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At the end of November, as Ridley Scott and the cast of All the Money in the World were in the midst of nine days of re-shoots in Rome and London, The Washington Post ran an article about pay disparities among the cast, specifically between Mark Wahlberg, the male lead, and Michelle Williams, his female co-star. Exactly how egregious the gap we would not learn until early January, when USA Today reported that Wahlberg, who in August 2017 was named the highest-paid actor of the year by Forbes, with annual earnings of $68 million, was being paid $1.5 million. Williams, on the other hand, who has been nominated for four Oscars, five Golden Globes (she won for My Week with Marilyn in 2012), and a Tony, was paid an $80 per diem, which amounted to less than $1,000 total. The additional filming was to re-create Kevin Spacey’s scenes after the actor was accused of sexual misconduct and replaced with Christopher Plummer. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask for money for the re-shoots. I just wanted to do the right thing on his behalf,” says Williams, referring to Anthony Rapp, the actor who accused Spacey of sexually assaulting him when he was 14 years old.

It’s a muggy afternoon in June when Williams and I meet at a Williamsburg hotel that’s all concrete floors and hip austerity, and sits at what might be the most hectic, throbbing corner in Brooklyn. The actress, one of the borough’s better-known residents, has lived in the Boerum Hill and Red Hook neighborhoods since 2005. On the day we meet she is about to move to a new part of Brooklyn, a location she has not yet disclosed, with a partner she has not yet made public. If you know anything about Williams, it’s that she is the Thomas Pynchon of the film world—almost immaculately private.

Photograph by Collier Schorr.

Initially, there was talk of arranging an “activity” for us to do together. We’d look at art or visit the Cloisters, and I’d later extrapolate meaning from this or that comment, in the usual profile style. But a few days before the interview, I’m told that Williams would like to talk about income disparity in Hollywood, specifically her own. She was, after all, paid less than one-tenth of 1 percent of her male co-star’s fee—a discrepancy so glaring that it caused a massive outcry online. In the end, Wahlberg donated his entire re-shoot fee to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which had been established a few weeks prior, and William Morris Endeavor, the agency representing both actors, threw in an additional $500,000. It was difficult to imagine Williams discussing any of this among museum patrons and prying iPhones, so we are here, on a boat-size leather sectional sofa, in an upper-floor suite that overlooks the warehouses and luxury apartment buildings lining the East River, with a blasting air conditioner that Williams immediately turns off.

“I read somewhere that things are kept cold for men, because men prefer to be cooler while women prefer to be warmer,” she says, and then moves herself, with the tensile grace of a cat, into one corner of the giant iceberg of a sofa. “Office buildings are kept colder for men.” It’s an apt metaphor for the many inequities, small and large—from irritatingly arctic air-conditioning to life-altering wage gaps—women contend with.

“You feel totally de-valued,” she says, when I ask whether she was enraged to learn of the money Wahlberg received. Like everyone else, she read it in the paper. “But that also chimes in with pretty much every other experience you’ve had in your workplace, so you just learn to swallow it.” She speaks deliberately, often closing her eyes as she enunciates, in what I will come to recognize as her meticulous, clear, and thoughtful manner, as though each word is put through a process of inspection. She tells me that the ultimate outcome pleased her, in that it sparked a cultural conversation and will eventually, she hopes, bring tangible change. “A private humiliation,” she says, “became a public turning point.”

The night before we meet, Williams worked until three a.m. She is filming Bart Freundlich’s remake of the Danish film After the Wedding, in which she and Julianne Moore play the two formerly male lead roles, before she will fly to L.A. to do re-shoots for Venom, Sony’s upcoming Marvel movie, in which she stars as Anne Weying, the ex-wife of Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). She’s dressed in the unadorned, vaguely vintage style specific to artsy-intellectual Brooklyn—flared jeans, a white linen shirt tied at the waist, ballet flats, straw bag, no makeup. That morning, she tells me, she awoke bone-tired and, like most women, fretful about her skin; she’s been in full, pore-clogging stage makeup for two weeks running. “And I’m like, Oh well, it’s O.K. It’s a new world,” she says. “I’m not going to walk into an interview where somebody’s like, ‘Her smell is blah, blah,’ or ‘Her skin is bare. . . ’ Everything opens—at least it used to—with, like, a sexual description of the woman’s worth, the exact kind or quality of her beauty. You know what I mean? It’s so nice to know that I’m not walking into that.”

I do know what she means, and assure her I will not be talking about her complexion or marveling that she ate a cheeseburger. We don’t even order food. Instead, we drink cup after cup of room-service coffee and talk about motherhood, books, grief, her creative process, and her work.

PLAYING AGAINST TYPE

For our shoot, Williams chose to embrace characters outside of the mold in which people typically see her. “I felt like I momentarily slipped into other skins, which is what I live for—to be freed,” she says. “I have felt that between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ I really live. I’m free from all of my worldly concerns because I’m no longer myself.”

Michelle Williams in a Swimsuit by Speedo USA; slides by Adidas.

ENDURANCE
Swimsuit by Speedo USA; slides by Adidas.

Photograph by Collier Schorr.
Michelle Williams in Vintage clothing and bandana. Belt by Lucchese. Hat by Texas Hatters.

RAW CUT
Vintage clothing and bandana. Belt by Lucchese. Hat by Texas Hatters.

Photograph by Collier Schorr.

Her recent career choices feel distinct from the independent films she’s become known for, like Derek Cianfrance’s gritty, close-shot Blue Valentine or any of Kelly Reichardt’s visual tone poems. In December, she sang and danced as the wife of Hugh Jackman’s P. T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman. This spring, in an ingenious comic turn, she played Avery LeClaire, an Aerin Lauder–esque makeup heiress with a breathy, high-pitched voice, in the Amy Schumer movie I Feel Pretty. Viewers and critics were delighted to see this new side of her; writing in the Huffington Post, Matthew Jacobs called her “bonkers work” in the film “delicious.”

But perhaps the greatest measure that a career shift is afoot for her is that in the past year she has starred in a big-budget Ridley Scott film and, in October, will appear in a Marvel movie. “I always like to do things I haven’t done before—genres, parts. I like a challenge,” Williams says, pouring herself a cup of coffee. “And one of those challenges has been stepping into a bigger world.” She explains that she is most at home on a small, familial set, like a Reichardt film (“where I can walk around in my underwear and say the wrong thing”), but with All the Money in the World and now Venom, she is opening herself up to “a bigger set, and strangers, and multiple monitors, and people weighing in.”

“A private humiliation,” Williams says, “became a public turning point.”

Williams’s first big-screen role was in the 1994 movie Lassie, at the age of 14. The following year, she was emancipated from her parents and moved, by herself, from San Diego to Los Angeles. It wasn’t long until she was cast as wild child Jen Lindley on Dawson’s Creek, in 1998, a role she played for six years. “I had a steady gig, which was great,” she says, “but I didn’t have the thing I most wanted, which was respect and a good sense of myself—I wasn’t viewed as an artist.” Even back then her taste ran to the sort of arty, independent films she’s become known for. She appeared in a handful of those (Prozac Nation, The Station Agent, The United States of Leland), but her career break came in 2004, when she was cast in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.

For her quietly devastating portrayal of Alma, the spurned wife of a closeted gay cowboy, she earned a best-supporting-actress Oscar nomination, her first. “Her truthfulness in the part was just heartbreaking,” says Lee. “This is two gay cowboys’ story, but your heart breaks for the woman, and that’s an effect of the fact she’s so great.” The cowboy husband, Ennis, was played by the late Heath Ledger, who, over the course of filming, became her real-life love. Williams was soon pregnant; their baby, Matilda, was born just before the movie opened, and the couple bought a sprawling town house in Boerum Hill. Their accelerated fairy tale was catnip for the media, and the pair were frequently photographed pushing a stroller around Brooklyn. But they split after three years together. Five months later, in January 2008, Ledger was found dead of a drug overdose in a SoHo apartment he was renting at the time.

The paparazzi descended on Williams and her two-year-old daughter, forming what one writer would call a “morbid cult.” Says her friend Daphne Javitch, a holistic-nutrition coach who lived with Williams in the couple’s home after Ledger died: “To have that kind of attention, in such an aggressive way, around you and your child, when so much of it is coming from what truly is tragedy for a family. . . it’s a kind of violence.” The actress eventually fled Brooklyn for rural upstate New York. There, she bought a house and raised Matilda—taking her on location when she was filming—for the next six years. “It was unmanageable to be stalked like that,” she tells me now, “every moment of the day. So I left, in a desire to create a sane home environment.” An anecdote underscores the relentlessness with which she was pursued: “I’ll never forget going to the post office and seeing a sign hung on the wall for anyone with information about myself and my daughter, to please call this number.” She smiles wryly. “Um, so I took that down.”

Williams is an inherently private person, and being hounded pushed her further into her shell. “She always had a difficult time with the idea of doing press and what to reveal,” says actress Busy Philipps, who was Williams’s co-star on Dawson’s Creek and has remained her closest friend. “And then obviously when Heath passed away, and people had this insatiable interest in her and her child and their grief, it was overwhelming and incredibly painful.” When I ask Williams about this time, she makes a slight throat-clearing noise, as she does whenever the hurdle of a difficult subject presents itself. “When you’re a single parent, and that element of provider and protection is missing, it’s scary,” she says simply.

Williams was born in Kalispell, Montana (her mom, Carla, was a homemaker and her dad, Larry, a commodities trader who twice ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate), and upstate she hoped to give Matilda the connection to nature she’d had as a girl. “You know, getting on a bicycle and being out and coming back for meals, and exploring snakeskins and arrowheads and cliffs and plants and abandoned houses, and having that sense of freedom and safety in the world,” she remembers. (When she was nine, her family moved to San Diego in search of more temperate winters.) The natural surroundings, gardening, and planting were all a salve for her, too. “I just remember thinking, like, Hmm, maybe there’s something green in me that’s growing that I can’t see yet,” she says. But even far away from the tabloid searchlights, the narrative of Ledger’s death would continue to haunt the next decade of Williams’s life.

For fans of her work, the persistence of personal tragedy as the dominant thread in almost everything written about her is understandable but also irritating. During the past 10 years, in a series of small and often unexpected films, she has emerged as one of the most gifted actresses working today—not a movie star who plays a version of herself in film after film but a genuine artist, a chameleon who wholly inhabits the character at hand, in the vein of Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore. “It’s this unusual thing that she has,” says Bart Freund-lich, “which is constant complexity with total clarity at the same time. Even when things are simple and clear it feels like there are layers and layers behind them.”

Unlike many actors, Williams has no qualms about playing unlikable characters without pandering to the audience; she infuses them with such authentic humanity that viewers often end up empathizing with them. There was the tightly coiled, unhappily married nurse in Blue Valentine (for which she was nominated for a best-actress Oscar) and the drugged-up, manipulative sexpot Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. There are Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Certain Women, the trio of quiet, spare films she made with Reichardt, in which her acting is so nuanced, her performances such triumphs of understatement, that she conveys a world of feeling with the subtlest of expressions. And then there’s Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. She’s in only a handful of scenes—most memorably one in which she breaks down before her ex-husband (Casey Affleck), revealing the black, bottomless, unbearable grief of a mother who has lost three children—but they are pivotal, providing the characters with a wrenching backstory. “Her presence pervades the film even in her absence,” says Lonergan. “Even when she’s a voice on the telephone, or a slow-motion mourner at a funeral, her sense of reality, her strength, and her enormous gentleness change every scene she’s in.”

Michelle Williams, with daughter Matilda’s backpack and trombone case, and the family dog, illustrates the daily juggle of parenting. Jeans by the Feel Studio Inc.; roller skates by Moxi Roller Skates; socks by American Apparel; vintage sweatshirt from the Vintage Twin.

THE BALANCING ACT
Williams, with daughter Matilda’s backpack and trombone case, and the family dog, illustrates the daily juggle of parenting. Jeans by the Feel Studio Inc.; roller skates by Moxi Roller Skates; socks by American Apparel; vintage sweatshirt from the Vintage Twin.

Photograph by Collier Schorr.

The fact that Williams is so private, her misfortune was so public, and her film roles so intense have all contributed to what feels like a fundamental misreading of her. When she is portrayed with any particularity, it is as a kind of delicate bird, broken and still grieving. Instead, I find a witty, reflective, cerebral, and precise person who is far less guarded than I expected. “We know her as very funny and light,” says Marc Silverstein, who wrote and directed I Feel Pretty with Abby Kohn and is married to Philipps, “though her filmography does not suggest that at all.”

She is also studiously bookish and cultured, in the way autodidacts often are. She talks in evocative, poetic metaphors. (“Single-parenting,” she says, can feel like life is held together by “a thread and a paper clip.”) In the course of our interviews, she refers to the work of Colson Whitehead, Andrew Solomon, Annie Dillard, Elena Ferrante, Rebecca Solnit, Maile Meloy, Jim Harrison (his poetry, she tells me, not Dalva), Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. She quotes one of Harrison’s poems at remarkable length, and several times from soccer star Abby Wambach’s recent commencement speech at Barnard. Her friends say that she is the one to discover new writers and press books on them. “She told me about Elena Ferrante before anyone fucking knew about Elena Ferrante,” recalls Philipps.

As I listen to Williams, I am struck by the thought that in our bare-all era, “private” is often conflated with “sensitive” or “fragile,” when in fact a fierce demand for privacy might mean a person is uncompromising and tough. Someone who moved upstate alone, raised a daughter on her own, built and navigated the vicissitudes of a high-profile career, and remained sane and solid in the process is pretty much the opposite of the way the media portrays her. “She’s not like a precious fucking flower that’s going to get crushed,” Philipps says. “That’s the thing that drives me a little bit crazy when people talk about her and write about her. She’s one of the strongest people I know—one of the toughest bitches around. She’s still here, she’s still working, and not only is she still working, she’s like the best there is.”

“She’s not like a precious fucking flower that’s going to get
crushed,” Busy Philipps says.

Now, more than a decade after Ledger’s death, with her career advancing in surprising new directions and her daughter entering seventh grade, Williams is inhabiting, quite intentionally, a larger, less rarefied, more vocal and open version of herself. For example, this very circumspect person was unwittingly made the poster child for pay inequity—an issue that affects women in every industry—and despite her native discomfort, she’s trying to make the most of her platform. “It’s a very hard thing for me to navigate,” she says, “because my instinct is to keep my life very, very private. But I also need and want certain things out of my career that demand I assume a more public voice.”

She quotes a line from a Joanne Kyger poem: “That we go on, the world always goes on, breaking us with its changes until our form, exhausted, runs true.” I listen, impressed, not wanting to interrupt. “I mean, that’s definitely the place that I feel like I’m in,” she says, “like I’m making a sort of developed mental leap.” She pauses, then sharpens her statement, in her conscientious way. “In your 20s, you’re still so jagged and fractured, and I feel like everything has sort of cohered.”

Let’s talk about money, I tell her. It’s late afternoon now, and techno music has begun to thud-thud-thud from what seems to be a day rave below. Money, she says, was never that important to her: “It was never a motivating factor for me. It’s never been the thing that’s gotten me out of bed to go to work.” To support herself and Matilda, Williams lived frugally “in a very simple house, with a very junky car, and went on no vacations.” She drove a Prius, which she has since replaced with a mini-van with fabric-upholstered seats—“a couch on four wheels,” she calls it. “They were like, ‘You can get leather for an additional $4,000 or something,’ and I was like, ‘Why?’ ” She laughs. And then, more seriously: “Keeping a life sustainable, that’s really important to me.”

She turns 38 in September, and as she gets older, she finds that money is becoming important to her, too. Financial success buys her freedom—like the freedom to take only films that shoot close to home or that do not require her to be away for longer than a week. She and her daughter moved back to Brooklyn six years ago, and since then Matilda, who is now 12, has been in the same private school without interruption. “She hasn’t had her routine disrupted and hasn’t missed class,” Williams says, and it’s clearly a point of pride for her. She also wants the ability to preserve summers as “undone time” (“less scheduled, less regulated, less hustle, less go go go”) she spends with her daughter in their house upstate. There they live according to their inner dictates, “like animals in their natural habitat”: waking when they want, eating when they want, swimming, gardening, reading, walking, spending time with friends.

Were any of her recent professional-choices made with finances in mind? Like Venom, perhaps? It would be difficult to conceive of anything seemingly more out of character for her than a comic-book superhero movie. “You know, if something like Venom works, it’s life-changing,” she tells me. “I wanted to open myself to that possibility.” She repositions herself on the couch so she’s cross-legged and chooses her words even more fastidiously than usual. “Before this, I had a real fixation on. . . purity,” she explains, “but I’ve started to address that notion as I’ve gotten older, and as I talk to more women, and more women artists, and I think about my long-term future, I’ve started to adjust my thinking about. . . how to make a life, how to support a life.”

Michelle William in Trunks and gloves by Everlast; shoes by Under Armour.

THE CONTENDER
Trunks and gloves by Everlast; shoes by Under Armour.

Photograph by Collier Schorr.
Michelle Williams in a Bra by Commando; trunks by Everlast.

TRIUMPHANT
Bra by Commando; trunks by Everlast.

Photograph by Collier Schorr.

I ask her to tell me the Wahlberg story—how did the pay gulf first come to light? She inhales deeply and audibly, as though she’s about to step onstage to deliver a speech or steady herself for an acrobatic feat. “The teachable moment,” she says, “is that the story came out and no one cared. It didn’t go anywhere. It was like it never happened, which just confirmed to me there is no recourse.” But Hollywood was changing quickly in those final months of 2017. In the nearly six weeks between the publication of the two articles in The Washington Post and USA Today, Time’s Up was formed, the Golden Globes ceremony was awash in somber black dresses, and a handful of actresses (Dern, Sarandon, Streep) walked the red carpet with activists. Williams, in fact, attended with Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement.

The day after the ceremony, the kindling finally caught flame. Jessica Chastain, who has 750,000 Twitter followers, is one of the most vocal advocates for equity in Hollywood, and also happens to be an old friend of Williams’s (they co-starred in a 2004 stage production of The Cherry Orchard), texted her to ask permission to tweet about the issue. Williams responded, “Yeah, sure, go for it. But it’s already out there, and nobody cared.”

Regardless, Chastain went ahead. “I heard for the re-shoot she got $80 a day compared to his MILLIONS,” she tweeted. “Would anyone like to clarify? I really hope that with everything coming to light, she was paid fairly. She’s a brilliant actress and is wonderful in the film.” Williams’s crisp, lockjawed portrayal of Gail Harris—the mother of John Paul Getty III, and the flinty moral backbone of a dissipated and depraved family—is the beating heart of the movie; that her performance garnered a Golden Globe nomination only renders her paltry fee all the more galling. (Ridley Scott, who in mid-December told USA Today that all the actors did the re-shoots “for nothing,” could not be reached for comment.) “Please go see Michelle’s performance in All the Money in the World,” Chastain tweeted the following day, after USA Today reported the exact figures. “She’s a brilliant Oscar nominated Golden Globe winning actress. She has been in the industry for 20 yrs. She deserves more than 1% of her male co-star’s salary.” The time was right. The world had shifted, and the news spread, says Williams, “like wildfire.”

Her phone started blowing up. What was she going to do? Would she leave her agency? Make a public statement? She was acutely aware that the moment was symbolic. “I’ve never really been at the center of something like that, of a news cycle like that—other than, you know, traumatic death,” she says. During the ensuing week, “between Jess re-breaking the bone of the story and WME offering a monetary apology,” as Williams puts it, she had a series of telephone conversations with the (male) higher-ups at the agency. She called her new friend, activist Mónica Ramírez, co-founder of the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance and head of the National Latina Equal Pay Day Campaign, whom she had gotten to know during the planning for the Golden Globes, to help coach her. They spoke on the phone, Williams says, “on breaks from work, after our kids went to bed, and before they woke up in the morning.”

After each call with WME, Williams would notice that her hands were shaking. “But I would think about what Mónica had told me. That if it was hard to negotiate on my own behalf, I should imagine myself negotiating for her. Or for my daughter.”

Michelle Williams in Jeans by Wrangler; hat by JJ Hat Center; belt by Lucchese; bolo by Lisa Eisner; vintage shirt and belt buckle from Early Halloween.

OWNING IT
Jeans by Wrangler; hat by JJ Hat Center; belt by Lucchese; bolo by Lisa Eisner; vintage shirt and belt buckle from Early Halloween.

Photograph by Collier Schorr.
Michelle Williams in a Swimsuit by Speedo USA.

THE SURVIVOR
Swimsuit by Speedo USA.

Photograph by Collier Schorr.

Wahlberg made the donation on his own, Williams says; she never spoke to him about it. (When I ask Wahlberg for comment, one of his managers, Sarah Lum, e-mails: “I don’t think any of us want to talk about that ever again. 😉 ”)

In the end, Williams chose not to leave either her agent or WME—a decision that seems, well, surprising. Later, when I press her on it, she will say that her agent, Brent Morley, is someone she “values creatively,” adding, “I believe in second chances.”

For her, what resonates from the experience is the power generated by women banding together. “I was one woman by myself,” she says, “and I couldn’t do anything about it. But in the wolf pack—the phrase Abby Wambach uses—things are possible. And that’s real-ly what it took: somebody who was at the head of the pack, Jessica Chastain, pulling me up with her, and then all these other women surrounding me, teaching me.” Says Chastain, “No one should have to step out onto a limb on their own. We are all here to share the weight. It’s easy to label one actress difficult, harder to label a group.”

There is, of course, a lot of talk about how overcompensated all actors are, women and men alike. But, for better or worse, we do look to Hollywood actors as avatars of socio-cultural change, and in the absence of revamped industry standards, why should actresses be paid so much less than their male counterparts? “It’s important not to forget that women in the entertainment industry are women workers as well, and we’re trying to make things better for all women workers,” says Ramírez. “It’s not about the income bracket; it’s about the justice.”

The following evening, Williams texts me and asks to meet at a French restaurant in Fort Greene. It is a shoebox-size place, but she goes unnoticed; instead of coffee, we drink rosé. She is conscious of this time, the years before she turns 40, as “potentially being really generative,” and is enjoying her work more than she ever has, with plans to play Janis Joplin in a biopic and an abortion activist in This Is Jane. “You’re told that things get worse as you age, from the outside,” she says. “But your internal experience is ‘I’m hitting my stride.’ ” She tells me that a “shred of belief” in herself and in her acting has finally “crashed through.” She shrugs, smiles. “It would be cruel not to admit it to myself.”

The one subject Williams won’t initially discuss is her private life. She’s got a relatively new someone—or new to the media, anyway—and I can tell she’s itching to mention him, the way people in love are. “I would tell you everything, in the spirit of women sharing with each other,” she says, but “the Internet’s an asshole.” A couple of weeks later, she changes her mind and decides to talk in the hope that doing so might “take some heat and confusion” out of the situation when it finally becomes public.

By the time you read this, she and her partner, singer-songwriter Phil Elverum, whom she met through a mutual friend, will have been married in a secret ceremony in the Adirondacks, witnessed by only a handful of friends and their two daughters. Her new husband, an indie musician who records and performs under the name Mount Eerie (and, before that, the Microphones), also lost a partner in tragic circumstances while parenting a small child. His late wife, illustrator and musician Geneviève Castrée, was diagnosed with inoperable stage-4 pancreatic cancer in 2015, four months after the birth of their daughter, and the two very private artists went public with a GoFundMe page to help defray medical costs. Castrée died 13 months later, in July 2016, leaving Elverum with an 18-month-old daughter. In the past two years, he has released two raw, critically acclaimed albums, A Crow Looked at Me and Now Only, that unflinchingly explore grief, death, and the utility of art in the face of loss. Williams calls her relationship with Elverum “very sacred and very special.” In July, he packed up his home in Anacortes, Washington, and drove across the country to live with her and their daughters in Brooklyn.

Michelle Williams in Jeans by Wrangler; hat by Manny Gammage’s Texas Hatters; vintage tank top and bandanna from Early Halloween.

IN HER OWN SKIN
Jeans by Wrangler; hat by Manny Gammage’s Texas Hatters; vintage tank top and bandanna from Early Halloween.

Photograph by Collier Schorr.

“I never gave up on love,” she later tells me, saying that she has spent the 10 years since Ledger’s death looking for the kind of “radical acceptance” she felt from him. “I always say to Matilda, ‘Your dad loved me before anybody thought I was talented, or pretty, or had nice clothes.’ ” I can hear her voice crack. She sometimes can’t believe that she’s found this kind of love, at last. “Obviously I’ve never once in my life talked about a relationship,” she says, “but Phil isn’t anyone else. And that’s worth something. Ultimately the way he loves me is the way I want to live my life on the whole. I work to be free inside of the moment. I parent to let Matilda feel free to be herself, and I am finally loved by someone who makes me feel free.”

Williams decided to open up about her relationship, as she did about her income, on the chance that other women might find hope or instruction in her story. “I don’t really want to talk about any of it,” she says. “But there’s that tease, that lure, that’s like, What if this helps somebody? What if somebody who has always journeyed in this way, who has struggled as much as I struggled, and looked as much as I looked, finds something that helps them?” In the end, she says, what she’s learned is simple: “Don’t settle. Don’t settle for something that feels like a prison, or is hard, or hurts you,” she says. “If it doesn’t feel like love, it’s not love.”

Back at dinner, she reaches into her purse and pulls out a small gray notebook, in which she has scribbled some thoughts about our previous interview. She wrote them in a sauna, so they’re slightly smudged. “I’m going to transcribe all this much more beautifully,” she tells me. Two weeks later an elegantly composed e‑mail, in which she calls herself “a per-fectionist Virgo, constantly qualifying and rethinking,” arrives. “Women have to be watchdogs for each other. A great change has come, but if it is for me or just within my industry, it won’t be enough,” she writes. “Women must recognize what power we have and where—however small and dull it might feel—and use it to advocate on behalf of others for the betterment of us all.” The e-mail also mentions that she was just offered a new television role and the same amount of money as the male lead without having to negotiate for it.

A few hours later, en route to a night of Venom re-shoots in L.A., she calls and elaborates. The show will be produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, directed by Thomas Kail, and filmed in New York, and she’ll get to sing and dance. “When they told me about it, I thought, O.K., now comes the part where I have to go in kicking and screaming and shouting about equality and transparency. . . . Then, before I could even ask for it, they said, ‘They’ve offered you what Sam Rockwell is making.’ I cried.” I would, too, I tell her.

In a literary novel or an indie film, this ending wouldn’t fly. True love, equal pay: it would be too neat, too contrived, too tidily wrapped up in a bow. At one point, Williams says she’s “at the end of one journey and embarking on another,” and then worries that phrasing sounds clichéd. But sometimes reality escapes the dictates of narrative in ways that are better and more interesting than you ever could have imagined, and language falters in the realm of the truest feelings. A few days before she elopes, we talk again, and she says, simply, that in life and in love, she’s found the sense of expansiveness she’s long searched for. “This kind of freedom, it’s the thing that I look for. It’s been a theme in my life,” she says. “It’s the thing that I experience in Montana, the thing that I experience onstage, the thing that I get in my work in between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ ” She pauses for a moment. “I’m free. I’m free.”

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