That’s key, given the plot turns on the relationship between down-on-her-luck Wendy, subtly portrayed by Michelle Williams, and Lucy, a lean and tan mutt with soulful brown eyes.
We can’t know the full story between the two, but their affection is palatable.
The simple narrative offers only hints at who Wendy is. Like the mysterious bandage she wears around her ankle, we don’t know what’s underneath it or how she got it, just as we don’t really know how Wendy got to this moment in her life, or where she’ll end up. Like life and the character, the bandage is complicated.
“It’s sort of like Wendy herself,” Williams says. “It’s the physical manifestation of something that’s never really revealed‚Äîlike a question on top of a question.”
Williams, 28, prompts us to seek answers as she taps into the soul of Wendy and her wounds in a remarkable performance.
Wendy and Lucy is based on Jon Raymond’s short story “Train Choir,” which he and director Kelly Reichardt adapted for the screen. It follows Wendy as she journeys to Alaska for work with her one true friend, Lucy. After her car breaks down in Portland, Oregon, she’s faced with deteriorating finances and the erosion of her emotional spirit when her canine companion‚Äîone of the few anchors that still connect her to the world‚Äîis lost. For most of the film she searches for Lucy, crossing paths with strangers who are sometimes sympathetic, but often indifferent to her plight. The film opens tomorrow on a limited basis.
Williams’ career has included various roles: from a troubled teen on the television series “Dawson’s Creek,” to films like The Station Agent, I’m Not There and Brokeback Mountain. She received an Academy Award nomination for the latter, in which she plays the wife of closeted cowboy Heath Ledger, who she became involved with off-screen. His tragic death last January has led to unfortunate tabloid attention for the actress and the couple’s young daughter.
With her hair dyed brown, Williams is nearly unrecognizable in Wendy and Lucy. She didn’t wash those dyed locks during the shoot (she notes that she did shower), but I think she looks beautiful, natural‚Äîand even a bit ethereal in the film. The portrayal is getting wide acclaim, and recently earned Williams a Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead.
In our phone interview, Williams comes off as quiet and self-effacing. When I tell her how I was too shy to approach her at a recent reception for the film, she can relate. “I understand being too shy,” she says, laughing. “I totally understand.”
She calls Wendy a “perfect collaboration” between herself and Reichardt and says she became interested in working with the director through mutual friends.
“They all encouraged me to spend some time with her and thought we would get along really quickly and really easily, and we did,” she says. She was also intrigued by Raymond’s short story, which she read before seeing the script. “It really captured my imagination with its descriptive quality,” she says.
Williams took an organic approach to the role and working with Reichardt, whose earlier feature Old Joy (also co-written by Raymond) is similar to Wendy and Lucy in its contemplative tone. “I knew what Kelly responded to in films and photos and in music,” she says. “I knew the mood of her taste and so I feel like I just tried to saturate myself in that as much as possible.”
She also turned to Reichardt to help fill in the blanks of Wendy’s biography. “I was just like a shotgun that came at her so hard with so many questions, because I was curious as an audience member and as a reader. What happened to this girl? I thought it was so challenging that it’s never really revealed,” Williams says.
Reichardt shared what she and Raymond had been thinking when they wrote the screenplay and asked Williams to make it her own. Part of the process involved improvisation, where the actress would show up for work, get the bones of the scene‚Äîlike a moment where Wendy stands in line to drop off some recycling‚Äîand then had to flesh it out by interacting with the other performers, sometimes non-actors.
Williams’ ability to improvise was also tested by working with Lucy the dog. “There’s a certain amount of improvisation that’s required, especially with untrained animals, because they don’t always do what they’re told,” she says.
The mutt is Reichardt’s real life pet, rescued by her in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
Despite the way the dog kept Williams on her toes–or perhaps because of it–she says Lucy was a good scene partner. “The great thing about working with a dog and it’s true, even though it sounds like a joke, is they’re always in the moment‚Äîthey don’t have a moment of untruth,” she says. “Also dogs and kids are very unpredictable about who they’re going to take to‚Äîyou can’t really sway their affections, they’ve kind of got this eerie assessment thing.”
The audience may not know what’s really going on inside Wendy’s head, but like Lucy, we feel a kind of instinctive trust and kinship towards her. That’s because Williams invests the character with a kind of honesty‚Äîand humanity‚Äîthat’s universal. Even in her darkest hours, living out of her car, she takes the time to do things‚Äîlike wash up and care for herself and Lucy‚Äîthat remind us how fragile our existence is, how easily we could become Wendy.
That’s something that resonates in today’s tough economic times. “There are more people on the fringes and there’s an everyday threat of sort of slipping through the cracks,” Williams says. “Even though it was made a year ago it’s somehow more relevant now.”
In the end, Wendy’s path remains unclear. Williams has her own ideas about it, but she’s not sharing them, except to say that it isn’t as simple as “it’s going to turn out good or turn out bad.” Sort of like life.
As for her own path, it appears headed in a decidedly more hopeful direction. In addition to Wendy and Lucy, she also appears in Synecdoche, New York this fall and finished filming Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island this past summer.
Even with roles in more high-profile projects, she’ll continue to make more intimate films. “They’re the movies I like to see, they’re the movies I love to make. I’m not looking to trade up. I’m pretty pleased with the work I get to do,” she says.
She’s also humbled by the accolades, including recent praise in Variety from her Synecdoche co-star Catherine Keener, who called Williams’ performance as Wendy “intimate, extremely personal and soul-baring.”
“It makes me feel like quitting,” Williams says, laughing with a tinge of emotion in her voice. “Because I just feel like I’ve gotten as much as I ever wanted.”