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How Michelle Williams and Kelly Reichardt sculpted a tortured artist in ‘Showing Up’

<i>Allyson Riggs/A24</i><br/>In
Photo Credit: Allyson Riggs
Allyson Riggs/A24
In"Showing Up

Thomas Page, CNN

Like many people, Michelle Williams learned a new skill during the Covid-19 lockdowns. The five-time Oscar-nominated actor was researching for her next role in “Showing Up,” director Kelly Reichardt’s film about the Portland, Oregon art scene. At home in New York City, Williams took delivery of a package containing tools and ten pounds of clay. It sat, its heft undeniable, waiting to be molded into something. By the time she was done, it had molded her into something too.

Reichardt had arranged for artworks by acclaimed sculptor Cynthia Lahti to stand in as the work of Williams’ character, Lizzy, in the film, and connected the pair for a ceramics boot camp. The two would Zoom, the actor recalled, and Lahti set her assignments. Gradually the clay block shrank, with sculpted objects like birds taking its place.

“I don’t know if any of my work survives,” Williams said on a video call, unable to conceal a laugh. “We didn’t have access to a kiln, so it stayed in a very raw form.”

Who has a kiln lying around their house, anyway? “Half the people in Portland,” Reichardt, also on the call, chimed in.

The two are talking four days after the Academy Awards, where Williams was nominated for lead actress for playing a version of Steven Spielberg’s mother in “The Fabelmans.” (Williams, an early frontrunner, ultimately lost out to Michelle Yeoh for her performance in “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”) The respite between publicity campaigns was brief, but she’s back, now promoting a smaller but no less dazzling film from a frequent collaborator. “I imagine you just want to crawl into bed right now,” said Reichardt. “Is there anything I wouldn’t do for you?” quipped Williams in response. After four films together, you sense she means it.

“Showing Up” was originally conceived as a biopic of the early 20th-century Canadian painter Emily Carr, said Reichardt, before she and co-writer Jonathan Raymond pivoted to fiction, the present day and the familiar territory of Oregon (the location for her previous films “First Cow,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff”).

Carr painted landscapes in the Modernist and Post-Impressionist style and was inspired by the Pacific North West’s indigenous peoples. She was underappreciated in her time, and for a period became a landlady, a role that became so all-consuming it took her away from her art. Traces of Carr’s struggles appear in Reichardt’s film, based around an art school and community in which everyone is ready and able to take on creative pursuits — so long as life isn’t getting in the way.

For Williams’ Lizzy, life offers plenty of distractions. A week out from the opening of her show, her sculptures — raw, abstract figurines that evidence the marks of their maker — are unfinished, let alone fired. She’s an administrator at an art school run by her mother, and looking out for her mentally ill brother. Her hot water’s broken and, to add insult to injury, her landlady is a more successful artist friend seemingly too distracted by two shows of her own to fix it. Speaking of injury, that same friend, Jo (Hong Chau), has also dumped on Lizzy a mauled pigeon, on which she’s spending precious money, time and energy to nurse back to health.

Like the pigeon, Lizzy’s career is struggling to take flight. Frustration and ennui are taking their toll. She looks tired, leaden; moving through the world as if the air were made of cold soup. Williams offers a brusque, flinty turn as a character all too happy to gripe — and all too proud to ask for help. In a community of artists, she comes across as very alone.

After watching Williams’ Emmy-winning performance in the 2019 FX miniseries “Fosse/Verdon,” Reichardt said she realized the actor had “a lot more in there than I’m taking advantage of” and “wanted to live up to where she’s at.” “One thing we did this time is we talked about instead of starting in a safer space, to let Michelle have a wider range and work backwards from there,” she added.

Whether Lizzy is confronting Jo or chiding her dad, played by a charming Judd Hirsch, the film’s conversations and low-stakes spats crackle in their realism, with Williams and the rest of the cast working unrehearsed.

Being forced to cede control is a big part of Lizzy’s life too. Like it or not, her artworks live or die at the whims of a kiln operated by Andre Benjamin’s character, Eric. When a mishap occurs, burning her favorite piece, she must stare down another curveball.

“When the art department was burning pieces, deciding on when it was ugly or when it looked better was such a tangle. It was such a huge thing that we lost half a day shooting,” Reichardt recalled. “You could really experience Lizzy’s dilemma. It showed you what kind of person you were. If you were like Andre’s character, it was groovy. If you’re more of an A-brain, it’s really screwed up.”

“You’re looking at something that didn’t turn out the way that you thought it would, but does that mean it gets thrown away? Or does it still have value?” said Williams.

The film answers this question by the time Lizzy’s opening finally arrives. It’s a fraught scene where personal relationships collide, adding to the nervous energy already permeating the event. It also represents a dynamic shift between Lizzy and her art, as she presents it to others, expanding the circle of judgment. As creatives, how did Reichardt and Williams relate?

“Openings are funny,” said the actor, speaking of her own experiences, “because as personal (as) it was to you at the time and as hard as you worked on it, it’s the past, weirdly.”

And as excited as she is for people to watch her movies, Williams said she doesn’t look at reviews. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with me,” she explained.

“I always feel the most attached to the filmmaking process and to the experience that I go through between action and cut,” she added. “That’s where I learn, that’s where I come up against my personal obstacles, things that I’m trying to work through, limitations that I feel like I have. That’s where my work gets done.”

“We always talk about if you’re a fly on the wall, in the car of your friends when they leave the theater,” said Reichardt. “What would they actually (say)? You’re never really in the real conversation after something’s made.”

Still, the conversation around “Showing Up” has been overwhelmingly positive. After its premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Variety called it “exquisite,” while The New Yorker’s Richard Brody labeled it “Reichardt’s first great movie” in a long and glowing review.

Their work together only continues to bear fruits. “The thing in my professional life that I feel the most attached to and the most proud of is our ongoing collaboration,” said Williams.

So can we assume they’ll team up again in the future? Reichardt offered swift confirmation.

“Thanks for saying that out loud,” said Williams, laughing.

Reichardt hesitated. “Yeah, I don’t want to jinx anything!”

“Showing Up” is released in US cinemas on April 7.

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Top image: Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up.”

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