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Michelle Williams On Economic Inequality In Her New Movie — And Her Career

In <em>After the Wedding</em>, Michelle Williams plays Isabel, who runs an orphanage in India. Vir Pachisia plays Jai, the boy beside her.
Kevin Nunes
Sony Pictures Classics
In After the Wedding, Michelle Williams plays Isabel, who runs an orphanage in India. Vir Pachisia plays Jai, the boy beside her.

After the Wedding is a movie full of transformative secrets.

It's a gender-swapped remake of a 2006 Danish film, and when we first meet the main character — Isabel, played by Michelle Williams — she's living a modest, humble life running an orphanage in India. Then one day she's asked to go to New York City to clinch a deal for a life-changing donation to the orphanage. The money would come from a media mogul, Theresa, played by Julianne Moore.

That transaction lands Isabel in a world of wealth and power tied too closely to her past — when she was a very different person.

"I thought of her as somebody who used to burn very hot, and whose fire had to be extinguished," Williams says in an interview. "And that only a place like India, with all of its sights and smells and sounds, can calm a person like this."

Michelle Williams spoke with NPR about her role in After the Wedding, the effect of pay inequality on her own career and filming in India.

"It's a place that I've been drawn to for its religious heritage, its fervor, the way that it overwhelms your senses," Williams says. "But what was most unusual about it was shooting in a Third World country. I don't think that I've ever shot a film in those circumstances. And the sentiment that I was left with, when we departed India, was: It's such a luxury to have problems. And it was one of the things that I wanted to address in making this film, was to play someone whose tolerance for petty grievances or opulent displays of wealth was shattered because of the life she had lived for the last two decades."

Interview Highlights

On her character Isabel, who is visibly uncomfortable with wealth

She was a New Yorker, and she had a life in New York, and she fled it — and she recreated herself in India as somebody whose life was devoted to making other people's lives better. And whether that's selfish or selfless, up to you. But as a New Yorker, I think a lot about how these economic situations abut each other, and about what my family's response is to that, what my daughter and I talk about as it relates to that. And so it was something that I wanted to put on screen and hopefully send out to a larger conversation. How do we see what we see ... how does that change how we live? ...

What my character finds herself in is a situation with a woman who thinks that there's a price on people, and that what she's offering will appeal to my character — that isn't it what everyone wants, money and power? And what my character is saying by resisting the offer is that more than anything, she wants freedom and autonomy and to live a life of her own making. But the ultimate question comes toward the end, when what she's made to realize is that this money that's being dangled in front of her will affect other peoples' lives.

On the aftermath of the All the Money in the Worldcontroversy , where she received a tiny fraction of the money her male co-star was paid

It is a sort of private humiliation that became the greatest public platform of my life — much more so than talking about my film and stage work. Because, as I said in a speech on Capitol Hill: If it's like this for me, how bad is it for other women? And I have started to see a shift, certainly in the way that people treat me — and from what I hear from women coming up to me, that my example has been really useful for them. ...

It has changed the way that I try and think about money — because it's tied into our self-worth. And I didn't really think to ask for it because I didn't think to value myself in that kind of way. And when I started to think about what would I use money for if I had it, and I started to think about freedom of choice or freedom of time, then I started to be able to open myself up to the idea that I could put a value on myself, and ask for it in my workplace.

On what she's said to her daughter about the experience

Well, what's so great with single parenting is that you live in extreme intimacy with each another. So everything that I go through, she's very well aware of it. And for the better, really — so, she was along for the ride of all of this in the last couple of years, in terms of this issue of fair pay. So she's seen me struggle, and then she's seen this almost fairy-tale happy ending, which is the job that I most recently finished — a TV series called Fosse/Verdon. I was paid the same as my male co-star [Sam Rockwell]. ...

And unfortunately, that's really the only way to move forward, is that it has to start at the top. And that's what I experienced when I did this TV show with FX, was: They wanted to make the workplace fair. They wanted me to feel valued. So, what it means we talk about when supporting women — it doesn't just mean holding our hands. It means supporting us economically.

On if roles for women are improving

I can say for me personally, my opportunities have gotten better and better. I'm more and more excited about the kind of work that I'm allowed to do — and that periods where I'm not working or not getting the kind of parts that I want to play, I can work on myself in those times. I can fill myself up in other ways so I'm ready and prepared when the role that I've been dreaming of does come my way.

Sophia Alvarez Boyd and Cindy Johnston produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.