“Every movie I make I find kind of excruciating. I get a lot back from it, but I feel like I’m kind of always working at the edge of my ability. I guess that’s what I’m looking for when I go to work. I am trying to become the edge.” —Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams is a highly acclaimed actress who has made her name on film, stage, and television alike. After cementing her fame with the teen drama series Dawson’s Creek, Williams went on to indie films in the 2000s, earning a reputation as a serious actress who wasn’t afraid to tackle a variety of subject matter. Despite personal tragedy, including the death of her ex-partner Heath Ledger, she 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? Read these facts and find out!
36. Origin Story
Williams was born in Kalispell, Montana, on the 9th of September 1980. She lived there until she was nine, when the family moved to California.
35. Oscar Love
As of 2018, 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.
34. Hi Mom!
Williams reportedly took a role in 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!
33. A Star is Born
Michelle made her first TV appearance in one of the most popular shows of its era: Baywatch.
The 14-year-old Williams was portraying a character without much substance (her only real participation in the story was as a love interest), but she still managed to make an impact. And Williams would later cite her short stint on Baywatch as incredible preparation and practice for her later role on Dawson’s Creek.
32. Did Either of Them Fall Down a Well?
Williams’ first credited role on film was the 1994 film Lassie. Interestingly, her future Shutter Island co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio, had also appeared in a Lassie project when he was 15 years old, specifically The New Lassie.
31. No One is Safe From the Bullies
You might think that life as 14-year-old actress is all roses. After all, what red-blooded North American teenager would say no to making it in Hollywood?
But according to Williams, her early roles in productions like Lassie and Baywatch left her open to some criticism from her less-famous peers.
“There’s plenty of opportunities to tease someone who’s been in a Lassie movie,” she once told GQ Magazine.
30. Vote for Dad
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.
29. Initial Adversity
Moving to Los Angeles ultimately led to Williams successfully establishing her acting career. However, like with any established actor or actress, the journey was not 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.
28. Thanks, Mark Twain
Williams’ fascination for acting began when she, as a child, went to a stage production based on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
27. Sticking Together
One director with whom Williams has developed a great working relationship is Kelly Reichardt. She has appeared in three Reichardt films as of 2018: Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Certain Women.
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.
25. Don’t Let the Bullies Stop You
Williams was enrolled at Santa Fe Christian School in Solana Beach, California. Sadly, however, she was subjected to such severe bullying that she left after finishing Grade 9. She finished the rest of her education being home-schooled and “later graduated with a GED from a correspondence school.”
24. Close Quarters
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 lived in the same house together for four weeks to make sure they got the chemistry right. 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.
23. New York New York
Speaking of Blue Valentine, 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 death 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.
22. If You Want Something Done Right…
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 script was apparently sold successfully, but it has yet to go into production.
21. Balancing Work and Art
Despite the fact that Williams’ star was born due to her role on Dawson’s Creek, and despite her praising of the experience as “the best acting class,” she has lamented that her heart didn’t really belong to that series.
As she told Vanity Fair years later, “I had a steady gig, which was great,” she says, “but I didn’t have the thing I most wanted, which was respect and a good sense of myself—I wasn’t viewed as an artist.”
20. Independent Woman
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.
19. Living Alone Ain’t Easy
Her earlier emancipation from her parents meant that by the time Williams was appearing on Dawson’s Creek, at only 17 years old, she was already learning how to live on her own.
Williams has said “Living alone in a little apartment was terrible. All I can say is that I am very lucky to have survived it healthy, whole and functioning, that whatever got broken got put back together.”
Thankfully, her career trajectory continued.
18. Expanding Artistically
As we discussed earlier, there’s no doubt that Michelle was conflicted about her time on Dawson’s Creek. But there was an undeniable advantage to appearing on such a successful show: the financial stability of the show’s production meant that she spent her off-time making indie films that she felt more passionate about.
It’s that exact commitment to her art which has ended up becoming the hallmark of her career. It’s also likely what has landed her roles in so many oscar-winning productions.
17. Music in Your Soul
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.
16. Just Can’t Wait to Be Janis
Speaking of music, Williams will be acting in the upcoming musical Annette, opposite Adam Driver. In addition, she’s agreed to play legendary musician Janis Joplin in a biopic about her. We can’t wait to see which of Joplin’s songs will get the Michelle Williams treatment.
15. Not Interested In Sexy
Williams is proud of having taken on roles that subverted the usual Hollywood gender norms.
“I really wanted to do that,” she once told Vanity Fair “When you play sexy you’re kind of playing just for men. That is something you have to police and turn it on its head. I mean, sexuality has been a part of my work, obviously…Blue Valentine…but it’s never been sexy, it hasn’t been beautiful.”
14. A Bold Choice
In 2005, Michelle appeared in Brokeback Mountain, which would become one of the most critically-beloved movies of the year.
Taking on the role, though, was a brave decision. Her character in Brokeback is a tired and unhappy one. In keeping with her attitudes toward gender-roles in acting, it was a character that many mainstream actresses might have shied away from.
13. Unlikely Couple?
Despite playing a dysfunctional couple in Brokeback Mountain, Williams and co-star Heath Ledger began dating during production. In 2005, their daughter, Matilda, was born.
12. Don’t Be Nervous, Go 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.
11. Marilyn = Oscar
Her gamble paid off in the form of an Oscar nomination 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.”
Williams is well known for her short, blond 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.
9. Double Standard
Michelle Williams recently revealed that she is now married to musician Phil Elverum. Both Williams and Elverum have suffered horrible losses: Williams famous lost Ledger, and Elverum lost his wife to cancer in 2016.
When the news of William’s new relationship broke, Heath Ledger’s father Kim put out a statement saying he was “terribly happy” for the couple.
Now that is wholesome.
8. Consummate Professional
When Heath Ledger tragically died from an intoxication from prescription drugs, 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.”
7. Almost the End
Speaking in an interview almost a decade after Ledger’s death, 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 a retirement from acting. Let’s all be happy she reconsidered!
6. Bad Timing
Shortly after Heath Ledger’s death, Williams started a relationship with the auteur-director Spike Jonze.
It seems like a good match on paper. 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.
But despite all that the relationship had going for it, things ended fairly quickly. Williams later said that the timing of the relationship, so soon after the death of her ex-husband, made it “impossible”.
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. In fact, we usually think of celebrities as people with an almost unimaginable level of self-confidence.
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?”
4. A SERIOUS Reader
Some young actors try to earn their legitimacy by faking a certain amount of intellectual depth. They publically claim to be big readers, or serious film critics… but they don’t actually care much about the content. They just want to come across as a real artist.
Not so for Williams. In an interview with GQ, she went into detail about her love for books:
“My dad gave me Notes from the Underground when I was 12,” she said, referring to the dark, existential novel by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. It’s a heavy, heavy book… but Michelle has said that reading it sparked her love for novels of all kinds.
And that love for reading apparently extends to her actual love life as well. Describing an old friend from childhood she said, “Oh, I had such a crush on him. He gave me Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
Obviously, the way to Michelle Williams’s heart is through a good book.
3. All The Money In The World
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 some scandals involving other actors in the movie, the studio decided to undergo extensive re-shoots of some scenes in the film. That meant all the actors had to put aside time in their schedules to come back and finish the movie.
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 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!
2. Let’s Make Some Money!
Speaking of all the money in the world…
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 highest winner of the competition since its inception in 1984.
1. A Daring Role
In 1999, while she was finding her place as an actress in Hollywood, Williams 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. Cast as the youngest daughter, Williams’ role required her to be nude 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 Killer Joe, which came out in 2011.