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November 25, 2011

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Williams feeling confident

THE connection between Michelle Williams' acting and her personal life is so strong that even she gets the two confused sometimes.

Making last year's "Blue Valentine," which painfully and intimately depicted the collapse of a young marriage, occasionally seems so intense of a memory to Williams as to be a true one.

"When I look back on my life and I sort of reflect on relationships or anything, my mind folds that one into the mix of the real relationships that I've had in my life," says the actress. "And I have to stop myself and say, 'Oh, no, you did not marry and divorce Ryan Gosling.'"

While delusions of wedding Ryan Gosling are not necessarily uncommon to moviegoers, for Williams they exemplify the intensely introspective approach she takes to her work.

Going by her latest film, "My Week With Marilyn," it is clear Williams has undergone a shift. After years of predominantly raw, naturalistic films like "Wendy and Lucy" and "Blue Valentine," in "My Week With Marilyn," she's glamorous and radiant. That, too, is telling of an interior change in Williams.

"One thing that I've struggled with, been interested in just as a person, a girl-slash-woman, whatever I am at 31 in this world, is being comfortable with myself," Williams says. "I've just spent a lot of time getting to know that person and getting to like that person, so I haven't wanted to lose touch with that person through lenses like hair and makeup and clothes."

Yet "Marilyn," which opened in the US on Wednesday, is drawing Williams some of the best reviews of her career, and has put her squarely in the running for a best actress Academy Award. Williams' performance somehow manages to evoke a fully fleshed person, well beyond mere caricature. It is a layered rendering of Monroe: a public, glorious Marilyn; a private and vulnerable actress; and the song-and-dance showgirl of "The Prince and the Showgirl."

The film chronicles the production of that 1957 film, which Laurence Olivier directed and co-starred in with Monroe. The two clashed: an oil and water mix of British theater and American stardom.

"There's technically an enormous challenge, which (Williams) meets lightly, effortlessly," says Kenneth Branagh, who plays Olivier. "Then she puts that all away to one side, doesn't show off to the audience about it. ... She doesn't indulge in playing Marilyn, she just is. It required her to work enormously hard and then hide all the work."

Over afternoon tea at a Manhattan hotel, Williams is refreshingly candid. She's dressed elegantly but simply in a black and white dress and wearing a short, blonde pixie haircut that she has said is a tribute to Heath Ledger, her former partner and father to her 6-year-old daughter, Matilda, who liked cropped hair.

Williams would have more reason than most to be guarded, but she answers questions warmly and pensively. When Ledger died in 2008 (a few months after he and Williams separated), an onslaught of media attention landed on Williams, who has since often been hounded by paparazzi. It's an experience that frequently hovers just outside Williams' words, an unspoken tumult.

Williams was born in a small town in northwest Montana. Though her family moved to San Diego, California, when she was nine, Williams believes Montana "formed me in some fundamental way" and that, although she lives in a townhouse in Brooklyn, New York, she "will always feel most at home in nature."

In California, Williams became interested in acting after she and her sister performed in community plays. In a nice touch of foreshadowing, she kept a poster of Monroe on her bedroom wall. As Williams' young acting career grew in TV and movies, she emancipated from her parents at age 15. Two years later, she was cast in "Dawson's Creek," a teen drama that catapulted Williams' fame.

Williams' film career took off with 2005's "Brokeback Mountain." She received her first Oscar nomination (a second would come for "Blue Valentine") for her performance as the rejected wife of Ledger's cowboy.

She's since drawn the interest of directors like Martin Scorsese ("Shutter Island") and Wim Wenders ("Land of Plenty").

As for her work, she says: "What I've hoped for is to have as little separation between the character that I'm playing and the people in the audience; nothing that made the character feel out of reach."

She doesn't mind that people are now watching her more closely than before.

"I've noticed that now, at 31, my ideas about scenes or dialogue or moments, they come faster," she says. "And I find that I'm enjoying it and that that's not hampering my work, so maybe it doesn't have to be as hard as I was making it out to be for so many years."


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