Michelle Williams at Cannes Film Festival | ELLE UK

Michelle Williams On Playing Emotive Female Characters: 'I Try To Follow My Heart And My Gut'

Academy-nominated actress Michelle Williams spoke to ELLE about tragedy, her love for theatre and the surprising reception for her latest film, Manchester By The Sea

It's Sunday morning and I'm standing in my pyjamas making a cup of tea, listening to Michelle Williams talk to me on the phone about her latest Hollywood venture.

Granted, it's not how I usually spend my weekends, but let's just say after twenty minutes listening to the Academy Award-nominated actress' softly spoken, syrupy voice discuss the beauty of theatre, cinema and her relationship with co-star Casey Affleck, it's not a bad way to end the week.

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Today, Williams and I are discussing her hotly anticipated film, Manchester By The Sea, which sees depressed handyman Lee (played by Casey Affleck) return to his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts to take up his role as his nephew's legal guardian, following the sudden death of the boy's father.

On Unimaginable Tragedy And Loss

As the story develops, the plot of Manchester By The Sea is peppered with flashback references to some unspoken tragedy from years ago that originally forced Lee to leave Manchester and his wife Randi, played by Williams.

Indeed, it's this sort of evocative, gut-wrenching misfortune that seems to typify much of director Kenneth Lonergan's work. His 2011 oeuvre Margaret - arguably Kenneth's most notable film so far - is about death and dwindling family relationships.

'It's exactly the place as a parent you don't want to go and you don't want to think about.'

It is also exactly for this reason that Michelle chose to take the part, herself a victim of real life tragedy, with an interest in portraying it with empathy and sensitivity.

'I wanted to work with Kenneth for a long time because of the way he writes dialogue - it was the script that drew me in. He is deeply compassionate and a man of many feelings,' she explains.

Williams, who suffered through the unexpected death of her former partner and co-parent Heath Ledger in 2008, found the film's dealings with death and sorrow particularly difficult.

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Referring to the loss her character Randi experiences in the film, Williams explains: 'It's exactly the place as a parent you don't want to go and you don't want to think about. We had to force ourselves.'

But It's Not All Harrowing

'One of the things that moved me so much [is that] the film is talking about how people survive and come back to life after tragedy,' says Williams.

Despite all the heartache, the film is punctuated by moments of real humour. Mainly, in the form of Patrick, Lee's nephew, played by Lucas Hedges.

From Patrick asking his uncle to help him when dating two girls at the same time to arguments over the lock on the car door, the tender moments between Lee and Patrick are some of the most rewarding moments of the whole thing.

'[Lonergan] seems to really understand life walks that fine line,' explains Williams, 'Tragedy is such a heightened moment and brings out so many unexpected qualities and reactions which Kenny is so adept at capturing.'

Manchester By The Sea has already received a slew of award nominations, including at the Golden Globes, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Affleck, Best Supporting Actress for Williams and Best Screenplay. The film took home one of these - Affleck for Best Actor.

Williams says: 'We certainly never thought it would come to this kind of an end. It's very rare for a movie this small to have found such a warm reception and such a wide audience – the chances are like lightning striking.

'I've made a lot of movies that are small and generally don't get seen but people are seeing [Manchester By The Sea] and responding to it favorably. It's a real surprise party,' she jokes.

On Playing Strong Women

Clearly for 36-year-old Williams - who has received numerous SAG, BAFTA, Tony, Academy Award and Golden Globe successes over the years for her roles in the likes of Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain, My Week with Marilyn and the theatre revival of Blackbird last year - her track record for playing strong, independent and forthright female characters is paying off.

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So, how does Williams go about landing the more captivating, pithier parts?

She says: 'Whenever I've made good choices, it's a surprisingly un-thought out process.

I try to follow my heart and my gut, and listen to a more instinctual response about what I want to make, rather than think about it too much or plot it out. [Strong female roles] might be what I'm drawn to, but they're not necessarily what I'm consciously looking for.'

I try to follow my heart and my gut

Well, whatever has drawn Williams to the role in her next film, Certain Women, is certainly a winning trait. Starring Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, the film sees three strong-willed female individuals try to fight against the monotony of humdrum lives in small-town America.

'It will be interesting to see if that's something that people embrace, and go seek out,' says Williams.

On Treading The Boards

For now, at least, Williams is happy throwing herself into films.

However, we have a feeling it wont' be long until she returns to one of her greatest passions – the theatre.

Following the end of Dawnson's Creek in 2003, Williams experimented with theatre, starring opposition Jessica Chasten in The Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard before carving out a career on stage and making her Broadway debut in the revival of Cabaret in the lead role of Sally Bowels in 2014.

The appeal of theatre also comes from the fact that Broadway is on her doorstep in New York. She likes too, though, that there is a certain team spirit engendered among stage actors.

'[Theatre] so incredibly difficult and so challenging that it can be hugely rewarding. The higher it registers on the difficulty scale, ultimately, the more you're learning and growing – I find that really exciting.

'Do you know actually what's so, so nice at this point? I'm 36-years-old and I've met people I adore working with.

'It's like traveling with an extended family so it doesn't feel isolating or alienating,' she adds.

With rumors of a fourth Oscar nomination for her performance in Manchester By The Sea and a desire to take to the stage in tap shoes once again ('I have to find a way to do more singing and dancing'), we can't wait to see what's in store for Michelle Williams in 2017.

'Manchester By The Sea' is released in cinemas Friday 13 January.

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