The untold truth of Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams is a national treasure. Over her celebrated, 20-plus year career, she's been nominated for four Oscars, weathered a high-profile love affair and the subsequent sad loss of her ex-partner, and turned up on red carpets accompanied by her hetero life-mate, and fellow Dawson's Creek alum, Busy Philipps.  

Through it all, Williams has remained remarkably grounded and, whisper it, normal. Interviewers consistently comment on how quiet and unassuming the actress is in person. She's yet to suffer a major scandal, in spite of starting her career as a teenager. The real Michelle Williams, the truth of who she is as a person, is just like you and me: a strong, quietly confident young woman and single mother just trying to do the best job she can. 

She first made a splash in Baywatch

Williams' TV debut was as a bikini-clad paramour of The Hoff's on-screen son, in the hit '90s show Baywatch—the requisite "hot chick" if you will. Appearing in two episodes, one uncredited (listed as "Hobie's Groupie" because evidently there was a character named Hobie on this show for some reason), Williams made a real, er, splash opposite some of the coolest cats of the decade.

Truthfully, this is mainly down to Williams' character's odd manner of jogging around the beach in a semicircle, almost as though she's waiting for her cue. It isn't exactly the deepest moment for an actress who'd go on to make us sob into our sleeves in Manchester By The Sea, but she's still gorgeously fresh-faced and instantly memorable here. The role, in a weird sort of way, also prepared her for Jen Lindley, Williams' most famous character and the most nuanced "hot chick" imaginable. 

She was home-schooled for an unlikely reason

Given Williams began her career very young, it makes sense she was home-schooled (as many actors are). However, the reasoning behind this decision had less to do with her job and more to do with the reaction of schoolmates to her new schedule.  

In an interview with GQ, Williams dead-panned, "There's plenty of opportunities to tease someone who's been in a Lassie movie," suggesting her fellow students might not have been so understanding about her blossoming career. More egregiously, the principal of her final formal school (a Christian institution in San Diego) denounced the actress for appearing in Brokeback Mountain, noting at the time that "Michelle doesn't represent the values of this institution."

To her credit, when pressed by the interviewer, Williams brushed these comments off. She even noted that once her mother told her not to do anything her grandmother wouldn't see. Williams said, "And at that point I knew I was living a sinful artistic career, because I had done, and I knew I would do."

She was emancipated from her parents at 15

Likewise, although Williams' emancipation from her parents at the age of just 15 is well-known, the reality of this time in her life is not. She discussed with Elle how "very, very lonely" and like "prey" she felt living by herself in L.A. as a kid. Williams has also been quick to point out that the emancipation happened "to get around child labor laws" rather than due to issues at home. 

She managed to complete her high school diploma via a correspondence course, but it was a lonely, isolated time for her. And, although it was a practical decision, it left Williams without a safety net. She's hinted about darker experiences from that time (as an interviewer from The Telegraph noted) but will not elaborate further. However, she did tell another interviewer from the same publication that she doesn't regret the decision, "Because I know how the story ends… I did discover along the way that I loved to do it [acting]."

She had no idea how to take care of herself while on Dawson's Creek

It was during this difficult time that Williams landed the biggest role of her career as Jen Lindley on Dawson's Creek. At just 17 years old, Williams was still practically a baby. She even acknowledged, in conversation with The Telegraph, that she would never let her own daughter take that step alone, for her career, as she did. 

Williams noted, "Living alone in a little apartment was terrible." She only knew how to cook pasta, and would make far too much, or she'd cook two pizzas at a time, one stashed in the fridge for breakfast. She even admitted to sleeping "on an egg crate on the floor." However, Williams is also quick to note that, in telling these stories, she's simply being factual and isn't looking to throw "a pity party" for herself. "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.

Her most well-known role informed her entire 20s

Playing Dawson's Creek's wild, untamed bad girl Jen turned Williams into a household name. Rather than rest on her laurels, however, she purposefully moved away from doing the "hot chick" stuff subsequently, telling GQ that she turned towards the "dumpy-friend" or "dumpy-sister" roles throughout her 20s to avoid being typecast.

Williams also found it difficult to come to terms with her own sexuality after years of, as she describes it, "playing for men." This method backfired on her in a way, though. In her 30s, the actress found herself more drawn to the sexier roles again, leading her to play the one and only Marilyn Monroe in 2011's My Week With Marilyn. "That kind of ripe sexuality, when you hit your thirties you feel more in possession of it," she explained, even though her prior decade was spent "running away from it." 

She's fiercely independent

Any kid who's legally separated from her parents at the age of 15 would, one would hope, establish a sense of independence as a result. Williams, however, credits her father with gifting her a fierce desire to make it on her own, telling GQ that he taught her how to fish and shoot clay pigeons, among other outdoorsy survival activities. He also had a habit of "putting books" in her hands, encouraging the young Williams to further her horizons by reading. 

She even hid the fact she needed a map when she was first living in New York, and would stash it whenever anybody else was around. "I didn't know what I was doing at so many points in my life that I felt that if I had stopped and admitted that I didn't know what I was doing then I would be really lost, and the best thing to do was to just keep forging and to act like you were okay." Williams would then, by her own admission, rather wander around lost than be seen to not know where she is going.

She's a voracious reader

Williams' father's habit of forcing books on her stuck, as the actress is a voracious reader to this day. Effortlessly reciting Dostoevsky for her GQ interviewer, she revealed how her father had given her his Notes From The Underground when she was just 12. Although feigning an interest in Nietzsche and Dostoevsky is an affectation with which many young actors straining for seriousness are afflicted, the interviewer notes in this case it's genuine.

Speaking of young actors trying their hardest to be taken seriously in spite of all evidence to the contrary, Williams notes in that very same sit-down that she was at the time attending "the James Franco school." Thankfully, this doesn't mean literally taking classes from the actor (with whom she co-starred in Oz the Great and Powerful) but rather getting reading recommendations from him. Williams also notes that she found one particular book useful in coping after the death of Heath Ledger, quoting a line that helped her find peace at the time.

She found life unmanageable in the wake of Heath Ledger's death

Her one-time partner's death came as a shock to fans around the world, but Williams and Matilda, the young daughter of whom she shared custody with Ledger, understandably took the brunt of it. The paparazzi intrusion was so severe that, in a follow-up interview with The Guardian in December 2016, the journalist in question noted the last time they'd spoken Williams had asked him to fudge the details of where she was then living in an attempt to get some privacy.

Although Williams and Ledger separated in 2007, that didn't make Ledger's death from an accidental overdose any easier on the young mother. Particularly as everybody seemed intent on forcing her to discuss the details of the tragic event. Naturally she was most concerned with the effect on Matilda, describing life back then as "unmanageable" and telling the interviewer that it was an impossible situation "to explain to a kid."

Her emotional role in Blue Valentine forced her back to work

Following the death of Ledger, Williams found it difficult to focus on anything, pouring all of her energy into raising Matilda and trying to create a normal routine for her. She even considered giving up acting altogether, telling The Telegraph, "I just stopped taking in the world outside me, and when you stop doing that what's there to act about?" In 2008, director Derek Cianfrance contacted the actress with what he assumed was good news; Blue Valentine, the emotional relationship drama they'd been trying to make for the previous five years, was finally ready to go. The only issue was Williams had no desire to return to work.

Ledger had passed away in January of that same year and, in an effort to create a more stable environment for their daughter, Williams had promised she'd be there to drop her to school each day, tuck her into bed each night, and do all the other normal stuff parents do. After telling Cianfrance she couldn't do the movie and the reasons why, he was so impressed with her commitment to Matilda that he moved the entire production so Williams could remain close to her. She told The Telegraph it was "the best thing that anyone's ever offered me." 

Theater will always be her difficult first love

In the wake of unspeakable tragedy in her personal life, and her unwillingness to return to the movie career she'd long fostered, Williams returned to her difficult first love, the theater. As she revealed to GQ, a production of Killer Joe, which she took part in when she was just 18 (while on break from Dawson's Creek), left an indelible mark on her psyche. "That play, I see it as a direct link from there to where I am now," Williams said, referring to how she'd taken the role instead of a high-paying job on a movie. 

Although she saw a therapist afterwards, at the behest of her parents, Williams' love of theater never wavered. She returned to the stage in 2003, following the end of Dawson's Creek, and later made her Broadway debut in 2014 as Sally Bowles in Cabaret. In conversation with Elle UK, Williams explained that the appeal of theater is how "incredibly difficult and so challenging" it is, which makes it "hugely rewarding." 

She spent much of the time between shooting Certain Women and Manchester By The Sea, from 2014-2016, appearing in Cabaret and Blackbird (for which she earned a Tony nomination), a deliberate decision to step out of the limelight for a bit.

She desires a sense of normalcy

While Williams' desperation to create a sense of normalcy in the wake of Ledger's death led her to ask a Guardian journalist to lie on her behalf about where she was living, in a more recent chat Williams noted how their lives are now "as normal as anyone else's."

She subsequently divulged to Elle that she had since re-settled back in Brooklyn. The interviewer notes that the woman standing in front of her hardly resembles the fragile little creature so often described by directors and the media alike. Williams had found unwanted fame thanks to her relationship with Ledger, but the two found their place amidst Brooklyn's then relatively untouched bohemian landscape. The actress and her young daughter have clearly tapped into that very normalcy once again.

Her one true love isn't a romantic partner

Following Ledger's death, Williams has been linked to many famous and eligible men, including fellow actor Jason Segel. But the one constant relationship in her life, aside from that with Matilda, is shared with fellow Dawson's Creek alum Busy Philipps. At a screening of Manchester By The Sea back in 2016, she enthused to People that her date for the evening was proof that "the love of your life does not have to be a man! That's the love of my life right there." 

The two are frequently snapped on red carpets together, as well as popping up all over each other's social media. Vulture assembled an exhaustive run-down of all the milestones in their best friendship, from starring on Dawson's Creek together to practically every single time they've gushed about each other in the media (which is a lot). Williams even thanked Philipps when she won her Best Actress Golden Globe back in 2012 for My Week With Marilyn. The two appeared together onscreen again in Cougar Town, with Williams playing against type as Philipps' character's wild foster sister.

She worries things will never be "right" for her daughter

Although Williams has fought hard to make things as normal for her daughter as possible, she still worries that Matilda's life will forever be negatively impacted by the loss of her father. In an interview with Porter magazine (via Vanity Fair), she admitted that as much as she tries to keep everything ticking over, in this particular case, "it just won't ever be right." 

Speaking about the time immediately following Ledger's death, she told Elle, "If you feel like people are watching you, it's impossible to have an authentic experience of being alive." Williams also divulged that, if she weren't an actress, she hopes she'd at least still have children as she loves being a mother. In that same interview, Philipps reveals that her BFF's approach to motherhood, prior to giving birth, was as though "she was taking an advanced course in child-rearing." Williams put her reading habits to good use by devouring everything on the topic, much to her buddy's bemusement. 

She approaches everything like it's a PhD

As it turns out, Williams tends to approach pretty much everything she cares about as though she's studying for a PhD. She told Elle, "I feel like a kid in school all the time," while Kenneth Lonergan, who directed her in Manchester By The Sea, described this attention to detail as her being genuinely interested in her craft and "not just in being a movie star." 

Philipps further solidifies this idea of Williams as somebody who thinks hard about her work and what kind of actor she's going to be. Speaking about her friend's impressive career trajectory after Dawson's Creek, Philipps revealed, "She's not giving herself enough credit. I know the things that she was turning down — big TV shows. She really held out. She didn't want to continue down the same path." Hard work and persistence clearly paid off, if those Oscar nods are any indication. 

She gets jealous when Kelly Reichardt casts other people

Williams has collaborated with director Kelly Reichardt on three critically-acclaimed projects, the most recent of which, Certain Women, was her big-screen return (alongside Manchester By The Sea) following a two-year break. The duo clearly have a close bond, but Williams revealed to The Guardian that it goes beyond a simple working relationship, admitting, "I am jealous of every other actor Kelly works with." 

On Meek's Cutoff, their second collaboration, Williams even cried to her director about how she missed it when it was just them (on Wendy and Lucy). As she recalled, Reichardt replied unsympathetically, telling her, "Michelle, I have to deal with other people now. And cattle. Grow up." In an interview with TIME, Williams emphatically explained she keeps going back to Reichardt because, "Hers are the only movies that I'm in that I can watch and forget that it's me, because I get so absorbed by the filmmaking and the storytelling. She is singularly in pursuit of a kind of truth that I find really appealing."

She still worries whether she's any good at what she does

It may be difficult to believe coming from someone who has won a Golden Globe and a Tony award and been nominated for no less than four Oscars, but Williams still doubts her abilities as a performer.

She's worked with a who's who of amazing directors, from Lonergan to Reichardt, dipping into big-budget and indie films alike with ease. But Williams says what makes her lie awake at night "is 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?' That's what I find hard to live with," she told The Guardian.  

To an outsider, it sounds crazy, but the reality of Michelle Williams has always been her innate desire to do her absolute best while simultaneously feeling like it's not good enough.