Michelle Williams Sends a Raw, Risky ‘Valentine’

It wasn’t the NC-17 sex scenes that were tough for Michelle Williams — it was improvising all night, and fighting with Ryan Gosling for days

Last Updated: November 24, 2010 @ 9:30 PM

Even if Harvey Weinstein’s ace legal crew gets the MPAA to overturn the NC-17 rating its ratings board slapped on “Blue Valentine,” Derek Cianfrance’s raw, intimate look at a relationship will still stand out as a bracing anomaly: a tough, keen-eyed look at the innocent beginnings and stormy end of a relationship between a young couple played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

Michelle WilliamsWilliams, who just finished a London shoot in which she starred as Marilyn Monroe in Simon Curtis’ “My Week with Marilyn,” bares her body in “Blue Valentine” (though not nearly as much as Anne Hathaway does in the R-rated “Love & Other Drugs”) – but to hear her tell it, it was the emotional intimacy demanded of her and Gosling that made the film a unique and challenging experience.

(Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images)

Were you surprised by the NC-17?
Yes. Derek sent me a text message that just said “NC-17,” and I didn’t know what he was talking about. It was like some weird non-sequitur from the depths of his brain. Then I got a flurry of phone calls.

I’ve said this before, but it kind of felt like being like a naughty child and being slapped on the wrist for taking a piece of candy or something. It was never our intention to make something tawdry or illicit or anything. We were just trying to be honest and hold up a little mirror and say, “Do you see yourself? Do you see your mother, do you see your father, do you see anybody you love? Do you relate to this? Does it touch you in any way? Does this shed any light and expose anything?”

Did the sex scenes feel especially risky when you were shooting them?
No, not really. To be honest, for me, showing up for work one night and being told that you’re going to shoot for 12 hours is just as much of a risk as taking your clothes off and trying to inhabit a sex scene. It’s all the same.

You’ve said that when you first read the script, you immediately knew it was the best thing you ever read.
Oh yeah, I just lived and breathed for this movie and this movie alone when I read it when I was 22. It was the only thing I wanted to make, the only thing I was interested in. it had me on a hook for like two years.

Why did it resonate with you?
A lot of reasons. The true thing, it struck me as honest. Honest to relationships that I had seen devolve, relationships that I had heard of devolving, relationships that I had been in at that point that had devolved. And it struck me as something that I hadn’t read before, that I hadn’t seen in movies before. It wasn’t trying to sell me anything, and it wasn’t a glamorized or simplified version of a relationship.

That was about eight years ago. Were there times since then when you thought it was not going to happen?
Oh yeah, definitely. After about two years I got realistic, but it was always in the back of my mind. And I ran into Ryan somewhere and he said, “How about that ‘Blue Valentine,’ what a script, right?” And it shocked me, because I had never had a conversation with anybody other than Derek about it. And when Ryan responded to it that way, I knew that my instincts were right. Because I’d go anywhere that guy went. If he told me to jump into a lake full of crocodiles, I would think that that was a really good idea.

If it had gotten the green light when you were 22, would you have been ready?
Maybe for a different movie. The movie that we would have made then obviously wouldn’t have been the movie that we made now. But I think one of the reasons that it was able to keep all of our interests for so long is that Derek allowed it to be a living, breathing creature. It changed as much as we changed.

I think he had something like 110 drafts of the script, and when it came time to shooting, he was like, “Throw it away. These are words that I wrote in a room. These words are dead. I want you to breathe new life into it, and you better surprise me. If you say the words that are on the page, I’m going to be bored.” And so we were guided into this place of spontaneity and improvisation and experimentation.

Blue ValentineI would guess that’s a liberating way to work, but it also requires a pretty huge commitment from the actors. You’re really on the line in a lot of ways.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Sometimes boundaries are good. Children love boundaries. They thrive in a container of sorts, where they know what’s coming next, and have a routine and a plan. And so it was upsetting, sometimes, as an actor, to know you have all this freedom, but what are you going to do with it?

And it also requires an immense amount of preparation. You can’t show up not knowing what you’re going to do. That’s not going to get you anywhere. You have to show up with ideas of what you’re gonna do, and ideas of what to say, and ideas of how your character would behave. And then those things are there for you to draw upon in the moment when you’re called upon to respond. So it’s a lot of preparation to lead to inspiration.

Were there times when you felt lost with that freedom, and had to turn to Derek for advice?
He was always there as a director, as a provocateur, as a confidant, as a friend. He would help you if you were stuck, but his one direction was just, “Go, and keep going.” That’s what I heard over and over again.

Like, one night we got there at 6 o’clock to shoot, as the sun was setting, and he said, “Okay, we’re gonna roll until the sun comes up. Go.” Because we were shooting on digital, you could. We literally filmed all night long, stuff that we didn’t know was going to happen. The entire sequence of us dancing, him singing the song – neither of us knew that was going to happen. And there’s 12 hours of footage of things like that.

When you were improvising like that, did you have moments where you thought, okay, that’s definitely going in the movie?
Yeah. And then it’s not in the movie. (laughs) Some of my favorite things didn’t make it.

Some of the arguments between the two of you are tough to watch in the theater. And I understand that you would shoot those scenes all day long …
Pretty much. We were locked in that hotel room for two days. There are two days of fighting on film somewhere. That fight went off in a hundred different directions, and you just happen to see the direction that made it in the movie.

Was it an endurance test for you?
I’ll say. It was exactly that. I’ve said before, it felt like that scene in “The Princess Bride” where they strap him in that machine that takes years off his life. Sometimes making that movie felt like you were just so tapped out, body and soul. But it’s also is regenerative. So while it did exhaust certain things, when you get to work in that way it expels something from your system, and then something else comes to take its place.

When you were done with those scenes, were you able to shrug it off and put your arm around Ryan?
No. He was kind of like the last  person that I wanted to see after a day of work. Now we’re able to put our arms around each other – but then, when they would call wrap it was like that set caught fire, and I ran as fast as I could to get out of it.

("Blue Valentine" comes to theWrap Screening Series on December 2, with a post-screening Q&A with Williams and Gosling. Information is available here.)