Manchester by the Sea: Michelle Williams’s Oscar Caliber Turn

Michelle Williams as Randi

Michelle Williams delivers an emotional, finely wrought performance as Randi, Lee’s more resilient ex-wife.

“She is spectacular,” says writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. “I’ve wanted to work with her for quite a long time, since she was a teenager doing Off Broadway plays in New York. She’s become one of the most talented, versatile actresses out there, as well as an incredibly nice person.”

Williams’ natural intelligence and authentic vulnerability made her the perfect choice for the role, says Casey Affleck. “Her honesty is undeniable.  Her characters always seem like real people, which means the audience is able to truly care about her.”

Steward recounts with awe the actress’s first day on set. With the temperature hovering around 30 degrees, Williams was outside wearing only a nightgown in the New England winter. “She did take after take of this incredibly emotional scene and each one was perfection. Her transformation was astounding. Michelle is so delicate and soft-spoken and Randi is a lot more aggressive and edgy.”

Williams says she was so overcome when she was offered the role that she actually cried. “I’ve always wanted to work with Kenny,” says the actress. “Nobody writes dialogue like he does. It’s completely natural and effortless. I’ve wanted to work with his words for a long time. You just have to hang on to the back of them. And he is one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet. He keeps things entertaining.”

During their marriage, Lee and Randi have a warm, lived-in relationship full of humor and banter. “And then everything falls apart,” Williams says. “Casey has a lot of integrity and depth. I didn’t have to dig very deep to find those qualities in him.” With a limited amount of screen time, Williams creates an indelible portrait of a woman still struggling, but trying to recover from tremendous loss. “It was an unusual experience,” Williams says. “Because I’m not in the movie that much, I spent more time preparing for it than shooting it. Boston isn’t far from New York, so I would take the train up and walk around, go to coffee shops and shopping malls to absorb the place and the people and the accent. In relation to my time shooting the film, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the area.”

Williams’ tremulous beauty is almost a distraction from the depth of her performance, says Moore. “It seems like the camera captures her soul. She represents the exact inverse way of reacting to tragedy than what Lee did. She’s not over it, she still cries. It’s still heartbreaking to her but she decided to power forward, and keep going. Michelle brings all of that just by being in the movie.”

Tony Award-winning actor Matthew Broderick plays Elise’s second husband, a soft-spoken but rigid evangelical Christian who has no room in his ordered life for a troubled teenager.  A veteran of both of Lonergan’s earlier films, Margaret and You Can Count on Me, Broderick’s low-key charm and self-effacing manner mask an intolerance that makes Patrick feel unwelcome in his mother’s new home.

“Matthew is my best friend and one of my very, very favorite actors,” says Lonergan. “His range alone is breathtaking. I’ve been watching him act since we were in high school. He has a sense of humor second to none and a sense of character and story that I have almost never seen in another performer. His subtlety is mind-blowing, but it’s his sense of reality that I rely on and admire the most. It’s so deeply ingrained in him — to stay alive and awake, under the given circumstances — that even your occasional bad ideas and worst impulses can’t really dislodge him from it. It’s very grounding. And even though he wears it lightly, he brings a quiet respectful professionalism to the set. He makes you feel like you’re all working on something important.  He’s very relaxed about it, but it’s always there, and it gives everyone — especially me — great confidence.”

Given the quality of the performances in Manchester by the Sea , it seems hard to believe that this was Lonergan’s first time working with most of the actors. “That’s something I don’t often do. I tend to work with the same people over and over — like Matthew, or Mark Ruffalo or J. Smith-Cameron, who is also Lonergan’s wife. I’m not a big risk taker. Or maybe it’s better to say when I see a good thing I like to stick with it. I’ve only made three movies, and with the other two I could count on one hand the number of people I hadn’t worked with before or didn’t know personally.  “It was really exciting to see these actors put so much effort and intelligence into everything,” he continues. “Working with them to bring characters who used only to exist in my imagination into three-dimensional life, right before my eyes, is humbling and very gratifying. They show up and become someone you’ve only imagined. And they bring with them a complexity and depth of feeling and specificity of thought and behavior far, far beyond anything you might have cooked up on your little computer. It’s an absolute miracle to me, and I love them for it.”