From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
OVER THE CREEK AND TO THE MOUNTAIN
After six years of teen angst on the WB hit Dawson's Creek—and roles in little-seen indies Prozac Nation and The Station Agent—Michelle Williams broke into the big time as a Wyoming ranch hand's quietly devastated wife in Brokeback Mountain. The film changed her life in nearly every way: She earned her first Oscar nomination (Best Supporting Actress), fell in love with her costar Heath Ledger and in October gave birth to their daughter Matilda. "I'm having the best year [of my life] so far," she says. "I hope it's not the best year ever."

BYE-BYE, BROOKLYN?
Although she and Aussie Ledger, 26, intend to nest in a Brooklyn brownstone they bought last year, "we're thinking of traveling while we can, before Matilda's older," says Williams, 25. "She's been on 10 planes in three months. She's an excellent traveler. Something about the cabin pressure and hum really knocks her out."

HOME ON THE RANGE
Having grown up in Kalispell, Mont., until age 8 (she later lived in L.A.), Williams has an intimate familiarity with Brokeback's big-sky setting and the people who inhabit it. "My grandparents, my great-grandparents are reminiscent of this world: strong, withholding, often lonely but full of family," she says. "That's the world that's in my bones."

ANG'S FOR THE MEMORIES
Brokeback director Ang Lee had Williams film her last, emotionally harrowing scene on her first day of shooting. "If you didn't know your character from birth to that moment, there was no way you were going to pull that off," she says. "That was part of Ang's genius."

THE HILLS ARE ALIVE
Acting since age 8—"I did fabric-softener and pizza commercials"—Williams says she fell in love with movies "at that crucial time: 6, 8, 10, when your world is just totally open." Which films made the biggest impression? "The Sound of Music. I thought that all acting required singing." Later, the 1987 World War II drama Empire of the Sun made its mark. "It really stayed with me—exactly what a revolution film can be in someone's life," she says. "I still dream about it."

GIRL IN A HURRY
At 15, Williams had herself legally emancipated from her parents: dad Larry, whom she describes as "an original—a treasure hunter and commodities trader, and author and politician," and mom Carla, a homemaker. "I desperately wanted to act, and we were told it would make me more hirable if I didn't come with all the baggage that child actors come with to protect them," says Williams. "It was also a little rebellion. I was probably a difficult teenager who wanted to feel independent."

SPIELBERG ON LINE 1
Thanks to the Brokeback buzz, Williams is now fielding calls from some of Hollywood's top directors. ("I'm too embarrassed to say [who]," she comments.) The Oscar nod "changes the opportunities that I have," she says. "And that's the dreamiest thing in the whole wide world."

WORKING MOM
With new opportunities comes the challenge of figuring out how to juggle it all. "First there's Matilda," she says. "And every day I'm more besotted with her, and it's harder and harder to detach myself from her. So I don't know. Maybe I'll just wave at all these opportunities as they go by."

LEARNING ON THE JOB
"I'm deep in the world of every woman," says Williams. "I'm in the throes of learning how to be a parent. My experience is very special and dear to me. But it's the same as any other mother's: all the highs and all the lows."

WASH 'N' GO
Of her minimal Oscar primping plans, says the new mom, "taking a hot shower feels like a day at the beauty spa. So that's my big plan: a long hot shower, with time to wash and condition my hair."

  • Contributors:
  • Mark Dagostino/New York City.