Michelle Williams, Naked Angel

Two barely teenage girls (and one of their mothers) have traveled from Pennsylvania to lower Manhattan to see the off-Broadway drama/black comedy Killer Joe. One might consider the play -- the heartwarming tale of a trailer park family that uses its youngest member, a simpleton virgin named Dottie, as partial payment for the hit man hired to eliminate Mom -- an odd entertainment choice for teens. But if you glanced at the photos the girls were clutching and checked out who's appearing as Dottie, you might cast aside doubts concerning their parents' judgment. Dottie is being played by Michelle Williams, one of the four stars of Dawson's Creek. (In case you've chosen to ignore it, Dawson's Creek is TV's latest hit teen-angst series, in the tradition of such classics as Party of Five and Beverly Hills 90210.) On the show, Williams plays Jen Lindley, a New Yorker transplanted to the fictional Massachusetts town, a misunderstood outsider with a rep for being, well, a bit of a slut.

Anyway, the Pennsylvania teens were given a school assignment to come up with something they wanted in life and then make it happen. These girls wanted to go to Dawson's Creek. And, as the photos prove, they spent three days on the set. Now they've come to see their new best friend Michelle in her off-Broadway debut. So what did these clearly excited young ladies want to know about their idol? "Ask her how she got started," replied one girl after much thought. "We want to know how to become actresses," clarified the second. The mother couldn't hide her horror. "Why? You could never become actresses!" she blurted. The girls just stared at her defiantly.

"Those are good questions," Williams says when I pass them on. They were exactly what she had asked herself at 15, when she legally emancipated herself from her parents and moved from San Diego to Los Angeles to live on her own. "I came to L.A. so wide-eyed, the picture of fresh-faced innocence -- and so fucking excited. I just thought I would work! I just thought I would play cool parts!" Even though she had some experience in stage, television and films, including a Lassie update and Species, reality soon set in. Until she made the pilot for Dawson's, which she assumed would have a short life, she sustained herself by doing auditions, student films and low-budget fare while hopping from one low-life agent to the next.

"It's kinda sad to see all those myths dispelled by the people within this business," laments the adorable blonde. "I hiked up to the Hollywood sign once and I was so excited. It's an icon and what I thought of as 'Hollywood' when I came. You climb up there and it's so dirty and disgusting. There's a ladder you can climb to get to the top of the O. On the first level, there's all these old bras. You get to the second level and there's nasty, skanky underwear. The third level is used condoms. It's an amazing metaphor for the people. It just keeps getting sleazier. Where's the beauty? Where's the purity?" But Williams hung in there. "I would chalk it up to the stupidity of a 15-year-old. I felt invincible. I was a superhero! It was that sheer 'Why couldn't I do this? Anything is possible and I will escape unscathed and beautiful and triumphant!'"

This empowering hopefulness had been fueled by years of feeling like an outcast, coupled with an active imagination and a daunting pre-cociousness. "I never had friends," Williams states matter-of-factly. Her family had moved to San Diego from Montana when she was 9, so she was an outsider from an early age. Let's assume the other kids felt more threatened than warm and fuzzy toward the newcomer, because she is exceptional looking, clearly intelligent and was beginning to appear in movies. Since one of them was Lassie and the other featured her as a young alien with weird shit coming out of her, they took aim. "That was horrific! That was just asking for it," she shudders, then laughs. "It was, like, me and the kid with the wheelchair: We both had something about us that made us really different and unable to be understood by others. They didn't know what it was like to be in a wheelchair, and they didn't know what it was like to see their face on a movie screen." Those around her couldn't grasp her fertile imagination, either. "I was a liar as a kid," she says. "I invented things constantly and told stories to my friends at school that they would tell their parents. My mom would get these phone calls, like, 'You took your daughter to a nudist beach for vacation?'"

Like all actors, Williams had a strong desire to pretend she was somebody else. "There was a two-year period in my life where I wouldn't answer to anything except 'Harvey,'" she recalls. And no, she didn't think she was a giant invisible rabbit. "I saw that movie a couple of years ago and I was like, 'Oh, God!'" she grimaces. "No. I thought I was this person."

"So instead of an imaginary friend," I begin. " -- I was my own imaginary friend!" Williams says, laughing."That's called schizophrenia," I clarify. "Is that freaky or what? My parents were like, 'So, what do we do with this...thing?'" Hence, little Michelle-Harvey left school to be taught at home by her father. She passed the necessary exams and off she went to the big city to become a star. She struggled, she struck gold with Dawson's Creek and she did the obligatory slasher flick, Halloween H2O. Her Dawson's co-stars have gone on to the big screen too, with James Van Der Beek (Dawson) in the hit Varsity Blues, Katie Holmes (Joey Potter) in Go and The Ice Storm and Joshua Jackson (Pacey Witter) in Urban Legend.

On an ensemble show, do the actors end up judging their careers by one another's? "Yes," says Williams, smiling. "Then you realize that it's pointless and self-destructive, so you get on with your own lives. The four of us will always have a bond, because we all remember one another from two years ago, when James was straight out of college, Katie was straight out of Ohio, Josh had just come in from Vancouver, and I was just a silly little girl out of Los Angeles. We've absolutely grown up together. We've grown up into very different and distinctly individual people. But all of us still remember where we came from and we can still kick each other's asses with that." She pauses, then smiles. "Four paths diverged in the woods, and I took the one less traveled," she says, referencing Robert Frost.

With Halloween H2O, Williams followed the path of television ensemble players using their time off to become movie stars. With the upcoming Dick, she should further distinguish herself as an individual actor. "We made a very conscientious move to stay small," she says of her career planning. "That's why I wanted to do off-Broadway. I had no desire to pander to the masses. It's so upsetting to read the scripts that are out there."

Williams got to appear in H20 with the original modern scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis. Even though Curtis didn't share any screeching techniques, she made herself very available to the new kid. "She taught me a lot," Williams says. "She never put herself in the role of mentor by patting me on the head or anything like that. She put her hands around my soul." Come again? "When I had a really bad weekend and I was horribly sad, I went over to her house and she made me comfort food -- pasta and sausage and a really big apple pie -- and we just sat and talked and she held me." Certainly Curtis was someone who grasped what life was really like for a girl who saw her face on a movie screen. Curtis also took the only photos of Williams that the young actress could stomach.

Most articles about Williams feature her in sex-bomb poses, provocative clothing and come-hither looks, resembling some Lolita-Sarah Michelle Gellar-Britney Spears hybrid. Actually, she looks more like the result of a three-way between Charlize Theron, Jon Voight and Doris Day.

"You're really androgynous looking," I remark. "I'll bet the lumber Jills love you." "Yes, they do," she agrees. "I've been asked many times, 'Are you a woman in comfortable shoes? Like, you cut your hair and you're kind of rough and tumble.' I can be very girly at times, too. I like pink!" She laughs. "Whatever happened to really awesome hardcore chicks like the Runaways? How did we all get so fluffy all of a sudden?"

Williams has become so angry at what she sees as the visual misrepresentation of herself that she recently refused to reshoot a session for Maxim, including the cover. The editors were unhappy with the photos because she looked uncomfortable and close to tears in every one. (The story is still running.) "It's such a cliche, but I felt like a piece of meat," she says. "I felt objectified. It wasn't about telling a story with pictures, it was about getting me into the tightest, shortest, most provocative thing they could find. I don't have to go through that. No girl is ever gonna have to go to the newsstand and be like, 'Is that what I'm supposed to look like?' Because it's not. That's not me! That's some fuckin' freaky girl!" Even unrealistic depictions of other women piss her off. "I have huge body issues," she confesses. "I've sworn off beauty magazines because they only make me feel ugly and depressed. I don't live up to what I see in the magazines. I'm never going to be Amber fuckin' Valletta. The odds are I should be milking a cow right now," she sighs. "The chances of me ending up in New York City...."

Herein lies the difference between Michelle Williams and the rest of the self-loathing masses. Not only has she ended up in Manhattan, but she's co-starring in a play that requires her to strip completely naked. What bothers her about the nudity is that it's gotten so much publicity, even though it's such a small part of the piece. "It's an important scene and I feel justified in doing it," says Williams. "It's a very uncomfortable moment in the play, but it's been really freeing for me. It's been one of the best experiences to come to terms with all of [my body's] shortcomings and all of my misgivings and be able to stand [naked] in front of 200 people."
What she's finding harder to deal with is the brutality of the theatrical schedule versus that of film or television. "It's like training for a marathon," she says. "Being a sprinter, I'm used to short distances, quick cuts, quick takes. And now I'm doing a fuckin' triathlon here! It exercises different muscles. You have to figure out how to adjust your body for that." There's also the emotional toll this role has taken on Williams, because Dottie is such a powerless victim and pawn. "It's been really consuming to play this role -- at the cost to myself, personally, and my friends, because they've had to deal with me. Doing this play has been incredibly tumultuous and strenuous."

With the August release of Dick, a hilarious satire based on the Watergate scandal, Williams will once again show off her versatility. She and Kirsten Dunst (Interview with the Vampire) star as ditsy Washington, D.C., teens who provide the answer to the mysterious identity of "Deep Throat." Asked what attracted her to Dick, she laughs, "I needed it! No, really, I had never attempted comedy before. Comedy had always been something that intimidated and scared me. I didn't want my choices to be ruled by fears."

Apres Dick, it's back-to-school time as Dawson's Creek returns for its third season. In addition, Williams and two friends wrote and will star in a feature about prostitutes living in a Nevada brothel. "There is no fuckin' Pretty Woman story," Williams says of the reality they uncovered through interviews with a working girl. "These aren't hookers with hearts of gold."
Not bad for an 18-year-old. Except being 18 years old. When Williams guested on Conan O'Brien, he joked about her being old enough to be naked onstage but not old enough to drink. "How about this one: I've been paying taxes since I was 12, but I just recently became able to vote!" she exclaims. "It's taxation without representation! Isn't that interesting? I've been unable to voice my opinion, but my money's still good with the government."
Besides her happening career, Williams' personal life is thriving as well. She estimates that she even has around five close friends -- five more than she had as a child. She just broke up with her boyfriend, however. (Applicants take note: She likes older men.) "You know, it sounds like you're living the vida loca, Michelle," I opine.

"Yes, I am." she agrees happily.

"O.K., if you had to choose between Dawson [the good boy] or Pacey [the bad] in real life, who would it be?"

"I have recently come around about appreciating good men," Williams says. "Which is weird, because that is something you should innately appreciate, but it isn't. Pacey's the guy you fool around with, and Dawson's the guy you bring home to Mom. But I'm looking for a middle ground. I want a renegade. Where have all the cowboys gone?" She laughs.

"For that, I think you have to go back to Montana," I say. "I know," she agrees wistfully.

"They're a dying breed." And somehow, it's hard to imagine this girl back home on the range.

Styled by Timothy Reukauf/Marek & Associates Hair by Hyunsoo/Trade, NY * Makeup by Lynn Russell/L'Atelier, NY

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