A Field Guide to Getting Lost

A confession: My interest in Williams was not piqued by recent sad events or by the preceding happier events, when the papers were filled with snapshots of her and Ledger strolling with their baby daughter in sunlit brownstone Brooklyn. I fell for her when she cashed in her "Dawson's Creek" starletdom for an Off-Broadway play called "Killer Joe" and for Wim Wenders's "Land of Plenty," a brilliant, grave, and indeed brave investigation of post-9/11 America in all of its xenophobia and pathos. (Just imagine one of the "Gossip Girls" doing likewise.) In her subsequent work, most notably "Brokeback Mountain" (for which she earned an Oscar nomination) and most movingly "Wendy and Lucy" (an unsentimental look at white American poverty, directed by Kelly Reichardt), the 29-year-old Williams has established herself as the least flashy and most emotionally riveting actress of her generation. Says Sir Ben Kingsley, who first worked with her in "Species," when she was twelve, and is her costar in "Shutter Island," "There's something elemental and crucial about her. Because she is so intelligent, she gets to the basic issue of her character. She's not blanket-bombing it with fussy acting or guessing. She's very in the moment, which I very much admire, both in acting and in life, I reckon."

From 'Dawson's Creek' to Serious Actress

Although she has been an actress since the age of ten (she was born in Montana and raised in San Diego, from which her parents would take her to Los Angeles for auditions), was legally emancipated at the age of fifteen from her middle-class family ("I didn't grow up in a house with a lot of cool music or paintings, but my dad had good books"), and never went to college, Williams is clearly intellectually resourceful and in possession of a rich personal hinterland. Ryan Gosling, who plays her husband in Derek Cianfrance's forthcoming "Blue Valentine," says, "She's like Montana. If you want to get anywhere in Montana, you have to sit tight. You're on Montana time. It's very beautiful, but it's vast. If you want to get somewhere with Michelle, you really have to be patient. She's so vast. You really have to sit back and enjoy the view. There's so much going on internally, so much ground to cover."

She is bookish and cerebral. "In North Carolina [where "Dawson's Creek" was shot], I'd sit on the floor of Barnes & Noble and work my way through the shelves." She read, among others, Philip Roth: "I like "American Pastoral" the best, but "Sabbath's Theater" did my head in." (Says the artist Dan Estabrook, a dear old friend, "Her time on "Dawson's Creek" was marked by reading and reading and reading—she was always recommending books to bartenders.") Nowadays "I read poetry. I find a poet I like and then read the poets they like." Hence Galway Kinnell and Mary Oliver and Frank O'Hara. She is a huge fan, musically, of Leonard Cohen and of Antony and the Johnsons. Currently, in preparation for Reichardt's next movie, which is set on the Oregon Trail in pioneer times, she is plowing through a bedside stack of tomes about the American frontier. There is also an open volume of Doris Lessing in Matilda's playroom, and Williams warmly recommended to me (as she has to many of her friends) Rebecca Solnit's elegant meditation on loss and its possibilities, "A Field Guide to Getting Lost."

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