At 14, Williams makes her feature debut in Lassie (pictured with costar Thomas Guiry). By 15, the budding actress graduates high school, is legally emancipated from her parents (to avoid California's child-labor laws) and moves to Burbank on her own. Of acting, Williams tells PEOPLE, "There's never really been anything else."
Williams, 17, plays the girl with a past, Jen Lindley, on the WB teen drama Dawson's Creek. "She's this stable, happy-go-lucky girl still wrestling with demons," Williams tells USA Today of her character. "She grew up quickly at a real fast pace. Of course, I can relate to it." The show becomes a hit with the WB crowd, making household names of its four stars, including Katie Holmes, Joshua Jackson, and James Van Der Beek.
With Jamie Lee Curtis and Josh Hartnett (left), Williams stars in the horror sequel Halloween H20. "I was worried about being a good screamer," Williams tells PEOPLE. Curtis says of Williams, "She's a very deep well of a human being. There's a lot that's not on the surface." The following year, she costars with Kirsten Dunst in the Richard Nixon-era comedy Dick, and makes her Off-Broadway debut in Killer Joe.
After playing a lesbian opposite Chloe Sevigny in If These Walls Could Talk 2, Williams continues to diversify her resume. In Me Without You (right), which is nominated for British film of the year, the 21-year-old actress plays Holly, an insecure Brit in a dysfunctional friendship with costar Anna Friel. "Michelle kind of straddles being an adult and a kid," writer-director Sandra Goldbacher tells the New York Times of her star, who ages from 16 to 28 in the film. "She can regress when necessary, but I think there's a real maturity there."
After six seasons, Dawson's Creek ends. "Everybody agrees that it's the right time for it to be over, so there's a lot of peace that comes along with that," Williams tells PEOPLE. She continues to take the road less traveled, working in indie films, like Prozac Nation with Christina Ricci (left). "I feel like I haven't been working in a particularly flashy or visible way," she reflects to Vogue. "If you weren't looking for them, you would miss the movies that I've made that I'm proud of."
After filming her first scenes in Brokeback Mountain, a love story about two cowboys costarring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, Williams falls for costar Heath Ledger. Shortly after wrapping Brokeback, Williams is pregnant, and the pair begins nesting in a Brooklyn brownstone. "We have a very, very sweet life there," Williams tells PEOPLE. "The thing I hope the most is that it stays the way it is."
Williams, 25, gives birth to daughter, Matilda Rose. "I have two great loves in my life – my family and my work," Williams tells the Los Angeles Times. "I can quickly and easily assure you this has been the best year of my life." Her best role-to-date, she tells USA Today, "Matilda's mom. I love being a young parent. It's me, the baby and the breast pump."
For her performance as Ledger's tortured wife in Brokeback Mountain, Williams – who EW calls "a revelation" – earns an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. With Ledger (who is also up for Best Actor), Williams shines on the Oscars red carpet in a yellow Vera Wang gown. But the evening proves to be a disappointment, as the movie's stars are shut out of all the acting awards, and Crash pulls off an amazing come-from-behind win for Best Picture.
It seemed Ledger couldn't stop gushing about his home life, calling Williams "the perfect mom" on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006. But in October 2007, Ledger and Williams announce their split. "I didn't know where to go," Williams later tells Elle. "I couldn't imagine any place in the world that was gonna feel good to me." Soon after, Williams is linked to Blue Valentine costar Ryan Gosling.
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