Michelle Williams on playing Steven Spielberg’s mom in The Fabelmans

Cloaked in the low-key camouflage of a chic Brooklyn mom — barn jacket, sturdy boots, tasteful knitwear — Michelle Williams slips into a small, bustling cafe near her home, unbothered by a local crowd that either doesn’t recognize her or, in the way of all good New Yorkers, respectfully pretends not to. In fact it’s been only five weeks since she gave birth to her third child, though there are still a few telltale signs of her day job: Her hair, an ethereal House of the Dragon blonde, holds the remnants of a 1950s bob, and her heart-shaped face emits a certain movie-star bioluminescence, as if she were born with some invisible ring light in tow.

It’s that mutable, quietly expressive beauty that has allowed Williams to inhabit roles as varied as a grieving Massachusetts mom (Manchester by the Sea), a platinum screen icon (My Week With Marilyn), and an electric Broadway star (Fosse/Verdon) with unusual, almost supernatural depth and specificity. More recently, she became the beating heart of Steven Spielberg’s movie memoir The Fabelmans as Mitzi, a vibrant midcentury housewife who has sublimated her dreams to raise a family. On a bright winter afternoon, the actress, 42, spoke to EW (for a special print edition sent out to industry members and guild members) about motherhood, monkeys, and finding her muse.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does one get summoned to be in a Spielberg movie? I’m guessing it must be a little bit surreal.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS It was deep pandemic, as my husband [director Thomas Kail] says, when we were still washing the mail. We were at home playing with our baby, my phone dinged, and it was my agent saying that Steven wanted to talk to me about something. I gasped and couldn’t speak, so I just showed it to my husband, and we were in a mutual fervor for a little while. Then the next day I got all dressed up for the first time in a year or something and got on my Zoom. [Laughs]

You’ve portrayed real women before, going back to Marilyn Monroe and Gwen Verdon, so pulling a character from life isn’t new to you. But they of course were also so well known and documented. You’ve spoken about being given a full dossier of Mitzi Fabelman materials at the start of this project — home movies and photographs and music. How much was Steven looking for a total embodiment of his mother versus forging your own path with it?

You’re trying to get as close as possible, but I don’t think anybody’s ever looking for a photocopy of the thing. Otherwise, why make it? It’s already been made. To recreate something exactly might not be as interesting as it is to gather the essence and see how that moves you and how that works through these given circumstances — this dialogue, this interaction with other characters and other actors. So it’s as close as it can be, but it also isn’t a documentary.

Really, I just think about the music that she listened to and that she played — the music that moved her, this ecstatic reach for connection. She so completely inhabited the space around her, in front of her, above her, behind her, which feels like the movement of a piece of music. She felt like she was always in motion and she was careening through these ecstatic states from high to low. And I think that’s what the great things make us feel.

But yeah, with Marilyn and Gwen, having played people who walked, who were, I’ve figured out a concise way for me to work is to have everything gathered on an iPad, so that I have a touchstone and something I can keep returning to that’s coherent and linear, and can contain videos and photos and audio. They put all of the archives onto an iPad for me, and that just became my companion.

And for every movie that I do, I always keep a notebook. It’s the same notebook, and every woman gets a new one. It’s like my little briefcase that I take to work with me every day, just a place that I can keep going to and keep connected to.

Binders full of women! Though the story is centered on Sammy [Gabriel LaBelle] as essentially a Steven stand-in, Mitzi becomes the stealth hero of the movie, this passionate dancer and pianist with a real artist’s soul and inner conflicts. Did you see all that on the page right away?

I did. When I first read the script, I said to my husband, “They let her live, they let her live.” It’s a feast, and they laid this table for her. I was so moved by how they ensured she not be limited to her identity as a mother, even though that is so front and center. And that’s actually what Steven, I think, is saying with this movie — that all of these characters made him who he is. “My father and his technical prowess made me an artist, my mother and her creative liberty.”

But I remember seeing this phrase “There’s nothing as dangerous to a child as the unlived lives of their parents.” And here’s a woman who, in a time when not a lot of other women were allowed or allowing themselves to do this, showed him that you can live full of love and full of bravery. And those two things can actually go hand in hand. She can still love her husband and love these children, but she can feel herself called to a place, and she’s not wrong.

As she says it in the most elegant, poetic way at the end of the movie, “You don’t owe anyone your life.” Because her heart is in the right place, and her heart can be in multiple places.

You definitely break the classic rule about never working with dogs and children here. There are kids all over the place, and even a monkey. Was it chaos?

I love that monkey, she’s amazing. I mean, I always say this about animals: They’re tremendous scene partners because they’re always in the moment, and they can actually really upstage you because they are so transfixing.

You parent a number of child actors on screen here, but did you feel maternal toward Gabriel in particular, being so new to the business and taking on this major role?

Oh, he was fine. He didn’t need it. [Laughs] This is such a sidebar, but did you ever watch Lionel Messi, the soccer player? There’s this announcer who’s obsessed with him. You have to watch him just to increase the joy in your life.

But he comes up with the most idiosyncratic turns of phrase to describe how magnificent he is, and he says this one thing, “He’s as cool as the seeds inside the cucumber.” Gabriel is so confident, he really trusts himself. And he was 19 when we made this!I had to get to 42 to be able to speak in full sentences around Steven. So the kid’s all right.

You’ve been nominated for an Oscar four times now, twice for Supporting Actress and twice for Best Actress. Do you have strong feelings about the category stuff, and where they might put you for Fabelmans?

I’ve played lead roles and I’ve played supporting roles, but the script that I read, the material that I prepped, the material that I shot, the material that I’m told is all still in the film, I know that that’s in line with the lead roles that I’ve played — the amount of time, the amount of work. And so I didn’t have an assumption. Or my assumption about it never changed.

You say “I’m told.” Does that mean you haven’t seen the movie?

I have not. [Laughs] I’m incapable of watching my own work.

Well, there’s that great scene, which I’m guessing you also haven’t seen, where you dance in the headlights on a family camping trip, this beautiful almost Martha Graham choreography. Was there maybe a little Verdon in there, too?

Those women are very far away from me, I really have to work hard to get that kind of expansion. I’m like a potato bug. [Laughs] I want to curl in on myself, I want to put my head between my legs and bend my shoulders into infinity. So it takes a lot of work for me to find the air. But luckily, Gwen wasn’t too distant of a memory and so she was still there somewhere, helping me stretch it out.

I wanted to make sure we had choreography in place but also something to return to, kind of a core set of movements. Which I think is really what you do all the time — you stuff your pockets with ideas and technical armature, and then you see what happens and what’s called for and what you can do away with. And so I brought some things to the dance, and then had to leave it up to the moment.

You bookended the movie by giving birth to two babies, and in between took on this intensely expressive physical role. That seems like a lot to inhabit with your one small body within the space of a few years.

It’s amazing because we all do it. That’s how every human gets here, is a woman giving of herself. [Babies] have to arrive, and they have to be sustained, all of it. So I’m continuously searching, because balance isn’t a stable place. Balance means that you’re always adjusting.

So you have to figure it out because we have to stay in the workforce, even though it often feels like it’s untenable. My heart obviously belongs to my children; they tug at it the most. But I really want to be able to have both. And I think that it requires deep thought and learning and the support of other women to figure out how to get through it.

I would like to give a shout-out to the Elvie breast pump for being hands-free and not plugging me into the wall so I can pump a bottle of milk for my baby while I’m having lunch with my toddler. [Laughs] That’s a big one for me.

You’ve established rich relationships with indie filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt and Sarah Polley, but you also have major studio productions like The Greatest Showman and Oz the Great and Powerful on your resumé. Do you feel like you have a “one for them, one for me” mentality?

Yeah, I really do. I love making movies for children now that I’m back in the little-kid years. But I loved being in things like Showman or Oz at the time when Matilda [her 17-year-old daughter with Heath Ledger] appreciated movies like that — although she probably would still appreciate those two movies because she’s such a sweetie pie. They’re all different worlds, and figuring out how to populate each of them is a fun challenge. 

When I walked onto Oz, I was totally freaked out because I’d never seen such a big set, I’d never seen so many monitors. I made really small, independent movies and I felt really uncomfortable with how many people there were watching and looking at me. And I appreciate that now. I like moving through uncomfortable places and coming out the other side of them.

You’re also known, fairly or not, for taking on uniquely heavy roles. At this point, are you able to mine those emotions in a healthy way and then leave them at the door?

I think that having kids is really great for that. I’m not going to go take something home and pollute my kids’ experience. I think, ultimately, I can remember that it’s not my life, it’s not my pain or my sorrow. It’s something that moves through me and then it moves out of me. I didn’t lose children in a fire [as in Manchester], and there are people who are going home tonight who won’t be tucking their kids into bed.

And so I don’t think I’ve ever had a hard time keeping perspective about what’s mine and what belongs to the women that I play. Ultimately, this work is a joy. What’s difficult is living up to your standard for yourself, your own ideal. 

Are you surprised which projects have most endured with fans?

It seems like it’s pretty much Dawson’s CreekShowmanWendy and Lucy. And I understand them because they’re so representative of a moment, and I feel very warmly.

I mean, the movies that I made that I’m not really proud of, nobody ever talks to me about them, so I can pretend they don’t exist. [Laughs]

You’ve been a major advocate for pay equity — you spoke about it in front of Congress in 2019, and used your Emmy win for Fosse/Verdon to make a really passionate, articulate case.

I was pregnant at the time, and very nervous. But I felt the same way about that speech as I did about the subsequent speech that I gave at the Globes. I felt possessed, and as though there was no other choice — those were the only two things that I could talk about. I wrote both of those speeches and I couldn’t be dissuaded from giving either of them. Pay equity is a much easier topic than a woman’s right to choose, that one doesn’t really split the middle. [Laughs] But I felt equally called to both of them.

The way I feel about those speeches is the way that I feel when I go to work, like a dog with a bone. I just have something I cannot give up on. And whether it’s a good idea or not, it feels a little bit like going into dark water or something. I don’t know exactly why I’m there, but I know I have to be there. 

I know, we were so close. He’s best friends with Kelly Reichardt, and we just have a lot of overlap, a lot of love, a lot of years. And I love working with people when it feels like family. I think ultimately, that’s probably why I started acting — because I thought that they looked like traveling troops and I could join the circus.

And I definitely have that family feeling with Todd. I love him. So I was so disappointed when it fell apart, oh my God.

If not Peggy, then what’s next?

A whole bunch of nothing! [Laughs] I mean, I don’t have any work that I know about, but then one day that just changes. I didn’t think I had any work a year and a half ago either. And then my phone lit up, and there was Steven Spielberg at the end of it.

Maria Lewis

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