Exclusive: ‘Ghost Writer”s Olivia Williams on acting with Ewan, reacting to Roman
BY TODD GILCHRIST
Although not quite a household name in the U.S., Olivia Williams has steadily worked over the last decade to establish herself as one of the movies’ most versatile and interesting actresses. Early roles in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense earned her both visibility and indie cred, and since then she’s continued to explore different sorts of characters in films big and small. Her latest film, however, may prove to be her biggest breakthrough yet: as the frustrated wife of an ex-British prime minister in Roman Polanksi’s riveting thriller, The Ghost Writer, she gets the chance to exorcise the thankless responsibilities of playing second fiddle to male co-stars with a character – and a performance – that is nothing short of unforgettable.
Hollywood News was lucky enough to catch up with Williams via telephone late last week to discuss her character and her contributions to The Ghost Writer. In addition to talking about Polanski’s exciting (and sometimes terrifying) directing style, Williams examined her approach to each role she gets, confessed that her interest in certain opportunities is not always career-friendly, and revealed why she’s grateful for the many diverse and challenging characters she’s played thus far.
Hollywood News: Your role is sort of deceptively unimportant to both Ewan and Pierce’s characters in the film. When you came into this, what did Roman tell you about what he saw for the role, or what did you know you would have to do in the film?
Olivia Williams: It was very much described to me as a wife role, and if you read the novel, Kim [Cattrall]’s character Amelia Bly is more sort of interestingly described. It was really what happens [with my character in the film] that makes her interesting; I’ve played a lot of wives, but thank God this wife never says, “your dinner’s ready.” My ears perked up when Robert Harris said she was his favorite character in the book, and I didn’t know if he was just sort of blowing smoke up my ass, but he came up with this incredible paragraph of adjectives of what she needs to be. And to set that down as a challenge for an actor, it was like sort of throwing the gauntlet down – I was like, I can do this, and I want to fulfill every single one of those oxymorons that he set out for me.
Hollywood News: I imagine it can be kind of a thankless job for actresses to play conventional wife roles. What is your approach to the work that makes sure you feel challenged or satisfied by each role, regardless how it may look on the page?
Williams: Well, I do look for something [specific], and I’ve just been playing a role and it was kind of like going to Leonardo Da Vinci and saying, “I’d like another Mona Lisa, please.” Basically the people who gave me this job I’ve just done basically wanted a performance I’d done in another movie and said so. But there’s something that Roman taught me that I’ve always latently held belief about which he brought to the fore, which is that it’s really important for an actor to play the right-size cog in the greater machinery. If you go in as an actor going, “yeah, this isn’t interesting for me, I’m going to create this sort of complex solo performance and f*ck the rest of the plot,” it doesn’t work. Actually what made this work as a role was not playing complexity, it was actually just wholeheartedly playing each scene on one level and any subtext has to be provided by the audience, if you know what I mean. I absolutely couldn’t play my ulterior motive or it would have killed the plot. To start off it was important that she was a frustrated peripheral character, and that’s her tragedy – that is her story.
Hollywood News: Ewan talked about the way that Roman directs with a kind of unvarnished honesty. Can you talk about getting acclimated to Roman’s style and approach as a director?
Williams: Well, Ewan made it very easy. He kind of nannied all of us through the first day; he’d been working with Roman for about a month before Pierce or Kim of I showed up, and he did a hilarious impersonation of Roman. He said, “he’s going to do this to you. He’s going to stop the take and he’s going to go, ‘no no no!’” And when it happened to me the first time, I was terrified, but because Ewan showed me that before it kind of took the sting out of it (laughs). It is alarming the first time it happens.
Actually quite late on in shooting, it was the crying-shagging scene, which God knows I’ve done enough of those. Roman was sitting with his head in his hands after the take, and it’s quite distressing for an actor after she’s just done a crying-shagging scene to see the director with his head in his hands. I walked up and he said an interesting thing: “when I have my eyes closed, I’m trying to remember what I saw in my head at the original model as I had when I wrote this scene before all of this stuff turned up.” Once I understood there was kind of a pre-existing, platonic ideal we were striving to achieve, I kind of wanted to collaborate with him and make that happen, and I realized why he was so frustrated when you weren’t doing what he needed you to do. The “no no no!” could apply equally to a misplaced vase of flowers, or in this case, the manuscript on the table or the weather.
You realize as an actor, you are a very specifically-sized cog in the machine, but the other bit of the machinery can be stationary objects or the weather or a light or a beam of light, and once you realize your position in the great scheme of things, it’s very freeing, and actually, I realize now, it shows a huge respect for his actors. His expectations of his actors are very high; he’s not going to discuss with you your feelings or motivations or how you get there, he says “I need you to do this now. Can you do it? and that is sort of enormously complimentary, although he does get very frustrated if you can’t or won’t. But it’s a struggle, so it’s not fun for him; it’s a painful sort of birthing process for him, I think.
Hollywood News: As an actor, is it necessary to think about the themes of the movie as you’re performing in each scene, or is it more important to be present and not think about connecting everything together in the finished film?
Williams: I like to be aware of them. I love doing my research and I love scouring the novel and finding the connections, but it is terribly important not to try and show off as an actor and try and play [all aspects] at once. I have a scene that has gotten me almost work as Rushmore which is the scene in The Sixth Sense at dinner with Bruce Willis. You have to be able to watch that while it’s playing to you, the pissed-off wife with the workaholic husband, and then you have to watch it again and say she’s a tragic woman alone and a grieving widow. So the only way to play those is to be single-minded enough in the scene for the audience to be able to interpret the performance both ways, and so when I was in the scene [in The Ghost Writer], my action was to seduce, but what got in the way was her sort of rudeness and impatience with people. So you have the underlying character with the overriding motivation – but you can’t play the subtext, if that there.
Hollywood News: What was your reaction to the end of the film? Because it seems to feed back into some of the themes that run through the rest of the movie, but it’s definitely ambiguous.
Williams: There’s a beautiful feeling in the novel that you get that if you’re reading this I’m dead. It’s funny because Robert Harris and Nick Hornby are brothers in law, and this occurred to me only this very minute, but really, Ewan is a kind of Nick Hornby character, and he’s poured into a political thriller kind of space. He shags Ruth because he’s a bit of a lad and he knows it’s a bad idea, and he’s a good ghost writer because he can trot in motion as Nick Hornby can into the brains of [other] people. I love Ewan’s performance; because that moment he’s sitting in the diner and realizes he’s going to have to get on the airplane with someone who wants him dead, he looks so shocked and trapped. Ewan is such a big star, but he plays a really low key. He’s like a reflective surface that we kind of react from as these f*cked up people, and it’s so selfless of him to be such an innocent in the way he plays it – you know, not to be flashy or one step ahead of the game. He’s one step behind all of the time! So the end, what I’m getting to, is that when I watched the movie for the first time, it made me cry. I know that sounds like a pathetically sentimental response, but it’s so desolate.
I did ADR for this film in LA on my own, and it was a hot California day and I go into a studio and just watch the 20 seconds of the movie that I have to re-voice because of a dog barking or whatever, and I was seeing literally sort of 40 seconds of film with my the finished product, and my agent said, “how does it look? What’s it like?” And I was like, this is one cold movie. Just those few minutes had left me with chills – I was physically cold. I was like, man, I hope the general public will like going to watch something that bleak, because it’s bleak, and to some degree it makes me feel very desolate.
Hollywood News: You talked earlier about the roles you’ve played and sometimes had to play. Do you think strategically about your career at all? For instance, agreeing to be “the wife” in a big studio film that might give you the opportunity to play several interesting roles in smaller ones?
Williams: Have you been listening in on conversations with my agent? I’m actually sort of in that position now for the first time in my career, where there really has been an element of choice. There may have been a moment, again after The Sixth Sense and Rushmore, but I sort of missed it. I was doing something else in my life at the time and didn’t concentrate on it. I haven’t had a plan up until now, and it’s the first time people are saying “what you should do now is…” which I find an incredibly painful process because it involves levels of assumption and arrogance which I can’t sort of countenance. So I’m still going for the thing that appeals regardless of its above-the-line or below-the-title status. My agents respect my decision, but it’s tough. I wish I could get my sh*t together to have a better career attitude (laughs). But it’s served me well so far; I couldn’t be happier with the past year. I took An Education because I loved it. I took Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll because I loved it. And by happenstance, the three films I made last year have worked out so well, so maybe there’s a method to my disorganization.
Hollywood News: Notwithstanding that careerist perspective, do you think at all about what people respond to in your performances?
Williams: The things that sort of alarm me are the sort of physical things over which I have no control. I remember a scene that was tragically cut from The Sixth Sense because it was a very good scene, but the lines in the script said, “she looks like an angel,” and you just go, please lord, let me not wake up with a pimple the size of Europe on my face. But if it’s playing the spirit of something – if you [are supposed to] represent something – that is what I want to be doing. That’s the challenge. I love that, and the more the director has to fire at me – like when Robert Harris said to me, “she is naïve and arrogant, she is vulnerable and aggressive, she is contemptuous of her husband,” and then underlined, “but absolutely not evil.” That I went away and [thought], I’ve got my material now. My homework is done for me.
[But] when people have these expectations of my, that’s when I want to rise to it, and even if it is “dinner’s ready, honey” – even if that is what you want me to be, then I’ll be the best f*cking wife with the best dinner. I will do that, and I’ll do that one hundred percent. If I agree to take a job, I’m in, and that’s what I’ll do. But the problem is that there’s an earlier stage when you’re not being offered a wide range, and when you put the part together, I can see that path you’re talking about. But in blank terms, I’ve played a British nurse on a submarine, I’ve played a teacher, I’ve played an artist, I’ve played a prime minister’s wife, and if you look at the range, I’m so ahead of the game. I can’t join the ranks of the women who with justification complain that there is no range for middle-aged women, because I have been so bloody lucky in that respect.