“If I were a man, I would have been arrested for stalking,” Michelle Williams laughs. “I hung outside schools, I watched moms walk their kids in and I observed their details – how many piercings they had in their ears, if they wore silver or gold, how high their boots were, what their hair looked like, how many kids they had, what their kids looked like, what they sounded like, what their accents were. I really stalked them!”
Before the schools of small-town Massachusetts issue a restraining order, however, she clarifies it was all in the name of research for her new role in Manchester by the Sea.
In recent years, Williams has turned down many roles, often ones that would involve a long spell away from her apartment in Brooklyn, where she lives with her 11-year-old daughter, Matilda, and their five-year-old spaniel, Lucky. But when Williams goes to work, it’s worth the wait.
She’s already earned three Academy Award nominations – for Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn – and could easily collect a fourth for her heartbreaking role as Randi, a working-class mother who is in a happy relationship with Lee (Casey Affleck) before tragedy shatters their marriage.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan – his first film since the universally acclaimed Margaret five years ago – Manchester by the Sea (in cinemas from Friday 13 January) is a painfully real study of loss and grief. A role that one would think she didn’t need to research that much, having experienced more than her fair share of both.
Her daughter Matilda’s father was the Australian actor Heath Ledger. They met on the set of Brokeback Mountain in 2004 and had a three-year relationship, which ended in 2007. After he died, in 2008, from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs, she stopped working for more than a year.
Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006
“If I say no to a role I don’t think about it. I forget it and move on. Any decision you make to spend time with your child is the right one. There’s nothing more important,” she says solemnly. “I’d be hard-pressed to name something that I regret not doing, because I’ve been living my life and deepening our connection and furthering her happiness. That’s the most important thing for me.”
Still, she knows full well that finding the balance between work and parenting is tough. “It is such a struggle to do both things to the level of your expectations. I think what we’ve figured out at this point is that it’s a myth – you can’t have it all, something is always being underserved and sometimes it’s your work and sometimes, let’s be honest, it’s your kids.
“What I try to do is pay her back. It’s like ‘OK babe, we’re going to do a big work push here and I’m going to commit myself to this play or whatever it is, and we’ll spread ourselves a bit thin and then when it’s over we’re going to fill ourselves up again.’ And that balance works really well for us.
“Our apartment is a complete and total mess because I can’t do that, too, you know, it’s not going to happen. I’ve learnt to let go of so much other stuff in service of the two big priorities, my daughter and my work.”
She’s rarely spoken about Ledger, except to say that he had left a void in her life that was “impossible to fill”.
When his name comes up during our interview, she’s polite, but firm. “I’m sorry, but I really can’t talk about it.”
Michelle Williams and fellow Dawson’s Creek actor Busy Philipps at this year’s 74th annual Golden Globe Awards
But it would be wrong to portray her as unfriendly. Today, in a plush London hotel, her blonde hair is cut into a bob, and she’s wearing a simple, high-necked black dress.
She may be wary of discussing her relationships – there are reports in the US that she’s been dating author Jonathan Safran Foer – but she’s chatty and funny.
Williams, 36, was born in Montana and started acting as a child, making an appearance in Baywatch as a 13-year-old and in the film Species a year later, before landing the part of rebellious teenager Jen Lindley in TV series Dawson’s Creek, which gave her the platform to launch her career.
Does she think that Matilda will follow her parents into acting? “If that’s what she’d like to do as an adult, then that’s totally up to her, but it’s certainly not something I’m going to push her towards.”
Her own big break in Dawson’s Creek came when she was little older than Matilda herself. “I was just 15 when I got the pilot,” she recalls. “I was so young. I was just a kid trying to figure out what the hell was going on with me and everyone else.
“I loved that show. It was a dream job. I moved to North Carolina where we filmed it, and it was this sleepy, very protected place and I lived in a lovely little bubble for six years.”
There’s recently been speculation about a reunion. “Yeah, I’ve heard that too, but I’d have to come back as a ghost,” she laughs. “I think it’s a fun thing to imagine but I haven’t heard anything serious about it. If they do maybe I could come back in flashbacks.”
Manchester by the Sea is in cinemas from Friday 13th January