During the two days I spent on the set of director Sam Raimi's OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, the only actress playing a witch in the film who was shooting while we were there was Michelle Williams, who plays Glinda, the Good Witch. She was also the one primary cast member we saw working who we weren't sure we were going to get a chance to talk to since she was busy in costume the entire time.
When we arrived on the massive active set, Williams was already in her full Good Witch get-up--a white dress with off-white corseted-looking top and crown. The prop master was nearby holding Glinda's wand, which I believe had the capacity to glow. The particular set we were on took about five months to build, and it was meant to look like a courtyard with the grand staircase at one end leading into Glinda's castle. In the scene itself, Glinda is talking to a little girl, one of many who surround her. Glinda and her child companions make their way across the balcony, where she meets a man at the top of the stairs and eventually makes her way down them.
The Yellow Brick Road loops into the courtyard through an archway and spirals around to the center of the courtyard. When Williams gets to the bottom of the stairs in the sequence, James Franco, playing the Wizard known as Oz, meets her. When their conversation is done, she kisses him on the head and departs. We spend a good deal of the day watch this extended sequence (which ends with Franco talking to the China Girl puppet discussed last week) over and over again from various angles until Raimi is ready to move on (more on him in a couple of weeks).
It is decided that if we're going to interview Michelle Williams, it's going to happen after her work day is done, and most of us are more than willing to watch her and Franco spend the day working together. But eventually we gathered in a small conference room and prepared to chat with Williams, who could not have been sweeter, albeit slightly guarded (understandably so). We thought our chances of talking to her were dashed when we saw that her daughter Matilda was also on set this day. But like a good professional, Williams eventually arrived to chat with us, out of costume and in her civilian clothes. Please enjoy our interview with Michelle Williams…
Michelle Williams: Hi.
Question: Is everything good?
MW: Yeah, all right. There’s so many people.
Question: I was watching you film on the steps with the kids and doing the scene. How great is it to be able to step on set and be literally a fairy tale figure for a bunch of kids? How great does that make the rest of your day?
MW: It’s the best. [Laughs] There’s nothing better than making kids happy. Yeah, seeing little girls’ faces light up just at the sight of you.
Question: Are you going to keep the tiara, is a better question.
MW: I think that tiara has a price tag that I couldn’t really afford.
Question: How much inspiration did you get from the original Glinda? Did you look at her in any kind of referential way?
MW: Yeah, we talked about her a lot, but Sam wanted to shy away from anything that referenced her too heavily. He wanted our very own Glinda. So there are little nods in a few costumes and a couple of lines, but she’s a starting off point. I just think of her as like where Glinda started. When you meet Glinda in the original WIZARD OF OZ, she is omniscient, she has a kind of calm, but we like to think that that’s where she wound up, and this is kind of where she began.
Question: So describe her how she began then.
MW: Well…[turns to the Disney publicist in the room] Can we talk about the story?
Question: We know that you are set up, that the Wicked Witch makes Oz believe that you are the Wicked Witch…
MW: And you about my father?
[Publicist: “Don’t go into that!”]
MW: Well, then I can’t answer your question. I’m sorry. [Laughs]
Question: When you think of Glinda in the other movie, she is sort of the most virtuous person in the world. Is that not established yet? Does she have faults?
MW: I think that her character is intact. I don’t think her goodness is ever in question, but I think that she has struggles.
Question: Russell, the propmaster, said that you had some ideas about what the wand should look like. Were there any other aspects to the costuming or the props that they asked for your input on and that they adjusted because of what you wanted?
MW: Yeah, I would say that the costumes were a big collaboration, because it had a lot to say about what I was thinking and how I wanted her to begin and the spirit of young Glinda or something has, and the costumes are a big part of telling that story. So I had a lot of ideas, and it was fun to implement them and have people who are willing to collaborate and have the time and talent and the budget to do that.
Question: He said you wanted to go for a more organic feel to her, closer to nature. Is that accurate?
MW: Yes, yes it is.
Question: After doing MEEK’S CUTOFF and TAKE THIS WALTZ, where you weren’t like “And there’s a blue screen, and we'll put the rest of the background in by CG, and there’s a 300 little people we arranged.” When you step on to this, is there that moment of dislocation of “What am I doing here?” or is it just “I have a role. I have a part. I have lines. I have other actors to work with. That’s what I’m going to stick to.”?
MW: There have been a lot of first times for me on this movie. The imaginary world. You see a big blue screen, but of course you won't see a big blue screen; you're going to see things flying; you're going to see a sun setting; you're going to see flowers and… [She catches herself divulging more than she should]. You are going to see things.
MW: So turning on that side of my brain, but often you're not able to have the real thing there when you do it. So that and most of the movies that I make tend to be smaller and more intimate with a smaller crew. I like things feeling like a family, so I’ve just tried to make this feel like a really big family, but it’s a happy one, because Sam is the dad, and it all comes down from there.
Question: Was working with Mr. Raimi an imperative part of being involved with this kind of film?
Question: What’s the chemistry like on set with you and James and Mila? What’s your relationship like?
MW: The chemistry? The sexual chemistry? [laughs] Let me tell you: The chemistry, it’s a ball.
Question: Have you floated yet?
MW: I’ve done some floating. I’ve done some flying.
Question: Do you have a duel character? We know some of the people appear in the opening sequence and then again in Oz.
MW: Yes, yes I do.
Question: In fact, you are Oz’s old childhood love whom he regrets losing, and then you are reflected in the fantasy world?
MW: Yes, I am.
Question: I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about the first time you walked on the Yellow Brick Road.
MW: Yeah, that was a momentous occasion, I have to say. I forget who, but I grabbed somebody’s arm, and I said, “Wait a second, stop. We are on the Yellow Brick Road.” How many people get a chance to say that. First of all, I've been thinking about stealing a little piece of the Yellow Brick Road, but how many people get a chance to say that? It goes beyond cinema; it’s part of sort of cultural history.
Question: What is your strongest memory as a film lover of the 1939 classic version? What do you remember of it?
MW: The Munchkins. Well, I was in a school play or a community theater play of THE WIZARD OF OZ, and I played a Lullaby League Munchkin, so I’m really drawn to them.
Question: You are also filming this in 3-D with the Red Epic cameras. Have you gone to the monitor to see the 3-D playback? What are your thoughts on 3-D?
MW: I haven’t really. It makes me self-conscious to watch myself, so unless there’s something technical, because a lot of the movie is technical, unless there’s something really technical that I’m really not grasping, I tend to not watch; it doesn’t help my process. I’ll be as excited as everybody else is when the movie comes out to watch it in 3-D.
Question: When they were filming earlier, there was a moment where Mr. Franco was rallying troops and you wander over to him and have this conversation, and you take off his hat and just place your hand on his jacket for a moment. How imperative is it for you to find those small moments in the tumult of such a big and action- and effects-packed movie?
MW: That was a moment that was improvised on the day. We knew that we needed something else to end the scene, and Mr. Raimi gave us the time and the space to do it, because he thought that it was necessary, because he really is--and maybe this is just a ploy with how he makes the actors feel--but it feels like he’s most in relationships. But he probably makes Russell feel like he’s the most interested in the props, and that’s one of Sam’s talents is he makes everybody feel like their contributions carry such weight. So he made some time and space for us, and we added these lines and made this moment. So amidst a lot of people and a lot of pressure, Sam is able to create a small, quiet, creative space that makes room for things like that to grow.
Question: It must make it nice to have these huge sets actually built. You have this whole world created and your costume and everything. How much of creating that character comes from sort of exterior environment helping to get you in that world?
MW: Once you are there, I think you can glean a lot of information from the sets. I wasn’t really around when they were being built and didn’t see any of it in process, so I didn’t know how we were going to sort of match in all of the worlds, and I think there actually were some alterations. I think I showed up for a test in my dress, and it did not go with my castle, so we had to change some things to make them more cohesive. But yeah, spaces dictate a lot of feeling. I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t love being in a boardroom under these lights; it makes you feel like “I don’t know…” So when you are walking down your castle steps in your courtyard, that gives you a whole other feeling.
Question: Hypothetically speaking, have you been able to borrow anything from set? Are there plans to hypothetically borrow anything from set?
MW: By "borrow" you mean “pillage”? I don’t think I’ve borrowed anything yet, except for… I have to think about that. I put some cookies in my pocket and I took them home to my family. I don't know if that counts. [laughs]
Question: To a point you made earlier about the size of the production. A lot of the films that you have done before I’m guessing had much shorter shooting schedules. Is the sort of stretched out pace of this, has that altered anything for you? Does it feel like walking in quicksand?
MW: It’s more of an endurance test, like you’re training… I don’t know, what are things that are longer than marathons?
Question: Ultra-Marathons? Ironman? Triathlon?
MW: Yeah, you’re training for Ironman or something. I think with anything when you have the goal inside, it’s when something seems interminable that you wish for it to end, but I actually don’t really want it to end; I’ve had quite a nice time. No, it doesn’t really change anything. I guess you try to pace yourself a little differently.
Question: On that, are you excited for the possibility of sequels and all of that fun stuff that might come along?
MW: We’ve still got two more months. I don't know. [Laughs]
Question: Does it make you excited about the possibility of doing more big-budget films, or are you kind of itching to go back to the smaller stuff?
MW: I don’t know. I haven’t really thought of it as… I guess because of Sam, it doesn’t feel impersonal in any way, which is always what my fear is in making bigger movies, that you don’t get to know people. So it doesn’t feel alienating in any way.
Question: We've seen all of these practical sets that are just incredible. Do you have a favorite of the sets thus far, or even stuff that might be coming up in the future, too?
MW: The graveyard was smelly. Where else have we been?
Question: The throne room? I want to get married there. With modern films there’s this big distraction industrial complex that springs up around it of the toys, the video games, the tie-in books, the tie-in snack. Has any of that stuff come knocking yet? Have people been like “And here’s your action figure”? Or is it still too far out to begin worrying about what you look four inches tall?
MW: [Laughs] Well now, I’ll begin. No, I haven’t heard. I don’t know anything about that.
Question: Are you excited to turn into a Barbie doll or an action figure?
MW: Like I said, now I’m going to start worrying about it. I hadn’t thought about that.
Question: More importantly, are you excited at the prospect of being a strong character who is integral to the plot and stands on her own ruby slippers? Or rather sparkly silver slippers and can be someone that young girls in the theater can look up to. Are you ready for a decade or so of Halloweens of people dressed up like you?
MW: As a mother of an almost six-year-old daughter, I say “Absolutely.”
Question: What has her impression been of seeing this world?
MW: I’d have to let her tell you.
Question: I’m curious if you have prepared for the going to Disneyland in the future and having someone who looks just like you? They're going to obviously make these characters come to life in the parks.
Question: I’m pretty confident.
MW: I don’t know. They just get me here to act. They don’t tell me anything about the park ride business.
Question: Well what was it like for you signing on, that initial time for the first big Hollywood movie. I’m sure the contract is a hell of a lot different than what you maybe have signed on for things in the past. Could you sort of talk about that? Were you intimidated by that? Possibly signing on for sequels and everything that goes with it.
MW: Was I intimidated by signing what might seem like a long-term contract?
Question: I’m just curious if you could talk about making that leap, once you sign on that dotted line.
MW: Yeah, usually on my other jobs we just spit on our palms and shake hands.
Question: You and Kelly Reichardt just spit shake and do each other’s hair?
MW: Pretty much.
Question: One of the coolest things we saw was the marionette of the China Doll. Can you talk about interacting with her?
MW: Isn’t she beautiful?
Question: Yeah, it’s amazing. How much does that help you as an actor to have that?
MW: Yeah, I mean I sort of regretted what I said earlier about how this movie is a lot of acting to marks, because Mr. Raimi has really thought about that as much as he can, and wherever it allows there’s something real for s to react to. So he will have the marionette in, even though that wont be in the movie, but you use it as a template and keep it going in your mind as a memory and then they'll CG it in later. So he’s doesn’t leave you hanging in the breeze by yourself basically. He really wants to fill up your imagination as much as he can. He’s been very generous with that.
Question: What does it mean for you as a serious actress to sign aboard such a large movie, but now I’m curious about the converse which is what has doing such a very large film taught you about the craft of acting that you didn’t expect it to?
MW: I would say I guess I didn’t realize it was this big. [Laughs] It didn’t seem this big. I don’t mean to be naive or anything, but David Lindsay-Abaire polished up this script, and Sam can have the most in-depth conversation. He can situate himself inside of any character and have the most in-depth conversation from that character’s point of view about how they would behave in a scene. I would say it’s up there with the most collaborative environments I’ve ever worked on, and I got to make BLUE VALENTINE, which was just two actors being allowed to do anything they wanted they wanted and follow any impulse at any time no matter how ridiculous, insane, upsetting or whatever it was.
And this is right there, so I guess I didn’t think of it as being that big, because I worked with Sam, talked to Sam and I knew I was going to be there with a director who would direct me and that he wasn’t going to be sort of more attached to technical things than sort of personal things. But like I was saying before, I’ve had to flex my imagination I think in a way that almost feels like a muscle that was getting underdeveloped. Also some of the shots that we’ve done have been really long tracking shots that involve crowds.
You land in your bubble, you walk through a crowd, you're greeting the crowd and saying your lines to James, you're walking up the stairs, you're in a long dress, you can’t trip on your dress, you have to keep your wand in your left hand, you’re still talking the James, and then you are relating to people, and then you are coming up to the stairs and then you turn around, and that’s all on one shot and that’s like a three and a half or four minute take and it was so exhausting. After that, I was like, “Wow, I’ve got to get back into the theater.” The movies that I make, they wouldn’t have the capability, the budget, the crane, to make that kind of shot. So stamina, endurance, and imagination, those things are coming into play, and it’s always nice to get better in areas where you're a little weak, so I’m enjoying it and I find it as challenging as any other movie that I have made.