Actress Michelle Williams won Oscar nominations for her performances in “Brokeback Mountain” and last year’s “Blue Valentine.” In her new film, “My Week With Marilyn,” she brings to life one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, in a performance that has critics aflutter. And to think: She originally hailed from the little town of Dawson’s Creek. Michelle tells Brendan all about Miss Norma Jeane Baker, then gives him a reality check, a vocabulary lesson, and her porn star name.
This interview originally aired in Episode 125.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Was acting always your calling?
Michelle Williams: First I wanted to be a boxer, and then I wanted to be a long-distance truck driver, and then I wanted to be an actress.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Where did the boxing impulse come from?
Michelle Williams: I don’t know. It’s some sort of very dark vision of the way my life would go. Either I was gonna be hit in the face or I was gonna be destined to take to the open road and do a lot of speed or something. Drive through the night. I really don’t know.
Brendan Francis Newnam: See, your life’s nothing like that probably.
Michelle Williams: Well there is actually a lot of speed. No. But there is actually a lot of driving through the night. And you gotta take some hits.
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, well that sounds like the public radio life I lead.
Is it harder or easier to play someone who’s already existed?
Michelle Williams: One thing that makes it easier is that you have all this available material, you know? Other characters that I’ve played they exist somewhere between my imagination, the script, and the director, and that’s an unreal world. But with Marilyn, you know I could have spent the next ten years researching her, and when you can actually put your hands of physical material there’s something comforting about it. You know, I can actually feel myself preparing, understanding and I took a lot of comfort in that, and with these other girls, these other characters, it’s all kind of in my head.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well you know, your role in the movie “Blue Valentine” which you starred in last year is such a contrast. In that film you play a fairly normal young woman.
Michelle Williams: Well I think, I mean I’ve always been drawn to characters like that. People that you feel like you know, maybe they’re sitting next to you in the movie theater, or you ride with them on the subway, or who are ordinary and who are, you know, infinitely relatable. Marilyn was extraordinary. Marilyn Monroe is a character that she played, and it was a result of years of training, study, and so what I realized is that there’s a human being underneath.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You mentioned the character Marilyn played. Is that tempting to do as a public figure?
Michelle Williams: Oh, putting on a facade you mean?
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, to have a, you know, different face for the world.
Michelle Williams: Yeah, I have actually. I feel split on the subject. I’ve kind of always wished that I had a different name, like I’d taken on a pseudonym, because it would feel like a kind of armor somehow. So whatever got thrown your way positive or negative somehow wouldn’t stick to you, because it wouldn’t actually be you.
So I’ve always envied people that have had that. But that would run in contrast to that is that the biggest work of my life is to have a happy life, and to have a long life, and a healthy life, and that goes hand in hand with knowing who you are; not really representing something different on the outside from what’s on the inside, and I’ve spent the last 31 years trying to figure out how to make those two match. And now that I’m 31 I kind of think I’m there, and so I would not be quick to abandon that or shed that.
And also I spend most of my life playing other people, so it would be weird to spend even more of my life playing other people.
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s interesting. Well Michelle Williams, this is the easiest name for me to pronounce I’ve encountered in months, so I’m happy you kept your name.
Michelle Williams: Well thank you very much. There were some ideas early on that I should change it, but they all made me sound like a porn star, so I was like “Umm, don’t think I’ll be Michelle Montana, but thank you.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s right; you’re from Montana, right? And isn’t that how the porn star name game works?
Michelle Williams: Oh yeah and your first dog or something. Yeah.
Brendan Francis Newnam: And I think your middle name goes in there too. So my porn star name would be Doxie Francis Princeton.
Michelle Williams: That sounds kind of good.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I’d go to a movie with him in it. Actually, probably not.
What’s something you learned about Marilyn Monroe that most people don’t know?
Michelle Williams: Let’s see, what did I learn about her that most people don’t know? When she was married to Arthur Miller he had children, so she had step children, and when they were at summer camp she would write to them as the family dog, and in the voice of the family dog tell them, you know, about the slippers that he had been chewing, and how naughty he had been, and how much he looked forward to their return, and playing in the grass. You know that’s a kooky thing to do. She was kooky. And that, I don’t know, that really tickled me more than anything, was how much vitality.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, the vitality is a great… is that an adjective? It’s a great word to describe that. It sort of indicates a vulnerability but also an intelligence around her.
Michelle Williams: Yeah, it’s like a real sign of life, you know?
Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s not just Happy Birthday Mr. President.
Michelle Williams: Yeah, no it’s not, which is the intoxicating dream of Marilyn Monroe, that you know, could a creature walk this earth who existed purely to make us happy and to give us pleasure? Is that possible? And the answer is no.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh no, really?
Michelle Williams: No, I’m sorry. She was just a girl.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Is it true that you remain in character off-set?
Michelle Williams: Off-set? No, not when I go home.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, that was my follow-up, because that seems a little weird frankly.
Michelle Williams: Yeah, no I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t do that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I mean you have a family.
Michelle Williams: My friends and family would not allow such a thing. I mean I’ve sort of said before I like to read my kid and if I’m working on something, you know, her bedtime stories will sort of take on a flavor of something that I’m experimenting with. She’s gotten to the point where she’s sort of hip to it and she’s like, “Uh-uh not the” – she calls her Marra Morowe- she’s like, “Not the Marra Morowe voice.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right, well we have another standard question we ask our guests. Tell us something we don’t know either about you or it could be a fact about the world at large.
Michelle Williams: I learned a new word that I really like.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh yeah? What’s that?
Michelle Williams: I subscribe to the OED online and I get a word a day. The last word that I got and saved was melliferous, which means yielding or producing honey. And probably most people didn’t know that.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I absolutely didn’t know that, and I didn’t even know they needed a word for it, because I thought bees are the only things that do that, right?
Michelle Williams: You know, when you think about it for a little longer, other ways to integrate that word might pop into your head.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Michelle Williams, that is a great adjective. Very Marilyn Monroe of you to bring it up.