Heath Ledger’s ex Michelle Williams:
“Matilda is the spitting image of her dad”
Michelle Williams arrives at the restaurant straight off a seven-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles – and I mean straight. No make-up whatsoever, yet her skin has a head-turning luminosity. Her ultra-blonde, boyish cropped hair somehow seems to make her look uber-feminine – waif-like in a denim jacket and a loose boho dress. Even the hip LA crowd can’t help but gawp.
There was a time when she minded the gawping – a time when she was hounded and hunted by paparazzi wanting to get a glimpse of her pain when her ex- but much-loved boyfriend Heath Ledger, the father of her daughter Matilda, died of an accidental overdose in January 2008. It was a double loss for Michelle. She’d lost him when the relationship ended amicably the previous year,
then he died and she lost him all over again.
The pair met on the set of Brokeback Mountain, which she has described as “a very charmed time in my life”. Both received Oscar nominations. They fell in love, she fell pregnant. The press was fascinated by their normalcy: they went out to breakfast to local diners in Brooklyn, baby Matilda cuddling giant stuffed animals in her Maclaren buggy. It seemed real, grounded and like it would go on for ever.
After Heath’s death, Michelle almost gave up acting – a career she had left home for at the age of 15, before achieving widespread fame in the long-running TV series Dawson’s Creek, in which she co-starred with Katie Holmes. But then she realised it was the media attention she didn’t like. In a statement shortly after Heath’s death, she said: “My heart is broken. I am the mother of the most tender-hearted, high-spirited little girl who is the spitting image of her father; all that I can cling to is the presence inside her that reveals itself every day. She will be brought up with the best memories of him.”
I meet her in LA on the weekend of the Screen Actors Guild Awards – she was nominated for best supporting actress for her role in Manchester by the Sea, but missed out to Viola Davis for Fences.
Michelle’s performance in Manchester is extraordinary. Not much screen time (it’s been estimated at only 10 minutes), but she manages to pack in a lifetime of emotions – grief, despair, loss, survival – into her character, Randi, whose three young children perished in a house fire caused by her husband (Casey Affleck) while he was drunk. She brings to this part her real-life experience of loss, which she was ready to confront and cauterise into her art for the very first time. Casey Affleck said she told him this was the part she wanted to leave as a record of herself for her daughter.
“I spent a lot of time preparing for it,” she tells me, “and I tried to squeeze a lot into those scenes.”
Sometimes her big Bambi eyes look right at you, unafraid. Sometimes she closes them while she’s thinking, without any self-consciousness.
I ask whether playing different characters and understanding their personalities helps her figure out who she is? “I use my life to understand myself better,” she says. “My work is to understand other people... I’ve taken some risks in my life. I try to keep things simple, be at home a lot and only take the risks when I work. I knew there was a lot riding on my scenes in Manchester. Those scenes feel very loaded.”
A gamble that paid off
It was certainly a huge risk for her to step away from movies in 2014 to play Sally Bowles in a revival of the Broadway musical Cabaret – and then return to Broadway a year later for Blackbird. But singing on stage has been a career gamble that paid off.
It was also designed to keep her close to home and Matilda. Her daughter is the reason that most of her projects have remained on the East Coast. She lives in Brooklyn and has another place in upstate New York. “I haven’t made a movie that has taken us on the road for five years. I’ve been doing plays and small parts in movies.”
Her next screen role is in Certain Women, which was “shot over the spring break, so [Matilda] came with me”. The film is based on the short stories of The New York Times best-selling author Maile Meloy – three interwoven, loosely connected tales. Michelle plays a wife and mother. It’s set in Montana, but for Michelle it wasn’t just about the aweinspiring, bleak landscape and vintage trucks. It was her childhood. She lived there until she was eight.
“I have very, very, very happy memories. The happiest. I really loved being a kid there – lots of space and freedom.” Later, her family moved to San Diego. Michelle’s father had his own commodity trading business and ran for the Senate as a Republican twice and lost.
Michelle knew growing up that she wanted to be away from San Diego – but acting wasn’t always her first passion. “I wanted to be a boxer,” she tells me. “I think that was kind of sad, because, at the time, I didn’t distinguish between the sexes and weight categories. I was going to go out there and fight like Mike Tyson. I was a big fan of his growing up and I wanted to be against someone really tough.”
She may act tough, but she is also a big poetry fan. In her bag is a book of 100 poems. “I truly love them. When I don’t have time to pick up a novel or I’m doing other things, I can dip into a poem.”
Does she ever write poems herself? “No, I’ve read enough to know I’m not capable of writing one. Where would I start?”
When she wakes up she doesn’t go on Instagram or Twitter – she reads a poem. She likes the idea of a lot happening in a short space of time. And she likes to constantly challenge her intellect. Perhaps that’s something to do with leaving school at 15 to come to LA to act.
At the age of 11 or 12 her parents would drive her up from San Diego to LA for auditions and jobs, but at 15 she got a legal emancipation from
them so she could work unrestricted hours as an actress in Los Angeles.
She admits to being terribly lonely and that she had no idea how to look after herself. “I’d eat McDonald’s as a matter of course – cheeseburger, fries – and I’d order two pizzas. One for dinner and one for breakfast with orange juice. I didn’t go to the dentist for 10 years. I was a kid. I didn’t know going to the dentist was a real thing. I thought it was a scam. I had so many other things to take care of, I wasn’t thinking about my teeth and then they started to hurt. I am so dentistphobic – I cry as soon as I sit on the chair.”
Her character in Certain Women is not very likeable. “I don’t care at all if people like me as a character because that’s real love. Real love is when you accept the totality of someone – when you see their darkness and their lightness. Real love is saying, ‘I see you for you and I still love you.’ I guess that’s what I’m still looking for.”
In this instance, the words are so resonant, I’m not sure if she’s talking about a character or herself. Her intelligence is fierce and I think she enjoys a little ambiguity. She strikes me as someone who can love fiercely and deeply.
She checks her phone to see how Matilda is. “She’s with friends. Everything’s okay. She’s 11, so we’re not quite pre-teens yet. She’s just a kid.”
So what is she like? There’s a pause and Michelle is thinking. She’s very careful what she says about Matilda because there was a time when “men and women in suits were cashing cheques off my daughter’s face”.
There was another horrible moment where a little girl at Starbucks approached Matilda and asked her what it was like to be famous because she had a daddy who “died like Michael Jackson”.
“Matilda has all kinds of hobbies and passions. I don’t want to make a strong statement on her behalf in one direction or another. She’s not looking to declare herself. She’s really still a little girl.”
We talk over a simple meal of salad but Michelle turns down the offer of wine. “Usually I’m a partaker of alcohol, but I feel like I have more energy and it’s easier to get up in the morning and be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed without it. I’m usually an indulger because I find it’s so comforting when life is stressful.”
“Nothing like a challenge”
At the moment, Michelle is working in Brooklyn on a movie called The Greatest Showman, opposite Hugh Jackman. “I love that man,” she says, explaining that Hugh made her feel good about her singing. Which is just as well because her next role is playing Janis Joplin. “Nothing like a challenge,” she says, pulling a scared face.
Her desire to challenge herself with singing happened when she sang in Cabaret on stage. “I fell in love with singing. Nobody in my family ever acted or wanted to act. My mum sings, though. She has a lovely voice and her dream was to play the cello on a TV show, so I like to think in some small way, me singing and dancing with Hugh Jackman is giving her something she missed out on.”
And her father (her parents are divorced), what does he do now? There’s a sticky pause for the first time. “I really don’t know,” she says, shaking her head. You can see there’s something painful that went on before, but the “I don’t know” is as far as she takes me. With anyone else, I might push a little harder to find out what went on with her dad, but Michelle feels everything so sharply and it would be cruel. Despite this, you’re left with the impression that Michelle Williams could tackle anything. I like the metaphor of this waif-like creature wanting to be a boxer. She’s ready to fight for anything. She’s ready to plunge into something that terrifies her, like a biopic of Janis Joplin.
“It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m thrilled,” she says of the role.
Michelle is a dazzling presence, and so far away from that time when she felt it was hard to be alive because she was being watched all the time.
“That was hard,” she says. “You feel self-conscious. You just want to spend your life staring at your feet so people can’t catch your eye. If you’re never left alone to live your life, you don’t feel alive.”
How did she change that? “We moved outside of the city.” There’s a little pain when she says the words and I recall an article where she talks about moving out of the Brooklyn home she had shared with Heath after his death, and she worried, “How would he find us?”
It wasn’t an easy move, but it was needed. And now she and Matilda have another place in Brooklyn in a different area. “We don’t get hassled in the same way,” she says. “It’s really quite manageable. I know that life is long and things are bumpy.”
She’s not looking to declare herself. She’s still a little girl.
ABOVE: Michelle Williams and her daughter, Matilda Ledger, now 11, earlier this year. It’s been nine years since the death of Matilda’s dad, Heath. Now, “not only are we okay,” Michelle has said, “she’s happy. Life has brought us to a place that’s not just surviving, but thriving.”
ABOVE: Heath Ledger and Michelle at the 2006 Oscars. They fell in love on the set of Brokeback Mountain.
Matilda in 2009, the year after her dad died. RIGHT: Heath with her in 2007.