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Michelle Williams (actress) facts for kids

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Michelle Williams
A head shot of Michelle Williams as she grins.
Williams in 2012
Michelle Ingrid Williams

(1980-09-09) September 9, 1980 (age 43)
Occupation Actress
Years active 1993–present
Full list
  • Phil Elverum
    (m. 2018; div. 2019)
  • Thomas Kail
    (m. 2020)
Partner(s) Heath Ledger
Children 3
  • Larry R. Williams (father)
Awards Full list

Michelle Ingrid Williams (born September 9, 1980) is an American actress. Known primarily for starring in small-scale independent films with dark or tragic themes, she has received various accolades, including two Golden Globe Awards and a Primetime Emmy Award, in addition to nominations for five Academy Awards and a Tony Award.

Williams, a daughter of politician and trader Larry R. Williams, began her career with television guest appearances and made her film debut in the family film Lassie in 1994. She gained emancipation from her parents at age fifteen, and soon achieved recognition for her leading role as Jen Lindley in the teen drama television series Dawson's Creek (1998–2003). This was followed by low-profile films, before having her breakthrough with the drama film Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Williams received critical acclaim for playing emotionally troubled women coping with loss or loneliness in the independent dramas Wendy and Lucy (2008), Blue Valentine (2010), and Manchester by the Sea (2016). She won two Golden Globes for portraying Marilyn Monroe in the drama My Week with Marilyn (2011) and Gwen Verdon in the miniseries Fosse/Verdon (2019), in addition to a Primetime Emmy Award for the latter. Her highest-grossing releases came with the thriller Shutter Island (2010), the fantasy film Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), the musical The Greatest Showman (2017), and the superhero films Venom (2018) and Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021). Williams has also led major studio films, such as Ridley Scott's crime thriller All the Money in the World (2017) and Steven Spielberg's semi-autobiographical drama The Fabelmans (2022).

On Broadway, Williams starred in revivals of the musical Cabaret in 2014 and the drama Blackbird in 2016, for which she received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. She is an advocate for equal pay in the workplace. Consistently private about her personal life, Williams has a daughter from her relationship with actor Heath Ledger and was briefly married to musician Phil Elverum. She has two children with her second husband, theater director Thomas Kail.

Life and career

1980–1995: Early life

The city of Kalispell, Montana, where Williams was born

Michelle Ingrid Williams was born on September 9, 1980, in Kalispell, Montana, to Carla, a homemaker, and Larry R. Williams, an author and commodities trader. She has Norwegian ancestry and her family has lived in Montana for generations. Her father twice ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate as a Republican Party nominee. In Kalispell, Williams lived with her three paternal half-siblings and her younger sister, Paige. Although she has described her family as "not terribly closely knit", she shared a close bond with her father, who taught her to fish and shoot, and encouraged her to become a keen reader. Williams has recounted fond memories of growing up in the vast landscape of Montana. When she was nine, the family moved to San Diego, California. She has said of the experience, "It was less happy probably by virtue of it being my preteen years, which are perhaps unpleasant wherever you go." She mostly kept to herself and was self-reliant.

Williams became interested in acting at an early age when she saw a local production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She performed in an amateur production of the musical Annie, and her parents would drive her from San Diego to Los Angeles to audition for parts. Her first screen appearance was as Bridget Bowers in a 1993 episode of the television series Baywatch. The following year, she made her film debut in the family movie Lassie, about the bond between a young boy (played by Tom Guiry) and the titular dog. Williams played the love interest of Guiry's character, which led Steven Gaydos of Variety to take note of her "winning perf". She next took on guest roles in the television sitcoms Step by Step and Home Improvement, and appeared as the child form of Sil, an alien played in adulthood by Natasha Henstridge, in the 1995 science fiction film Species.

By 1995, Williams had completed ninth grade at Santa Fe Christian Schools in San Diego. She disliked going there as she did not get along well with other students. To focus on her acting pursuits, she left the school and enrolled for in-home tutoring. At age fifteen, with her parents' approval, Williams filed for emancipation from them, so she could better pursue her acting career with less interference from child labor work laws. To comply with the emancipation guidelines, she completed her high school education in nine months through correspondence. She later regretted not getting a proper education.

1996–2000: Dawson's Creek and transition to adult roles

Following her emancipation, Williams moved to Los Angeles and lived by herself in Burbank. To support herself, she took assignments in low-budget films and commercials. She had minor roles in the television films My Son is Innocent (1996) and Killing Mr. Griffin (1997), and the drama A Thousand Acres (1997), which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange. Williams later described her early work as "embarrassing", saying she had taken those roles purely to support herself as she "didn't have any taste [or] ideals". In 1997, unhappy with the roles she was being offered, Williams collaborated with two other actors to write a script named Blink, which despite being sold to a production company was never made. Having learned to trade under her father's guidance, seventeen-year-old Williams entered the Robbins World Cup Championship, a futures trading contest; with a return of 1,000%, she became the first woman to win the title and the third-highest winner of all time (her father ranks first).

Williams filmed Dawson's Creek (1998–2003) in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she also lived during that time period.

In 1998, Williams began starring in the teen drama television series Dawson's Creek, created by Kevin Williamson and co-starring James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, and Joshua Jackson. The series aired for six seasons from January 1998 to May 2003 and featured Williams as Jen Lindley, a precocious New York-based teenager who relocates to the fictional town of Capeside. The series was filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, where Williams lived for the six years of shooting. Reviewing the first season for The New York Times, Caryn James called it a soap opera that was "redeemed by intelligence and sharp writing" but found Williams to be "too earnest to suit this otherwise shrewdly tongue-in-cheek cast". The series was a ratings success and raised Williams's profile. Her first film release since the start of Dawson's Creek was Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998), a slasher film starring Jamie Lee Curtis. The seventh installment in the Halloween film series, it featured Williams as one of several teenagers. It grossed $55 million domestically against its $17 million budget.

Williams has credited Dawson's Creek as "the best acting class", but she also admitted to not having fully invested herself in the show as "my taste was in contradiction to what I was doing every single day." She would film the series for nine months each year and spend the remaining time playing against type in independent features, which she considered a better fit for her personality. She said the financial stability of a steady job empowered her to act in such films. Williams found her first such role in the comedy Dick (1999), a parody of the Watergate scandal, in which she and Kirsten Dunst played teenagers obsessed with Richard Nixon. Dick failed to recoup its $13 million investment. In the same year Williams played a small part in But I'm a Cheerleader, a satirical comedy.

Keen to play challenging roles in adult-oriented projects, Williams spent the summer of 1999 starring in an off-Broadway play titled Killer Joe. Her next role was in the HBO television film If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000).

2001–2005: Independent films and Brokeback Mountain

The British film Me Without You (2001), about an obsessive female friendship, starred Williams and Anna Friel. Williams played Holly, an insecure bibliophile, a part that came close to her personality. The writer-director Sandra Goldbacher was initially reluctant to cast an American in a British part but was impressed by Williams's self-deprecating humor and a "European stillness". Roger Ebert praised Williams's British accent and found her to be "cuddly and smart both at once". Williams returned to the stage the following year in a production of Mike Leigh's farce Smelling a Rat. She played a supporting role in the Christina Ricci-starring Prozac Nation, a drama based on Elizabeth Wurtzel's memoir.

Dawson's Creek completed its run in 2003, and Williams was satisfied with how it had run its course. She relocated to New York City soon after. She had supporting parts in two art-house films that year, the drama The United States of Leland and the comedy-drama The Station Agent. The Station Agent, about a lonely dwarf (played by Peter Dinklage), featured Williams as a librarian. Critically acclaimed, the film's cast was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast. On stage, Williams played Varya in a 2004 production of Anton Chekhov's drama The Cherry Orchard, alongside Linda Emond and Jessica Chastain, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The theater critic Ben Brantley wrote that "she cannily plays her natural vibrancy against the anxiety that has worn the young Varya into a permanent high-strung sullenness."

Heath Ledger (2)
Williams and Heath Ledger (pictured) began dating in 2004 while filming Brokeback Mountain. She gave birth to their daughter the next year.

German filmmaker Wim Wenders wrote the film Land of Plenty (2004), which investigates anxiety and disillusionment in a post-9/11 America, with Williams in mind. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times praised Wenders' thoughtful examination of the subject and took note of Williams's screen appeal. She received a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead for the film. The actor next appeared in Imaginary Heroes and played an impressionable young woman fixated on mental health in the period film A Hole in One. Williams returned to the comedic genre with The Baxter, in which she played a secretary. The film received negative reviews; Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe wrote, "Only when Williams is around does the movie seem human, true, and funny. Even in her slapstick, there's pain." As with her other films during this period, it received only a limited release and was not widely seen.

Williams's film breakthrough came later in 2005 when she appeared in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. Impressed with her performance in The Station Agent, the casting director Avy Kaufman recommended Williams to Lee. He found a vulnerability in her and cast her as Alma. The actor was emotionally affected by the story and, despite her limited screen time, she was drawn to playing a woman constricted by the social mores of the time. Brokeback Mountain proved to be her most widely seen film to that point, grossing $178 million against its $14 million budget. It won three Academy Awards and she received a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Williams began dating Ledger while working on the film. The couple cohabited in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, New York, and in 2005, she gave birth to their daughter Matilda.

2006–2010: Work with auteurs

Williams had two film releases in 2006. She first featured opposite Paul Giamatti in the drama The Hawk Is Dying. Five months after giving birth to her daughter, she returned to work on Ethan Hawke's directorial venture The Hottest State, based on his own novel. Leslie Felperin of Variety found her role to be too brief. Following the awards season success of Brokeback Mountain, Williams was unsure of what to do next. After six months of indecision, she agreed to a small part in Todd Haynes's I'm Not There (2007), a musical inspired by the life of Bob Dylan. She was then drawn to the part of S in the 2008 crime thriller Deception. The film, which co-starred Hugh Jackman and Ewan McGregor, was considered by critics to be middling and predictable. In her next release, Incendiary, based on Chris Cleave's novel of the same name, Williams reteamed with McGregor. A reviewer for The Independent called the film "sloppy" and added that Williams deserved better.

Michelle Williams (Berlinale 2010)
Williams at the Berlin International Film Festival for the premiere of Shutter Island in 2010

Williams's two other releases of 2008 were better received. The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was impressed with her comedic timing in Dick and thus cast her in his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, an ensemble experimental drama headlined by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was a box office bomb and polarized critics, although Roger Ebert named it the best film of the decade. Two days after finishing work on Synecdoche, New York, Williams began filming Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, playing the part of a poor and lonesome young woman traveling with her dog and looking for employment. With a shoestring budget of $300,000, the film was shot on location in Portland, Oregon, with a largely volunteer crew. Williams had just separated from Ledger and was relieved for the anonymity the project provided. She was pleased with Reichardt's minimalistic approach and identified with her character's self-sufficiency and fortitude. Sam Adams of the Los Angeles Times found her performance to be "remarkable not only for its depth but for its stillness" and Mick LaSalle commended her for effectively conveying a "lived-in sense of always having been close to the economic brink".

Williams was filming in Sweden for her next project, Mammoth (2009), when news broke that Ledger had died. Although Williams continued filming, she later said, "It was horrible. I don't remember most of it." In her first public statement, a week after his death, she expressed her heartbreak and described Ledger's spirit as surviving in their daughter. Later that month she attended his memorial and funeral services.

Mammoth was directed by the Swedish director Lukas Moodysson and featured Williams and Gael García Bernal as a couple dealing with issues stemming from globalization. Her role was that of an established surgeon, a part she deemed herself too young to logically play. In the same year, she co-starred with Natalie Portman in a Roman Polanski-directed faux perfume commercial called Greed. For her next project, Martin Scorsese cast her opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the psychological thriller Shutter Island. The high-profile production marked a departure for her, and she found it difficult to adjust to the slower pace of filming. She took a year off work to focus on her daughter. Shutter Island was released in 2010 and was a commercial success, earning over $294 million worldwide.

Williams had first read the script for Derek Cianfrance's romantic drama Blue Valentine at age 21. When funding came through after years of delay, she was reluctant to accept the offer as filming in California would take her away from her daughter for too long. Keen to have her in the film, Cianfrance decided to film it near Brooklyn, where Williams lived. Co-starring Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine is about the tribulations faced by a disillusioned married couple. Before production began, Cianfrance had Williams and Gosling live together for a month on a stipend that matched their characters' income. This exercise led to conflicts between them, which proved conducive for filming their characters' deteriorating marriage. On set, she and Gosling practiced method acting by improvising several scenes. The film premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim. A. O. Scott found Williams to be "heartbreakingly precise in every scene" and commended the duo for being "exemplars of New Method sincerity, able to be fully and achingly present every moment on screen together". She received Best Actress nominations at the Academy Award and the Golden Globe Award ceremonies.

In her final film release of 2010, Williams reunited with Reichardt for the western Meek's Cutoff. Set in 1845, it is based on an ill-fated historical incident on the Oregon Trail, in which the frontier guide Stephen Meek led a wagon train through a desert. She starred as one of the passengers on the wagon. In preparation, Williams took lessons on firing a gun and learned to knit. Filming in extreme temperatures in the desert proved arduous for her, though she enjoyed the challenge. Writing for The Arizona Republic, Bill Goodykoontz praised the subtlety both in the film and in Williams's performance.

2011–2016: My Week with Marilyn and Broadway

Michelle Williams & Dougray Scott 7 (cropped)
Williams filming the part of Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn (2011). Pictured with co-star Dougray Scott.

In 2011, Williams starred as actor Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, a drama depicting the troubled production of the 1957 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, based on accounts by Colin Clark, who worked on the latter film. Initially skeptical about playing Monroe, as she had little in common with her looks or personality, Williams spent six months researching her by reading biographies, diaries and notes, and studying her posture, gait, and mannerisms. She also gained weight for the part, bleached her hair blonde, and on days of filming, underwent over three hours of makeup. She sang three songs for the film's soundtrack and recreated a performance of Monroe singing and dancing to "Heat Wave". Roger Ebert considered Williams's performance to be the film's prime asset and credited her for successfully evoking multiple aspects of Monroe's personality. Peter Travers opined that despite not physically resembling Monroe, she had "with fierce artistry and feeling [illuminated] Monroe's insights and insecurities about herself at the height of her fame". For her portrayal, she won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress and received a second consecutive Oscar nomination.

In Sarah Polley's romance Take This Waltz (2011), co-starring Seth Rogen and Luke Kirby, Williams played a writer. Though the actor considered it to be a light-hearted film, Jenny McCartney of The Daily Telegraph found a darker undertone to it and favorably compared its theme to that of Blue Valentine. To play a part that would appeal to her daughter, Williams starred as Glinda in Sam Raimi's fantasy picture Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). Based on the Oz children's books, it served as a prequel to the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz. It marked her first appearance in a film involving special effects and she credited Raimi for making her comfortable with the process. The film earned over $490 million worldwide to rank as one of her highest-grossing releases. Suite Française, a period drama that Williams filmed in 2013, was released in a few territories in 2015 but was not theatrically distributed in America. She later admitted to being displeased with how the film turned out, adding that she found it hard to predict the quality of a project during production. Eager to work in a different medium and finding it tough to obtain film roles that enabled her to maintain her parental commitments, Williams spent the next few years working on the stage.

Her desire to star in a musical led Williams to the role of Sally Bowles in a 2014 revival of Cabaret, which was staged at Studio 54 and marked her Broadway debut. Jointly directed by Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall, it tells the story of a free-spirited cabaret performer (Williams) in 1930s Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party. Before production began, she spent four months privately rehearsing with music and dance coaches. She read the works of Christopher Isherwood, whose novel Goodbye to Berlin inspired the musical, and visited Berlin to research Isherwood's life and inspirations. Her performance received mixed reviews; Jesse Green of Vulture praised her singing and commitment to the role, while Newsday's Linda Winer thought her portrayal lacked depth. The rigorousness of the assignment led Williams to consider Cabaret her toughest project.

Michelle Williams UK Manchester By the Sea Premiere
Williams at the premiere of Manchester by the Sea in 2016.

Challenged by her work on Cabaret, Williams was eager to continue working on the stage. She found a part in a 2016 revival of the David Harrower play Blackbird. Hilton Als of The New Yorker considered her "daring and nonjudgmental embodiment of her not easily assimilable character" to be the production's highlight. She received a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play nomination for Blackbird.

Williams returned to film in 2016 with supporting roles in two small-scale dramas, Certain Women and Manchester by the Sea. The former marked her third collaboration with Kelly Reichardt and told three interconnected narratives based on the short stories of Maile Meloy. As with their previous collaborations, the film featured minimal dialogue and required Williams to act through silences. Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea starred Casey Affleck as Lee. Williams agreed to the project to work with Lonergan, whose work she admired, and in preparation, she visited Manchester to interview local mothers about their lives. She also worked with a dialect coach to speak in a Massachusetts accent.She received her fourth Oscar nomination, her second in the Best Supporting Actress category.

2017–present: Mainstream films, Fosse/Verdon, and marriages

Cannes 2017 6 (cropped)
Williams (second from right) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival

Following a brief appearance in Todd Haynes's drama Wonderstruck (2017), Williams appeared in the musical The Greatest Showman. Inspired by P. T. Barnum's creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, the film featured her as Charity, the wife of Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman). She likened her character's joyful disposition to that of Grace Kelly, and she sang two songs for the film's soundtrack. The film emerged as one of her most successful, earning over $434 million worldwide.

Williams then took on her first leading film role since 2013 in Ridley Scott's crime thriller All the Money in the World. She starred as Gail Harris, whose son, John Paul Getty III, is kidnapped for ransom. She considered it a major opportunity, since she had not headlined a mainstream big-budget film before. She received her fifth Golden Globe nomination for the role. It was later reported that her co-star Mark Wahlberg had been paid $1.5 million to Williams's $1,000 for the reshoots, which sparked a discourse on gender pay gap in Hollywood.

In 2018, Williams married the musician Phil Elverum in a secret ceremony in the Adirondack Mountains. Her first film role of the year was as a haughty but insecure executive in the Amy Schumer-starring comedy I Feel Pretty, which satirizes body image issues among women. The comedic role, which required her to speak in a high-pitched voice, led Peter Debruge of Variety to term it "the funniest performance of her career". The film was a modest box office success. In a continued effort to work on different genres, Williams played Anne Weying in the superhero film Venom, co-starring Tom Hardy as the titular antihero. Influenced by the MeToo movement, she provided off-screen inputs regarding her character's wardrobe and dialogue, but the critic Peter Bradshaw found it to be "an outrageously boring and submissive role". Venom earned over $855 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film in which Williams has appeared.

Gwen Verdon 1954
Williams portrayed Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon (2019)

Williams returned to the Sundance Film Festival in 2019 with After the Wedding, a remake of Susanne Bier's Danish film of the same name, in which she and Julianne Moore played roles portrayed by men in the original. Benjamin Lee of The Guardian considered the low-key part to be a better fit than her previous few roles. Fosse/Verdon, an FX miniseries about the troubled personal and professional relationship between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, marked her first leading role on television since Dawson's Creek. Williams also served as an executive producer on the series, and was pleased not to have to negotiate to receive equal pay to her co-star Sam Rockwell. She said her experience of performing Cabaret on Broadway was conducive to her portrayal of Verdon. John Doyle of The Globe and Mail commended Williams for "play[ing] Verdon with a wonderfully controlled sense of the woman's total commitment to her art and craft while always standing on the edge of an emotional abyss." She won the Primetime Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Miniseries.

Elverum and Williams filed for divorce in April 2019; by November 2019, it was reported that they were no longer married. She later described the marriage as a "mistake". Later in 2019, Williams became engaged to the theater director Thomas Kail, with whom she worked on Fosse/Verdon; they married in March 2020. She gave birth to their son later in 2020 and another child in 2022.

In 2021, Williams reprised the role of Anne Weying in the superhero sequel Venom: Let There Be Carnage. It received mixed reviews, but grossed over $500 million worldwide. In her fourth collaboration with Kelly Reichardt, Williams starred in the drama Showing Up (2022). For her role as a sculptor in it, she shadowed the artist Cynthia Lahti. Tim Robey of The Independent opined that Williams "thrives more intelligently than ever under Reichardt's watch here". Later in 2022, Williams starred in The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg's semi-autobiographical film about his childhood, in which she played Mitzi Fabelman, a character inspired by his mother. Spielberg had her in mind for the part after seeing her performance in Blue Valentine; in preparation, she heard recordings and watched home movies of his childhood. The film received critical acclaim; Pete Hammond of Deadline Hollywood labeled Williams "gut-wrenchingly great" and Kyle Buchanan of The New York Times wrote that she "really goes for it, attacking this part like someone who knows she’s been handed her signature role". She received further Best Actress nominations at the Golden Globe and Academy Award ceremonies.

After filming The Fabelmens, Williams took a two-and-a-half year break from acting. In 2023, she was enlisted by singer Britney Spears to narrate the audiobook version of her memoir The Woman in Me. A clipping from the audiobook, in which Williams imitates Justin Timberlake speaking in "blaccent" went viral on social media. She will return to acting with Dying for ..., an FX miniseries based on the podcast of the same name.

Acting credits and awards

According to the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes and the box-office site Box Office Mojo, Williams's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful films are The Station Agent (2003), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Blue Valentine (2010), Shutter Island (2010), Meek's Cutoff (2010), My Week with Marilyn (2011), Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), Manchester by the Sea (2016), Certain Women (2016), The Greatest Showman (2017), Venom (2018), Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021), and The Fabelmans (2022). Among her stage roles, she has appeared on Broadway in revivals of Cabaret in 2014 and Blackbird in 2016.

Williams has received five Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actress for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Manchester by the Sea (2016); and Best Actress for Blue Valentine (2010), My Week with Marilyn (2011), and The Fabelmans (2022). She won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Comedy or Musical for My Week with Marilyn (2011) and Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film for Fosse/Verdon (2019); she has been nominated five more times: Best Actress in a Drama for Blue Valentine (2010), All the Money in the World (2017), and The Fabelmans (2022); and Best Supporting Actress for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Manchester by the Sea (2016). Williams also won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie for Fosse/Verdon (2019) and received a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for Blackbird.

See also

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