A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Actress opens up to Vogue about navigating grief, work and single motherhood.

BySALLY SINGER
October 8, 2009, 10:55 AM

Oct. 8, 2009— -- Michelle Williams these days divides her time between her house in Brooklyn and a house in upstate New York. The location of the latter property is a secret, for understandable reasons: Since the death in 2008 of Heath Ledger, the father of her daughter, Matilda, the beautiful and shy actress has inevitably found herself at the center of a morbid cult and, most pertinent, the object of the tabloids' banal, destructive intrusiveness.

She has been extremely reluctant, as a consequence, to give interviews of any sort, even to promote her film work -- the most recent example of which is Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island," in which she plays (not inappropriately) a ghost. Williams told me, "I didn't know what my boundaries were for a long time, which made interviews feel very unsafe. I can talk about grief, because that's mine; about single parenting; about trying to balance work and kids. But what I don't have to talk about is what happened between Heath and me in our relationship."

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On a more concrete level, speaking with Williams involves meeting her at a variety of neutral locations, urban and rural. In my case, the process culminated in a visit to the upstate house, where she and her three-year-old daughter have spent a part of the last year trying to restore equilibrium to lives rocked by heartbreak and grief. "I have been severely accident-prone over the past twelve months. I fell downstairs, broke a toe, put my fingers in a blender—seriously distracted." While Matilda was in a play group, her mother would be faced with the stark existential question "How am I going to get through the day?" Often, what she did was "cry, nap, sit and stare, try to figure out what to make her for dinner, talk to friends on the phone." She says, "I was holding it together by a string and a paper clip in the fall and winter. I didn't know if I could keep it all together." There are photos in the house of Gurumayi. Williams is not a follower and has never been to the ashram, but one day, she reached out to friends, and they arrived with the photos, constructed a "little altar," and took her through a rite of mourning. ("I wish we had rituals about grief," she says. "I wish it were still the Victorian times, and we could go from black to gray to mauve to pink, and have rings with hair in them.") The photos are a memento of that caring moment—memento because Williams is now in a different place. "Friends never really left me alone when we came up here," she says. "Women and kids really got us through the winter. One got me gardening in the spring, and that's when it started to turn around. I think it's something about being in nature that made it more possible. I remember being on my hands and knees. The ground was cold and muddy. I pushed back the dead leaves and saw the bright green shoots of spring. Under all this decay something was growing. Caring for the garden reminded me to care for myself." The story of Michelle Williams, it turns out, is not a story of a young artist derailed by tragedy and public scrutiny.

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."

Not surprisingly, six months after Ledger's death, the grief-stricken Williams turned to Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking." "I just don't see the upside to this," she says. "You console yourself by saying it's all a deepening process. But it's weird. After the first year, the pain is less intense; it's less immediate. But the magical thinking goes away, too. And that's a whole new reckoning. But every time I really miss him and wonder where he's gone, I just look at her."

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