Michelle Williams Wants to Disappear In Her Acting—Even When She’s Singing and Dancing

The Fosse/Verdon actress talks about returning to her musical theater roots.

Photograph by Jackie Nickerson; Styled by Elin Svahn.

Michelle Williams may be best known for her powerful, dramatic cinematic roles like Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine, and Manchester by the Sea, but don’t discount the actress’s love—and talent—of musical theater. After starring as Sally Bowles in a 2014 revival of Cabaret on Broadway, this year, Williams took her singing and dancing to the silver screen, starring as Gwen Verdon in FX’s Fosse/Verdon, opposite Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse. The show, which focuses on the pair’s romantic and creative partnership over the years, allowed Williams to flex those musical muscles once again, much to the actress’s delight. “When this came along I thought, ‘Gosh, this is everything I’ve been dreaming of,’ she said. “It’s like doing a Broadway show, but without working six days a week, eight shows a week.” Here, Williams talks about stepping into the role of Gwen Verdon (for which she was just nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress at the 2019 Emmy Awards), her interest in playing darker characters, and her secret skills.

When did you start thinking about this role in Fosse/Verdon?

Sometimes we would be on set working and I would say to myself, “I’ve been training for this role since I was 12 years old.” There’s an episode that has tap in it and I tapped when I was a kid. I did musical theater when I was a kid.

What was your favorite role to play?

I loved to sing and dance as a child. I was never the lead in a play. I was always in the chorus. But it gave me a lot of joy. And when I did Marilyn, I did some singing and dancing. And it recalled for me that original joy, and I remember clocking it at the time and thinking, “I need to find a way to get a little bit more of this.” And then Cabaret gave me too much of it. The hook in me is so strong for this particular medium and so when this came along I thought, “Gosh, this is everything I’ve been dreaming of. It’s like doing a Broadway show, but without working six days a week, eight shows a week.”

Were you conscious of Gwen Vernon’s contribution to Cabaret?

I didn’t know about that, no. I didn’t know until I started making this show what her legacy was and what her invisible hand print was on his work.

Isn’t that a little bit sad that we don’t know these things?

Well, we’re hoping to change that.

It’s nice because the book was just about him and now it’s her name in the title. Was that always the working title?

No, it was not. And then they got smart. And they realized what was happening culturally and politically and decided that it was the right time to make it about the two of them and to make it an equal partnership. Both as the characters and for myself and Sam. It was the first time that I’ve had pay parity with a male costar and my voice and my thoughts. There was equal space for both Sam and myself to ask for what we needed, give ideas about what we saw. I’d never experienced anything like it. What’s really amazing to me is the difference that it actually makes in the work. That’s what amazing to me, is that when you go to work and you have this safe and fair environment where you feel completely supported, and you can actually jump higher and take more risks. I didn’t believe in a space like this. I didn’t believe it was possible to create such a safe and nurturing creative environment. And then as it was proven to me over and over again, it felt like having wind at my back.

You started when you were really, really young, and you’re physically tiny. Did you find people sort of treated you in a diminutive way?

Absolutely, and when men hug you they pick you up off the floor. And that doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t know exactly what the right word is. But being small has had an effect on how I’ve been treated.

What I love about you is that you’re willing to get very dark in ways that I think would surprise people initially.

I don’t know, it’s so funny, isn’t it? Like the way that people see you and the way that you see yourself. I know that I’ve always, wanted to be a character actress. I always wanted to be other people who were sort of as far from myself as I could get.. It’s always been an interest, disappearing.

Were you interested in darker characters when you were young?

I don’t know if I was interested in darker characters when I was small. That sort of came a little bit later for me. When I started coming up to New York when I was 17 or 18. I was on Dawson’s Creek and I would make these pilgrimages up to New York City. I would drive up, even if it was just for the night, to go see a play or to go see something that was a Film Forum. I always loved acting because it was disappearing and escaping. But I didn’t really understand the form, like I hadn’t been exposed to art very much when I was younger. And then when I started coming here and seeing what was possible inside of this thing that I did, that’s when I got excited about the possibilities of what was out there. And for me, yeah, that tended to mean something that had a darker leaning.

The relationship between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon is so intense and collaborative. Did you rehearse a lot to get that chemistry with Sam or did you just immediately walk on set and have that kind of rapport?

We didn’t really know each other. I think we’ve been aware of each other. We’d both been jobbing actors in New York for the last 25 years. So I’ve seen plays that he’s done. He’s seen plays that I’ve done from twenty years ago. So we have an awareness of who each other are in the world and what we like to do in our work. And when we met and started working on this, all that kind of came with us. We had a very easy camaraderie. The thing about making TV as opposed to doing movies, is how long the shoot is. You’re in this for six or seven months and you’re working 16, 18 hours a day. And so he and I were really in the trenches. He’s my brother. Like, we must have grown up together. That’s how close we felt by the end of it.

Most of the movies that I make, I’ll do a small part in a big movie, so I’m in and out within a few weeks. Or I’ll do a big part in a small movie. I’m in and out a few weeks. This sort of duration is much more akin to doing a play. And so when you are inside of somebody day in, day out, you identify so strongly with them that it all just starts to feel incredibly natural and just. And again, because Sam and I got along so well I felt like we could have done anything. With each other, for each other, to each other. We worked well together. So, I didn’t have any misgivings about what might happen in a scene or if I yell at him or if he yells at me. We were fair game for each other.

What is your favorite Fosse musical?

I’ve got to go Cabaret.

What is your favorite song in it?

“Maybe This Time.” Ah man, that song. That song. I get sad that I’ll never sing it again, that I’ll never get to perform that again, that I’ll never get to play that part again. It’s such a good part. That music, that Kander and Ebb music, you just can’t beat it. It’s so emotionally driven. It’s just perfect. I wish I could go back and do it again at the age that I am now. Anyway, we’ll see.

Have you been asked to do musicals since then?

I did Greatest Showman. But I haven’t been asked to do any other Broadway musicals.

That movie was kind of a wonderful thing that that became a success against all odds with people.

Yeah, with people. Not with critics. With people. Mostly teenagers. It’s so great. And the only thing that’s not great is not being able to get those songs out of your head. Still sometimes I wake up with like a blaring Greatest Showman lyric.

Did you have to take dance lessons for the show?

We did. We had classes for maybe three weeks before we started shooting. And then because all of the episodes weren’t written in advance, hey would write an episode and in the episode there would be a dance but we hadn’t learned it ahead of time. So after we wrapped shooting, we would go to the dance studio. On the weekends, we would go to the dance studio. On your lunch break, you would go to the dance studio. So, we trained beforehand but then the training, it didn’t stop until we stopped shooting

We do have to a find a way for you to sing more.

I’m working on it.

What’s your current karaoke song?

I haven’t done karaoke in a long time. My daughter used to. For her 13th birthday, we had a karaoke party. But it’s all just pop music. I guess that counts as karaoke, because we sing a lot in the car and she only listens to pop music. So I also only listen to pop music now. So I can sing a lot of pop songs. Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, of course.

Do you have any other secret skills?

I can embroider anyone’s initials. And I can do it on a shirt sleeve or a pillow. It gets a little bit harder to do it when you’re on the inside of something. I can do that. i come from a long line of domestic artists. Great- grandmothers, grandmothers, mother. Everybody’s a quilter. Everybody’s a sewer. Everybody’s a knitter, embroidery, tapestries. And so it’s in me. The desire to do it lives in me, but because my mother grew up in a time where home economics was a major you could take. You could grow up and become an unpaid homeworker and that was about as big, as far as you could go. And so I think that when she had children and the opportunity started to change for girls, handing down the domestic arts didn’t feel like a priority to her. Because we could be educated and we could go to college and we could do things that only men could do previously. Now, of course, I didn’t get educated and I didn’t go to college. And I’m an actress. So it didn’t quite work out.

But she didn’t hand down these things that have lived in my family for generations. And so I yearn to do some of these things. But I don’t know, really, how to do any of them. My mom sewed all of our clothes when I was growing up. She can make curtains. She can recover sofas. And my hands are tied. So embroidery felt like, “Well, maybe that’s something that I could do.” That would fulfill this desire that I have.

Actually my daughter, because she went to a Montessori school, was able to do some of this stuff herself. It up on 100 acres, upstate New York. And the people who ran the school, when I said, “Listen, I’m going to go make this movie [Meek’s Cutoff] and I have to do these old-timey things.” They said, “Oh, well, we’ll teach you and we know how to do all of those things.” So they took me out shooting. I baked bread in a hole. They taught me how to make a fire using the little wispies you find out in the forest. And then when we were on set it was Zoe Kazan that taught me how to knit. Which is a skill that I’ve kept with me, but I can only make a scarf. I can just knit a rectangle and that’s it.