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At first Williams was unnerved by Wendy’s lack of definition. “I made many panicked calls to friends, telling them I didn’t know what I was doing, I don’t know who she is. Kelly talked me off the ledge. I knew from having seen Old Joy that this was a hypernaturalistic landscape, and as an actor I was really interested in Will [Oldham’s] performance that wasn’t a performance. That was the vein I wanted to tap. In the police-station scene where I’m being fingerprinted, I thought I was doing this really subtle thing to transit my frustration. And after the first take Kelly was, like, ‘You don’t even have to do that, shift your hips and look frustrated. You just have to trust that it’s going to come through.’ And I thought, oh, that’s it. Then it started to feel right.” Reichardt, too, worried that Williams might bail on the project. “I thought, everything’s going to fall apart, she’s going to leave me for another film. But after I spent an hour with her, I never had those thoughts again.” The two women became fast friends and embarked on a continuing redefinition of who Wendy was.
Greeting her director with a sisterly kiss and a warm sweater in the lounge at the Four Seasons, Williams, a slim blonde in a plaid scarf, jeans and flats, seems a far cry from the truculent woman in the photo that flew around the Internet of her and Ledger giving the finger to photographers camped outside their house. Given all the unwanted media attention, the actress is understandably wary of talking about Ledger, from whom she split not long after their daughter, Matilda Rose, now 3, was born. Williams has been through a difficult time since Ledger’s death from a prescription-drug overdose. She can barely contain her anger at the paparazzo who keeps a 24-hour vigil outside her Brooklyn house, and she’ll only discuss the impact of Ledger’s death off the record. But she readily admits that her rendering of Wendy draws on “memory and imagination” from her own hair-raisingly sudden independence when, at 15, she legally emancipated herself from her parents in San Diego (her father, a stocks trader, was extradited from Australia to the U.S. last month to face tax-evasion charges) and took off alone for New York and then Los Angeles, where she got her big break in the television series Dawson’s Creek. “It was equal parts courage and foolishness,” says Williams. “What 15-year-old doesn’t want to leave home? There was a time when I actually thought I would have a life on the road. I was on my own for a long time, not quite like Wendy, I had a job, but I felt so restless that I would just drive a lot and take road trips by myself. I had this dark fantasy that I would never really attach or find a home in the world.”
For all her early independence and her current success, Williams can come across tentative and self-questioning. “When you saw the completed film, what did you think?” Reichardt asks. “It went down the easiest of any film that I see myself in,” says Williams. She’s disarmingly frank about her own insecurities, denies being a big star, and there’s a touch of wistfulness in her insistence that “this is always the way I wanted to work, through friends, to build up a thing that doesn’t disappear after a year. You set up so many little lives in movies and you say you’ll keep in touch and you don’t. So I was really pleased when Todd said, ‘What about Kelly?’ There’s a connectedness and a stability or something.” Still, when Reichardt asks Williams if she would make another film with her, the actress throws a quick glance at my tape recorder and hesitates a moment. Then she says quietly, “Yes, of course.”
For now, though, she’s taking time off work to be a full-time single parent to her equally feisty daughter, a difficult but satisfying task. “And I have my coffee-shop parents and my single-mom parents,” she says gratefully. “That’s one of the best things about becoming a mom. There’s suddenly this uprising of women who say, ‘We’re here to help you!’ And Matilda’s in school so I have time during the day to do the things I need to do and get ready for dinner, so it’s not 24/7,” she says. “I’m not quite ready to give up working, but I don’t know how to do the good balance of it. That’s the challenge, to live in the chaos. I’m a Virgo, very ‘clean space, clean mind,’ so after she goes to bed every night I pick the house up. I do think that domestic work can actually be creative and relaxing, freeing your mind. I’ve given myself the grace period. It’s okay.”
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