Brokeback Mountain

SOUND BITES
Which director would you like to work with that you haven’t before? Why? “Even though he’s dead, John Cassavetes. See his movies. ‘Opening Night,’ I’ve never seen anything like it since, the energy and the ingenuity. The thing about his movies that gets me is he’s talking about how you can never really know another person. After a mystery there’s more mystery.”

How do actors balance commerce vs. art? “I was on ‘Dawson’s Creek’ for 6½ years so commerce isn’t something I have to think about for a while. That’s the greatest gift it gave me, some freedom. I just went in my direction, and I’ve been pretty thrifty afterwards. Aside from ‘Dawson’s Creek’ I’ve never done anything for money.”

Up next: “I did a movie coming out soon, ‘The Hawk Is Dying.’ I’m going to do a small part in ‘The Hottest State,’ which Ethan Hawke is directing and is based on his book.”

Brainy, articulate and deeply passionate about acting, Michelle Williams has left behind her TV “Dawson’s Creek” days for the legit stage and indie film, pausing only occasionally for studio fare such as Columbia’s laffer “Dick.”

In “Brokeback Mountain,” she plays Alma, a young woman who marries cowboy Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) only to discover her husband’s in love with another man.

In keeping with the themes of the film, Williams didn’t see Ennis’ homosexuality as Alma’s real trauma. “The shock of someone you love not loving you back, that’s more a stab in the heart,” she says.

She hadn’t read the short story but calls the script “the most perfect thing I’d ever laid eyes on.”

Williams flew from New York to L.A. to read for director Ang Lee. She says that although she’s usually a tense auditioner, “I felt strangely calm that day and did everything I wanted to do and left feeling really peaceful. I don’t know if in retrospect it felt destined, but it felt really nice.”

It might have helped that Williams comes from several generations of Montana ranchers and farmers. Still, she went back to the region with her dialect coach, listening to people in bars, restaurants and bookstores.

Once on set, though, she found that Lee created an “arid” environment at first. “He’d hold my hand and look deep into my eyes, but he didn’t reveal a lot about what it meant to him personally,” she says. “To hear him talk about the film and what it means to him, and on a broader scale to hear about what filmmaking means to him, makes me cry.”

“Brokeback Mountain” has come to have special meaning for Williams, too, because she and Ledger have had a baby together. But their onscreen pairing is hardly a meet-cute. “It was kind of disturbing to watch ourselves fight and bicker and divorce and not have a happy ending to the story,” she says.

Talking to Variety from her Brooklyn apartment, with her infant daughter pulling at her hair and Ledger nearby, the 25-year-old is grateful for the entire experience. “It’s a lot of luck and a lot of love and a lot of happiness that have sprung from the same place.”

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