Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Kimberly Williams II
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The saccharin stops here

Kimberly Williams reckons working in Britain helps give an American actor edge. As she prepared for her West End debut, she talked to Robert Butler of The Independent, 27 February 2000

If you have only seen Kimberly Williams in Father of the Bride, where she plays Steve Martin and Diane Keaton's wholesome suburban daughter, you may not recognise the sharp, reckless blonde who turns a trick with a late-middle-aged man — with nasty consequences — in the newly released Simpatico. The film is set in two periods: 20 years ago and now. The older version of Williams's character is played by Sharon Stone. It's a good detail to let slip at parties: I'm playing Sharon Stone in her twenties. Last week the younger version of Sharon Stone opened in Oxford in a new production of David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow. It co-stars Patrick Marber and Mark Strong and transfers to the West End next month. Kimberly Williams is the latest international film actress, following Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Juliette Binoche, to link up with British actors and directors — in this case, Peter Gill. The move stretches their talents, broadens their CV and gets people to view them in a new light. Was it that deliberate, I ask Williams, as she prepares for the final dress rehearsal in Oxford? "Absolutely. It's totally stretching."

We meet at a Starbucks in west London, just before she packs for Oxford. With short hair, elfin face, and a pixie figure, she could pass — in her leather jacket and rectangular specs — for any young American student over here on a theatre studies course. (After Father of the Bride was released, she did come over to the Royal Court for a theatre studies course.)

It's quite a change from Simpatico. In Matthew Warchus's absorbing and maligned screen adaptation of Sam Shephard's play, Williams lights up the story of corruption in the world of racing with a vivacity that turns later to intense vulnerability. It's a smart transition for a girl who has mostly represented everything sweet and apple pie.

That particular contribution to American culture stretches back to the days when, as a 13-year-old, she started doing commercials. Her first was playing a ballerina for the National Dairy Board. It wasn't that her parents were the pushy showbiz types. "It was very much my idea. They thought it was a hobby that would die out after a week. It didn't." Williams' father is a magazine writer and her mother is a fund-raiser for Sarah Lawrence College near New York.

Williams graduated from milk to advertisements for Clearasil. Hers was the face that adolescents aspired to possess after they had used the cream. It's British directors who have been responsible for taking the saccharin out of Williams's persona. "Maybe they don't see me in quite the same way as American directors do." Apart from Warchus and Gill, This Life director Sam Miller has also cast her, in Elephant Juice — yet to be released — in which she plays an ex- rocker and single parent with a violent ex-boyfriend. "It's a little rougher, in your face, and more rounded, than I usually play."

In Speed-the-Plow, Williams is the temporary secretary in a Hollywood office who finds a book she believes in and fights for it. "In a lot of ways she's not a very likeable character," she says. Williams decided that the best approach was to explore all the complexities. "I think Mamet would totally disagree. In his book True or False he says, just say the words and don't worry about it." The role was first played on Broadway by Madonna. How had she played Karen? "All I've heard about it was that it was Madonna." That Madonna was in it or that Madonna played it as Madonna? "No one has ever told me anything more than it was Madonna."

For her, the play's setting is a subject close to home, as it is not for Marber, Strong or Gill. "It's about something I really understand. The characters are living in Hollywood and I've lived in Hollywood for six years and I've been in those offices. I know what it's like. I've seen those conversations that Patrick's and Mark's characters have. They are just how it's written.

"When you do Mamet properly it can sound like you're forgetting your lines: interrupted sentences, little tangents, and `you knows' and `ums' and `ers'. Once you get into the rhythm he writes in, it feels like a piece of music." I ask her if that can become a little patterned. "One of the challenges is having a lot of energy on stage, and that breaks you out of any pattern." Gill has changed how Williams is doing Karen. "I saw her maybe as mousey and he cleared away the mousiness and brought in the Katherine Hepburn style. He sees things in terms of class, because ... he's from here, and that's not something I grew up with, and I keep hearing him saying `Upper class! Upper class!'"

Williams grew up in New York, where the big treat was going to a Broadway musical. "Every time I went, I wanted to be on the stage." Her favourite film actresses were Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton. Especially in Woody Allen films. Judy Garland was "the first person I ever saw and wanted to be".

She was a student at NorthWestern University, Illinois, when after four auditions, she was cast as Steve Martin's daughter. Williams left university the day after she got the part, and came back three months later, after filming was over. She was 19 when the movie came out and it shot her from anonymity to fame in the space of a few days. It was a jolt. "I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend, and there was this girl staring at us all the way through the meal, and then when we left the restaurant, she came running out after me, and she couldn't breathe. She was flapping her hands. She was hyperventilating. I was a little afraid."

Fans continue to hyperventilate at the KW Central website. If you pay a visit you'll discover that 34,000 people have clicked on it before you. "I've visited it three times, so you can knock off three people of those people," she says. "I don't know them. They've done a good job." There's even a page — titled Love Match — with pictures of her in the crowd at Wimbledon watching her one-time boyfriend, the tennis star Pete Sampras.

Her own sporting prowess can be seen in Father of the Bride when she throws the basketball over her head and into the net. "I did it first time." Unfortunately the ball disappears out of shot for a split second and "people don't always believe me". There's a mini-series, 10th Kingdom, coming out on Sky. Other than that, she's looking for scripts. What about a Woody Allen? "I say that to my agent every week. I want to be in a Woody Allen." What does your agent say? "I know! I know!" For the moment, she'll have to settle for Shephard and Mamet. And appearing with Marber.

`Speed-the-Plow':, Richmond Theatre (020 8940 0088) Mon-Sat; Theatre Royal Brighton (01273 328488) 6 to 11 March; New Ambassadors, WC2 (020 7836 6111), 14 March to 22 April 2000

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