Michelle Williams says playing Marilyn Monroe prepared her for 'Cabaret' role

Michelle Williams, center, and the Kit Kat girls, Michelle Williams, center, and the Kit Kat girls, from left: Kristen Olnes, Kaleigh Cronin, Gayle Rankin and Andrea Goss, in "Cabaret." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

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There are certain shows you know are a hit, just by the electricity in the air when you step into the theater. The Roundabout's revival of "Cabaret" at Studio 54 is one of those shows. You can tell people are excited to be there, in part to schmooze in the orchestra level (set with actual cabaret tables, where they serve noshes und schnapps und such), in part to see "The Good Wife's" Alan Cumming and in part to see the intriguing Michelle Williams in her Broadway (and musical) debut.

Williams, 33, plays tawdry singer Sally Bowles, a part indelibly seared into film history by Liza Minnelli, but also played by heavyweights like Julie Harris (in "I Am a Camera," the play on which the musical is based), Judi Dench and Natasha Richardson. No pressure, there.

A Montana native, Williams was nominated for an Academy Award for "Brokeback Mountain," "Blue Valentine" and her transformative performance as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn" (she won a Golden Globe). She's unexpectedly shy, soft-spoken, almost fragile, perhaps still smarting from the media feeding frenzy when Heath Ledger, her daughter's father, died in 2008.

Williams stars in the show through November. She spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

What made you realize you could do this?

It's a gut response ... like when you have a crush on somebody. You're drawn to them, and you're not quite sure why. It's like that with all the roles I play. My goal is always to get better at what I do, and usually that means putting myself in with people who are better than I am, forcing me to stretch to lengths I didn't think I could.

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What's it like playing Sally now, several months in?

Each show ... feels ... radically different. Maybe it's not different to an audience member, but Sally shifts, changes. You play off the other people and ... it's never the same thing twice.

Like doing different takes when shooting a movie?

You know, it's interesting -- on a movie, you have a few scenes you're gearing up for the whole time. The big days when you've got to deal with a lot of dialogue or some emotionally challenging scene. Well ... I have that eight times a week with this. In a movie, you know, you get a break -- there are days when I'm just doing reaction shots or ... I dunno ... eating cereal. That doesn't happen here. So it's a real endurance test.

I heard you met with the show's music director, Patrick Vaccariello, during rehearsals to prep for the role. Your rendition of the famed title song was pretty strong.

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Anything that's good vocally is a testament to Patrick. He's a wonderful teacher, gentle -- even when it seems impossible, he makes you feel it's no big deal. The next thing you know ... you're just singing it.

Must've been scary at first.

Work is a great place ... um, to exercise some risk taking. In my life, I'm very risk averse. I don't like roller coasters -- anything fast or loud. But I do manage to take risks in my work.

Did playing Marilyn Monroe help with Sally Bowles?

Up till this point, Marilyn is the most death-defying act of stupidity or risk-taking -- depending on how you look at it -- I've ever undertaken. It really stretched my capacity of what kind of pressure I could bear. I wouldn't have been able to do this show if I hadn't done Marilyn before.

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It's like the casting fates were at work, giving you Marilyn so you could take on Sally later.

Yeah, that's funny, it's sort of true. I'm not really a mover and shaker, I don't actively want things and go create them. Mine is a slightly more exhausted approach. I sit back and see what finds its way to me. I wish I was more entrepreneurial.

In your upcoming film, "Suite Francaise," you play a French woman who falls in love with a German soldier in World War II. Similar time period.

Yes, although "Cabaret" is more prewar, when Berlin was as liberated and provocative a place that ever existed. The film is about living in occupied territory once the war's begun. And the characters are different. The woman in the film ... she's nothing like Sally.

But then who is? Have you visited Berlin?

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I've been in love with Berlin for some time. I was first there for Wim Wenders' film "Land of Plenty." I remember walking around, getting lost. It was fascinating. You could see where the bombs dropped -- where the older architecture just disappeared or where it remains intact.

Looks like you'll be in town all summer. I like the city in summer -- people leave ... and there's actually a little space. Not Montana space, of course ...

No, nothing is big like Montana. But I know what you mean -- I like the city in the summer, too. You can actually find a table for brunch.

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