Heath Ledger’s ex Michelle Williams:

“Matilda is the spit­ting im­age of her dad”

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.

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