If you feel like you haven’t seen Michelle Williams in awhile, it’s because you probably haven’t—unless you’ve been to the theater. The actor has focused much of the last two years on her onstage career, first in the Broadway revival of Cabaret and then in a Tony-nominated turn in Blackbird—and filming the two movies in which she returns, this fall, to the big screen: Certain Women and Manchester by the Sea.
In Certain Women, released in October, Williams reunites with filmmaker Kelly Reichardt for a third time, starring in the second of three chapters based on short stories by Maile Meloy. Williams plays Gina, a tightly wound woman on a quest to build an authentic vacation home in Montana, despite the fact that her outsider status will render inauthentic most anything she attempts. In Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, due Nov. 18, Williams plays Randi, the wife (and later ex-wife) of Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, from whom she becomes estranged after a tragedy.
While rehearsing for her next film, the P.T. Barnum biopic The Greatest Showman, Williams talked to TIME about Reichardt’s particular magic, returning to her home state of Montana and why Randi is the bravest role she’s ever taken on.
You’ve done several films with Kelly Reichardt. What keeps drawing you back to working with her?
It’s the films themselves. When I saw the first movie of hers I ever saw, Old Joy, I wanted in. I wanted to live in that world. Hers are the only movies that I’m in that I can watch and forget that it’s me, because I get so absorbed by the filmmaking and the storytelling. She is singularly in pursuit of a kind of truth that I find really appealing.
You shot the movie in Montana, where you spent part of your childhood. Did being familiar with the landscape allow you to connect more deeply with the part?
The Montana that I grew up in is very different from what my segment of the film represents. I come from generations of Montanans, and the woman that I’m playing in Kelly’s movie is a kind of new homesteader, a new wave of pioneers that are settling and capitalizing on Montana. Why she’s there and what she wants from her experience there is very different from why my family was there and what their experiences were.
Do you think Gina feels conscious of her status as an outsider?
Yeah, and that’s why they’re looking to make something that doesn’t feel as though it’s been transplanted, that feels like it’s always been there. This is someone who, while taking in the natural beauty, also litters her cigarette butt on the ground. I think that she’s aware and unaware at the same time of how majestic the landscape is but ultimately how destructive she’s behaving towards it. How much she wants what it has but also doesn’t care about what it has.
So much of the acting that you do goes far beyond the dialogue. Much of what’s communicated is not through words.
I think Kelly is really interested in what people don’t say as opposed to what they choose to say. After being in three movies of hers, I’ve come to know that at times the dialogue is a little bit irrelevant to her. She’s very prone to cutting dialogue—she’s merciless about it. If something doesn’t ring true to her then it’s cut. I always know that what I don’t say is going to be as big a part of the movie as what I do say.
Gina and Randi are both pulled—with Gina, throughout her story, and with Randi, in one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes—into this role of the nagging wife and mother that no one ever wants to imagine that they’ll become.
I think that the major difference is that Gina’s life is completely submerged. Her internal life does not match her external life. And inside that relationship, there’s a lot of repression and hostility and silence. In Randi’s life, everything that’s inside is also outside. She can be sick, she can be angry, she can want to have sex, she can be making a joke, she can be fed up, she can be laughing. She lives in a fully expressed relationship. She can say “you f—king schmuck, why are you drunk, it’s time to go to bed,” and that’s the healthy response. In Randi and Lee’s relationship, everybody’s saying exactly what they feel all the time, and that’s the much happier, healthier way to live—and why ultimately it’s so sad because they lose each other not because they don’t love each other but because they can’t be together.
Manchester by the Sea made me think of Blue Valentine in that it also depicts a relationship which begins as really loving and morphs into something irrevocably damaged. How did you and Casey navigate that drastic change?
Ryan [Gosling] and I spent all this time working together [on Blue Valentine], essentially pretending to live together. We really learned to trust each other as actors, so when it came time to break down what we had built, neither of us really wanted to do it. It was sad, as the beginning of the demise of any relationship is so sad. But [director] Derek [Cianfrance] made us do it, and we learned how to get on each others nerves. And we really did. With Casey, there was a similar sort of sadness around having to be in the beginning on the same team, and then we have to go into opposite corners. We kept putting off that scene towards the end where the characters meet after a long time because we didn’t want to do it. We didn’t want to—for us and for the characters—confront this thing that had died.
Does it carry over into your actual relationship as people?
I think it does. I think that part of it does, a little bit.
This movie is very much about what it means to be a parent. Did you allow your own experiences to inform your performance?
It’s one of those things that’s almost too hot to touch, you know? It’s so nervy and sensitive. In preparation for [a pivotal scene], you just try and not think about it for as long as possible, because when you do allow yourself to go into a headspace of someone who’s experienced that, it’s very hard to come back from. In a way, as a parent, those possibilities exist around you all the time, and you just hope that you’re going to be one of the lucky ones.
Randi and Lee have such different emotional responses to the events of the film. Did you talk through those emotional layers?
We didn’t really talk too much. Some of it was just apparent in the writing and was one of the reasons that I so badly wanted to play this part. Randi’s bravery, which moved me so much to want to play her—I think she’s like a superhero. I think she’s the bravest human being that I’ve ever played, because she finds a way to not only stay alive, but to also reclaim her life. I think that’s uncommon and wildly, impressively, beautifully brave.