Michelle Williams is nominated for her first Emmy this year for playing performer Gwen Verdon in “Fosse/Verdon.” The actress has already earned a great deal of critical acclaim for her performance, winning the Television Critics’ Association Award for Individual Achievement in Drama.
Williams recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about playing such a demanding role in “Fosse/Verdon,” working with co-star Sam Rockwell and her award show memories. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Before we get started, Michelle, congratulations. This weekend you got the TCA Award for Best Dramatic Performance of the Year. What was that moment like accepting in front of all those TV critics?
Michelle Williams: It was really exciting, I can’t lie to you. I was excited. I was super happy, super honored and my daughter was most excited that it was a category that combined men and women as equal players. That was very unusual.
GD: The other thing about that is they’ve been doing this 24 years now, I believe, and they don’t have a limited series performance category so you were in with the dramatic series performers and only three of you have ever done that, you, Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson.
MW: Oh, really?
GD: Several have been nominated but you’re the third person to actually win for strictly doing a limited series there.
MW: I didn’t know that. I’m even more thrilled and honored. I have to say, it’s very special to me.
GD: We also have you nominated at the Gold Derby Awards. That’s a couple thousand people around the world voting and they’re all voting now so we’ll know the results of that right before the Emmys.
MW: Oh boy! Thanks, guys. Exciting.
GD: Gwen Verdon, when you first talking about taking the role, it’s a lot of emotional scenes, of course, you have the dancing, you have the singing. Which of those three made you the most nervous?
MW: It really wasn’t nervous, it was excitement. It felt like not only has the last decade been leading up to this, starting by doing “[My Week with] Marilyn,” playing somebody who was a real person, then doing “Cabaret” on Broadway, so singing and dancing, but really my whole life since I was a child, I started taking dance lessons when I was a kid, tap dance lessons when I was a kid, and that came in handy on this job. The first thing I ever did as a child was sing and dance. The first thing that I was ever interested in doing was musicals. I love singing and dancing. It makes me happy. It just brings joy to me. So to be able to combine all of these things that I love doing and have worked at pretty much my entire life felt so exciting.
GD: Which of all the dance numbers that you did here or even the rehearsals scenes was the most difficult?
MW: They were all difficult for different reasons. “Who’s Got the Pain” was maybe the most athletic dance. “Both Reached for the Gun” was interesting because it had to be technically still perfect because she was a great dancer but it had to display where she was having difficulty or that she was getting older or that things hurt but without her tripping over her feet or making a fool of herself, ‘cause she was Gwen Verdon. The dance that we did for Emcee Gwen in Episode 7 when she does “Razzle Dazzle” was really interesting ‘cause it was like creating a whole new character. Who is this person? She’s Gwen but she’s not really Gwen because it’s outside of time and space. She’s existing in a black box of sorts and she’s picking up a rose. That’s not Gwen so who is that? So that was really fun and also we didn’t have a lot of time so that one we really worked nights and weekends. By the time we got the script for Episode 7, we were filming Episodes 5 and 6 and so we would go work on that on Saturday and Sunday or after we wrapped during the week.
GD: And you couldn’t have been in better hands with Thomas Kail, right?
MW: Absolutely not. The guy, there’s nothing he can’t do. Also, he has the most positive energy of maybe anyone that I’ve ever met and by the end of the show, our entire cast and crew of 150 people would’ve jumped off a cliff for him or got his name tattooed on their foreheads. We all just were devoted to him.
GD: Tell us about Sam Rockwell. Did you know him at all before this? I’m guessing you were quite intimately acquainted now that you’ve done a seven-part series.
MW: We definitely are. I think there’s a lot of love between me and Sam. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that we love each other. We’re like brother and sister. I had been a huge fan of his. I had seen stuff that he’d done on Broadway and I just thought, “How does that guy do what he does? I can’t wait to get inside and work with him.” What I found in the work is I don’t know if I’ve ever had a scene partner that I’ve loved more than Sam. He never lies. He never showcases. He never displays. He never tricks. It’s very easy to believe that you are who you think you are and that he is who he says he is, as scene partners in a scene because the truth is just coming out of him, and he’s a good man and a good friend and he’s funny and he’s hard-working, just an all-around pleasure to be around. It’s nice when you have a natural affection for the person you’re gonna spend that much time with.
GD: I think I first saw him close to 20 years ago. That was that “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” Ever since then, anything I would see him in, I would think, “What is he doing here?” Every role, even if it was not the greatest project in the world he would always make it interesting. Did you find that being opposite him?
MW: Absolutely. He’s just like quicksilver. He’s like lighting in a bottle. You can’t quite catch him. “What’s happening? What is he doing that’s so different and so special?” A lot of that is a skillset and something that he’s honed and a lot of it is him. He’s just sort of magical to be around.
GD: There was one moment in this and I think it was early where all he has to do is pick up the phone and call somebody and he made that so compelling. I could not believe you could pick up a phone and make that so compelling.
MW: He’s gifted. He’s just gifted. The guy, he’s just got it.
GD: Of course, you are too. I wanna know, Gwen Verdon sadly passed away in 2000. If she had been around and you were working on this project, was there a question you wish you could’ve asked her?
MW: So much. We never would’ve gotten any work done because I would still be asking her questions. What was amazing is that we had Nicole there, her daughter, so if I did have questions I could really go straight to a reliable source.
GD: One other person I wanted to ask you about, Lin-Manuel Miranda is an executive producer. He has a little bit of a cameo in here. What’s it like working in a room with him?
MW: You have to put your inner fangirl to the side but he’s so great because he and Tommy are really cut of a similar cloth. They’re both such energetic, outgoing, positive, friendly, warm, loving men that as much as you esteem them, they make you so comfortable that they become incredibly relatable.
GD: I’ve interviewed him I think about three times now. He always makes you feel like a buddy that he’s known forever.
MW: He’s the best. He’s truly, truly the best and it’s all very genuine, yeah. He doesn’t mind when you tell him how much you love “Hamilton.” He’s not over it, or like, “Oh, whatever.”
GD: Part of every day is trying to track down tickets for somebody, I’m sure.
MW: I cannot even imagine what that would be like.
GD: One episode I wanted to ask you about in this project that was not the flashier of the episodes in terms of singing and dancing was the one at the beach house, I guess sort of a bottle episode in a way where basically the whole thing is set there, so many of you cast members. That, to me, is one of the hardest things to pull off on TV or film, is something like that where all that energy is in basically one big room. Can you just talk about that episode and shooting that?
MW: What I realized during “Cabaret” is that sometimes it’s a real relief when you get to the song and dance. This thing takes over and the audience is transported by melody and visually transported and that when you’re just in the scene work, you have to find a way to make the scenes sing, so that defines what their shape is and what their emotional life is because the songs and the dance, they really dictate it to you, where the emotional life is. There’s a lot of interpretation in singing and dancing, of course, and there’s some people who are so extraordinary. I think about Jessie Mueller, the Broadway actress, how incredibly expressive and how much storytelling she’s capable of doing with her voice. Annaleigh Ashford, I love those two performers so much. But when you’re in the straight scene work, you have to find where the music of it is and where it’s ascending, where it’s descending. That’s the meat and potatoes of what I do, the kind of work that I’ve been doing is character dramas that I’ve been making my way with for 20 years or something. An opportunity to do just that, be in this small space with these really talented actors, it’s my own personal dream come true.
GD: You had to be thrilled, speaking of that episode and the future episodes after that, Margaret Qualley getting in, her first Emmy nomination at such a young age. It’s such a nice way for us to really see her and start a career.
MW: Absolutely, and she’s also just a deeply lovely human being. What a great person. What a kind person. What a generous, sweet, she’s practically angelic, but also devilish and just great. I couldn’t love her more.
GD: She brought both of those qualities to that character. We’re an awards website so I wanted to ask a couple of awards-related questions. Like you said, you’ve been doing this a little over 20 years now. What was your first big award show that you went to?
MW: Probably the Oscars.
GD: Was it? They didn’t have you presenting at the Emmys when you were on “Dawson’s” or something like that?
MW: I’ve never presented, I don’t think.
MW: No, it makes me nervous!
GD: You’ve been asked but you’ve turned it down.
MW: Oh, you know what, that’s not true. I presented once at the SAG Awards and I was like, “Never again! That’s too stressful.” So yeah, I think the Oscars, maybe.
GD: I’d love to see you and Sam together on the Emmys presenting something. That would be fun.
MW: I don’t know what we’ll do. I gotta go talk to him, see what he wants to do.
GD: What was your first Oscar experience like as a nominee?
MW: It’s very special. It was very, very special.
GD: Do you remember any particular moment from that night or somebody you met or something that reminds you of that?
MW: No, honestly the pictures. The pictures have replaced the memories, in a way.
GD: You have one Tony nomination, too. Did that feel different at all than the Oscar nominations?
MW: It did because that job was so demanding and difficult so that nomination meant a great deal to me because the work was so difficult, so satisfying, so personal. So to be acknowledged in that way, I felt very grateful and very touched, too, that little piece of paper.
GD: When I’ve talked to people like Lin and others on Broadway, Jeff Daniels, who you obviously know very well, they always talk about the Tony night. Everybody’s working within such a confined community that it feels like a big family affair, a family reunion almost.
MW: It does and you know that you’re of a similar breed. One of the things that I really love about “Fosse/Verdon” is it really celebrates show-people and how relentless you have to be to be a Broadway singer, dancer, actor because the lifestyle is really penalizing. To do eight shows, six days a week demands a kind of dedication and aliveness that is draining and exhausting but I’m not complaining about it. It’s a very beautiful way to live and full of wonderful people but it demands pretty much everything from you. So to make it into that room, that Tony room, you know how hard everybody worked to get there.
GD: And those awards from the Broadway community, the Tonys for Gwen meant so much to her, didn’t they?
MW: It’s amazing she won four Tonys in her lifetime.
GD: And it’s brought up within the project, that gets you more work. That brings you back to the fold and means so much from that standpoint, too.
MW: From that standpoint it’s huge. That’s really one of the best things that the award can bring you is the opportunity for more work, which is the thing that economically feeds your life and creatively feeds your soul. That kind of recognition really, truly has a demonstrative effect on your ability to go forward.
GD: One last question going back to the Oscars for a second. Whenever I’ve got an Oscar voter on I like to ask. You don’t have to give away who you voted for but what’s that process like for you and how do you go about choosing especially in the acting categories? What kind of work appeals to you?
MW: I think you never really know until you see the thing when you watch it. You never really know what to expect until you see it. I just watched “Gloria Bell” when I was on the airplane and I just cannot stop talking to Julie about it. We’re on the press day here for “After the Wedding.” I lost my mind for “Gloria Bell.” I just thought it was so subtle but so powerful at the same time so I was asking her all kinds of stuff about it. I think you just have to watch the movie and see what you think.
GD: Is there a performance when you were growing up, especially in film, that you were just mesmerized by that maybe even made you wanna be an actress?
MW: First thing weirdly that just popped into my head, maybe because we’re talking about Julie was watching P. T. Anderson’s work and watching “Hard Eight” and watching “Magnolia” and watching “Boogie Nights.” I was really affected by his filmmaking. Sarah Polley’s work when I was young, that completely blew my mind and expanded what I understood acting was or cinema was. Those things were really seminal for me.
GD: Michelle, thank you so much. It was my favorite performance anybody gave in a comedy or drama or movie or anything from this past 12 months. When they said, “Would you like to talk to her today?” I said, “Absolutely.” I can’t imagine the work involved in putting that whole thing together with “Fosse/Verdon” from a production standpoint and acting.
MW: It was absolutely mammoth. The thing that I would say more than anything is it’s everybody’s love. After that experience of “Fosse/Verdon” I realized everything comes from the top. You can have the best people, the hardest working people on the ground but if they aren’t supported and treated well, they don’t really get to shine and to flourish. Tommy Kail was our leader and he treated everybody with so much respect and good faith and positivity that every single day people came excited to work, to bring their best, because they were so appreciated and valued by the person that was at the helm of this thing. That’s certainly how I felt. It was just love. Everything that I did was love, and you never give up either, ‘cause it’s so much work. I had no idea how difficult it would be to do this show. It’s such deep practice. You do so many scenes and you can never give up. Every single moment of every single take of every single scene, you are just relentless and you apply yourself over and over each time as if you’re just beginning, it’s brand new. You never give up on any moment or any take or any scene. You’re constantly bringing your best to bear because the person who’s leading you is showing you his best and is believing that you can offer him the best. So you just do it. It was a very exciting job to work on and I loved it and I miss it. I’m glad that it reached you, so thank you.
GD: And now it’s brought the whole team to the Emmy Awards in a few weeks.
MW: I know, it’s so exciting! I’m so happy for everybody.
GD: You’ll have a great time there. Hope to see you on the red carpet and thank you so much for today.
MW: Thank you, I appreciate it.