Michelle Williams can’t believe it’s been less than a year since “the pay stuff.” Time has seemingly accelerated since last October when, while shooting the comic book movie Venom, the unimaginable began to happen: Titans of her industry started to fall under #MeToo. Then months later, after reshoots for All the Money in the World, which were hurriedly completed to remove scenes featuring one of the accused, Kevin Spacey, Williams became the centre of a very public controversy over a vast pay discrepancy between herself and her co-star Mark Wahlberg. She was paid less than $1,000 (Dh3,672). He got $1.5 million.
It’s also a year in which she married musician Phil Elverum, and started making some atypical career choices for a four-time Oscar nominee who has in her adulthood always veered toward art house films of directors like Kelly Reichardt and away from the commercial, from big budgets and from comic book films like the one she’s currently promoting.
During a promotional day for her latest film, Venom, Williams cranes her neck performativity to look at the somewhat grotesque poster behind her, half of which is star Tom Hardy’s face, and the other half is the tar-like people-eating alien “symbiote” that he becomes. “Nope,” she says. “Doesn’t seem like me!”
But Williams is finding that she’s ready to take some chances and to bet on herself.
“I’m recognising my own strength and my own worth,” she said. “I’m 38 and it’s just happening.”
Plus she wanted to work with Hardy.
“She’s one of the best actors out there working today,” said Venom director Ruben Fleischer. He worried that she wouldn’t want to do it, but Williams said she was only flattered by the offer.
“It’s not like people are always asking me to be in these kinds of movies,” Williams said. “I thought it would be fun to try something on a larger scale and to see if I can relax.”
Venom is a character in the Spider-Man comics, and the $100 million film, out now in the UAE, is a part of Sony Pictures’ efforts to create an extended Spider-Man Universe with the Marvel characters they license. (Spidey does not appear in Venom.)
Williams plays Anne Weying, the ex-fiance of Hardy’s Eddie Brock. She was able to make the character her own, from the business-like costumes (some of which she shopped for herself) down to the dialogue.
“There were certain lines that I felt were too passive or sweet. I wanted to make sure that she could stand her ground,” Williams said, citing the Howard Hawks classic His Girl Friday as inspiration for the equal dynamic she wanted to convey. “I wanted it to be unmistakable that it was made in a #MeToo era. I said, ‘I know that you guys won’t let me wear a #MeToo T-shirt, but that’s the vibe that I want.’”
The #MeToo moment, and the pay debacle has made Williams reflect on her career and experiences up to this point and what it might mean for her 12-year-old daughter, Matilda Ledger.
“It was really tough when I was younger. You do get put in these situations with all of these men. You’re always talking to men, being photographed by men. And I didn’t know that I had another choice. I didn’t know that I could say no. I didn’t know I could say stop. I just didn’t grow up with any of that language. And I never thought that it would change. I just thought that I would have to teach my daughter the language,” Williams said. “Now, in America, I feel like our daughters are going to grow up with a different understanding of what’s possible, what they’re entitled to. My daughter knows that she can say whatever she wants. But I didn’t.”
And her life has changed dramatically in the past year, although at first it didn’t seem like it would. It took over six weeks for the pay discrepancy story to take off after breaking in The Washington Post in late November.
“When that story came out no one called me. Not a single person was like, ‘Oh bummer for you.’ Not a single person. It reinforced this mentality that nobody cares and you’re completely alone out there,” Williams said.
It would take the one-two punch of a tweet from her friend Jessica Chastain and a USA Today piece during the Golden Globe Awards in January for the story to hit a cultural nerve that would result in Wahlberg donating his $1.5 million fee to Time’s Up. Their shared talent agency, William Morris Endeavor, added $500,000.
“For me the hero of that story is Chastain,” Williams said. “I owe her so much.”
She hopes that her public struggle has helped embolden other women outside of the entertainment industry. Williams is now earning equal pay on a project for the first time in her life, for the FX Bob Fosse series, and with films like Venom, is “opening up” her definition of herself.
After Dawson’s Creek, where she said “nobody thought kindly or even at all about my work,” Williams worked hard to establish herself as a serious artist to earn respect from her industry, and herself with films like Brokeback Mountain, Synecdoche, New York and her Reichardt films, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women. She’s worried that she might be trading some of that as she attempts other mediums.
“Am I going to have to let go of my identity? Or let go of any of that respect? Because it really meant a lot to me,” she said.
She’s also giving herself a break, too.
“I would be happiest probably making Kelly Reichardt films for the rest of my life. It’s really where my heart is,” she said. “But I live in New York City and I have kids going to private school and I have other considerations as I get older and I just think, well, what if there is more for me?”
Venom is currently showing in cinemas across the UAE.