BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK — The stark winter weather that hangs like a pall over Roman Polanski’s new political thriller, “The Ghost Writer,” has nothing on the storm raging outside the posh midtown hotel as British actress Olivia Williams showed up for a round of recent press interviews.
The storm outside was literal and figurative. The literal storm dumped 20 inches of gloppy confetti snow on the city and caused canceled airline flights that left co-stars Ewan
McGregor and Pierce Brosnan unable to attend the media gathering hosted by Summit Entertainment.
The figurative storm was the one swirling around Polanski, 76, the Oscar-winning director who is under house arrest in Switzerland awaiting court action on a 1977 case charging him with having unlawful sex with a minor. The legal controversy has left Polanski effectively mute in the process of launching his movie.
In the face of both storms, the slender, elegant Williams, best known to U.S. audiences for roles in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” and Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” stepped up gamely to carry the new film’s banner and talk up its merits.
Perhaps paradoxically, she’s cast in the seemingly thankless but deceptively calculating role of political wife in the script based on a novel (originally titled “The Ghost”) by Robert Harris, a longtime British journalist and Tony Blair confidante.
“The Ghost Writer” stars McGregor as a writer-for-hire who is brought in to finish the memoirs of a suave, former British prime minister very much in the mold of Blair. As he begins work on an isolated island off the wintry coast of New England, the writer is confronted with a web of sordid secrets and even murder that leads him on a dangerous quest for the truth.
Williams, as she will be all day, is immediately confronted with a question about Polanski’s off-screen problems and their effects on the movie. Clearly, she’s prepared as she deftly deflects discussion of legal issues and turns the talk instead to Polanski’s artistry and her own multilayered role as Ruth Lang, wife of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, played with starchy allure by Brosnan.
“I read the novel first, and my first reaction was, ‘I hope they don’t want me to do an impersonation of Cherie Blair,’” said Williams in satiny British tones. “And when I spoke to Roman, he told me that’s not what he wanted.
“And so I went back to the text and pulled out every adjective and every clue to Ruth, and then I wrote an e-mail to the author, Robert Harris, and said, ‘OK, what do you want from this?’ I think I said, ‘Is she evil?’ And he wrote back a paragraph of basically oxymorons, you know, she is vulnerable/confident, she is naive/cynical, she is contemptuous but in love with her husband, and at the bottom he underlined in bold, ‘She is absolutely not evil.’
“And my first thought was, ‘My God, how do I do this?’ It was a really amazing challenge he set me,” Williams said. “I think the point is that nobody sets out to be a bad person, and, of course, we’re not allowed to give away the ending, but Ruth seems so transparent and nonthreatening but then turns out to be much more complicated. It was such a great pleasure to act this part. I got to lead the audience down one path and then deceive them in the end.”
Williams said Polanski’s old-school style of directing took some getting used to.
“His sets are quite intense. He’s so meticulous and so particular. Every single thing has to be exactly where he wants it,” she said. “He’ll stop a scene even to re-arrange books and pillows on the set. He spends quite a lot of time with his head in his hands and his eyes closed, which is a little distressing when you’re an actor.
“One time, I said to him, ‘You’ve got your head in your hands again. Is there anything in my performance which is upsetting you?’ And he said, ‘When my eyes are closed, I’m trying to see what it was I saw when I wrote the script.’ So, the way he directs is quite precise and demanding and idiosyncratic.
“And, you know, this was a French, Polish, German set so … instead of gentle, coaxing direction, you got (in a dead-on impression of Polanski’s Polish accent), ‘No, no, no! Do it like this!’ I’d been in California too long, where everyone is so gentle and sweet to each other, and I had to remember that kind of European inflammatory temperament. If Roman’s preoccupied, your feelings and good manners and everything else go out the window,” she said. “But a moment later, he’s joking and laughing with you.”
Despite the director’s brusque, demanding demeanor on set, he apparently earns great affection and loyalty from actors under his tutelage. Williams — with two other films, Oscar-nominated “An Education” and punk-music biopic “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” now on screens — speaks glowingly of attending “The Ghost Writer” premiere last month in Berlin, “to a public in Europe that loves film and loves his work so much.”
“And to be his voice there, it was an honor and an extraordinary experience, to face a press conference where the director wasn’t there and … to be in some senses afraid to tell people of what a debt one owes him,” Williams said. “It was a very intense experience, and Ewan and Pierce were fearless in their praise of him.”