Heartbreak is the language that Michelle Williams speaks most fluently. Sometimes she speaks it by way of silence, as she did in Brokeback Mountain, her breakout performance as the long-suffering wife of Heath Ledger’s (immortalized) gay cowboy. Sometimes she screams it, like she did in Blue Valentine, as she and Ryan Gosling raked their characters through the collapse of a once-passionate marriage. And sometimes she conveys heartbreak in its most visceral form: a sob, the shuddering, powerless sort that wracks the body from the inside out. This rawest iteration is how Williams delivers her sledgehammer scene in Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful family drama about a working class Massachusetts clan reeling in the wake of loss. Casey Affleck, in a career-defining performance, plays the film’s lead—as the estranged husband of Williams’ character—who unexpectedly inherits guardianship of his teenage nephew (brilliant newcomer Lucas Hedges) after his brother dies (Kyle Chandler). Affleck’s character is already living under the weight of a previous tragedy so ghastly that it’s all he can do to get up each day and shovel snow at his custodial job. But Lonergan isn’t one for melodrama, so the ruddy heart of Manchester beats to the assertion that we may never truly recover from great tragedy, but we will learn to keep living. And in the meantime, the minutiae of life will be relentless, as morosely funny as it is alarming.
Williams gives her supporting role the kind of performance that makes it impossible to imagine the film without her in it. She is tiny, as ever—beautiful, but in a consciously muted way—and you get the sense that she’s packed tightly into herself: you drop her into a scene like a capsule into water, and watch as the whole thing turns to the color of her deepest feeling.
She sat down to talk with us about making the film, and the person she’s always thinking about, with every film she makes [vague spoiler alert ahead!].
Your character in Manchester by the Sea is a mother who experienced a horrific tragedy, and your performance is shattering.
[Your children dying] is the worst thing that somebody can experience and then live through. It’s the thing that will probably bring you closest to death without actually killing you—it holds your face over the cliff. So the movie really is about how people stay alive after great tragedy.
I know that it’s common for you to really immerse yourself in preparation for a character. For Blue Valentine, you and Ryan Gosling lived in a house together for months before filming, and spent eight hours at a time locked in a room, learning how to fight convincingly. What was making Manchester like?
It was a really painful time. I was very happy whenever I could go back home to New York. Once you’ve let your mind go to that place, it’s very hard to walk it back. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare… it’s the place that you don’t let yourself go, because even to glance it as a thought is just too painful. So to sit in that space for hours or days at a time was agonizing.
Because it forced you to envision what it would be like if that happened to you?
Not only imagining something like that in my own life, but knowing there are mothers—women, walking the planet today—who are dealing with that. It breaks my heart how broken their hearts must me. I’m lucky enough that I could dip in and out of that place. But to know that there are mothers who cannot leave that place. That was the thing that really got me. There are women on this day, in this hour, walking around with that as their reality, and I don’t know how they do it.
When you’re acting, is there anyone in particular that you think about, who you maybe feel that you are acting for?
I never really think what will so-and-so think of this… but you know, actually, it’s a good question. Who do you make it for? While I don’t really think about a general audience, now that I think about it, I do think about certain people. I think about my daughter, honestly. I think about her growing up and seeing what I do. What she will think of it. Will she be proud? Will she recognize me or would she be surprised by what she didn’t know about me? I also think about certain friends I really admire, who I want to be able to work on the same level with. I don’t know, it kind of gives you something to reach for. To just have that person—to have a couple of special people in mind—who you hope will hear what you are trying to communicate.
In your work, do you think there is a certain emotion or idea or concept that you find yourself revisiting?
I think my answer would be that I want someone to feel less lonely. I feel like sometimes I watch something and feel more alienated from people, more alienated from myself, more foreign, or odd—just, not enough. So I guess maybe the repeated theme for what I want, as far as my work goes, is to bridge loneliness a little bit. Often the thing that you’re most afraid of saying is the thing that most needs to be said. So the very thing that would make a character most unappealing, or unattractive, or unlovable, is the very thing I’m most interested in—because I just want those little unloved parts to get loved. For some reason I’m very drawn to that in my work. But I’m way more of a chicken in my own life.