How Michelle Williams became the perfect voice to narrate Britney Spears’ drama

The ‘Brokeback Mountain’ actress has gained plaudits for taking on the singer’s voice in the audiobook version of ‘The Woman in Me’

Michelle Williams
The cover of Britney Spears' autobiographical book, 'The Woman In Me' and Michelle Williams in a photographic composition.AP
María Porcel

Britney Spears’ memoir, The Woman in Me, published Tuesday in the United States, is 288 pages long. And five hours 31 minutes is the exact length of the audiobook. If the revelations about her father, her previous partners, her career, and her children have been laid out in black on white in the millions of books sold this week, they have also been recorded in the audio version. But surprisingly, the well-known voice of the 41-year-old artist is only heard in the dedication (“To my boys, who are the love of my life”) and in the 163 words of the prologue. In total, one minute and 25 seconds. The rest is left to the voice of actress Michelle Williams. Spears, who is looking to recover her own voice, has ceded it to the actress, who accepted the assignment in what was a very smart move on both sides.

The decision to hire Williams, a five-time Oscar nominee, was widely applauded upon the announcement, but her narration has become an internet hit and provided an unexpected boost for the actress’ own career. “She deserves another nomination,” reads one comment online. Williams manages to give Spears’ words a punch that they probably would have lacked with the singer’s own voice.

It was too painful. Too hard for Spears to sit down to review and write her story only to have to retell it in her own words. She says so herself at the outset: “This book has been a labor of love and all the emotions that come with it,” she says. “Reliving everything has been exciting, heart-wrenching, and emotional, to say the least. For those reasons, I will only be reading a small part of my audiobook. I am so grateful to the amazing Michelle Williams for reading the rest of it.” Williams said of the collaboration in a statement: “I stand by Britney.”

Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, at the 2001 American Music Awards.
Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, at the 2001 American Music Awards.Getty Images

It has not been made public how the agreement between Spears and Williams was reached: whether the former chose the latter, if it was an editorial decision accepted willingly by both parties, or if it was unilateral. Nor is it known what Williams’ remuneration is. Narrators usually have a fixed income from audiobook work instead of royalties from sales. It is not known how much Williams has been paid, but the U.S. media reports that Spears has earned between $12 and $15 million for the advance, and 25% for each book sale (in the industry, 10% is usually a good deal for an author).

Beyond the income that the autobiography has provided for Williams, it has given her a new perspective to her career. First, because her involvement gives Spears’ story a new dimension, as it is narrated by an authoritative acting voice. Second, because of her public and clear support for a star who is not going through her best moments in terms of criticism, who hasn’t released any music in years, with no vocation in sight and whose only public appearances are a series of disturbing videos and messages on social networks. And thirdly, because Williams’ storytelling is brilliant. She recounts Spears’ regrets with delicacy and strength, with anecdotes such as how Madonna became her mentor or how her father forbade her from eating hamburgers, which she asked the butler for on the sly. But also her abortion during her relationship with Justin Timberlake and how he broke up with her via SMS, the sadness of her postpartum depression, and even the uneasiness of her regained freedom. Her fine interpretation of Timberlake in an episode in which Spears remembers him imitating the rapper Ginuwine has earned Williams applause and Grammy nomination proposals for best narrator.

Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams, on the red carpet of 'Brokeback Mountain,' in Toronto, September 10, 2005.
Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams, on the red carpet of 'Brokeback Mountain,' in Toronto, September 10, 2005.Donald Weber (Getty Images)

And fourth, because Spears’ and Williams’ lives are not so different from each other. They have simply decided, or have been able, to manage them differently. Williams, 15 months older than Spears, was also a child star, but instead of starting her career in the Mickey Mouse Club, like the singer, she did so in episodes of Baywatch or Lassie, as well as, of course, in the teen soap opera Dawson’s Creek, later carving out a successful career through her performances in Brokeback Mountain, My Week with Marilyn and Manchester by the Sea. She has been married twice and has three children and has always been in the spotlight. Matilda, her eldest daughter, who turns 18 on October 28, was born from her relationship with her fiancé, the late Heath Ledger, with whom she had broken up just four months before his death. For barely a year between 2018 and 2019 she was married to musician Phil Everum, and in 2020 she married her current husband, director Thomas Kail, with whom she has two children, Hart, three, and an 11-month-old baby.

Ledger died in January 2008. That same month Spears was hospitalized due to her mental health problems, which led to her father to create a guardianship for the singer. Fifteen years ago, the two stars were both scrutinized for their grief. Williams managed to come out of it slowly and with the cameras watching her, but on the sidelines. Spears is starting to do so now, with the spotlight always pointed at her, when she is attempting to face up to her demons and leave her old life behind while regaining her own voice. In the meantime, Williams will lend the singer hers.

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