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Meet the Newer, Bolder Michelle Williams

With “The Fabelmans,” the Oscar-nominated actress moves from minor-key naturalism to more stylized performances: “I wanted to make work that an audience member had to deal with.”

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By Kyle Buchanan

“You’re really organized,” I said to Michelle Williams.

“I’m a Virgo,” she replied.

On a rainy, late-November afternoon, Williams sat opposite me in a Brooklyn cafe, beaming with the kind of pleasure you can only get from plotting your day out to perfection. As we spoke, her three children were all occupied and accounted for: Her teenage daughter Matilda was at school, her toddler Hart was napping, and her newborn wouldn’t need to be fed for the next hour and a half.

For all those things to come together at the same time was nothing short of a mothering miracle, and though her husband, the director Thomas Kail, was out of town, her own mother had come to New York to pitch in with the kids, freeing Williams to arrive at the cafe with the wide-eyed, can-hardly-believe-it expression of someone who had just pulled off a heist.

“This is the perfect guilt-free time because nobody needs me,” Williams said, though she noted it isn’t easy to meet the demands of a press tour while breastfeeding: “I’m on somebody else’s timeline, because I’m the food.”

Still, she’s doing all she can to promote “The Fabelmans,” a semi-autobiographical family drama from Steven Spielberg where the 42-year-old actress plays Mitzi, a character Spielberg based on his own mother. Though her dreams of being a concert pianist were put aside to raise her family, Mitzi treats child-rearing as a brand-new creative playground: One day, she’ll pack the kids into the car to go chase a tornado, while another time, she’ll impulsively buy a monkey as a family pet.

People might look at the eccentric character and think she’s too much, but Mitzi looks at her life and knows it’s not enough. She’s married to dutiful, dull Burt (Paul Dano) but pines for his best friend (Seth Rogen), a transgression her budding-filmmaker son Sammy only cottons onto when he puts Mitzi in front of his lens. You sense that Spielberg, too, is using Williams as a vessel to better understand his late mother: The director has rarely seemed so wowed by a leading lady, shooting Williams with the same awe Sammy exhibits when he films his mother in the grips of an artistic reverie.

Williams has already picked up nominations from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards for her live-wire performance. “I’ve been working as hard as I know how to make myself ready for a moment when I would meet a role like this,” she said. At the Gotham Awards, where she picked up a tribute award in November, Williams drew a line all the way back to her work on the teen soap “Dawson’s Creek,” which she starred in at age 16 alongside actors James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes.

“She seemed so different from the other kids, a creature unto herself even then,” said the actress Mary Beth Peil, who played Williams’s grandmother on the show. “Working with her then, her honesty was almost painful. That’s one of the main things I learned from her, that the camera can see honesty. It’s at the root of every breath she takes.”

What motivated her to pursue an acting career at such a young age? “It was like a stand-in for selfhood,” Williams said, “like maybe I could get regard for a woman that I was playing and that would somehow transfer to me, this person that I didn’t really know how to inhabit yet.” As she grew older and won parts in Off Broadway plays or indie films like “The Station Agent,” it felt to her “like I was given a little morsel, and I would tuck it away,” she said. “I collected them and strung them along, and then they started adding up.”

With her Oscar-nominated roles in “Brokeback Mountain,” “Blue Valentine” and “Manchester by the Sea,” as well as the naturalistic films she has made with the director Kelly Reichardt (their next collaboration, “Showing Up,” comes out this year), Williams established herself as a top-tier actress capable of unvarnished authenticity. But she is keen to experiment in a more heightened register, as she did in 2011 playing Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn” and in 2019 with her Emmy-winning role as the dancer Gwen Verdon in the FX series “Fosse/Verdon.”

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In an email, Spielberg, who wrote “The Fabelmans” with Tony Kushner, said, “She has a secret energy that poured from her when she played Gwen Verdon. That went a long way into making her my first choice to play Mitzi.”

To hear Williams tell it, that shift to bigger, more stylized performances took a concerted effort; in person, she’s much more contained, with a presence as close-cropped as the pixie haircut she often favors. “It’s good for me to live like that for periods of time because it’s not my natural place,” Williams said, smiling as she recalled how much bigger she had to become to inhabit Mitzi Fabelman. “It’s the most wonderful thing to borrow.”

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Often, when you watch these kinds of autobiographical coming-of-age movies, the moms get short shrift. But in “The Fabelmans,” the mother-son dynamic feels like the central story.

I couldn’t believe it when I started turning pages in this script. My husband was in the room with me, and I kept saying, “It’s just getting better.” Very often when you have a script, you have a great scene and you think, “Oh, that’s going to be splashy.” And this was just page after page of that, just this undulating, gorgeous aliveness. When I finished, I said to my husband, “It’s a feast. They made her a feast.”

It took me a long time to wrap my head around the material because the words and ideas are classic Kushner, through the lens of Steven Spielberg. So it’s filmic and it’s theatrical, which is something that really interests me and I’ve been purposefully concentrating on since I started doing theater again. I prep a lot before a movie, and there was so much to grab hold of. It felt more akin to making a mini-series because the material was so rich.

What was the furthest reach for you when it came to playing a big character like Mitzi?

In the first part of my career, I was doing sitcoms, TV commercials, soap operas, and I started seeing this other style called naturalism. I wanted that for me, but I had to learn what that was and how to inhabit it, and when I felt like I had arrived at that place that I had yearned to belong in — like with Kelly Reichardt, and every indie movie that I made until I was 30 — the next place that I wanted to go was into something that was more expressionist. That felt like a much further distance to cross.

I felt like the journey in my 20s was to finding an authentic way to center myself so that I felt natural inside of my own skin and could offer that to other women that I was playing, but then I wanted to shed that skin completely and be able to find entirely new ways of relating to characters that didn’t always bring me along, that didn’t bind me to just myself for the rest of my working life. That required breaking myself down and then rebuilding myself in somebody else’s image, and making bigger choices.

What do you think drew you toward these more stylized characters?

I think one of the things that I realized about naturalism — and it’s still a place that I live, I just made my fourth movie with Kelly Reichardt — is that I also wanted to make work that left a mark and that wasn’t open to projection. I wanted to make work that an audience member had to deal with, where there was less interpretation on their part because the interpretation was really my work. I feel like Mitzi belongs there, and Gwen and Marilyn belong there, and the work that I’ve done in theater belongs there. But it took a lot of learning and a lot of mistakes along the way to be comfortable leaving my own skin.

I wonder if that spectrum between naturalism and stylization hasn’t been with you since the beginning. Even with something like “Dawson’s Creek,” you were given pages and pages of very dense, stylized dialogue and you had to find a way to make it sound natural.

So much dialogue, oh my God. Twelve pages a day, really verbose. And yeah, the situations and scenarios that you’re working through on “Dawson’s Creek” are a little heightened.

But I think people appreciate that you don’t disavow that show, and that you actually made a point of drawing a line back to “Dawson’s Creek” in your Gothams speech.

Maybe there’s a connection between firstness and lastness, so I’m constantly reconnecting with my time on “Dawson’s Creek” because every project that I end somehow recalls that to me. But it was an incredible kind of training because you’re also learning these really fundamental things, like how to have a conversation with somebody where you’re looking them in the eye but some part of you is also scanning downward to hit your mark. It’s that kind of technical stuff that seems sort of silly and small that still comes in handy for me.

And it’s also kind of funny that on that show, Dawson was so obsessed with Spielberg, and now here you are playing Spielberg’s mom.

Oh, it’s so weird! I know. It’s so weird.

How did you feel the day before you started shooting “The Fabelmans”?

It felt like when the race is about to begin and you’re on the starting block and your feet are itching and you’re in this state of readiness. It was that kind of high.

What had you so excited about inhabiting Mitzi?

First of all, it feels good to be her. She was filled with music, so there was an emotional vibration running through her body at all times. I think about the scale of the piano, and that was her range: That’s how low she can go and that’s how high she can hit, so to contain all of that in you for a period of time is thrilling. And it’s the way that she approached so many things as, “Won’t this be so much fun? Won’t this make such an excellent memory for my family?” There was creativity in every aspect of her life, from how she played with the children to how she dressed herself and cut her hair. She was an artist in every fingertip.

Tell me about her hair, because that helmet bob is a striking look.

The hair was the first thing that we talked about. She was so acutely aware of what looked smashing on her — she wore those Peter Pan collars her entire life and they suited her so beautifully — and that curving haircut was her signature. When you look at pictures of her, they look like film stills, because she looks like a character. She was her own creation, and her entire life and her children’s lives were works of art. Ultimately, that’s what still gives me the chills as a mother of three. I can’t think of a better thing to aspire to.

Do you feel the same? Are you creating lives for your children that are like works of art?

It’s my aspiration. We’ll see when they’re all grown up how I did.

Spielberg ends the movie shortly after Mitzi leaves her husband for another man, but what did you know about the rest of his mother’s life that helped inform how you thought of Mitzi?

Later in life, she and Steven’s father had a reconnection and spent their final years together. It’s overlapping love stories, which is ultimately why the story is heartbreaking, because this love hadn’t disappeared between these two people — it had changed and turned into something else. There was still enough love in their relationship to hold a family, but in your one and only life, it still wasn’t enough to make her stay. The bravery of that decision to me! And so I never encountered her as being selfish, or unhinged. I thought this is a woman who is living so truthfully, so expressively and so bravely, and then giving that gift to each of her children because they saw her do it.

Many pundits thought you were a lock to win the supporting-actress Oscar for this role, but instead, you chose to be campaigned as a lead in a very competitive awards race.

I think that was a conversation that was happening outside of the core group that made this movie, and I don’t really know why there was a disparity. Although I haven’t seen the movie, the scenes that I read, the scenes that I prepped, the scenes that we shot, the scenes that I’m told are still in the movie, are akin to me with experiences that I have had playing roles considered lead. So for myself, or for anybody involved in the movie, I think we were all in unspoken agreement.

You still haven’t seen “The Fabelmans”?

I’m not able to watch my own work. I think the last thing I saw was “Meek’s Cutoff” in a theater with my daughter, so it’s been about a decade.

How come?

When I’m working on something, I feel so completely inside of it, and when I switch to an audience member, it alters my experience — and the experience is ultimately what I’m in it for. I can’t seem to go back and forth between the two ways to be involved in storytelling, even though I would like to be strong enough and capable of watching myself, figuring out what I would like to technically adjust and then applying it to the next time. I’ve tried to do that, but I’m getting internal bounce-back. I’m happier and maybe healthier just staying in my personal experience of playing these women.

Did that make the end of filming “The Fabelmans” more fraught, because it was the last experience you’d really have with the character?

On our last day, I grieved like somebody had actually died. I shocked myself by how grief-stricken I was to say goodbye to the woman that I had inhabited and the relationships that I had with these other characters. I still miss being her and having that spirit coursing through mine, so it’s nice to remember her and the urgency of that period of filming. When you’re making something, you feel like the whole world is available material — everything is tingling and anything is possible — and then, once the filming is over, you go back to breakfast tables. Which I clearly love, because I keep doubling down on kids.

You seem to throw yourself into that part of your life with equal relish.

It’s kind of a great way to live, to careen between these two realities of this incredibly full-on work experience and then this incredibly domestic life. I enjoy the extremity of both, but something else this experience has given me is the reminder to try and synthesize both sides of my brain.

In my real life, I’m very practical, I’m very organized. I’m always making lists and feeling great if I check them off, and my work life is a place where I let all of that go and I allow myself to live unbound from time and order and right and wrong. I want to give myself more of that in my everyday life. It doesn’t have to be so linear, and Mitzi is my best reminder for that: Once she knew what she wanted, she wasted no time taking that for herself. It’s how we should all live, don’t you think?

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