Only a few minutes into “Wendy and Lucy,” there’s no doubt that Michelle Williams - playing a hard-luck vagabond stuck in a Pacific Northwest town when she loses her dog - owns the character of Wendy, deep in her soul.
“Michelle has this amazing stillness,” says Kelly Reichardt, who directed and cowrote the film, and made another shambling, emotionally resonant little indie, 2006’s “Old Joy.” “There’s stuff going on inside. You can see it in her eyes.”
Wendy and Lucy
Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton, Will Patton, John Robinson, Will Oldham, Larry Fessenden
(Oscilloscope Laboratories; US theatrical: 10 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 6 Feb 2009 (Limited release); 2008)
It was “a conspiracy,” Reichardt and Williams agree, that got the two together to collaborate on “Wendy and Lucy.” (Lucy, by the way, is played by Reichardt’s old brown mutt, Lucy.) Filmmaker Todd Haynes is a mutual friend. So, too, Kim Gordon, of Sonic Youth.
“I didn’t know Kelly before we went to make the film,” says Williams, on the phone from New York, “but there were all these friends, it turns out, trying to get me to do the movie.
“The casting director lives a few blocks from me in Brooklyn, and we go to the same coffee shop, and she would just sort of poke me every now and then and say, ‘I really think you should see this movie, ‘Old Joy’ ... And Kim Gordon ... was always saying, ‘You and Kelly would really get along, she’s really cool.’
“And then the script arrived. It was first sent to me in short-story form, with a little note from Todd Haynes saying, ‘Take a look. She’s a dear friend. You guys should work together.’ “
Williams took a look. She and Reichardt, who teaches film at Bard College, met. And then, a mere 48 hours after Williams had wrapped up her work on Charlie Kaufman’s elaborately surreal “Synecdoche, New York,” she was in Portland, Ore., ready to go. Wendy Carroll has a beat-up car, a few hundred dollars, and the idea of going to Alaska to find work at a cannery. The car dies in a small town, and things go from bad to worse when she’s separated from her beloved dog.
There’s not a lot of talk in “Wendy and Lucy,” the mood is observant and low-key, but Williams, her hair short, wearing grungy clothes, inhabits the role, radiating an aching loneliness and clamped-down melancholy.
Williams, nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar for her performance as Heath Ledger’s cheated-on wife in 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” is modest and funny when she talks about what she did to get to the heart of Wendy.
There was the source material: Jon Raymond’s short story “Train Choir” (in a collection called “Livability,” out from Bloomsbury USA), which helped the actress find the right emotional notes. Reichardt told Williams to watch Mike Leigh’s “Bleak Moments” and Max Ophuls’ noir “The Reckless Moment” (“Anything with ‘moment’ in the title,” Reichardt jokes). The director gave her photographs she’d taken in Oregon, a picture of the actress Verna Bloom, and some work by the experimental video artist Sadie Benning, whose innocence and vulnerability in her autobiographical shorts were elements Reichardt hoped to echo with Wendy.
Williams watched Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette,” about a tough young girl on her own, and read Rebecca Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.” The actress’ iPod was heavy with Elliott Smith, Rachel’s, and Will Oldham - the cult singer-songwriter who just happens to have starred in Reichardt’s “Old Joy.” (The musician has a small, creepy role in “Wendy and Lucy,” too.)
But those are all accessories, helpful tools. It’s something inside Williams - who is 28, moved to Los Angeles from Montana when she was 15 and set out to act, declaring herself an emancipated minor - that makes Wendy shine.
“How do you make a whole person that people can grab a hold of who doesn’t explain herself, who makes herself known through her actions and interactions and silences?” says Williams. “I just thought that was the interesting work of doing this film, the interesting question. ...
“The thing about Wendy is that she doesn’t give herself away with words, but she gives herself away at every moment just by who she is, or what she doesn’t give away ... The silences are revealing and the spaces are revealing, the way she uses her body is revealing. So, that was the specific challenge, to fill up that space.”
Clearly, the pain of Williams’ separation from Ledger is part of what imbues the role with such palpable forlornness. The couple were living together in Brooklyn, engaged to be married, and had a little girl, Matilda. They broke apart right before Williams went off to make “Wendy and Lucy.”
Ledger died, of an overdose, less than six months later. It’s not something she wants to talk about.
But Williams will say that she found it nurturing, and healing, to work with Reichardt and company. She found a sense of family that had long eluded her.
“I started off in community theater, and I think something about that stuck with me,” she explains. “There’s this consistency, and some kind of family feeling. I’d always wanted to be part of a troupe, working with the same people. You know, people come in and people come out, but you always get back together for something. There’s a thread.
“Because otherwise, you just make all these little lives on the sets of a film, all across the globe. You get really close to people and then you have to leave. And you never really are able to stay in touch as much as you want to. ...
“But this, to me, felt like a way to do that - to keep it within a family.”
So we can probably expect to see Williams and Reichardt working together again. Reichardt’s back teaching at Bard, but she and Raymond have written a new screenplay, a piece set out West in 1845. And maybe this summer, the two women will get around to shooting it.
But right now, the actress is a little more than midway through a year off - her last movie was Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” with Leonardo DiCaprio. (“Oooh, scary,” she says, in not altogether mock horror. “Definitely the biggest production that I’ve ever been involved in.”) She’s been dividing her time between Brooklyn and a house in the country, hanging with her 3-year-old daughter, reading, being with friends.
“It is exactly what I needed,” she says of the hiatus. “I’d been going on fumes for a while. And I can just notice the change now - sometimes my head just starts to click on again, like I start to get curious about a character or a person. It’s good. But I’m not getting antsy. Not yet.”