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Girl, interrupted

With the lead in 'Wendy and Lucy,' Michelle Williams is back on track after being derailed by the death of Heath Ledger

By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2009
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NEW YORK Michelle Williams feels like she's constantly being observed -by paparazzi planted outside her home in Brooklyn, by gossip websites and tabloids commenting on her every move, by passersby who stare at her on the street and in the coffee shops of her Boerum Hill neighborhood.

A year ago, the actress was thrust into the middle of a media firestorm when her ex-boyfriend, the charismatic young heartthrob Heath Ledger - the father of her daughter, Matilda - died from an accidental prescription drug overdose. Although the couple had split up months before his death, Williams was devastated. To make matters worse, she and Matilda found themselves hounded by photographers and TV cameras.

It had been a welcome relief to the 28-year-old actress when, shortly after the breakup, she had the opportunity to live a virtually anonymous life near Portland, Ore., in the summer of 2007 while shooting her film "Wendy and Lucy," which opens Friday at Kendall Square. Directed by the acclaimed indie auteur Kelly Reichardt ("Old Joy") the film was shot on the fly, with a minuscule budget and a bare-bones crew.

To play the plain-Jane character of Wendy Carroll, a lost soul driving to Alaska to seek work and a fresh start in life, Williams dyed her hair reddish-brown, went without makeup, and wore drab clothes picked from local thrift stores. The Oscar-nominated actress says she was never recognized the entire time they were shooting the film.

"I was excited to go to Portland and make something with nobody watching me, and feel free and loose and able to experiment and be collaborative," says Williams, sitting alongside Reichardt, during a recent interview in Manhattan. "[The anonymity] was appropriate because Wendy feels invisible to the world around her."

Williams would love to go unnoticed sometimes. When she and Ledger fell in love while filming "Brokeback Mountain" in 2004, the public swooned over the couple's good looks, acting smarts, and bohemian patina. The duo decamped to Brooklyn, and Williams gave birth to their daughter. For a while, they lived in semi-obscurity. But when "Brokeback" bagged a boatload of Oscar gold and their star quotient skyrocketed, the paparazzi began stalking the couple. Williams in particular resented the intrusions into her private life.

Navigating the gantlet of her celebrity, she acknowledges, has been the hardest part of life as an actress. Since she first rose to stardom as the rebellious Jen Lindley on the soapy teen drama "Dawson's Creek" in 1998, Williams has struggled to reconcile the creative aspect of her work with the burdens of fame.

To cope with Ledger's death, Williams retreated from public view and immersed herself in work, filming four movies over the past year and a half, including Charlie Kaufman's recent "Synecdoche, New York" and Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island," due out in the fall.

Now, after almost a year of shunning the spotlight, she has started inching back into the public eye while promoting "Wendy and Lucy."

"I'm still not very comfortable being back [in the limelight] right now or talking to the press. So there were a lot of questions for me about how to promote this movie," she says.

She admits that she could have done more publicity, but "it would feel out of line with the way we made the film and what the project was all about."

Swaddled in a black pea coat, with tousled blond hair and porcelain skin, Williams is even more luminous in person than on screen. She is, as friends describe her, shy and introspective, but also warm and considerate, if still reticent to be talking so much about herself.

In "Wendy and Lucy," the central character is traveling with her dog, Lucy, through Oregon on her way to find work in the Alaskan fisheries. Wendy's resilience is severely tested when her car breaks down, she loses her beloved canine, and dwindling finances force her to make a series of heart-wrenching decisions.

For Williams, the biggest challenge was grappling with the many silent, contemplative moments in the script that contained no dialogue, just one-line directions like "Wendy sleeps in the car" or "Wendy looks for her dog."

"This film is filled with those kind of scenes. So you then have to figure out how to create these rich and alive moments that reveal something about who she is," Williams says. "There's no road map to where you're going. You have to make it up yourself and fill out those spaces."

Fortunately, says Reichardt, Williams is supremely gifted at expressing deep emotions with few or no words. "There's a stillness about her that's just really wonderful," Reichardt says. "There's just so much coming through in her face at all times. She really doesn't have a false moment."

Still, Reichardt was unsure she could envision Williams as Wendy, which in her mind was a good thing. "That was interesting, because sometimes when you can picture someone too well, it's like the film doesn't even need to be made," she says. "But I couldn't say that I knew what [her performance] would look like because she's quite different in all her roles."

Indeed, peruse Williams's resume - studded with diverse characters and films - and it becomes apparent that this is an actress who wants to grow as an artist rather than become a movie star. She's done niche indies like "The Station Agent," worked with visionary directors like Todd Haynes and Wim Wenders, and even showed her taste for lunatic farce in films like "Dick" and "But I'm a Cheerleader." Still, it's her ability to plumb the emotional depths in films like "Synecdoche" and "Brokeback" that make her most unforgettable.

Says her friend playwright Christopher Shinn, who's known Williams since 2003, "Michelle has the soul of an artist, which not all actors do. She's able to truthfully and unselfconsciously represent emotional pain in a way that I think is unmatched in actors of her generation - male or female."

In "Wendy and Lucy," the pathos and resilience on Williams's face are palpable. The film was shot after she and Ledger had just broken up. It was a time when she says she felt particularly vulnerable, so she could relate to "the loneliness of decision-making that [Wendy] must endure, when there's nobody around to bounce ideas off of."

She also identified with the character's self-sufficiency - "the idea that you can only really depend on yourself," she says. After all, this is the same young woman who moved from rural Montana to Los Angeles when she was just 15 and had herself legally emancipated from her parents. But the actress admits that her onetime fierce independent streak has been dialed back in recent years.

One aspect of Wendy that stood in stark contrast to her own personality, she attests, was the character's reluctance to fight back at injustice.

"She never puts up a fuss because she doesn't expect her voice to change anything," Williams says. "That's very different from my life and the way that I live in the world. If I see something that I think is unfair, I'm able to say something, and I'm fortunate that people would respond."

Reichardt says that she and co-screenwriter Jon Raymond were inspired to adapt "Wendy and Lucy" from Raymond's short story "Train Choir" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and in light of the yawning gap between rich and poor in America. They sought to illuminate the ways in which people treat one another, from compassionately to indifferently, during difficult times.

"When I saw the film for the first time, it dawned on me how resonant the story was [to the zeitgeist]. It made me feel a little daft that I hadn't seen that in such detail before," Williams says, with a laugh. "I thought it was a character study - and it is. But it's also a lot bigger than that."

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