's heart is through a good book.
21. She’s a Trend-Setter
Williams is well known for her short, platinum blond pixie-cut hairstyle. In fact, this look inspired none other than pop star Katy Perry to adopt a similar look. Perry even called out Williams as her inspiration on social media in 2017.
22. Her Haircut is a Poignant Tribute
Williams has kept this short cut for nearly a decade, but few know the heartbreaking reasons behind the decision. While she says that her daughter Matilda would love for her to grow it out, that she keeps it short in honor of the one man in her life who really loved it—Heath Ledger.
23. She’s Suffered From Self-Doubt
It's hard to imagine someone who's seen so much success (and who has won so many awards) experiencing much doubt in their own abilities. But as Williams once put it during an interview with the Guardian, she spends a good chunk of her time wondering, "What did I do today and was it any good? Was it good enough to justify the time I missed out on with my daughter? The time I put into it?"
24. Life Imitated Art for Her
There’s an eerie connection between Williams and the fate of her character Jen in Dawson’s Creek. In real life, Williams was left to raise her young daughter Matilda alone after the demise of her ex-partner, Heath Ledger. In the final episode of Dawson’s Creek, which aired many years before, Jen, mother to a young daughter, dies of a terminal heart condition.
25. She Didn’t Know How to Take Care of Herself
Making Dawson’s Creek meant that Williams had to move to Wilmington, NC, solo to film the show. She ended up living alone in a one-bedroom apartment at 18, and like many others her age, found it difficult to take care of herself. Williams confessed that she slept on a mat on the floor and subsisted solely off of pasta and pizza at first.
Becoming a star doesn’t always mean a glamorous lifestyle overnight!
26. Her Dreams Finally Came True
In the years following the end of Dawson’s Creek, Williams finally had the star power to make the career choices that she’d wanted to make all along. She appeared mostly in indie films, some of which were hits, some of which were not—but most of the time, critics praised her performances.
27. She Was a Wild Child
Both Williams and her Prozac Nation co-star Christina Ricci were 19 years old when they made the movie in Canada—and they took advantage of lower legal drinking age there during filming. Williams said that they went out every night and that it was a "dark time" for both actresses.
28. Jen and Joey Never Became BFFs
Williams has kept up with some, if not all of her Dawson’s Creek castmates following the 2003 series finale of the show. She cheered on James Van der Beek when he appeared on Dancing With the Stars, but did reveal that she didn’t attend Katie Holmes’ wedding to Tom Cruise, and that the two haven’t kept in touch.
29. An Important Film Made Her Career—And Changed Her Life
After a few years toiling in indie films, Williams was cast in a role that would change her life. The film was Brokeback Mountain, and she’d be playing the role of Heath Ledger’s wife—but it almost didn’t happen. Ledger wasn’t sure if he was mature enough to play the role, and it was his then-girlfriend, Naomi Watts, who encouraged him to go for it.
30. She Fell in Love With Ledger While Working Together
In the film, Williams’ character looks on as Ledger, playing her husband, falls in love with another man. Behind the scenes, it was quite the opposite situation, as the two co-stars fell in love over the course of the movie’s production.
31. She Used Their Real-Life Relationship for Her Performance
Williams actually used their romantic involvement to prepare for a pivotal scene in the film, where her character is heartbroken to catch Ledger’s and Gyllenhaal’s characters in an embrace. To elicit that particular feeling, she asked them to kiss in front of her multiple times—and then got mad when they weren’t passionate enough about it.
32. They Moved Fast
Williams’ and Ledger’s relationship was something of a whirlwind. They became involved quickly, and soon, Williams found out she was pregnant. She actually gave birth to their daughter Matilda before the film had even premiered!
33. The Film Was a Great Success…Except for One Thing
Brokeback Mountain was a success critically and commercially, earning a slew of Oscar nominations after its release. It netted Williams her first nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and she attended the awards with Ledger at her side—but the film’s story didn’t end there.
34. The Oscars Left the Audience in Shock
While Williams, Ledger, and Jake Gyllenhaal had all been nominated in the acting categories, none had won. It was also up for Best Picture and was favored to win, but when the winner was announced, the audience let out an audible gasp of shock. Instead, Crash had won. Years later, members of the Academy were polled, and many said that awarding Crash over Brokeback Mountain was the decision they regretted the most.
35. You Can't Please Everyone
Sadly, despite the popularity of Brokeback Mountain, Williams was still the subject of some bigoted criticism from an unlikely source. The headmaster of the Christian school that Williams attended as a girl spoke out against the content of the film. Williams’ reply was utterly devastating. She said "It didn’t bother me what my old headmaster said. I never really liked him much anyway. […] There are always going to be people with contrary opinions but I’m awfully proud of the film".
36. It Wouldn't Be Her Last Nomination
Michelle Williams has received four Academy Award nominations for her performances in the films Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain, Manchester by the Sea, and My Week with Marilyn. She actually holds a record for the most nominations for an actress born in the 1980s.
37. She Does a Lot for Matilda
Williams reportedly took a role in 2013's Oz The Great and Powerful so that her daughter, Matilda, could watch something featuring her mother. We’re just hoping that Matilda wasn’t too scared by Mila Kunis’ performance as the Wicked Witch!
38. She Can Carry a Tune
It turns out that not only can Williams write and act, she can also sing. As of 2018, Williams has provided her voice to the soundtracks of four of her movies (The Greatest Showman, My Week with Marilyn, The Baxter, and The United States of Leland). She’s also sung onstage, including in a revival of Cabaret.
39. She Left Town After Their Breakup
In 2007, Williams and Ledger separated, and she left their home in Brooklyn in order to make the indie film Wendy & Lucy in Portland, Oregon. The filming location lent her a sense of anonymity after a high-profile breakup and the film was a critical hit, with many praising her performance—but dark tragedy lurked around the corner.
40. Ledger's Passing Affected Her Deeply
While Williams was making the film Mammoth in Sweden, she received devastating news—her ex-partner Heath Ledger had passed on after an accidental overdose in New York. At his memorial in Australia two weeks later, Williams was there, mourning alongside his immediate family. Touchingly, Heath’s father Kim said that Williams would always be considered part of their family.
41. Almost the End
Speaking in an interview almost a decade after Ledger's passing, Michelle described the period immediately afterward as one of the hardest times of her life. She said that life became "unmanageable"... partly because she was trying to raise her and Ledger's young daughter, Matilda, without allowing the media circus to affect her childhood.
All that stress apparently caused Williams to seriously consider retirement from acting.
42. She Didn't Want to Play Monroe
During the casting process for My Week with Marilyn, Williams was considered alongside Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson for the title role of the tragic screen siren. At first, Williams was so hesitant to play the part that she turned down the people who approached her. Ultimately, despite being convinced that the role of Marilyn Monroe was too different of a person for her to play, she realized that the offer was impossible to refuse.
43. It Was a Career-Defining Role
Williams' gamble paid off in the form of an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for her role in My Week With Marilyn the following year. As she said, "As soon as I finished the script, I knew that I wanted to do it, and then I spent six months trying to talk myself out of it. But I always knew that I never really had a choice. I've started to believe that you get the piece of material that you were ready for".
44. She Explored Her Options
In the years following My Week With Marilyn, Williams has switched between indie films, high-budget productions, and theater roles with ease. She's also had a number of relationships, some more high-profile than others, including one with actor Jason Segel. In 2018, she had last been spotted with a New York financial consultant Andrew Youman, which made the next revelation she dropped all the more surprising.
45. She Got Married Incredibly Quickly
In a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair, Michelle Williams dropped a shocker: she'd secretly gotten married, and not to Youman. She had found common ground with indie musician Phil Elverum. Williams had lost her partner to an overdose and was raising her daughter alone, while Elverum had lost his wife to a long battle with cancer and was also raising a child alone.
The union seemed like a happy ending for all involved—until everything unraveled.
46. She Was Stalked by the Press
After Ledger's passing, the press hounded Williams at every turn, hoping to catch an elusive picture of the grieving starlet. Williams wound up leaving New York City with Matilda, taking her to different film sets with her and to a house upstate when she wasn't working. She said that it was so bad at one point that she found a flyer in her small-town post office asking local residents who had spotted her to call a dedicated number.
47. Their Marriage Lasted Less Than a Year
Williams' marriage to Elverum was the first relationship she'd really addressed publically. About him, she shared "I am finally loved by someone who makes me feel free"—but within a year, the newlyweds would be separated, and in April of 2019, they filed for divorce. While it was reportedly an amicable split, there were allegations that Williams had been having an on-set dalliance.
48. She Came Back to TV
In 2018, Williams began working on the FX series Fosse/Verdon opposite Sam Rockwell. The series was helmed by Hamilton alums Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail. The show has been a critical success, with Williams winning both a Primetime Emmy and a Golden Globe for her action—but that's not the only thing she got out of the show.
49. She Rebounded Quick
In December 2019, just months after her divorce from Elverum, it was announced that Williams and director Thomas Kail were not only engaged, but also expecting a child together. The timeline raised many eyebrows and sparked rumors that she'd stepped out on Elverum with Kail. In 2020, it was reported that Kail and Williams had secretly wed.
50. Her Reaction to Ledger's Demise Was Devastating
When Heath Ledger tragically passed on, his ex-partner Williams was busy filming the movie Mammoth in Sweden. The rest of filming, according to Williams, was "horrible," and she admitted that she couldn’t even "remember most of it".