Michelle Williams had no idea what she was getting herself into when she signed on to “Fosse/Verdon,” the critically-acclaimed limited series from FX that delves into the lives and legacies of Broadway legends Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. She had no clue that the series would span multiple decades, that she would need to portray Verdon at a variety of ages, and, perhaps most importantly, that the tale would be told as an exercise in equality, with Verdon’s side of the story given equal, if not greater, importance in the framing of the narrative than it was ever given in reality.
Williams may not have realized what she was getting herself into, but she recovered with aplomb.
With 17 Emmy nominations to date, the series made its mark with Emmy voters, but no star in the show’s stacked cast shines as brightly as Williams, whose portrayal channels a confidence and complexity unrivaled among the stiff competition she faces in the Lead Actress in a Limited Series race. And, oh yeah, she also sings and dances.
But for all the accolades “Fosse/Verdon” has received, its greatest fan may be the actress herself.
In an interview held over two sessions, Williams spoke expansively to IndieWire about her “once in a lifetime” experience on the series and the profound acts of collaboration and creation that took place during its production, a process so positive that the actress has yet to choose a new project because she’s not quite done savoring it. Plus, she details her approach to crafting a character from a source that was all too human.
IndieWire: You’ve been vocal about loving your time on the Broadway stage in Cabaret. How is it different to create your own version of Sally Bowles compared to capturing the essence of a real-life legend in Gwen Verdon?
Williams: They’re two really different modes. I sort of feel like I’ve been training for Gwen my whole life. I learned how to tap dance when I was a kid, and then when I was in Episode 7 playing the MC and tap dancing across the stage, I felt I remembered things from being a 10-year-old girl.
Similarly, when I played Marilyn [Monroe], I started embarking on this work of figuring out exactly, as you said, how to capture somebody’s essence. I’m always going to be inhibited by the fact that I don’t look exactly like Marilyn Monroe or Gwen Verdon. So how can I capture enough of their essence to lend the feeling and the aura that was them while still being contained in this body and face of mine?
So they are different works. They both have material to work with. They both have scripts and plots and words, but one is like a figment of your imagination, and the other is the essence of a historical person who walked the earth, and all of the research that goes into that combines with your imagination of how they might behave in given circumstances.
I don’t want to sound too out there, but it’s a little like trying to tap into somebody’s spirit.
Actually, my next question is a little out there, so it’s perfect. The connection between Bob and Gwen, their collective creative genius, could sometimes seem other-worldly. How did that inform your portrayal?
It was something Sam and I talked about a lot. I always thought that they were like twin souls. That they were the Yin and Yang, the male/female, and I think maybe there was something mystical at work there, but I think that there’s also something really practical at work there, too. They both came from very damaged backgrounds. They both had a lot of damage inflicted upon them at a very early age. It caused them both to want to rise above their circumstances through hard work and to be noticed for something greater than the sum of just their parts. It gave them drive and grit.
Gwen wanted to run away. Gwen wanted to not look back on the past. She became enamored with this idea of the eternal optimist or harlequin, a clown. That was her coping mechanism. Bob wanted to stare into the muck and see every bit of filth and debris and constantly mine this darkness. But I think of their connection as understanding something so elemental and so ancient inside of each other that, like you said, it goes beyond words.
Tell me a little bit about working with Sam, because you two had never really worked together before. Had you known each other? What was it like building that relationship?
We continued to be surprised by the fact that we hadn’t worked together before because we both live in New York, we both do plays, we have a lot of friends in common, and we’ve both sort of made our life in indie cinema.
And so we’re very surprised that this was the first time that we’ve incarnated together as husband and wife. Because I would think that we would have had multiple marriages by this point.
I’m actually really glad that we got to meet as Bob and Gwen and that we didn’t have a string of other failed marriages in front of us. I’m glad that we got to know each other as these characters without any history of other characters. But I hope that it can leave room for future characters because he just tells the truth.
Were you together in dance training before filming? How did that play out?
We were in dance training, we had rehearsals and script meetings and hair and makeup tests. And so we were around each other quite a lot before we started shooting. I mean we were really clinging to each other because we were both terrified.
Part of the brilliance of “Fosse/Verdon” is its scope, but that’s a huge challenge for an actor. Did the prospect of tackling the breadth of Gwen’s life change how you prepared for the role?
I actually didn’t understand the extent to which we were going to age the character. I’ve always really been scared of doing that on film, because I’ve never been 60 and it’s hard for me to imagine what that is or what that feels like or what that looks like. I always thought that that would just be too hard for me to do. Then you get on to all the trouble of aging makeup and prosthetics, and sometimes you can really just look like you’re hung out to dry. You can just look like an actor wearing makeup, and then the whole thing is ruined.
So after we were well underway and I realized that we were going to be playing these people at these various ages, I had a little freak out. Luckily, something that’s really helpful when you’re playing a person who existed is that there is this footage. So I really clung to a few pieces of archival material about how Gwen aged and how it changed her body and her voice and her gestures.
I started to just break it down really technically, and the thing that I loved about playing her as she got older is that as she aged, it’s not like she became down and drawn and harsh. I thought of her as a sunflower. She just aged upward and outward like she was looking for more sunshine. In fact, one thing that I noticed was that when she was younger her resting face would either look straight ahead or it would even sort of look down a little bit. As she got older, in order to compensate for the doubling of the chin, she started to look up.
With that, I just started to notice these things that were really her and if I could lean into them, they would make me feel like her. I also thought of her as working in contradiction with her age. She got lighter and airier and a little bit daffier, the older that she got. She lost a kind of groundedness or practicality. She just became more and more.
And so it was an interesting way to age somebody that I found really beautiful and inspiring and tricky, because you’re always looking to make somebody look older, but you’re not trying to make them look bad or worse or harsh or sad.
Michael Parmelee Photography
What was the process like to get the hair and makeup right? Did you have a lot of input?
I’m so glad that you asked, because it’s such an important collaboration. It’s as important as my collaboration with Sam. It’s just that their work is off-screen so you can’t actively observe them. It was two women: Jackie Risotto did my makeup, which included prosthetics and technical knowhow, as well as Gwen’s more straightforward look. And Nicole Bridgeford, who worked with me on “After the Wedding,” did my wigs. There was a very positive feeling that exists between the three of us, a desire to get it right. But before things are right, they’re wrong.
You have to go through this ungainly process where things aren’t looking good, but you love each other, you trust each other, and you speak kindly to each other about the mistakes about what isn’t working. And that’s really the nature of collaboration. There’s a problem and you have to solve it before you can actually begin your work. It’s all problem-solving, and what the three of us were really good at was problem-solving with each other, noticing things, adjusting things, having no ego about it, and just doing whatever we could to get to the place where we were ready to shoot.
It’s very nit-picky work. It’s very minor modulations that you’re making, you know? “Is it possible when they manufacture this eye bag, can they do it one quarter, one fourth smaller?” It’s constant experimentation, and so you have to have the patience and the willingness to experiment like that.
It’s a very intimate relationship. You see them first thing in the morning; you essentially break bread together. You eat your breakfast, you drink your coffee and you sit with them for two or three hours. So you better hope to be in the hands of somebody that you love, trust, and admire, because otherwise your day is going to not start off so well.
And they just worked so hard. After every take, I would see that they were watching and what that means is if they’re watching, then I don’t have to worry. I don’t have to micromanage or try and do their job for them or have to look in the mirror myself. They were just on me. And when they needed to fix something, they would come in and fix it. And if they didn’t, they didn’t touch me, but they were still right there.
Were you able to work closely with Nicole Fosse during this process?
I was, yeah. She was a great source of, well, the truth. She’s a very fair reporter of what happened. And again, she was really excellent at existing in this very egoless way — there when we needed her, but not barging in or saying things that would be counterintuitive or unhelpful. She didn’t meet anything with a negative.
She would say, “Oh, let’s adjust this because my bedroom didn’t look like that.” But she would never say something to me or Sam like, “My mom wouldn’t say that or do that,” because that would shut you down and make you feel ashamed. So she was really great.
I was lucky enough to speak with Susan Misner extensively and she only had the most positive things to say about you. What was that partnership like?
It was a very similar kind of relationship. Which is that, when you’re in a space like that with people that you love and trust, and that you know that they love and trust you, and you have each other’s backs so profoundly, and you treat each other well, it’s such a joy to go to work.
So Susie and I, we were in that dance studio, we were meeting on Saturdays, we were meeting on Sundays, we were meeting after wrap at eight, nine, 10, 11 o’clock at night. We were working whenever and however we could. But it was a joy, because we wanted the best for each other. And to work hard to provide the best for each other.
I saw your appearance on “Busy Tonight” in February where you spoke about returning to TV for equal pay. Is there a certain level of irony that the project that brought you back to TV was a story of a man and a woman where credit was not necessarily equally split?
Yeah, it is. It’s a very funny thing and something that I wish — or maybe she is somewhere with all this talk of mysticism — I wish Gwen was around to see. In some ways, I was really surprised when they told me that Sam and I would be paid equally, because I thought it would still be more about this person that I’ve heard more about. I thought it’d be more about Fosse than about Gwen.
So when they told me, I was shocked and moved, and what I couldn’t have anticipated was how fairly we would be treated on set and how respectful and safe our workplace was. It, to me, really added up in being able to every single day not know exactly what I was going to do, but that there was a safe container to do it in. Very often sets are hectic, aggressive, combative. They’re like little war zones, and you’d have to go in protecting yourself. It’s hard to even look out for other people in those situations. You have to go in and be your own director, your own producer, your own friend, your own ally. You just have to stay firmly on your side.
Nicole Rivelli Photographie
Was this less combative than what you’re used to?
What I realized after some time was that this environment was conducive for everyone to do their best work, not just me. I don’t mean like, “This is my best work,” I mean that it wasn’t just that the actors who were indulged, and other people had what’s left over. Every single person on the set was given the respect and time that they needed and deserved.
There was no screaming and there was no shouting and there was no bullying and there was no intimidating. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Because all these things we all do, they’re vulnerable. Our work, everybody’s work, is vulnerable. You want to be good, you want to do a good job, and if you feel like there’s something intimidating or dangerous in the air, that part of you can’t come out and play in the same way.
And so after some time on the set, I realized that I could bring my whole self to this job and I would be safe and that made each day really exciting. I would get so excited to go to work each day, because it felt like a playground. I felt like a kid to whom nothing bad had ever happened, and I could just go to this place and play with all my friends.
But it really starts at the top. It starts, economically. For us to do this work and to be well-supported means there needs to be money flowing.
They need to make the space for me and Susie to dance on Saturday and Sunday. And they don’t say “No, no, you don’t need to do that,” or like, “We won’t pay for that,” which is very typical for on projects. So that starts all the way up at FX.
The decisions that they were making said, “If that’s what you’re saying that you need to do your job, we will let you have that.” So, it started with them. It started with them caring for us in that way, economically.
And then I would say Tommy Kail was sort of the leader of this whole thing. He directed five out of our eight episodes and he was there every single day, even when they weren’t his episodes, ensuring that the quality controls stay high.
Sam and I were scared and at the beginning and Tommy said to us, “I will never leave you. I won’t leave you alone in anything you need. I’m going to be right there.” And that turned out to be really, really true. That’s the thing that he offered and that’s in keeping with what I’m talking about, it’s this relentless positivity and this relentless “We can do this” attitude.
It’s really what got everybody through, because the commitment to a job like this is so huge. It’s seven months of filming and you’re crossing decades and ages and you’re singing and you’re dancing. Technically and stylistically, what the crew had to do on a show like this was massive.
But at the helm of it, you’re being supported by a network who’s literally putting their money where their mouth is and then you’re being supported by your director, Tommy Kail, who’s keeping the faith for everybody. And who at four o’clock in the morning, and 11 o’clock at night, is saying, “We can do this,” and it matters. It was truly, truly a once in a lifetime experience.
I want to dig into your characterization of Gwen a little. Talk a little about how you get into a moment like in Episode 7, when you’re on the phone with Sam and Gwen’s heart is silently breaking before our eyes. What is going on in your head as an actress in that moment?
I have no idea what’s happening. I have absolutely no idea. I do all of this preparation and training and thinking and working, and then I don’t know what’s going to happen, which makes each day, to be totally honest with you, absolutely terrifying and excruciating in a way, because before each take, of each set up, with each scene, of each day, I don’t know what I’m going to do and I don’t know what is going to happen.
And so it’s a little bit like being pushed off a cliff and hoping that you learn how to fly every single time. There is no knowing. I don’t ever know the precise path to get to the work. I just know that sometimes it opens up and that when I have experiences of it opening up more consistently, all I can do is bank on the past. I can’t anticipate the future.
I never know what’s coming. It got to the point where I started to refer to Gwen as her own entity, “She feels like this or she wants to do this.” It felt like somebody who sort of jumped in and out of me. She wasn’t me. She was outside of me, and then sometimes she would come into me and I would say, “Oh, she liked that,” or, “Wasn’t that funny when she was tapping her feet,” because I wouldn’t know exactly how she would manifest herself.
Because I don’t look at the monitor. I don’t look at photo stills. I don’t observe from the outside in any way whatsoever. I keep my connection internal and I really try and stay for her point of view as much as I possibly can.
Were there moments during filming, dancing or otherwise, that just seemed like insurmountable challenges? Moments where you doubted you would be able to get there?
Honestly, I think it feels like that every day. It feels like that every scene, every day, but it’s like doubt that’s also mixed with faith. You sort of have equal parts of both, but the doubt never goes away.
It’s ever-present. I would go so far as to say it’s before every single take. “I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do, I don’t know how to do it, but I’m going to do it.”
Oh my God, that’s so terribly relatable. It actually hurts my heart a little bit, but it is very comforting to know that that plagues everyone, honestly.
It’s always present. It’s like little pet, you know, just hanging out by your side.
With this project it felt very much like you were the keeper of Gwen’s legacy. Was that intimidating? Was that invigorating? How did you approach that?
It’s really exciting to be able to kind of be the conduit that offers her up. Her work and her spirit and her talent to another generation of people. I mean, her legend inside of New York City is very strong and completely intact.
In the Broadway community, everyone knows who she was and reveres her and considers her, you know, maybe still the greatest dancer of all time. She was touched by the gods, as they say. But it’s really exciting to introduce her to a larger community of people and say, here’s the spirit of the woman, and now go check her, go find her on YouTube, go find some clips of her dancing and see how easy she made it look.
She was a really generous performer. The amazing thing about performers, like Gwen Verdon, and it’s a very sort of old-school thing, is they just gave themselves to the audience. They held nothing back. They were so generous. They didn’t keep cards close to their chest, they didn’t play anything cool. They lived for you.
And so to pass that kind of a spirit along is really rewarding to me. I mean, it takes an incredible amount of work ethic and an incredible amount of talent and then just this spirit of generosity to give.
Have you felt like you’ve taken that forward within your own work since closing on “Fosse/Verdon”? Do you feel Gwen is still with you little bit? Do you miss her?
I feel like they’re all kind of rattling around in there. I like to call them back up from time to time and put on their voices and think about things that would make them laugh. I mean, I haven’t taken another job since “Fosse/Verdon,” because I just had such a good time and I don’t really know what to do next. I know I would be Gwen again in a heartbeat.
I miss playing her expanded spirit. She’s so much bigger than I am. And I realized early on when I took the part, I was like, I’m going to have to become bigger person to encompass her, because my mode is kind of small and retiring and she was none of those things.
And so it was good for me. It was like good work for Michelle to have to go outside of her comfort zone.
It’s like a therapist prescribed it, sending you out with a little homework.
Exactly. It was like some sort of dramatic therapy.
Sorry, I get a lot of homework from my therapist, so I may be projecting.
No, no, no, I mean all of life is homework.
I know you were recognized by the Television Critics Association for Individual Achievement in Drama. How do you feel about awards for this role specifically where you have had such a beautiful sort of experience with this community of people?
I have to say, it’s really nice. It’s really nice when you have your internal experience match an outward acceptance. It feels especially good.
Because then it means that work can be made in these circumstances with so much positivity and warmth and safety. That those circumstances can bring about work that people respond to, is very gratifying and it bodes well for the next job.
I think there’s sort of a misnomer that you really have to suffer for your art. I think we all suffer enough in life that I don’t think that you need any more suffering on set to make art. So if it’s possible to have been treated this well and to have had positive outcomes, then maybe we can roll it out into the next job, and the next.
It bodes well for the future.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Final-round Emmy voting is open from Thursday, Aug. 15 through Thursday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. PT. Winners for the 71st Primetime Emmys Creative Arts Awards will be announced the weekend of Sept. 14 and 15, with the Primetime Emmys ceremony broadcast live on Fox on Sunday, Sept. 22.