At first, I thought Michelle Williams and I were going to have a 15-minute conversation about superheroes and CGI. The four-time Oscar-nominated actor has brought her considerable talents to the latest Marvel movie—the Spider-Man-adjacent and refreshingly bizarre Venom (which, among other things, is sort of a buddy comedy about a dude and his alien parasite). Williams plays Anne, an attorney, opposite Tom Hardy’s journalist character Eddie, who’s infected with an alien virus (a “symbiote”) that gives him superhuman strength, a black shiny leotard, and a taste for human heads. Spoilers ahead. While certainly secondary to... all of that, Anne isn’t quite the typical superhero girlfriend—she dumps Eddie early on after he breaches her trust, for one thing, but then stays in touch with him, and then as the action intensifies in the movie’s superior second half, she gets in on the action herself.
Williams is notoriously sharp and frank. Earlier this year, she discussed with Vanity Fair the financial incentive for signing onto a superhero film of Venom’s scope: “Before this, I had a real fixation on... purity, but I’ve started to address that notion as I’ve gotten older, and as I talk to more women, and more women artists, and I think about my long-term future, I’ve started to adjust my thinking about... how to make a life, how to support a life.” I spoke with Williams last Friday, the day after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. When I asked how her week was going, the conversation took a turn from the explicitly promotional. She thoughtfully discussed #MeToo, as well as the pay disparity she experienced with Mark Wahlberg over All the Money in the World reshoots (she reportedly received $1,000 versus his $1.5 million). I found her to be candid and open beyond the usual expectations of a press junket, which can be frustrating-to-disastrous for an interviewer interested in actual substance. An edited and condensed transcript of our brief phone chat is below.
JEZEBEL: I thought this movie was fun.
MICHELLE WILLIAMS: I haven’t seen it yet, so you know more about it than I do. You really care so much more about the thing that you’re making rather than the outcome. I’m curious about it, but it’s not where my real investment lies. My real investment is between action and cut. But I’m curious about how it all turns out.
Do you approach project of this scale any differently than you would the type of smaller, independent movie that you’ve been known to take on?
I really don’t. I still spend a ton of time thinking about it, preparing for it. Quote-unquote research comes to mind. By research, I don’t always mean reading books, I mean like: What does it remind me of? What does it make me think of? Can I relate it to anything else in any other medium?
For this, I really wanted it to be specific to this moment in time that we’re living in, in terms of what it feels like to be a woman right now. I wanted to be able to pin it in 2017/2018. We’re in an alternate universe where many things in possible, and I wanted it to be possible in this moment in time for my character to have a lot of self-respect—so much self-respect that she stands up for herself and walks away from a relationship that she can’t abide by morally. I wanted it to feel empowered. I wanted it to feel post-#MeToo. I wanted it to feel a little bit socially relevant.
Did that draw you to the script, or did you infuse the role with some of those sensibilities on your own?
A lot of the work I did was figuring out ways to sneak that in. Nobody’s going to go see this movie because of the social import or relationship details. And I don’t mean to get boring or didactic about that. I just mean it’ll be nice if we can do some of this gender play. Anne gets to play with some masculine qualities and Eddie gets to play with some feminine qualities, just little things like bringing that out in the wardrobe. Who wears the pants in this relationship? They both do. She’s the one in the tie, and he’s the one taking the tie off. Things like that, maybe they just tickle me, but I thought they’d be fun to drop in there.
I was surprised how nontraditional Eddie and Anne’s arrangement is—they stay in touch after they break up.
Just because it doesn’t work out between them, it doesn’t mean it extinguishes all the love [she] has in [her] heart for [him]. I think what she’s trying to say is, “I loved you so much I wanted to marry you, but I can’t attach my wagon to somebody who’s going to pull one over on me. You knew better and I’m worth more than that.” That takes a lot of self-love. Something I was thinking about today is when I turn on the radio and listen to what’s current with my kid, that’s the message female pop singers are sending out: Love yourself and demand that someone else do the same. That was kind of what I wanted to tap into. I think it’s what we’re trying to talk about as women; it’s what we’re trying to teach our girls. In whatever little way, I wanted this character to be reflective of that.
I feel rude that I haven’t yet asked you how your week has been.
It’s been so upsetting. I was harboring some optimism this morning, which I feel stupid for now. I should have had my optimism beat out of me by Trump. But I was harboring a little bit of optimism that something might turn and surprise us. If you can’t just stop this train for Dr. Ford, then for whom? Which one of us has a chance of standing up and asking to be heard if she stands up to be heard and isn’t. It feels defeating for a lot of us.
It sucks to be reminded of how shitty the world is in yet another distinct way.
Yeah, and why are we surprised? Why are we heartbroken all over again? I think a lot of movements feel like this. You make progress, but it’s not a straight line. A day like today makes me think for a minute, “Man I wish I had social media. If I had social media, I’d get on there and I’d reach out to Dr. Ford.” And then I think, “I don’t even know how to answer my email in a timely fashion. I could never handle social media.” But a day like today makes me think that I wish I felt more connected and supportive to a network of women.
Going into this interview, I wondered if, with the way your name has been attached to issues like equal pay and #MeToo, all of these external issues ever felt like a burden on your artistry. But it doesn’t sound like it, to hear you talk.
I’m in the business of raising girls. It’s near and dear to my heart. We’ll find other things to attach our hope to, it’s just that today’s a really bad day. I felt like we had been gaining ground and since those words caught on—#MeToo—it completely changed the landscape. And I do believe we’ll hand our daughters a different world than the one we grew up in. It’s just a really bad day. So I certainly don’t mind. I am grateful for being made an example of and that light was shed. I’ve been hearing from other women that it’s helped them articulate their own feelings about their own scenarios, and my strongest desire is to articulate the moment that I went through and how I learned and how I grew and who helped me so that we could achieve this outcome. And when I say “outcome,” I mean the $2 million donation that was made to #TimesUp—$1.5 million Mark Wahlberg donated and then $500,000 from my own agency. That number took a lot of effort behind the scenes. It took a lot of collaboration with women, and that’s the thing that I’m really excited to talk about. I feel like it’s a teaching moment. If a woman picks up on it and reads it and it helps her in her own work environment, then I feel like it was worthwhile.
Moving forward, are you going to be choosing roles with the same kind of social consciousness you had in mind when approaching Venom?
It feels like a path you can’t really get off of. Once you have your eyes opened, it’s difficult to close them again. I think it’ll now color everything that I’m interested in and everything I do. I just didn’t know that this kind of conversation—“change” feels ambitious—but this kind of conversation was possible.
Do you remember the moment your eyes were opened? Was it a result of #MeToo?
It was #MeToo. It was the forming human chain of women that was building momentum. We had never talked about it before. We would talk about it with each other. You would talk about it with your best friend behind a closed door underneath a comforter, but that was it. That was the end of the conversation. We didn’t think there was a place for it in society. And there is. A setback like today is heavy. [It’s hard] to keep the faith that that conversation can effect change. But it was how #MeToo caught on like wildfire that opened my eyes.
Have you kept in touch with Tarana Burke, the #MeToo founder whom you brought with you to the Golden Globes earlier this year?
She sent me something recently. Forgive me, I don’t know this word [“gif”] is [pronounced] “giff” (hard g) or “jiff”...
Okay, great. She sent me a gif [Ed Note: Williams goes with the hard-G pronunciation] recently that I was very proud of. The shame is that we both work and travel a lot and keep trying to catch a moment where we’re both in the same place at the same time. But the desire is there and the effort is there. We just need the timing to be there.