Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams was one of the few actresses with the talent and drive to parlay success on a prime time teen drama into a career as a respected film actress. She spent six seasons on the WB’s flagship adolescent offering, “Dawson’s Creek” (1998-2003), while spending her summers building a fan base of independent filmgoers in smart, dark comedies and dramatic explorations of the 20-something experience. She reached critical heights with her heartbreaking portrayal of a young, small-town wife opposite Heath Ledger in 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” earning Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for her supporting role. The onscreen pairing took on an even more heartbreaking poignancy following the 2008 death of Ledger, who had since become the father of he and Williams child after the couple enjoyed a seemingly happy and domesticated two years together.
Michelle Williams was born on Sept. 9, 1980, spending her early years in the small industrial city of Kalispell in Northwestern Montana. Her father was a renowned stock and commodities trader who relocated the family to San Diego, CA when Williams was nine years old. It was there that she saw her first live theater performance, and after only a few moments, turned to her parents and declared that she wanted to spend the rest of her life doing just what she saw the players on stage doing. The Williams family could not have imagined the ultimate outcome of that statement, but they encouraged their daughter’s interest by enrolling her in a local community theater program. She landed roles in “Annie” and “The Sound of Music” and stood out as an exceptionally focused and passionate performer; mature beyond her years. By the time she reached her early teens, Williams had begun auditioning for film and television roles, often traveling as far as Los Angeles. She landed her first feature film role in “Lassie” (1994), and quickly followed the family film up with a part as the young incarnation of Natasha Henstridge’s alien in “Species” (1995). It was becoming clear that Williams had the talent and extraordinary drive to become a professional actress, but it would be near impossible to hold down a high school schedule.
The resourceful teen opted into a home-schooling program, pushing herself to complete three years of curriculum in eight months and earning her diploma at age 15. Despite their trepidation, she legally emancipated from her parents and, at the tender age of 16, was living on her own in Los Angeles and pursuing acting work. She landed entry-level guest spots on series like “Home Improvement” (ABC, 1991-99) and “Step By Step” (ABC, 1991-97), as well as built up her profile with supporting roles in the TV movies “My Son Is Innocent” (ABC, 1996) and “Killing Mr. Griffin” (NBC, 1997). A big breakthrough arrived with her featured turn as Michelle Pfeiffer’s daughter Pammy in the “King Lear”-inspired drama, “A Thousand Acres” (1997).
Having learned a few things about investing from her father, Williams put her early earnings into stocks and entered the annual competitive event known as the Robbins World Cup Championship of Futures Trading. The 16-year-old amateur took home the top prize that year for turning $10,000 into over $100,000. That achievement may not have made her a household name outside of stock market circles, but the WB TV network was about to do that for her.
In 1998, the fledgling WB network was looking to build on the success of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (WB, 1997-2003) by rolling out more offerings for the all important teenage demographic, and thus, “Dawson’s Creek” (WB, 1998-2003) was born. The drama centered on a group of teens in a small New England town – including Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson, James Van Der Beek – and featured Williams in her first regular role as Jen Lindley, the new kid in town who was kicked out by her New York City parents for her wild ways and sent to live with her no-nonsense Grandma. Williams could relate to Jen, having grown up quickly herself, so she brought a refreshing, naturalistic acting style and presence, harboring a fragility indicative of her age. The instant hit established the network as the destination of choice for teenage girls and marked a career breakthrough for Williams, who evolved over the show’s six seasons from an outcast with a shady past to a full-fledged member of Dawson’s close-knit group of friends, eventually becoming a college student and single mom before her untimely death in the series finale.
But Williams was not the type to rest on her laurels of steady TV paychecks and prime time notoriety. The actress consistently spent her summer hiatus exploring new acting realms. She paid her horror dues as the teen female lead in “Halloween: H20? (1998) and showcased her considerable comedy talent with 1999’s “Dick,” a hilarious outing co-starring Williams and Kirsten Dunst as teenyboppers with a crush on President Nixon who unwittingly stumble into the middle of the notorious Watergate dealings. She followed up with another indie teen offering, “But I’m a Cheerleader”(1999), starring Natasha Lyonne as a teen sent to a “rehabilitation” facility after her parents suspect she is a lesbian. Later that year, Williams made her New York stage debut in a SoHo Playhouse production of “Killer Joe,” a dark comedy in which she played a trailer park teenager with big dreams of becoming of a supermodel.
However it was not long before Williams began putting high school roles behind her. In 2000, she portrayed a 1970s lesbian college student struggling with romance in HBO’s “If These Walls Could Talk 2? (2000), followed by a turn as Christina Ricci’s alienated roommate in the adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s bestseller, “Prozac Nation.” The long-delayed, controversial film was completed in 2001, but unreleased for nearly three years. Williams found considerably better success when she donned a British accent and gave a stunning performance the indie drama “Me Without You” (2001), playing opposite Anna Friel as the long-suffering, co-dependent quotient in a pair of British friends whose relationship is a roller-coaster of emotional ups and downs, romantic betrayals, and unhealthy competition.
Williams spent her final hiatus before the final season of “Dawson’s Creek” back onstage in New York, where she was cast in the smart comedy “Smelling a Rat,” under the direction of iconic British director Mike Leigh. She received excellent reviews for her energetic presence and comedic talents. Williams’ tireless pursuit of diverse projects during her “Creek” run had successfully earned the actress a reputation with audiences who had never seen the teen drama but recognized her growing presence in independent film. In one of her higher profile art house offerings, she gave a fantastic supporting turn in “The Station Agent” (2003) as the sweet, lonely girl who finds a bond with the independent dwarf Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage). Now able to devote all her time to more challenging ventures, she spent a summer doing Chekhov at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts before kicking off a solid run of films with “The United States of Leland” (2004), portraying the sister of a murdered autistic boy, and “Imaginary Heroes” (2005), as a daughter who flees her dysfunctional family.
Returning to independent comedy, she co-starred opposite Michael Showalter in the quirky rom-com send-up “The Baxter” (2005). But later that year she was jettisoned into a whole new league of recognition and critical respect with her multi-nominated role in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). Undoubtedly the most talked about film of the year, the screen adaptation of “Brokeback Mountain” was based on the E. Annie Proulx short story about a pair of ranch hands engaged in a decades-long, closeted love affair. Williams gave a memorable and emotional turn as the broken-hearted young wife of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), whose marriage slowly disintegrates after she discovers the truth about her husband’s frequent “fishing trips” with his closest friend (Jake Gyllenhaal). For her challenging portrayal, which hinged more on what was not spoken as opposed to what was, Williams received Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Independent Spirit Award nominations.
During the location filming she also fell in love and became engaged to the film’s star and her onscreen husband, Heath Ledger. The pair had a lot in common – both young actors who had left home early, determined to make careers for themselves; both valuing the craft of acting over the trappings of the Hollywood lifestyle. Despite coming off a long-term relationship with fellow Aussie actor, Naomi Watts, Ledger jumped right into a devoted relationship with Williams. For her part, Williams was happy to play second fiddle to her more famous husband, with many making note of her adoring gaze as she held his hand on red carpets – never imposing herself into his spotlight. Seemingly a match made in heaven, the couple gave birth to their daughter, Matilda Rose, in October of 2005 and the anti-Hollywood pair set up home in a cozy neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, of all places. The actress, who by her own admission had not taken off more than a few weeks from work since she was 15 years old, now spent time focusing on her new family.
Williams marked her return to the big screen with a pair of low-profile independent releases that cemented her reputation as one of the strongest female performers of her generation. She was featured in Ethan Hawke’s chronicle of struggling New York artistic types in “The Hottest State” (2006) and played opposite dramatic powerhouse Paul Giamatti in the Harry Crews adaptation, “The Hawk is Dying” (2006), which unfortunately only received festival screenings.
Williams enjoyed a small role as a swinging 1960s art scene party girl in Toddy Haynes’ “I’m Not There” (2007), a bold interpretation of the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s life, in which she flirtatiously sparred with Cate Blanchett’s Dylan rendering. Her fiancée also appeared in the film, essaying Dylan as well. To the shock of many, in the fall of 2007, Williams and Ledger hit the entertainment blog headlines when they announced their separation. The split appeared more amicable than most movie star partings, with Ledger often seen in his new SoHo neighborhood with daughter Matilda on his shoulders. The couple had made the decision to maintain a harmonious relationship for the sake of Matilda.
In January of 2008, Williams was on location in Europe filming “Mammoth” (2008) when she received news that Ledger had died in his apartment, only three months after their break-up – which he had reportedly had a hard time handling. All eyes of the world were on the actress and their now fatherless daughter as they flew “devastated” from Europe to her Brooklyn apartment to await the funeral and wait out the paparazzi camped outside her door.