Michelle Williams went through the unimaginable, and then she proceeded to accomplish the impossible.
The actress' now 15-year-old daughter Matilda Ledger was only 2 when her father, Heath Ledger, died of acute drug intoxication on Jan. 22, 2008, an autopsy later finding a cocktail of prescription medication in his system.
Heath was 28. The movie he would posthumously win an Oscar for the following year, The Dark Knight, was still months away from its theatrical release. And not just one but a trio of actors were enlisted to fill his shoes in what would be Heath's final screen appearance, Terry Gilliam's then-unfinished The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
But while Hollywood was devastated by the loss, and people started to dig into what the actor was doing in the months, weeks and days before his death in the hunt for some sort of traceable route from A to B, it was the loved ones left behind whose lives changed forever.
Heath and Michelle had fallen in love on the set of Brokeback Mountain—and they couldn't have looked or sounded more smitten with each other as they navigated, first, the film's festival circuit, and then the 2006 awards season together, culminating in the first Oscar nominations for both.
Michelle, in particular, was positively radiant—not least because they were in the midst of becoming a family of three at the time—and every chance she got she talked about how proud she was of Heath's performance.
"It's just deserved," she told E! News in December 2005, two months after Matilda was born. "It's sort of obvious after you see what he does. I forgot he was my boyfriend when I was watching it, I really did." And Heath was equally congratulatory, saying about Michelle, "She's a phenomenal actress. It's boring to say she's at a turning point—she's always been turning a corner and she'll continue to turn corners.
"She's incredibly talented and beautiful, and her performance in this movie is incredibly controlled and deep, and full of emotion. I'm incredibly proud of her."
Because the entire first year of their relationship was inextricably tangled up with the monumental film—which won three Oscars and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Drama—it gave interviewers plenty of opportunities to ask personal questions.
"We started promoting the movie about three weeks after she was born, which was too soon," Michelle said on The Oprah Winfrey Show in January 2006 during an appearance with Heath and their Brokeback co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. "I'm just learning lessons now, like learning how to be a working mom."
Asked about Heath and Michelle's on set romance, Jake recalled the trailer count going from four to three, and Anne said, "There were sparks immediately. It was adorable."
As for Heath, he called Michelle the "perfect mom" and said, "I'm so proud. I just fall deeper and deeper in love with both my girls."
There were frequent sightings of the family of three in their Brooklyn neighborhood, and anyone with access to the internet was able to see that Michelle wasn't kidding when she told Oprah that Matilda looked like her dad.
But in September 2007, the news broke that Heath and Michelle had split up. "It was rocky for awhile," a source told People at the time. "They did what they could to make it work." Only in hindsight would it become apparent that Heath's issues had started to get the better of him.
After his death, Michelle said in a statement: "Please respect our need to grieve privately. My heart is broken. I am the mother of the most tender-hearted, high-spirited, beautiful little girl who is the spitting image of her father. All that I can cling to is his presence inside her that reveals itself every day.
"His family and I watch Matilda as she whispers to trees, hugs animals, and takes steps two at a time, and we know that he is with us still. She will be brought up in the best memories of him."
Michelle gathered with Heath's family for a memorial in his native Australia and otherwise grieved as someone who was still very much in love with the actor when he died. It wasn't difficult to imagine that she would never have broken up with him in the first place if she didn't feel she had no other choice—and that hopes of a reconciliation were still on the table.
In 2010, she would talk about immersing herself in loss after reading The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's memoir of grief written after the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, and how feeling better was also a strange beast to confront.
"In a strange way I miss that year—because of all those possibilities that existed then are gone," Williams said on Nightline in her first TV interview after Ledger's death. "It didn't seem unlikely to me that he could walk through a door or could appear from behind a bush, it was a year of very magical thinking. In some ways I'm sad to be moving further and further away from it."
But first and foremost, Williams had a child to raise—as a working mom, a single mom and, no small obstacle, as a famous mom.
Though his films, of which Ledger made enough to suit any movie-watching mood, gave him cinematic immortality, it's Matilda who remains the human embodiment of Ledger's legacy. So Williams quickly had to get used to public interest in her and her daughter increasing exponentially after they were on their own.
And somehow, she has since managed to give Matilda a quiet, private life while only getting more successful, breaking free of any lingering WB-drama attachment and cementing her own reputation as one of the finest actresses of her generation as a star of film, TV and the stage, as well as becoming a longtime face of Louis Vuitton. She's since been nominated for three more Oscars and has won two Golden Globes—including one last year, plus a SAG Award and a 2019 Emmy, for her turn as musical theater legend Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon.
"It's a very hard thing for me to navigate," Williams told Vanity Fair in 2018, referring to the necessary public side of her life, "because my instinct is to keep my life very, very private. But I also need and want certain things out of my career that demand I assume a more public voice."
But she also trusts her instincts, which is probably why she managed to get married, divorced, engaged and pregnant with her second child without the public knowing about any of those steps along the way until she decided to share.
Taking a break from the spotlight and getting Matilda out of the city certainly helped her pick up the pieces in those early days—while staying off social media entirely has helped keep her daughter off the radar ever since.
"We moved—we left Brooklyn and lived in the country for six years because it was an intolerable state of existence," Williams told the New York Post in June 2016, referring to the constant paparazzi escort in the days after Ledger's death. "I wish I was more of a go-getter," the Montana native added. "I just sort of sit and wait for things to come my way."
She had to navigate the usual New York-L.A. gauntlet for work, but her habit of choosing only the projects that called to her obviously served her well.
Only in 2014 did Williams sell the Boerum Hill townhouse that she and Ledger moved into together in 2005, reportedly getting $8.8 million—17 percent over ask—for the six-bedroom home. According to Curbed New York, she purchased a 114-year-old Colonial-style mansion—a $2.5 million, eight-bedroom fixer-upper—in Ditmas Park in 2015, the local real estate blogs hanging on every step of the renovation process.
And choosing the East Coast over the West Coast is always a smart move if you want to be relatively left alone. While the Big Apple, Brooklyn included, isn't exactly devoid of Hollywood-type activity, Los Angeles remains the biggest fish bowl.
Williams told Elle, "If you feel like people are watching you, it's impossible to have an authentic experience of being alive. There's a performative aspect and a guardedness, and that's just death. I don't know how to live like that, and I don't know how to give a life to my child like that."
She previously called Kristen Bell, who was instrumental in getting a number of media outlets to stop publishing unauthorized photos of celebrities' children, her "personal hero." (E! News was among the outlets that implemented the protocol accordingly.)
"[The picture ban] has changed our lives," Williams gushed to the Post. "I email [Bell] once every couple of months and say, 'I owe you everything. My daughter's happiness is in your hands.' Talk about a go-getter!"
But while Williams is very much a Hollywood fixture when awards season rolls around—her most recent Oscar nomination coming for her turn in Manchester by the Sea as a wife and mom who's still grieving a horrible tragedy but is determined to put one foot in front of the other every day—she has also protected Matilda by keeping a tight lid on her own private life. And the lid has grown so tight in recent years that you now need to run it under hot water to open it.
After Ledger died she had serious yet low-key relationships with filmmaker Spike Jonze and Jason Segel that both proved too logistically difficult, and in 2015 she was linked to novelist Jonathan Safran-Foer, who at least lived in Brooklyn.
"The timing was impossible. I thought falling in love again was the only thing that was going to save me from the pain," Williams told Vogue in 2009 after she and Jonze had split up. "This erroneous idea: It just makes things more complicated."
She had been dating a businessman named Andrew Youmans, so it was something of a surprise when she revealed she was getting married in the September 2018 issue of Vanity Fair. And by the time the cover story was published online that July, she was married—to musician Phil Elverum.
"In your 20s, you're still so jagged and fractured, and I feel like everything has sort of cohered," she told the magazine. Williams would only share ("I would tell you everything...but the internet's an a--hole," she pointed out) that she and Elverum, a singer-songwriter who performs as Mount Eerie, were planning to wed in a small ceremony in the Adirondacks.
They had met through mutual friends. Elverum was a widower, having lost his wife of 13 years in 2016, and a father of a then 3-year-old daughter. He was based in Washington but packed up for Brooklyn, where they all moved into a new home.
"I never gave up on love," Williams told Vanity Fair. "I always say to Matilda, 'Your dad loved me before anybody thought I was talented, or pretty, or had nice clothes.' Obviously I've never once in my life talked about a relationship but Phil isn't anyone else. And that's worth something. Ultimately the way he loves me is the way I want to live my life on the whole. I work to be free inside of the moment. I parent to let Matilda feel free to be herself, and I am finally loved by someone who makes me feel free."
Heath's father, Kim Ledger, told the Sydney Morning Herald in their native Australia that his family was "terribly happy" for Michelle. He added, "She's very private and I don't really like to make too many comments about her, but we are very happy."
It was soon revealed, however, that life hadn't entirely cohered just yet. Williams and Elverum quietly split up the following year.
"It was an amicable spilt and they remain friends," a source told People in April 2019.
But life found a way, and by the end of the year, Williams was engaged and expecting a baby with Hamilton director—and Fosse/Verdon director—Thomas Kail.
"She's very excited to have another baby and give Matilda a sibling," a source told E! News that December. "She fell fast and hard for Thomas. They are very in love and excited about their future together and having a family."
Williams had told GQ in 2012, "I really wanted, and I really expected or imagined, that Matilda would have siblings that were close to her age. I wanted that for her. But I couldn't make that happen. And now that she's 6 that isn't even a possibility anymore. So something that was making me feel impatient, that's been removed. For whatever reason, that's not our luck, or our path."
But you really never know what's coming around the bend.
Having addressed the importance of equal pay respecting women's voices during her Emmys speech, she used her Golden Globes platform to speak about choice.
"I'm grateful for the acknowledgement of the choices I've made and I'm also grateful to have lived in a moment in our society where choice exists," she said, "because as women and as girls, things can happen to our bodies that are not our choice. I've tried my very best to live a life of my own making, not just a series of events that happened to me, but one that I could stand back and look at and recognize my handwriting all over."
"I wouldn't have been able to do this without employing a woman's right to choose, to choose when to have my children, and with whom," Williams continued. "When I felt supported and able to balance our lives knowing, as all mothers know, that the scales must and will tip towards our children now."
She may not say as much as some celebrities, but when she does, Williams isn't afraid to use her voice.
And while she's spoken candidly about grief and motherhood, and about what losing Ledger felt like, Williams has purposely never talked about his struggles or what exactly happened between them.
"I can talk about grief because that's mine, about single parenting, about trying to balance work and kids," she told Vogue. "But what I don't have to talk about is what happened between Heath and me in our relationship."
Understandably, part of keeping Ledger's memory alive for Matilda is not complicating his legacy.
"Michelle really does keep things real for [Matilda]," Kate Ledger, Heath's sister, told the U.K.'s Sunday Telegraph in 2015. "And her existence, although different from most, is as normal as possible in an abnormal world."
"She's got his energy," Kim also told Australia's Channel 10 around that time. "Heath never slept from when he was two and Matilda's like that. She's just got this ball of energy and she radiates this little aura."
Ledger told In Touch in December 2005, when his daughter was 6 weeks old, "Matilda is adorable, and beautifully observant and wise. Michelle and I love her so much. Becoming a father exceeds all my expectations. It's the most remarkable experience I've ever had—it's marvelous."
After so much love followed by a devastating loss, for years Williams walked a strange line between life going on and the feeling that things didn't go the way they were supposed to.
"In all honesty, for pretty much everything else, I feel like I'm a believer in not fighting circumstances, accepting where you are and where you've been," she said in Porter magazine's December 2016 issue.
"In pretty much all senses but one, I would be able to go totally down that line of thinking were it not for Matilda not having her dad. You know, that's just something that doesn't—I mean, it just won't ever be right."
But at 15, Matilda has that sibling her mom always wanted for her, Williams has found a new partner and she's living proof that there are different ways for things to turn out right.
(Originally published Jan. 22, 2017, at 7 a.m. PT)