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Interview: Michelle Williams on Playing Abigail Harris in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World

Michelle Williams’ Oscar nominated roles include performances in films as wide-ranging as Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine, Manchester By The Sea, and playing Marilyn Monroe in My Week With Marilyn. In Ridley Scott’s latest film All The Money in the World, Williams plays Abigail Harris, the mother of J. Paul Getty III, who was abducted at the age of 16. It’s left to him mother to negotiate the release of her son after kidnappers demand a huge ransom, a ransom that his grandfather refuses to pay.

Williams and I met last weekend after All The Money in The World had a preview screening to talk about playing Gail and what it was like to play a strong female character in a world where powerful men tried to manipulate her image in news headlines. We also talk about how she’s ready to make a return to Broadway. Read our chat below:

What was your first intro into Abigail Harris?

It was really just Ridley asking if I wanted to make this movie and saying yes, and diving into whatever research materials they had and whatever I could find myself. I didn’t know about the story ahead of time so I started from the beginning.

She is a great character, a great woman.

I think she is too. I’d like to be a little more Gail. Pragmatic. Goal driven. Fighting valiantly to stay on top of her emotions because crying doesn’t get you your son back. Falling apart doesn’t get you closer to having him in your arms. Being methodical and tireless does. You know, what I thought was so amazing was that, here’s Ridley Scott, an 80-year-old white guy making a movie with a woman at the center.

Exactly.

He doesn’t have to do that. It strikes me more and more, especially because of the last few months, that he was gender blind. He read the story and thought it was a great story, a great script, and that’s a great character. This woman who embraces a more masculine side. She embraces this hard-noseness that I think Ridley himself admires. The more I think about it, the more grateful I am to him for wanting to make a movie like this and for putting his own pride aside and to say, “Apparently no one wants to see movies starring women, but I’m going to make one.”

He’s been doing it since the ’70s with Alien, with Thelma and Louise, and now with this. What stood out the most was how she’s surrounded by these men telling her to cry over her son.

That was Gail’s experience and she was in Italy. That was in the book. They wanted her to give them a soap opera. They were upset that she wasn’t making their tabloid more colorful. She wasn’t playing into the stereotype that they wanted her too. That’s all real and that’s the material we had to work with.

I find it more emotional when someone is trying to make it through something than when they’re collapsing. I think it’s very brave to try to override your emotions and to focus on the task at hand. It takes a lot of courage to do what she did, but that was all that had actually happened.

It was so powerful to see that. Was there a lot out there on her?

There were two or three clips on YouTube. One of the clips is from the time during when he’s kidnapped and you see this woman who is trying to hold on to herself. She corrects the journalist when they say something that’s wrong and she corrects them. “No, that’s wrong. What I’m saying is…” Because there’s this idea that what you said and what you did really mattered. She was in direct communication with the kidnappers through television and through a radio. She was trying so hard to say and do the right thing that would hit them, that would make them understand, and would solve the problem. That would lessen the ransom. She is a very controlled and considered woman taking on a leadership role in her son’s case. I think that’s the thing she keeps fighting for, to be taken seriously. I want to be in this room. I want to be in the car. I want to hold the gun. I want to be on the front line of this mission. Don’t treat me like a woman, treat me like a partner. That’s all again taken from these clips.

The circumstances of when you show up and you have the environment, the actors, your children and your new pocketbook, they all go together.

What was it like playing her? Because I can’t get my head around the weight of what she was dealing with during her son’s ordeal.

I feel so honored to be given this story because she’s a hero. She is in these clips. This woman is made of steel. She jumps on people. You can see the strain that she’s under and she’s trying to maintain her dignity under it.

What stands out for you when you’re reading a script? Because you’ve played some strong and powerful characters.

Thank you. I don’t know if I’m looking for a particular thing. It’s just when something hits me and I get a buzz when I read something I really want to do. I’d really rather be home and cooking dinner for my kid and having dinner on the table at the same time every night. Consistency and stability appeal to me. Unless something hits my direct center, and something I can’t ignore. Like, The Greatest Showman was shot in Brooklyn.

No way!

Yes.

That’s crazy.

It’s was ten minutes from our house. I was sleeping in my bed and watching kids movies. That hit my center. Reading this script and being given a huge opportunity, that hit the center for me.

You’ve worked with a lot of great directors in your career.

And then I got the boss. I know. I tell you what was really beautiful. Here he is, the boss, the pro, and the master. He gave me more latitude than maybe I’ve ever known. He in no way tried to micromanage or control what I was doing. He opened up the floor and said, “It’s yours. Go out there and surprise me.” For someone of his experience and accomplishment, it takes a lot of faith and goodness to open it up to me.

Did you have much input on Abigail’s wardrobe? I found her clothes said a lot about her character and who she was.

Hugely. Everyone wants to work with him. He’s very quick. He’s yes and no. There’s not a lot of time wasting. His costume designer Janty Yates and I worked closely, and everything was perfect.

Have you seen the film yet?

No. Not yet. I’ll be seeing it at the premiere on Monday.

It’s such a great story of what wealth does to you and you don’t really understand it. What he did with this story is great, but also Ridley gets this heart across with Chris.

In the scene that we did with each other, what came across so beautifully is that Getty knows not what he does. He’s not a bad man. He’s not trying to be mean. He’s doing what he thinks is right. They think they’re in the right, they don’t think of themselves as bad people because they have their own logic and that’s what I saw in Chris, this someone who had their own logic and it makes complete and total sense to him about why he’s behaving the way he’s behaving. That doesn’t stop him from being charming and loving.

Ok, is there a particular genre you want to explore?

[Giggles] I always want whatever the hardest job is. I want to play the most unlikeable person. I really like doing weird things.

 

What about Broadway, would you like to tread the boards again?

Yeah, I think I’m just about rested up from the last time.

It’s a different world.

It is. I’m loving working right now. I love it. I love it. All the enjoyment I’m having right now is because I spent three years killing myself doing theater. I learned so much and I grew. I’m able to enjoy my work now because of it, so I’d love to go back and do it.

How are you finding the roles that come your way?

It depends. It’s like seasons in your career. It’s pretty quite. If people are knocking on your door it’s with stuff you wouldn’t really want to do. Then you hit moments where there’s something of value and they’re asking you to do it.

As you get older and you become better at what you do, you still have to go through these cycles of moments when people want you and when they don’t want you. I’m in a moment right now that I’m really enjoying.

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All The Money In The World is released on December 25.