Michelle Williams on Making Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea, 2016(Film still)

As Kenneth Lonergan’s extraordinary new film launches in the UK, the actress and former AnOther cover star discusses her breathtaking role

In her Golden Globes acceptance speech earlier this week – a brilliantly eloquent lambasting of Donald Trump and celebration of Hollywood’s diversity – Meryl Streep spoke of “the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy”, stressing that the role of the actor is to “enter the lives of people who are different from us and let [the audience] feel what that feels like.” Fittingly, this week also marks the release of acclaimed writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s latest offering, Manchester by the Sea: a masterclass in empathetic filmmaking that paints one of the most memorable portraits of family tragedy to date.

Casey Affleck – who himself picked up a Golden Globe for his heart-wrenching performance – plays Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor whose prison-like existence centres around unblocking drains, getting into brawls in his local bar and returning home to his small, bare-walled abode. Depression and a disdain for both himself and others seep from his very pores, further exacerbated by a call from a family friend informing him of the death of his older brother, Joe. Upon returning to the icy fishing town he grew up in, Lee is forced to break his vow of self-imposed exile when he discovers that his brother has named him the guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (a hilarious Lucas Hedges). The audience is deftly transported between past and present as the harrowing details of Lee’s former life are revealed, while his newfound relationship with Patrick begins to offer some small redemption. The result is a shatteringly realistic exploration of the day-to-day realities of grief and guilt, punctuated by Lonergan’s shrewd wit and understanding of human relationships.

The film’s supporting cast, including a twinkling eyed Kyle Chandler and wonderfully erratic Gretchen Mol, dazzle by turns, but none more so than Michelle Williams as Lee’s spirited ex-wife Randi – in the film’s standout scene, a climactic encounter between Williams and Affleck, I defy you to find a dry eye in the house. Lonergan had wanted to work with the 36-year-old, Montana-born actress ever since he saw her in the Mike Leigh play Smelling A Rat in 2002 – “You rarely see anyone paint a character in such colourful strokes while remaining emotionally truthful,” he wrote in a recent article for Variety – but was, nevertheless, “totally unprepared for just how hard she works and how much she has to offer”. He describes her role in Manchester by the Sea as “one of the great modern performances”, and we are compelled to agree. Here, ahead of the film’s release, we catch up with Williams, fresh from filming Todd Hayne’s forthcoming feature Wonderstruck, to discuss her working process, her favourite memories from the shoot, and causing trouble in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

On working with Lonergan...
“The feeling was very mutual: I’ve wanted to work with him for a very long time. I knew when he asked me to do this, before I read it, that the answer was going to be yes to whatever he wanted me to do. No matter what it was!”

On first reading the script...
“I cried and then I got to work. As soon as I read something and I want to do it, whether I get the part or not, I immediately start thinking and daydreaming about it; it takes over my brain. When you have a beautiful script, you can really fall back on it – you can trust it and keep mining it for details and ideas – and this script is perfection.”

On the required headspace for harrowing performances...
“I go back and forth on my feelings about that. Sometimes I think it’s better not to make work from a depleted, low state; I think it’s better to have all engines firing. And then sometimes I think that it’s helpful to hold onto a certain tone or mood. For me there is definitely a kind of headspace that happens: a state of concentrated openness. It takes a little while to achieve. I really enjoy the drive to and from work. I use that as a decompression chamber: an exit from my life and an entrance into my work and vice versa. I try and let go of my own mind – of all the to do lists in life, what needs to be done for the day, what you’re going to cook for dinner that night – and allow myself to go into another place.”

On her preparation process...
“[When researching for a role] I grasp for any way to understand someone that I possibly can. I’ll take whatever I can get, whether that’s reading books about a particular time and place, creating a backstory, or visiting the place where they live. For this film, I spent a lot of time in Manchester – I actually spent more time in the area beforehand than I did shooting there – just because there was such a wealth of information to draw from. Listening to the regional dialect, talking to people and observing how they dressed, what their speech patterns were and where they went and got their hair done: all of those things seemed like meaningful details to me. I just walked around by myself to see what kind of trouble I could get into!”

On the necessity of being a parent to play a parent...
“When you become a parent, it just opens you up to a whole other kind of love, one that I couldn’t really conceptualise or understand before, so I’m sure that it does make a difference.”

On the atmosphere on set...
“When I see Casey now I’m just happy to see him smiling because it was a pretty down and out place we had to go to on set, and the mood definitely held when I was there. We had that nice time in the beginning, before anything bad has happened in the story, and that was a kind of break to revisit our younger selves and to laugh at each other and banter with each other: that was a good day!”

On her favourite memory from the shoot...
“I suppose doing the actual scene work. It was such a thrill to work on that movie, and with Kenny’s words, so just the actual moments between action and cut were the most special. Kenny’s a very empathetic director. Wherever you go as an actor, whatever you explore, he’s right there with you as an invisible guide. He’s very caring. I lovingly and jokingly suggest quite often that we work together again.”

Manchester by the Sea is in cinemas nationwide from today.

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