Born: September 9, 1980
Birthplace: Kalispell, Montana, U.S.
Michelle Ingrid Williams (born September 9, 1980) is an American actress. She is the recipient of several accolades, including a Golden Globe Award and has been nominated for four Academy Awards and one Tony Award.
The daughter of the politician and trader Larry R. Williams, Williams was raised in Kalispell, Montana and San Diego, California. She began her career at a young age with television guest appearances, and made her feature film debut in the family film Lassie (1994). At 15, she gained emancipation from her parents, and soon achieved public recognition for her leading role in the television teen drama series Dawson's Creek (1998-2003). She followed it by featuring in small-scale films that were not widely seen, before achieving her breakthrough with the tragic romance Brokeback Mountain (2005), for which she received her first Oscar nomination.
Williams went on to gain critical acclaim for playing emotionally troubled women in several independent films, including the dramas Wendy and Lucy (2008), Blue Valentine (2010), and Manchester by the Sea (2016). For portraying the actress Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn (2011), she won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress. Williams' highest-grossing releases came with Martin Scorsese's thriller Shutter Island (2010), the fantasy film Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), and the musical The Greatest Showman (2017). On Broadway, Williams has starred in revivals of the musical Cabaret in 2014 and the drama Blackbird in 2016. For the latter, she received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.
Williams is reticent about her personal life. She was in a relationship with the actor Heath Ledger for three years, with whom she has a daughter.
Williams was born on September 9, 1980 in Kalispell, Montana to Carla, a homemaker, and Larry R. Williams, an author and commodities trader. She is of Norwegian descent. When she was a child, her father twice ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate as a Republican Party nominee. In Kalispell, Williams lived with her younger sister, Paige, and three half-siblings from her father's first marriage. Although she described her family as "not terribly closely knit”, she shared a close bond with her father, who encouraged her to form a reading habit and develop an independent personality. Williams has recounted fond memories of her growing up in the vast landscape of Montana. The family relocated to San Diego, California, when she was nine. She said of the experience, "It was less happy probably by virtue of it being my preteen years, which are perhaps unpleasant wherever you go." She mostly kept to herself and was self-sufficient.
Williams became interested in acting at an early age when she saw a local production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She performed in a local production of the musical Annie, and her parents would drive her from San Diego to Los Angeles to audition for parts. Her first screen appearance was as Bridget Bowers, a young woman who seduces Mitch Buchannon's son, Hobie, in a 1993 episode of the television series Baywatch. The following year, she made her film debut in the family film Lassie, about a young boy's (played by Tom Guiry) bond with the titular dog. Williams played the love interest of Guiry's character, which led Steven Gaydos of Variety to take note of her "winning perf". She next took on guest roles in the television sitcoms Step by Step and Home Improvement, and appeared in the brief part of Sil, a character played in adulthood by the actress Natasha Henstridge, in the 1995 science fiction film Species.
By 1995, Williams had completed ninth grade at Santa Fe Christian Schools in San Diego. However, she disliked going there as she did not get along with other students. To focus on her acting pursuits, she left the school and enrolled for in-home tutoring. At age 15, with her parents' approval, Williams filed for emancipation from them, so she could better pursue her acting career with less interference from child labor work laws. To comply with their guidelines, she completed her GED through correspondence in nine months. She later regretted not getting a proper education.
Following her emancipation, Williams relocated to Los Angeles, and lived by herself in Burbank. Describing her initial experience in the city, she said, "There are some really disgusting people in the world, and I met some of them." To support herself, she took assignments in low-budget films and commercials. She had minor roles in the television films My Son is Innocent (1996) and Killing Mr. Griffin (1997), and featured alongside Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange in the drama film A Thousand Acres (1997). Williams later described her early work as "embarrassing", saying that she took these roles to support herself as she "didn’t have any taste ideals". At 17, unhappy with the roles she was being offered, Williams collaborated with two other actresses to write a script named Blink, about prostitutes living in a Nevada brothel, which despite selling to a production company was never made.
In 1998, Williams began starring in the television teen drama series Dawson's Creek, created by Kevin Williamson and co-starring James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson. The series aired for six seasons from January 1998 to May 2003, and featured Williams as Jen Lindley, a precocious and promiscuous New York-based teenager who relocates to the fictional town of Capeside. The series was filmed in the small-town of Wilmington, North Carolina, where Williams relocated for the next six years; she preferred living there over Los Angeles. In a review of the first season for The New York Times, Caryn James considered the series to be "pure soap, redeemed by intelligence and sharp writing" and found Williams "too earnest to suit this otherwise shrewdly tongue-in-cheek cast". Ray Richmond of Variety labelled it "an addictive drama with considerable heart" and found all four leads to be "highly appealing". Dawson's Creek was a rating's success and raised Williams' profile, but she found it difficult to come to terms with her sudden fame. Her first film release since the commencement of Dawson's Creek was the slasher film Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), starring Jamie Lee Curtis. The seventh instalment in the Halloween film series, it featured Williams as one of several teenagers traumatised by a murderer. It earned $55 million against its $17 million budget.
Williams credited Dawson's Creek as "the best acting class", but later admitted that she had not been fully invested in it as "my taste was in contradiction to what I was doing every single day". She filmed the series for nine months each year, and spent the remaining time playing against type in independent features, which she considered to be a better fit to her personality. She said that the financial stability of a steady job empowered her to act in such films. Williams found her first such role in the comedy Dick (1999), a parody about the Watergate scandal, in which she and Kirsten Dunst played young girls obsessed with Richard Nixon. Praising the film's political satire, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly credited both actresses for playing their roles with "screwball verve". Also that year, Williams played a small part in But I'm a Cheerleader, a satirical comedy about conversion therapy.
Keen to play challenging roles in adult-oriented projects, Williams spent the summer of 1999 starring in an Off-Broadway play named Killer Joe. Penned by Tracy Letts, it is a black comedy about a dysfunctional family who kill their matriarch for insurance money; Williams was cast as the family's youngest daughter. The production featured gruesome violence and required Williams to perform a nude scene. Her socially conservative parents were displeased with it, but Williams said that she found it "cathartic and freeing". Her next role was in the HBO television film If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), a drama about three lesbian couples in different time periods. Williams agreed to the part after ensuring that a sex scene between Chloë Sevigny and her was pertinent to the story and was not meant to titillate. In a mixed review of the film, Ken Tucker criticized Williams for overplaying her character's eagerness. When asked about playing a series of sexual roles, Williams said, "I don't think of any of them as sexy, hot girls. They were just defined at an early age by the fact that others saw them that way." She subsequently made an effort to play roles that were not sexualized.
The British film Me Without You (2001) about an obsessive female friendship featured Williams opposite Anna Friel. She played Holly, an insecure bibliophile, a part Williams believed came closest to her personality. The writer-director Sandra Goldbacher was initially reluctant to cast an American in a British part, but was impressed by Williams' self-depreciating humor and a "European stillness" that she found in her. Roger Ebert praised Williams' British accent and found her to be "cuddly and smart both at once". Williams returned to stage the following year in a production of Mike Leigh's farce Smelling a Rat. Her part, that of a scatterbrained teenager exploring her sexuality, led Karl Levett of Backstage to credit her for being "a first-class creative comedienne". Also in 2002, Williams played a supporting role in the Christina Ricci-starring Prozac Nation, a drama about depression based on Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoir.
Dawson's Creek completed its run in 2003, and Williams was pleased with how it had ended. She relocated to New York City soon after. She had supporting parts in two art-house films that year—the drama The United States of Leland and the comedy-drama The Station Agent. In the former, starring Ryan Gosling, she played the grieving sister of a murdered boy. Reviews of the film were mostly negative, with The Globe and Mail's Liam Lacey calling it "neither an insightful nor well-made film". The Station Agent, about a lonely dwarf (played by Peter Dinklage), featured Williams as a librarian who develops an attraction towards him. Critically acclaimed, the film's cast was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. On stage, Williams played Varya in a 2004 production of Anton Chekhov's drama The Cherry Orchard, alongside Linda Emond and Jessica Chastain, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The theatre critic Ben Brantley wrote that "she cannily plays her natural vibrancy against the anxiety that has worn the young Varya into a permanent high-strung sullenness".
The German filmmaker Wim Wenders wrote the film Land of Plenty (2004), which investigates anxiety and disillusionment in a post-9/11 America, with Williams in mind. Kevin Thomas of Los Angeles Times praised Wenders' thoughtful examination of the subject and took note of Williams' "quietly lovely" appeal. She received a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead for the film. Williams next appeared in Imaginary Heroes, a drama about a family coping with their son's suicide, and played an impressionable young woman fixated on mental health in the period film A Hole in One. Neither film was well received. Williams returned to the comedic genre with The Baxter, in which she played a geeky secretary. The film received negative reviews; Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe wrote, "Only when Williams is around does the movie seem human, true, and funny. Even in her slapstick there's pain." As with her other films during this period, it only received a limited release and was not widely seen.
Williams gained wider recognition later in 2005 when she appeared in Ang Lee's romance Brokeback Mountain, about the tragic romance between two men, Ennis and Jack (played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, respectively). Impressed with her performance in The Station Agent, the casting director Avy Kaufman recommended Williams to Lee. He found a vulnerability in her and cast her as Alma, the wife of Ennis, who is unaware of her husband's homosexuality and subsequent infidelity. Williams was emotionally affected by the story, and in spite of her limited screen time, was drawn to playing a woman constricted by social mores of the time. Labelling Williams as the standout among the cast, Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine credited her for "fascinatingly spiking her unspoken resentment for her sham of a marriage with a hint of compassion for Ennis's secret suffering". Brokeback Mountain proved to be Williams' most widely seen film to that point, earning $178 million against its $14 million budget. It won three Academy Awards and Williams gained a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Williams had two film releases in 2006. She played a woman with "no eyebrows this insane gray mop of hair" in The Hawk Is Dying, co-starring Paul Giamatti. Five months after giving birth to her daughter, she returned to work on Ethan Hawke's directorial venture The Hottest State, based on his own novel. A review in Variety mentioned that she was underused in it. Following the awards season success of Brokeback Mountain, Williams was unsure of what to do next. After six months of indecision, she agreed to a small part in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There (2007), a musical inspired by the life of Bob Dylan. She was attracted to the part of an enigmatic seductress named S in the 2008 crime thriller Deception. The film, which co-starred Hugh Jackman and Ewan McGregor, was considered by critics to be middling and predictable. In her next release, Incendiary, based on Chris Cleave's novel of the same name, Williams reteamed with McGregor to play a woman whose family is killed in a terrorist attack. In his review for The Independent, Robert Hanks called it "sloppy" and said that Williams deserved better.
Williams' two other releases of 2008 were better received. The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was impressed with her comic timing in Dick and thus cast her in his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, an ensemble experimental drama headlined by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was a box office bomb and polarized critics, although Roger Ebert named it the best film of the decade. Two days after finishing work on Synecdoche, New York, Williams began filming Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, which centers on Wendy, a poor and lonesome young woman who travels with her dog, Lucy, in hopes of finding employment. With a shoestring budget of $300,000, the film was shot on location in Portland, Oregon, with a largely volunteering crew. Williams had just separated from Ledger and was relieved for the anonymity the project provided. She was pleased with Reichardt's minimalistic approach and identified with her character's self-sufficiency and fortitude. Sam Adams of Los Angeles Times found Williams' performance to be "remarkable not only for its depth but for its stillness" and Mick LaSalle commended her for effectively conveying a "lived-in sense of always having been close to the economic brink".
While filming in Sweden for her next project, Mammoth (2009), news broke that Ledger had died from a drug overdose. Although Williams continued filming, she later said, "It was horrible. I don't remember most of it." Mammoth was directed by the Swedish director Lukas Moodysson and featured her and Gael García Bernal as a couple dealing with issues stemming from globalization. Her role was that of an established surgeon, a part she deemed herself too young to logically play. Also in 2009, Williams co-starred with Natalie Portman in a faux perfume commercial called Greed directed by Roman Polanski. For her next project, Martin Scorsese cast her opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the psychological thriller Shutter Island. Based on Dennis Lehane's novel, it featured her as a depressed housewife who drowns her own children. The high-profile production marked a departure for her, and she found it difficult to adjust to the slower pace of filming. In preparation, she read case studies on infanticide. After finishing work on the film in 2008, Williams admitted that playing a series of troubled women coupled with her own personal difficulties had taken an emotional toll on her. She took a year off work to focus on her daughter. Shutter Island released in 2010 and was a commercial success, accumulating over $294 million in box office receipts.
Williams was initially reluctant to accept Derek Cianfrance's offer to star in the romantic drama Blue Valentine, as filming in California would take her away from her daughter for too long. Keen to have her in the film, Cianfrance decided to film it near Brooklyn, New York, where Williams lived. Co-starring Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine is about the tribulations faced by a disillusioned married couple. Before production began, Cianfrance had Williams and Gosling live together for a month on a stipend that matched their character's income. This exercise led to conflicts between them, which proved conducive for filming their character's deteriorating marriage. On set, she and Gosling practised method acting by largely avoiding the script and improvising several scenes. The film premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim. A. O. Scott found Williams to be "heartbreakingly precise in every scene" and praised the couple for being "exemplars of New Method sincerity, able to be fully and achingly present every moment on screen together". Williams received Best Actress nominations at the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award ceremonies.
In her final film release of 2010, Williams reunited with Reichardt for the western Meek's Cutoff. Set in 1854, it is based on an ill-fated historical incident on the Oregon Trail, in which the frontier guide Stephen Meek led a wagon train through a desert. Williams starred as one of the passengers on the wagon, a feisty young mother, who is suspicious of Meek. In preparation, she took lessons on firing a gun and learned to knit. Filming in extreme temperatures in the desert proved arduous for Williams, although she enjoyed the challenge. Reviewing the film for The Arizona Republic, Bill Goodykoontz said, "Much like the film, Williams' performance is patient, revealing itself slowly."
In 2011, Williams played the actress Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, a drama depicting the troubled production of the 1957 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, based on accounts by Colin Clark, who worked on the film. Initially skeptical to play Monroe, as she had little in common with her looks or personality, Williams spent six months researching her by reading biographies, diaries and notes, and studying her posture, gait, and mannerisms. She also gained weight for the part, bleached her hair blond, and on days of filming, spent over three hours applying make-up. Williams sang several songs for the film's soundtrack and recreated a performance of Monroe singing and dancing to "Heat Wave". Roger Ebert considered Williams' performance to be key to the film's success, and credited her for successfully evoking multiple aspects of Monroe's personality. Peter Travers opined that despite not physically resembling Monroe, she had "with fierce artistry and feeling Monroe's insights and insecurities about herself at the height of her fame". Williams won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress and received her second consecutive Oscar nomination for it.
In Sarah Polley's romance Take This Waltz (2011), co-starring Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby, Williams played a married writer attracted to her neighbour. Though she considered it to be a light-hearted film, Jenny McCartney of The Daily Telegraph found a darker undertone to it, and favourably compared its theme to that of Blue Valentine. To play a part that would appeal to her daughter, Williams starred as Glinda the Good Witch in Sam Raimi's fantasy picture Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). Based on the Oz children's books, it served as a prequel to the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz. It marked her first appearance in a film involving special effects, but Williams was not intimidated by the challenge, crediting Raimi for making her comfortable with the process. The film earned over $490 million worldwide to emerge as her highest-grossing release. Suite Française, a period drama that Williams filmed in 2013 was released in a few territories in 2015 but was not thetarically released in America. She later regretted working on the project. Displeased with the film roles she was being offered, Williams spent the next few years working on stage.
Keen to work in a musical, Williams took on the role of Sally Bowles in a 2014 revival of Cabaret, which was staged at Studio 54 and marked her Broadway debut. Jointly directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, it tells the story of a free-spirited cabaret performer in 1930s Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party. Before production began, she spent four months privately rehearsing with music and dance coaches. She read the works of Christopher Isherwood, whose novel Goodbye to Berlin inspired the musical, and visited Berlin to research Isherwood's life and inspirations. Critical consensus on her performance was mixed; Jesse Green of New York magazine wrote that "she acts the hell out of the role" but Newsday's Linda Winer found her "timid" and "bland". The rigorousness of the assignment led Williams to consider Cabaret to be the "hardest work of my life".
Following Cabaret, Williams was eager to return to stage, saying, "It’s harder than movies, and I’m hooked on the hard thing." She found the part in a 2016 revival of the David Harrower play Blackbird. Set entirely in the lunchroom of an office, it focusses on a young woman, Una (Williams), who confronts a much-older man (played Jeff Daniels) for having sexual relations with her when she was 12 years old. Williams, who had not seen previous stagings of the play, was drawn to the ambiguity of her character and found herself unable to distance herself from it after each performance. Hilton Als of The New Yorker found Williams' "daring and nonjudgmental embodiment of her not easily assimilable character" to be the production's highlight. She received a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play nomination for Blackbird.
Williams returned to film in 2016 with supporting roles in two small-scale dramas—Certain Women and Manchester by the Sea. The former marked her third collaboration with Kelly Reichardt, and told three interconnected narratives based on the short stories of Maile Meloy. As with their previous collaborations, the film featured minimal dialogues and required Williams to act through silences. Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea starred Casey Affleck as a depressed man who separates from his wife (Williams) following the death of their children. Williams agreed to the project to work with Lonergan, whose work she admired, and in preparation, she visited Manchester to interview local mothers about their lives. She also worked with a dialect coach to adopt a Massachusetts accent. Despite the film's bleakness, Williams identified with her character's desire to reclaim her life in the face of tragedy. Justin Chang wrote in his review that despite her brief role, Williams "has one astonishing scene that rises from the movie like a small aria of heartbreak". She received her fourth Academy Award nomination for it, her second in the Best Supporting Actress category.
Williams began 2017 with a cameo in Todd Hayne's drama Wonderstruck, following which she appeared in the musical film The Greatest Showman. Inspired by P. T. Barnum's creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, the film featured Williams as Charity, the wife of Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman). She compared her character's disposition to that of Grace Kelly and considered it to be a rare "joyful part" for her. She sang two songs for the film's soundtrack—"A Million Dreams" and "Tightrope". Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly found the film to be lavish yet shallow and felt that Williams had been underutilized in it. The film emerged as one of her most successful, earning over $400 million against a $84 million budget.
Williams next took on her first leading film role since 2013 in Ridley Scott's crime thriller All the Money in the World. She starred as Gail Harris, whose son, John Paul Getty III, is abducted for ransom. She considered the role to be a major opportunity for her as she had not been at "the center of something of this kind of magnitude before". Production was marred with difficulties when Kevin Spacey, who played J. Paul Getty, was accused of sexual misconduct a month before the film's release. He was replaced with Christopher Plummer, and Williams reshot her scenes days before the release deadline. It was later reported that her co-star Mark Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million to Williams' $1,000 for the reshoots, sparking a debate on gender pay gap in the industry. The film was positively reviewed; David Edelstein of New York bemoaned that the controversy had taken attention away from Williams' work, writing that "through the tension in her body and intensity of her voice, Williams conveys the terror of losing a son". She received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for it.
As of January 2018, Williams has three upcoming projects. She has filmed the part of a powerful executive to Amy Schumer's under-confident employee in the comedy I Feel Pretty. She will star as Ann Weying in the superhero film Venom, co-starring Tom Hardy as the titular antihero. Williams has also committed to play the singer Janis Joplin in a biopic directed by Sean Durkin.
In 1997, Williams entered the Robbins World Cup Championship of Futures Trading which she won by turning $10,000 into more than $100,000. With a return of 900%, Williams is ranked as the third highest winner of the competition since its inception in 1984.
Williams began dating Heath Ledger, her Brokeback Mountain co-star, in 2004 while working on the film. The couple cohabited in Brooklyn, New York. On October 28, 2005, she gave birth to their daughter, Matilda. By September 2007, the couple had amicably ended their three-year relationship. When asked about the break-up, Williams said, "I didn't know where to go. I couldn't imagine any place in the world that was gonna feel good to me." After Ledger's death from a combined drug intoxication (CDI) in January 2008, Williams and her daughter became of media interest and were often followed by paparazzi. Williams rarely gave interviews until the end of 2009.
On February 1, 2008, in her first public statement after Ledger's death, Williams expressed her heartbreak and described Ledger's spirit as surviving in their daughter. Later that month she attended his memorial and funeral services.
In July 2008, Williams began dating director Spike Jonze. They met on the set of Synecdoche, New York, which Williams starred in and Jonze produced. Williams called the timing of their relationship "impossible", and ended it in September 2009.
Williams was the face of Boy by Band of Outsiders' Fall 2008 collection. She was also the face of the brand's Spring 2012 campaign. In July 2013, Williams became the new face of Louis Vuitton handbags. In July 2014, she became the face of Louis Vuitton Jewellery collection. In May 2017, Williams became the face of Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer Sunglasses collection. A saffron Vera Wang dress, which she wore to the Academy Awards in March 2006, has been cited by Cosmopolitan magazine as one of the Best Oscar dresses of all time.
According to the review-aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes and the box office site Box Office Mojo, Williams' highest-grossing and most acclaimed films include The Station Agent (2003), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Blue Valentine (2010), Shutter Island (2010), Meek's Cutoff (2010), My Week with Marilyn (2011), Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), Manchester by the Sea (2016), Certain Women (2016), and The Greatest Showman (2017). Among her stage roles, she has appeared on Broadway in revivals of Cabaret in 2014 and Blackbird in 2016.
Williams has been nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Manchester by the Sea (2016); and Best Actress for Blue Valentine (2010) and My Week with Marilyn (2011). She won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Comedy or Musical for My Week with Marilyn (2011) and has been nominated five more times: Best Actress in a Drama for Blue Valentine (2010) and All the Money in the World (2017); and Best Supporting Actress, for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Manchester by the Sea (2016).