Playing a Hollywood icon is playing with fire for a performer, especially when that person is Marilyn Monroe. The more popular the personality, the higher the stakes as critics and audiences expect no less than their lofty expectations. But portray a starlet too aggressively and the false notes are apt to screech — see Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top Joan Crawford in 1981’s Mommie Dearest. It takes an actress who can echo without any frills. Like Marlon Brando losing himself in another sphere, Michelle Williams metamorphosed into the sexual innocence, pain and squeaky cadence that is the legendary star in The Weinstein Co.’s My Week With Marilyn, without leaving any residue from her process behind on screen. Williams spoke with Awardsline’s Anthony D’Alessandro about the transformation which brought her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as well as a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical.
AWARDSLINE: What were the challenges in moving between the three faces of Marilyn Monroe: The movie star, the vulnerable Norma Jean and the actress who plays Elsie in The Prince And The Showgirl?
WILLIAMS: I thought about that for a while. Should I separate them in my mind? But they’re all coming from Norma Jean. So I looked at them as facets of her personalities rather than splitting them up. It’s more organic to move from one to the next.
AWARDSLINE: You like to work at the edge of your ability. Discuss the brazen risk in taking on this role.
WILLIAMS: Risk was a hot topic word in my mind and I had to ignore it completely so it wouldn’t overwhelm me. What I try to guide myself with is that the worst that could have happened to me is that I make a fool of myself, but I wouldn’t die from that. And so I try to look at my work as a place where you can take safe risks and you can lead a quiet, cautious life.
AWARDSLINE: In terms of nailing Marilyn, what characteristics did you focus on getting right?
WILLIAMS: In watching everything she ever did, I saw her experimenting and forming Marilyn Monroe over time. In her early work, her face doesn’t have the same kind of agility that it does in her more famous roles. Early on, she hasn’t mastered how she positions her mouth or raises her eyebrows but you see it gestate over time. Her voice is much lower, the sexy husky thing is in a lower register and it became breathier and higher as she developed her persona. So I could actually see it being built and follow her steps. It gave me courage: This didn’t come naturally to her, so I didn’t have to expect it to come naturally to myself.
AWARDSLINE: The musical bookend numbers of the film – were you prepared to sing for this role?
WILLIAMS: They were an 11th hour addition. I knew I would be singing the songs that Marilyn sings as Elsie. I haven’t been on stage singing and dancing since I was 10 years old as a chorus orphan in Annie. I was excited to be given the opportunity and to have people around me who said ‘Yes you can.’ You can borrow on people’s faith in yourself when you may be lacking it. You can pocket theirs and see if it can get you through. It’s jumping off a cliff and finding your wings on the way down. Kathleen Marshall (the choreographer) was divine. God knows what I came in as on the first day. It didn’t faze Kathleen for a minute. I never felt doubt cross her mind.
AWARDSLINE: Many actresses of have done their best work under Harvey Weinstein. How has he been a mentor in your career and during filming?
WILLIAMS: Marilyn was a small movie on a small time frame. On my first day, people were rushing around and there was only time for two takes. At end of the day, I called him and said “Harvey, I work fast. It is what’s required of me. I can’t do it on Marilyn. I need more time to breathe into her.” Harvey made that space for me. You can’t play the goddess when you’re rushed around, especially on your first day. So he really heard my needs and listened to me as an adult. He indentifies with and fights for every individual’s needs on the set to get their job done. He doesn’t scrimp.
AWARDSLINE: How did your nominations for Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine affect your career?
WILLIAMS: It gives you more choices and as an actress that’s what you’re always looking for: choices to do things you haven’t done before. Brokeback was a real shock to the system. I didn’t know what to do with myself after that. I didn’t take a job for nine months. It’s the kind of attention I wasn’t used to — I was used to work that was private and unseen. I was having a hard time making decisions. That was the easy part of the job early on, but I lost my way for a bit and then found it again.
AWARDSLINE: Actors coming off a teen-twentysomething TV shows rarely make a transition likes yours. What was the trick to segueing from Dawson’s Creek?
WILLIAMS: Keep your head down and put one foot in front of the other (in terms of landing auditions). My character wasn’t as pivotal on Dawson’s Creek like Dawson, Joey or Pacey, but I remember one day James Van Der Beek turned to me and said “You’re going to be able to move on easier than the rest of us.” At the time, I didn’t know what he was referring to, but I think it was that. I always loved the Amish saying, “Head down to the ground, heart to the sky, Pray but move your feet, work but keep dreaming.” I knew what I wanted to do and it takes one person to give you the chance to try it.
(Photo of Michelle Williams at DGA Awards by Getty Images)