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Interview

In the Right Direction

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In the Right Direction
As the ambiguous saying goes, "It takes all kinds." When it comes to directors, it seems Olivia Williams has worked with all kinds. Currently she stars in Roman Polanski's newest project, "The Ghost Writer," playing Ruth Lang, the wife of a British prime minister. As it happens, years ago when Williams auditioned for and won admission to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, she used Alan Bennett's monologue "Her Big Chance," about an extra whose greatest role was one of the wenches in Roman Polanski's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles." The character has delusions of having a chat with said director. Today, Williams can recount many such chats, additionally having been given insight into his directorial processes.

"When he can, Roman will rehearse the night before," she reveals. "You go into a soulless hotel room, and he says, 'Start reading.' And you get through about the first half-sentence, and he goes [with Polish accent], 'No, no, no, like this.' And then he does the whole scene for you. And then you copy him. And then you go and do it like that the next day." He doesn't want differing takes from his actors, she says, "any more than he wants a vase to suddenly morph from a vase into a car." As she observed, he wants his actors to do the scene the way he saw it in his head when he wrote it. "And anything that isn't that is frustrating for him and upsetting," she says.

She admits to quaking in his presence at first, but by the end of the shoot she realized she could handle him by standing up to him. Indeed, after he tried telling her how to play a particular moment, she retorted, "So you want me to play Ruth Lang as this 74-year-old Polish man." She says he laughed.

She also quite directly told him how her character should handle certain situations. "So there were times when he would say, 'She's sort of got this British imperial thing,' and I was like, 'Nah, she doesn't have it. It's irritation with stupid people, not a sense of superiority over servants that makes her abrasive.' So I'm prepared to disagree," she says. "I'm not a sort of surrendered wife when it comes to acting. But I like the idea of serving a director's vision."

At the other extreme was her on-set experience playing the spinsterly teacher in Lone Scherfig's "An Education." "She's very quietly spoken," Williams says of Scherfig. "She kind of points and shoots what you bring to her, which is another way of doing things. She was delightful to work for. And not just a feely, touchy woman. Knew her shots."

And, of course, speaking of shots, Williams vividly recalls working opposite Bruce Willis on "The Sixth Sense," directed by M. Night Shyamalan, "that famous scene, where Night had obviously been reading some directing manuals, and he didn't think I was reacting enough when my husband was shot." Halfway through the scene, the director let off a real gunshot. Says Williams, "And it had absolutely no perceptible effect on me at all, 'cause I'm used to acting on the stage, where you just keep going, whatever happens, and I thought someone had just dropped a stage weight or something."

Third Time's the Charm

The actor won the role of Ruth Lang the way she has won so many others. "Two better-known and better-paid actresses were unavailable at the last moment," she says, adding, "It's great for me. I have no problem with that." But perhaps best of all, she was not asked to audition on tape several times for the same role, a problem she finds endemic to Hollywood.

"I quite like auditioning, 'cause when you're unemployed, auditions are the only time you actually get to act," she explains. "So I tend to get quite euphoric about it. I like meeting people, and I like showing them what I can do, particularly here [in Los Angeles]. The directors are quite surprised if you do it one way and they ask you to do it another way and you can. That's a good feeling, because that's what I was taught to do. But I get very pissed off around the third video audition [for the same role] in this country. I've done it. Why are you keeping on asking? Are you just enjoying the fact that you can call up and make me put all my makeup on and my nice clothes on and come back again? 'How many times can we make the monkey dance before the monkey finally bites your fingers.' But I found pretty well without exception that any job that I have gone out there for and said, 'I'd really like to do this role, and I will keep auditioning for as long as you want me to,' I never, never get. And the ones where I go, 'I've done it, I've shown you what I can do, take it or leave it,' the job comes my way."

Other skills she offers her directors include the ability to make sense of turgid prose in period plays—a talent she is hired for specifically. The skill she is still working on is unselfconsciousness. For example, she says, she finds it troubling to play tired or unattractive onscreen and not consider how it will affect the casting directors looking at her for their next jobs. Additionally, she says by way of self-evaluation, "I would like to be able to transform more. And I think that that sort of half comes from me. I carry so much of who I am around with me. I'd like to be able to shed that more. But so much of that is being given the opportunity. You're given the opportunity when you've shown that you can, and you show that you can when you're given the opportunity." She would also like to remain absorbent and continue learning from her experiences. "One reason I got on well with Roman is because my attitude has always been, 'What would you like me to do? How do you want me to do this?' And then to do it," she says. "That's the pleasure, for me."

And then, completely and unselfconsciously transforming herself, Williams departs the interview by bicycle, heading off to collect her child from preschool.


Outtakes
- Attended Cambridge University, where she picked up a British drawl that drama school had to rid her of
- Early lead role was in Kevin Costner's "The Postman," where a horse kicked her while she was riding through a "snowstorm" of shredded plastic bags
- Found herself in the role of mentor while the senior actor on the set of Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse"

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