Michelle Williams disappears so deeply into her new movie "Wendy and Lucy," it's like you're watching a documentary. Williams plays Wendy, a down-on-her-luck woman on a long drive to Alaska, where she hopes to find work. But she runs into a string of problems in Oregon, after she parks her car one night at a Walgreens and falls asleep in the driver's seat. The next morning, a security guard rouses her to tell her to move, but the car won't start. The nearest auto shop is closed, though she doesn't know if she has enough money left for repairs anyway. Worst of all, her traveling companion—a yellowish mutt that makes up the second half of the film's title—is starving, so Wendy wanders into a grocery store to swipe food. She stuffs her pockets with bread, and then she's suddenly distracted by a tabloid with Jennifer Aniston on the cover —and we are, too. For the first time, it's not Michelle Williams the actress on screen. It's Michelle Williams the celebrity, face to face with a kind of cracked mirror of her own fame. "That was Kelly [Reichardt, the director]'s idea, and I was like, 'Noooo,' but I like the inherent risk in it," Williams says. "I'm just glad it didn't have my face on it. That would've really taken you out of the movie."
You have, of course, seen Williams all over the tabloids since her ex-boyfriend Heath Ledger died from a prescription overdose last January. Photographers have stalked Williams, 28, and the couple's 3-year-old daughter, Matilda, to the point where she's now spending some time in a farmhouse in upstate New York. But as the grocery-store scene shows, her celebrity doesn't affect just her private life. It's often tough to watch "Wendy and Lucy" without thinking about Ledger, especially since the melancholy film is about losing your best friend. Williams isn't the only actress whose fame threatens to overshadow her work. When Jennifer Aniston talks about wanting to start a family in "Marley & Me," you think about her failed relationship with Brad Pitt. In "The Changeling," you realize it's hard to see Angelina Jolie as anyone but herself. Celebrity has obviously colored an actor's art from the beginning of the Hollywood star system, but it's different now, too. For all we heard about, say, Elizabeth Taylor's love life, we never saw daily, even hourly, pictures of Liz and their child just after her husband, Mike Todd, died in a plane crash. "It's such a funny line to walk as an actor," Williams says. "There's some great quote I think Dustin Hoffman gave when he was doing 'The Graduate': 'The more you know about me, the harder my job is'."
What makes it harder is that Williams isn't the kind of actress who craves attention. She's always tried to live a small life, out of the spotlight. She and Ledger moved to Brooklyn in 2005 and were often seen pushing Matilda down the street in her stroller. She proudly talks about how she just learned how to compost upstate, but she doesn't want to discuss her love life (she's reportedly dating director Spike Jonze). Williams grew up in Montana ("Independence was really valued in my family"), and, like Wendy, she's a bit of a pioneer. She left home as a teenager to pursue acting. At 17 she landed the role of Jen Lindley on "Dawson's Creek." She says the most difficult part was having people identify her with such an overtly sexual character. "It made me feel bad, like there was something wrong with me," Williams says. When the show ended, she went the anti-"Dawson's" route, with small independent films ("Imaginary Heroes," "Land of Plenty," "The Station Agent"), though she concedes she was too tough on her first big job. "When I was on 'Dawson's Creek,' I wanted to make work that meant something to people, serious work that made people less alone in the world," she says. "And I was thinking about that this morning in the shower—'Dawson's Creek' meant something to people."
"Wendy and Lucy" is something of a meditation on loneliness. Williams is by herself in half the scenes, and even when she's sharing the frame she seems lost in a fog. She filmed the movie right after her breakup with Ledger in 2007. "It was a vulnerable time," she says. "I felt vulnerable but somehow strong." She stops herself. "No, just vulnerable. It was a strange combination of one of the greatest summers of my life and one of the most excruciating summers of my life." Williams lived with Matilda in Portland, in the guesthouse of one of the director's friends. She doesn't wear makeup in any of her scenes, and she didn't shave her legs, to get into character. She even slept in her car for a few nights to see how Wendy's nomadic life felt. "I went up there for five days, and her nails were really dirty," says her friend and "Dawson's" costar Busy Philipps. "I just remember thinking, 'OK, Michelle, let's go get manis and pedis'." Williams bought her own (and only) costume—a blue hoodie and brown corduroy shorts—at thrift stores. Weren't the people freaked out when she walked in? "I never saw Michelle get recognized the whole time I was in Portland," says Reichardt, the director. "She really blended in."
When you drive around with Williams in the New York countryside, you see how easily she blends in. She stops to get her oil changed, and no one recognizes her. One of the employees asks her for her name. "Michelle," she says. He asks her for her last name, and Williams's hands go into her pockets like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. She's wearing a plain wool sweater and no jacket on a chilly November day, which might be part of the reason she can't kick a long cold. "I had a friend that I met recently, like six months ago, and she said, 'You've been sick ever since I knew you'," Williams says. "She's totally right. I don't have any armor right now."
Williams is jovial and chatty, until the conversation turns to Heath. You can see it's still difficult for her to talk about him, and she hasn't done so publicly until now. The first time Ledger's name comes up, she bursts into tears. "It's so sad," Williams says. When she's asked about how she's been doing in the past year, she's silent for a very long time. "I guess it's always changing," she says. There's another pause. "What else can I say?" Her voice is breathy and fragile, and she takes a few gulps of air. "I just wake up each day in a slightly different place—grief is like a moving river, so that's what I mean by 'it's always changing'." She stops again. "It's a strange thing to say"—her words unravel slowly, her eyes tear up—"because I'm at heart an optimistic person, but I would say in some ways it just gets worse. It's just that the more time that passes, the more you miss someone. In some ways it gets worse. That's what I would say."
As she walks back to her car, Williams spots an SUV parked on the side of the road. Is it the paparazzi? No, but her heart still sinks at the thought. The paparazzi are one topic that gets her so riled up, she spits out curse words. "It burns a fire inside of me, the s––– that I've seen people do to get at me or my daughter," she says. "I won't forget it, and I won't support it. I don't want my daughter growing up feeling spied on or threatened." She can't understand how many more pictures people need of her holding a coffee cup in one hand and Matilda in the other. Williams is especially enraged at female photographers, because she thinks women should be protective of mothers. She tried to give a particularly aggressive paparazzo career advice recently. "I said, 'You're better than this. Look at you! You're young, you're able-bodied, you have a brightness in your eyes. You're above this.' But you know what? She didn't go away."
If the paparazzi won't leave her alone, then Williams might just have to leave them behind. She says she'll quit acting, if that's what it takes to get her life back. "If it gets to the point where I can't situate my life in a way that they stay away more, then I'll drop a match on the thing," she says. "I'll be sad. I like to act. It's saved my life over and over again. It's given me a sense of self-esteem, self-worth. I have this thing that I'm in love with—acting—and now it has this baggage." For now, Williams is taking a year off to focus on the job that really matters to her: being Matilda's mom. She's endearingly protective of her daughter. She tells a story about finding a tick on Matilda and getting so worried she almost called 911. "I don't want to work while she's in school," Williams says. "I want her to have a routine. I want the plainest, simplest, most ordinary, habituated routine possible. I just want to know what's coming next." And what's that? We didn't ask. Don't you think it's time we gave Michelle Williams a little privacy?