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Holiday preview: Michelle Williams

How do you embody a Hollywood legend like Marilyn Monroe? You start with research — a whole lot of it. Michelle Williams describes how she captured the voice, the walk, and even the insecurities of an icon

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Why Think Small?
”What I really was after was her soul” says Michelle Williams. Portraying Marilyn Monroe is a daunting task — is there another icon so indelibly imprinted on our collective pop culture psyche? — and the existence and capture of souls is probably best left to philosophers and theologians. But in the R-rated My Week With Marilyn, set during the London shoot of 1957’s The Prince and the Showgirl, Williams comes as close to channeling the actress’ spirit as one could hope for. Not surprisingly, the two-time Oscar nominee (for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and last year’s Blue Valentine) has already spurred awards talk for her portrayal of Monroe during the troubled film production with director-costar Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). Here’s a peek at how Williams, 31, got into character.

The Voice
”I placed a big Amazon order and I started reading,” says Williams. Her homework included Eve Arnold’s essays about Monroe, the Norman Mailer biography Marilyn, the star’s own My Story, and the memoir of Prince and the Showgirl production assistant Colin Clark (upon which My Week With Marilyn is based). Williams also filled her iPod with various interviews, songs, acceptance speeches, and even a 23-second commercial Monroe did for motor oil. ”I would read about her before I would go to sleep, she would sing me songs during the day,” she says. ”It began with just listening. I just listened for a long time.”

The Look
Months before production began, Williams tested her makeup and wigs. ”It was important to start all that stuff — wearing her clothes, putting on her lipstick, getting comfortable in her wig. I didn’t want it to be a mask. I wanted to be familiar with it.” That said, she laughs, ”there’s nothing natural about putting yourself under so much heat and light and bleach and mascara. I had a lot of sympathy for why she might be late or not show up.”

The Body Language
”Marilyn Monroe was a character she played. It was an invention,” Williams says. ”A lot of people assumed she really walked like that or had a voice like that. But it was something that she honed and studied.” So Williams read the same books that Monroe did, like Mabel Elsworth Todd’s 1937 tome The Thinking Body. ”It’s horribly technical and hard to get through,” says Williams. The books explains how to achieve perfect alignment and show off your bosom, among other things. ”Marilyn studied herself. She looked at her face in the mirror and discovered all these things. She thought the space between her nose and her top lip was too short — or too long, I can’t remember — and discovered a way to hold her face that was more flattering.”

The Walk
That attention to her effect on viewers extended even to the way she walked. ”Marilyn moved in a series of poses. It looks amazing on film, but you realize every two or three seconds she is making a pose,” says Williams. ”She’s actually directing you with her eyes where she wants you to look. She blended all this study into something that was so seamless, it was like a magician’s act where their hands are moving so quickly you can’t tell a spell is being cast.” Mastering Monroe’s trademark undulating-hourglass walk consumed Williams. ”I spent a lot of time looking for that wiggle,” she says. ”It’s not a figure eight, it’s not a side-to-side motion. It’s like she’s moving through honey.” She noticed that Monroe favored dresses that tapered and cut off right at the knee. ”You can’t take very big steps,” she says. ”You think, ‘Wait a minute. Her knees are constricted.’ ” But Williams found a way to teach herself the unusual gait: ”You walk around your house with a belt around your knees and go, ‘Oh, wow! There it is!’ ” The padding Williams wore to approximate Monroe’s dizzying dimensions helped too. ”When you have a little extra hip, there’s more to swing around.” On her 30th birthday in September 2010, a few weeks before filming started, Williams felt like she’d finally nailed the walk. ”It was a really nice birthday present,” she says. ”I couldn’t have asked for anything better than that.”

The Psyche
”All she wanted was to be taken seriously,” says Williams. ”She kind of imprisoned herself. She developed this character which got her a lot of attention, love, praise, and adoration, but at a certain point she wanted out. She had built herself a prison, and what she wanted was to be appreciated as an artist, as a woman, as a real person. She never got the love she needed as a child, so everything — the crowds, the public, the husbands — was a temporary fix. I wish she could have had a child, because I think that would have done the trick.”