A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Preparing for Role as Grieving Single Mother

For her part, Williams has a complex relationship with the business of appearances. On the one hand, she has a real interest in, and eye for, proportions and tweaks and ironic, downbeat, classic lines. She wears dresses and clogs from No. 6, owns one pair of high heels (Louboutins), buys her button-downs at Brooks Brothers, and really doesn't follow what designers are up to. "I've learned that I look better with less," she says. "Jewelry doesn't suit me." It all works: As Ryan Gosling puts it, "She makes a real impact. Clint Eastwood meets Brigitte Bardot." When Hugh Jackman watched the dailies of her long scene with Ewan McGregor in "Deception," he was struck by "the beauty. She was stunning, like a painting. She has a beguiling quality."

On the other hand, Williams has a history of resisting expectations generated by her beguilingness. "I was sixteen when I started "Dawson's Creek," and our identities—mine and my character's—got a bit confused. She was sexy and pretty, but there was something bad about it. I had some idea in my head that beauty was a minor quality, that beauty wasn't as worthwhile. So I never wanted to play those parts; I wanted to play the opposite."

The role that she now plays with extraordinary style and care is that of a young single parent. She is no longer with director Spike Jonze: "The timing was impossible. I thought falling in love again was the only thing that was going to save me from the pain. This erroneous idea: It just makes things more complicated." And dating with a kid? "I obviously don't know how to do it." But she's not complaining. "I'm falling more and more in love with her," she says of Matilda, "and I think she deserves the bulk of my attention. We're lucky. I can work. She can go to a good school. There's a lot there for her. And she can know her dad in so many ways, and so many of his friends who will be able to tell her so many stories. His friends, his family—they were a big part of his life, and they will be a big part of her life."

We are sitting on her porch watching sunflowers open to the sky. "I feel hopeful and grateful. For a while I thought we had lost everything. It makes you want to love better and live better and treat people better." And she adds, "There is a great Gloria Steinem quote—and I'm paraphrasing—'Become the man you want to marry.' I've taken that on. What qualities do I find attractive, and can I find them in myself? What am I missing? Can I be that for myself?" I'm betting she can.

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