For Variety’s latest issue, we asked Kenneth Lonergan to write a tribute for his “Manchester by the Sea” star Michelle Williams, one of 50 people to make our New Power of New York list. Here’s why Williams represents a new generation of movers and shakers that capture the best of Manhattan.
In 2002, I saw Michelle Williams in a Mike Leigh play called “Smelling a Rat.” She was very young. She hobbled onto the stage in very high heels — platforms, maybe — saying in a really good and extremely strange English accent, “Daddy? Daddy?” I thought she was great. It was a bizarre, hugely bold characterization. You don’t often see a pretty blonde ingénue commit that fully to such an odd character turn. You rarely see anyone paint a character in such colorful strokes while remaining emotionally truthful. It seemed as though the character was out of her mind, not the actor.
I’ve never seen her play anything quite that weird again, but in the years to come I watched Michelle embody one wildly different role after another, burrowing into the emotional heart of each with a eye-widening thoroughness that allowed her to be transformed, in her whole person, by what she found there.
Physically, she is small. In person, she gives the impression of being very delicate. But there is nothing small or delicate about the volcano of feeling she has on tap, ready to loose into whatever channels the specifics of her role suggest. Despite my long-ingrained opinion that writing and acting are essentially the same process, there are times when I just don’t understand that extra bit of magic by which an actor actually becomes what I can only write down. I’ve wanted to work with her for years. But I was totally unprepared for just how hard she works and how much she has to offer.
Lonergan is the director and writer of “Manchester by the Sea.” Read our full New Power of New York List here, as well as tributes for Chelsea Clinton (by Bill Clinton), Megyn Kelly (by Judge Judy) and Leslie Jones (by Lena Dunham).