Michelle Williams’s vanishing act

The Oscar-nominated actor wanted to escape celebrity. The result is a quietly brilliant film.

Michelle Williams’s vanishing act

Among the pictures vying for attention this awards season, none is larger or louder than The Dark Knight, and no prize seems more predictable than the posthumous Oscar Heath Ledger is expected to win for his supporting role as the Joker. But at the other end of the spectrum, the smallest and quietest film attracting serious notice is Wendy and Lucy, which features a remarkable performance by Michelle Williams, Ledger’s ex and the mother of his child. At the time of writing this, the Oscar nominations had not yet been announced, and it seemed unlikely such a tiny film would be recognized—especially with no campaign and a reclusive star. But Wendy and Lucy has landed on numerous top 10 lists (mine included), received two nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, and won citations for best picture and best actress from the Toronto Film Critics Association.

Williams has won acclaim before. She and Ledger both received Oscar nominations for Brokeback Mountain (after falling in love and conceiving their daughter during the filming). But Wendy and Lucy, which begins a limited Canadian release next week in Toronto, is unlike anything she’s done. Scripted and shot with stark minimalism by director Kelly Reichardt, this marginal movie about a marginal character is virtually a one-woman show—the tale of a drifter (Wendy) who loses her dog (Lucy) while shoplifting groceries. Carrying barely enough money to buy gas, and sleeping in her car, Wendy is driving to Alaska to look for work in a cannery when her car breaks down in Portland, Ore. Cornered by a string of small catastrophes, then devastated by the loss of her dog, she comes to rely on the kindness of strangers—notably an aging security guard who spends his days standing watch in an empty parking lot.

For Williams, shooting this $300,000 movie with a volunteer crew was an escape from celebrity. “She saw it as a retreat,” says Reichardt, who shot the film in August 2007, just before Williams and Ledger announced their separation. “She really wanted to get away from New York and L.A. and just be free somewhere,” the director told me in a phone interview last week. “She really liked that Wendy was this character who felt invisible, which is the opposite of how she feels so much of her life. She feels so watched all the time. Michelle liked being able to go to Portland and just blend in. I never saw her recognized the whole time we were there. This was before Heath passed away. She would sit on the curb waiting to work, and I can’t remember anyone ever coming up to her.”

Reichardt also went out of her way to dull down her star. She had Williams dye her bob a dirty brown. “She had to colour it or she would have stood out,” says the director. “My approach to giving an actor a look is just to tell them to quit bathing. And that’s what she agreed to do. She couldn’t wash her hair for two weeks. No makeup, no shampooing. And there you have a look.”

For most of her adult life, Williams has begun each day in hair and makeup, preparing to turn heads. From the age of 18, she spent six years starring in TV’s Dawson Creek, as the promiscuous Jen Lindley. More recently, her roles have ranged from Bob Dylan’s socialite crush in I’m Not There, to a sex-club bombshell in the erotic thriller Deception. But in Wendy and Lucy, her sexuality never comes into play: she looks and acts like an indolent boy who has run away from home.

Reichardt “adapted” her script from John Raymond’s short story “Train Choir,” although the two were actually written in tandem. She met Williams through their friend Todd Haynes, who directed I’m Not There. The director wanted to cast a non-actor, and spent seven months looking for a real-life Wendy, meeting and filming women while driving around America with Lucy—the dog that’s in the movie. “But I was hung up on Michelle,” says Reichardt. “She is a physical actress. She does a lot with her body—with just a look, or being really still—which is nice if you don’t have a lot of dialogue. When you look at her through the camera, she can just be looking up at an apple, and your heart pounds. You know some- thing is happening.”

In the evocative spaces of Wendy and Lucy, the landscape is Williams’s co-star, and she makes herself part of it, hiding out in the moment. Since Ledger’s death, the actress has come to crave anonymity. “She’s hit this period in her life where she wants to just fade away,” says Reichardt. And as Wendy, she’s done her best work by doing just that.