'Meek's Cutoff' star Michelle Williams blazes her own trail
Michelle Williams could have taken the easy way out.
Coming off a successful six-season run on the WB hit "Dawson's Creek," the actress could have chased dollars and fame by accepting roles in any number of popcorn flicks that titillate young audiences with sex, violence and immature humor.
Instead, she made thoughtful decisions that valued art over commerce and worked on movies such as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Synecdoche, New York" with directors Ang Lee and Charlie Kaufman.
In her latest effort, the slow-moving and stunningly beautiful pioneer tale "Meek's Cutoff," which opened in Austin on Friday, Williams plays Emily Tetherow, a strong woman whose acts of self-determination and confidence echo that of the actress herself.
A wild and arrogant guide, Stephen Meek, has led Emily and her traveling party astray. The group of three families quietly wanders the eastern Oregon desert in search of a new home, or at least some water.
Emily eventually voices her concern about their lack of leadership and direction. Guided by an American Indian (referred to only as "the Indian" in the film) who appears in the desert, Emily moves to usurp the reckless Meek and set a new course for her family's future.
Williams, sweet but serious, says she embraced the young woman's wild nature. She also admits to finding resonance in the enigmatic character who helps awaken Emily to her potential.
"I have an 'Indian,' somebody by whose example you follow, but he doesn't know who he is, so I'm not going to talk about it," Williams says, her voice light with that blend of excitement, danger and eagerness that comes from sharing just part of a secret. "It doesn't have to be somebody that you know that well because a lot of it is about what it's doing to you. The Indian is a lot about projection. He's an unknowable entity. He speaks in a language that I don't understand. All I can do is try and read his face and project what I see on it. So I have somebody like that, who I know a little bit but not terribly well, that kind of serves as a way to read myself and a way that I like to measure myself."
The two-time Academy Award nominee stops short of revealing more, but happily shares her profound affection for "Meek" director Kelly Reichardt. Williams starred in Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" in 2008, another quiet and powerful story set in Oregon. Through the collaborative process, Williams became a "serious fan" of the director for whom she said she would "jump into a lake full of crocodiles."
Before filming "Meek's Cutoff," Reichardt gave Williams and her co-stars journals to help them better understand the inner lives of their characters. In a movie with such minimal dialogue, Williams says, the writings helped glean information about the pioneers who suffered through horrific conditions.
Though she moved to California as a child, Williams says she felt a kinship with the 19th-century characters. Indeed, the pioneering spirit lives in the actress' DNA. After filming, the 30-year-old Montana native discovered from her grandmother that her great-great-grandmother, Inge Jacobin, had journeyed as a stowaway from Norway to Ellis Island before boarding a wagon train and heading to Big Sky Country.
Though the actors in "Meek's Cutoff" obviously did not suffer the same brutality as Williams' relatives, the weather and isolation exacted their toll while forming strong connections among the cast.
"You can understand how conditions drive people apart and drive people mad and, at the same time, bring them together," Williams says. "Because you're bonded by this experience, and if you don't have each other then you really have nothing. You won't survive in it by yourself."
When she speaks about the joy she derives from acting and the meaningful relationships she's established, Williams, who's prone to making touchingly earnest and anachronistic exclamations like, "Geez, Louise," sounds grateful to the point of being overwhelmed.
"When I'm working, I feel my brain switch on in a different way," Williams says. "The hairs on your skin stand up. Your eyes are a little bit sharper. And everything starts to mean something and things that you sort of take for granted, or you don't really see because you're in the haze of day-to-day life running around, all of a sudden, everything has extra meaning. I'd like to be in that heightened state all the time - having extra intention."
On the heels of her devastating Oscar-nominated turn in "Blue Valentine," Williams' subtle yet powerful performance in "Meek's Cutoff" should help solidify her reputation as one of the best actors working today.
The wise decisions she has made have paved the way for a career defined by integrity. And though she says the more commercial route never truly held any appeal, there were undoubtedly others along the way who might have attempted to steer her from her true path.
"Oh, there's always a Meek," Williams says. "Meeks are a dime a dozen. But the Indian? The Indian is rare."