Interview: Katherine Waterston

Katherine Waterston isn’t as mysterious as the character she plays in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice (opening in Toronto on Christmas Day and expanding across Canada on January 9th). She’s actually really warm, open, and laid back, chatting candidly about how her answers are probably going to be really long and in-depth before we even start. She’s inviting, positive, and relaxed, chatting about coffee that isn’t working to perk her morning up, offering cookies, and the dreary weather outside her downtown Toronto hotel room.

She’s pretty far away from Shasta Fay Hepworth, the damsel who might be distress and primary MacGuffin in Anderson’s 1970s Gordita Beach, California hippie mystery. Shasta is the “ex-old lady” of stoner private detective Doc Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a woman who mysteriously turns to her former lover for help in a paranoid haze, fearing she has gotten caught up in a kidnapping scheme that’s set to defraud a real estate baron out of his fortune. Naturally, Shasta’s suspicions are an inciting incident, but she inadvertently leads Doc down a far more convoluted road than he had anticipated.

Waterston talked to Dork Shelf about working with Anderson and Phoenix, what it’s like playing the centre of a mystery, and how a piece of her famous father – actor Sam Waterston – ended up in her performance.


Dork Shelf: So how about I ask an obvious question first?

Katherine Waterston: It’s funny because there are actually three obvious questions that I get asked, and they’re usually prefaced by, “Let me ask the obvious question.” (Laughs) “No man, I’m asking THE obvious question.” “Well, actually, are you going to ask me about my dad, the nudity, or the story?” (laughs)

DS: Well, actually it wasn’t really any of those, so I guess there are four now. (laughs)

KW: (laughs) Good to know!

DS: I actually wanted to ask you about one of the two really big scenes that you have with Joaquin Phoenix, specifically the one that comes later in the movie that’s a really long take where you have to pretty much lay everything out in the open for him. How much freedom did you guys have as actors in that scene because there’s some incredible filmmaking going on there in that scene, but you guys are great in it.

KW: Totally agree with you about the filmmaking, there. It really starts with the book. That scene you’re talking about is there in the novel, and it’s such an incredible guide to have something like that as an actor; to have that kind of a resource. When the resource is that good, you know you want to use it as much as you can. And you know it’s good because that’s the movie you signed up for, so to some degree it has to already be there. For me that was where it started. The scene is quite a bit longer in the novel, so I just read it, and re-read it, and re-read it, and then there’s this incredible monologue in there that gave me a lot to think about.

In terms of whatever Paul’s ideas were or what Joaquin’s ideas were, I wouldn’t have known. We actually didn’t talk to each other about them at all. It’s sort of like, I guess in some way, like we were three separate horses just waiting at the starting line for the gates to open, and then we just went out and did it. That’s a really fun way to work: when you trust everyone so much to know what everyone else will bring that same amount of work to the table and see that when the camera is rolling rather than talking it to death before you get there and killing the electricity of the scene before you even shoot it. That’s how we worked in all of our scenes, and that’s how I like to work in everything I do.

I don’t like to ever be aware of what the camera is doing. I just don’t like to know. Not all actors like to work this way, and maybe I’m missing something really important that I should consider, but I never like to think about or know if something is a close-up or a two-shot. That kind of stuff just makes me hyper-conscious of my nose hairs and stupid things like that; just things you don’t want to be thinking about when you’re in a scene.

Actually, about that scene, last week Paul told me that in an interview I said “If you had told me that was going to be all one take, I would have been a basket case,” or something like that. I always asserted that Paul was too brilliant of a director to tell his actors if something like that was going to be all in one take. I thought he would never do that. Then, apparently, he told me after that interview that he had actually told me in advance that it was going to be done all in one take. (laughs) So, I don’t know who remembers it wrong, but I like to think that if he HAD told me it was going to be one take, I would have immediately forgotten that and put it out of my mind anyway so I wouldn’t be a basket case.

I would have been so paranoid about how I would have been pulling it off. Because, of course, if you have to get it all right in one take, you have a monologue, and there’s nothing else anyone can do, then yeah, I’m sure I would have messed it up just based on the language alone if I had known any of that. But I don’t know. (laughs) I don’t know whose memory is right. I like to think that I didn’t know.

DS: So if you didn’t know it was going to be one take or not, was it something you did multiple times?

KW: It was done multiple times. I don’t remember how many. And there is, if I remember correctly since I’ve only seen the movie once, at the beginning there’s a shot of him on the couch when I come into Doc’s apartment after I’ve taken off my clothes and I come back in the room that wasn’t part of that one continuous take. So it was still a day’s work. We didn’t do it over a week. It wasn’t a Fincher or a Kubrick situation. (laughs) It was one day.

But it wasn’t the thing that we were building up to, and I was never freaked out about the length or the nudity. It wasn’t like I ever looked at the schedule and said “Shit, Monday’s coming and I have to do X.” I felt a very strong responsibility to getting Shasta right in every scene where I was in the movie. She wasn’t afraid as a character, so I wasn’t afraid, and that’s the luxury of playing a part where someone’s confident. You get to take on the energy of that character and you don’t have to worry about your own neurotic self for a while. It’s kind of its own nice, working vacation. (laughs)

DS: That’s interesting to hear you say because Shasta is the character that this entire mystery is sort of built around, and you can only really let on what you know in that one scene, but you have another key scene before that where you have to withhold information from the main character. And you seem to put a lot of thought into your roles and you clearly don’t like overanalyzing things, so how, as someone who read the book and clearly has the entire script in front of them, not play too heavily into making what you know expressly obvious. Is there a self-consciousness there?

KW: That’s the sort of general and eternal struggle of playing any scene in any story, isn’t it? Of course, we have all the words and I know what I’m going to say next. That’s not what life is like. Then the even weirder thing is that I know what the OTHER person is going to say next, and that’s DEFINIETLY not real life. (laughs) That’s the constant battle to try and be like you don’t know when you do know, you know?

And yeah, you can’t actively play mystery. It’s a tricky line to walk there. You don’t want to play “the thing,” and you don’t want to be too clear or boring. You can’t hold the cards so close to your chest and have a perfect poker face, otherwise no one will care. No one will give a damn. Who cares at that point? That’s borning.

Those are really the kinds of things I tend to think about on the way home from work. Or even more so when you have two or more days off from work in a row to analyze and think about it. That’s the worst. But in the moment, if I think about where that line is, it’s not too difficult as long as I get into that world. Once I’m on that set and in that bubble, I can just quiet that part of my mind and be as present as I can be.

DS: Joaquin read the book before filming, and he wanted to read it again, but he wouldn’t read too far ahead or too much because he wanted to remain as confused as his character. Was there an effort to make your character more mysterious by not giving too much back to him and keep him at bay?

KW: Yeah. Generally, if I don’t have to and unless I’m really lost and I can only get something from talking to another actor, I try not to talk about what’s happening in scenes too much. I don’t want to dilute that energy. I think you can over-talk these things, and it can take away from the moment you’re trying to capture. You’re trying to capture life in a bottle.

For me, with this particular character, it felt good to have secrets, so it didn’t matter if they were her secrets or my own personal secrets. Just to have the sensation of having something for myself kept me rooted and focused. Because on a film set there are boom poles, and lights, and noises, and trucks backing up, and trucks are reversing, and the sun’s going down. Something is always happening and it’s nice to have something that can be useful to remind you that you have secrets and just drop back into Shasta again. If the environment started to pull me into a direction that I didn’t want to go in, I would fall back on those secrets.

But I also think there’s something witchy about what Paul does as a director. It’s like there’s a radio dial on the set, and he sets it to a certain station, and we’re all listening to the same station. We never talk about it, but we all feel it, and there’s something really hands-off and gentle about it, but also really focused. It felt really secure in that way. We all have our separate jobs and our private business that we’re doing, but we’re all in it together in this same world.

It’s so amazing because, I had met Joaquin briefly before, but one of the first times I came to set, I think we were just shooting his coverage and the camera wasn’t even on me, but I quickly realized that I had to be in this scene with him. I was just so riveted by what he was doing, that I felt like I was watching it as an audience member. I was just such a fan. Then really quickly I just said to myself, “Shit, I can’t do that again.” (laughs) It’s amazing working with him. I expected to be intimidated by him because he’s so brilliant, but he’s just so generous, and self-effacing, and playful. I kept expecting that intimidation to kick in, but it never came.

And with Paul, I felt the same way. I saw all of his films in order. I saw Hard Eight when it came out, and I was young, but I still waited impatiently for all of them to come out as he made them. It’s entirely surreal and extraordinary that I got to be hired by him and to work with him. What’s so amazing that he does once I realized how he works, is that he hands the parts over to his actors. With a lot of directors… You know how if someone wants to give you ten dollars, and they make like they’re handing it to you but you can feel them resisting? That’s what a lot of other directors are like. (laughs) They want you to do it, but there’s also a part of them that wants to do it themselves and they’re deathly afraid you’re going to fuck it up. And Paul, he’ll slip that ten dollar bill and run in the opposite direction. (laughs) It’s yours and he’s not taking it back from you. You can feel that confidence he has in his actors. That’s so empowering. You know he’s brilliant, but he’s putting his faith in you, and that’s such a wild feeling to have. But it’s also really encouraging.

It’s what brings us all together in the collaborative process. We all know on his set that we all have an important task to do here. I have to contribute and bring something to this. Everyone shows up raring to go, and that allows Paul in turn to start spinning 90,000 other plates at once to tell these big, amazing, epic stories that no one else could pull off.

That's her dad's shirt.
That’s her dad’s shirt.

DS: Your dad, Sam, came up in the 1960s and 70s, so you’ve probably heard all about this time period and this kind of culture from him. Did you ever talk to him about the role or did he ever talk to you?

KW: Man, I just feel so supported by him. You know, often if you’re the opposite sex of a famous parent, you don’t get asked about it as much. No one thinks you’re “the spitting image” of a famous parent, and I know that can be really difficult for people in that situation. But he’s so cool and such an inspiration to me.

And, actually, I just remembered something that I haven’t told anyone, and I’m pretty sure no one at all knows it, but I had some of his hand me downs and stuff he wore when he was a young hippie. (laughs) I was going to a table read for Inherent Vice, and we were still at the point where we hadn’t really figured out the costumes and stuff for the film. Paul, during that meeting, only kind of half looked at me out of the corner of his eye, and said “What’s that?” And I was wearing this shirt that was part of my dad’s old wardrobe. “That’s good! What’s that? You should wear that!” (laughs) It’s totally my dad’s shirt, and it’s in the movie when Joaquin and I are trying to work that Ouija board. It’s just an old striped shirt. It was his shirt. (laughs) So yeah, he’s helped me and been generous in many ways. (laughs)

DS: And to be able to bring it into a movie of someone you really admire like Paul Thomas Anderson…

KW: It’s so great. (laughs) It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened. (laughs)