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Michelle Williams: Coolest Indie Actress Around?

Few people have escaped the stigma of teen stardom — or of stardom, period — as entirely as Michelle Williams. Her roles this year in Synecdoche, New York and Wendy and Lucy are enough to make you forget her tabloid existence and even go, Jen who?

Jen Lindley, of course. Williams first big-break was “the bad girl from New York” on Dawson’s Creek whose sole reason for being there initially was to charm the substantially-foreheaded hero while the audience instead rooted for him to notice Katie Holmes. Over the course of the show’s six seasons, though, Williams outgrew the Creek and outshined her stars (including the pre-Cruisified Holmes); towards the series’ end she even made some vague murmurings to the effect of wanting it to be over, which resulted in the meting out of the Ultimate Character Punishment: single motherhood, fast-acting illness, death.

But in her effort to disentangle herself from the teen soap opera, Williams, 28, never spectacularly overreacted like, say, Jessica Biel, who provocatively straddled something, anything, in a photo shoot for Gear magazine and was pretty much excommunicated from 7th Heaven. She simply built a solid resume with a series of roles in decent, quiet films: the clever comedy Dick, the underrated friendship drama Me Without You, and The Station Agent, which I would describe but I haven’t actually seen.

That’s the other thing: Williams has chosen such unassuming parts over the course of her career, it’s easy to have missed a few of them. How many people have gotten around to watching Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty, The Hawk is Dying, or the unconventional biopic I’m Not There? Even her performance in Brokeback Mountain was overshadowed by then-partner Heath Ledger.

It turns out, though, that relative anonymity works to her advantage. In August 2007, Williams was able to go unrecognized in Portland, Oregon, where she filmed Wendy And Lucy, her “smallest film yet,” she says. The part couldn’t have supported a bigger star: The plot follows a lonely drifter who loses her dog. That’s it, the end. Imagine Katie Holmes signing on for this?

Naturally, Wendy and Lucy is about much more — financial desperation, helplessness, loneliness — and Williams, under the guidance of director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy), makes this a powerful story of loss. (It was filmed shortly after her split with Ledger and seeing it now, in the wake of his death, unavoidably adds as much meaning to her performance as did Ledger’s’ as the summer’s macabre Joker).

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is similarly limited in its appeal: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character tries to grasp the meaning of his life by staging a grand recreation of it, and Williams plays one of the women he is involved with (who is also playing one of the women he is involved with). It might make sense if you are either patient or stoned.

Next year, Williams will move on to more visible projects, like the Leo DiCaprio/ Martin Scorsese affair Shutter Island, though, here again, she might slip by because she’s not Leo or Scorsese. This isn’t to say she’ll go unnoticed — she earned an Oscar nomination for Brokeback, after all. It’s more that she fits in rather than stands out. In an era overrun with stars, Williams still manages to be an actress.

Watch: Wendy and Lucy trailer

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