A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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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.

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."

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."

Whether or not Williams wants to talk about it, it's clear that she loved Ledger and that her grieving has been twofold: There was death, but before that there was the loss of her partner and the dream of an intact family, a loss that Williams, it's pretty clear, did not want. "'Brokeback Mountain' was an unrepeatable moment in time, a very charmed time in my life. I was in love; I was in a movie I was proud to be a part of, and with a beautiful brand-new baby. Everything was good in that moment." After the split, she did everything to get away, including taking on a film in Sweden. "I just didn't want to be at home. Geography is a great solution for heartbreak."

Particularly if the paparazzi are recording your and your child's every move. Williams's need for privacy and emotional space only grew, of course, after Ledger's death. "Because he died—it's so hard to say it, now that it's a fact—it's because of this tragedy that there's more paparazzi. That is hard to be graceful and understanding about." Brooklyn was and remains difficult on a mundane level, too. At her local coffee shop, a little girl asked Williams, "What's her name?" "Matilda." The girl said to Matilda, entirely innocently, "What's it like being famous? Are you so sad that your daddy died like Michael Jackson?" "That girl was six," Williams says without rancor. Afterward, mother and child had a discussion about third-party attention. "It's because people really loved your daddy that they want to take your picture, to know you're all right" is what she tells Matilda. "My reaction to it is going to be her reaction to it," Williams says. "It's an OK model for her to see that her mom has boundaries. It's OK for me to be upset and to raise my voice. But it's an ongoing struggle. It's hard to be the man and the woman in that [paparazzi] situation. Heath always used to do that for us." When I ask Estabrook how his friend has changed over the past eighteen months, he replies, "There's been a necessary but unfortunate hardening. But she's snapped into a philosophy: She will do whatever it takes to give Matilda as normal a life as possible."

This is the perspective that being upstate offers. At home, Williams wears faded cutoffs, a checked shirt from Steven Alan, and a stripy men's cardigan from A.P.C. Whether she's in the sticks or in the boroughs, her style is consistently low-key, classic, and faintly nostalgic. She likes clothes that construct narratives. "My favorite things that I see her wear are when I think she's creating childhood memories for Matilda," says Daphne Javitch, a costumer who became Williams's great friend when they bonded over the same navy peacoat by Boy. "So much of her style has to do with the fact that she's a soulful, practical, beautiful kind of person. Can she garden in it? Can she get a bagel in it? Because she's such a lovely, smart person, she looks adorable."

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.