Katherine Waterston is the daughter of Sam Waterston, who rose to prominence with the New Hollywood before becoming a household name with Law & Order. Pedigree doesn’t seem to have given the younger Waterston any unfair advantages, but over the last eight years or so the Tisch School graduate has built a respected career in theatre—she played Anya in an off-Broadway revival of The Cherry Orchard—and in supporting roles in films like Michael Clayton. Her appearance as the beguiling Shasta in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice marks a significant breakthrough. We spoke a few weeks ago in a Toronto hotel when Waterston was traveling to promote the film.
JB: I want to begin by talking with you about something that’s kind of hard to talk about, which is tone. Inherent Vice basically begins with your entrance, so you set the tone. But is thinking about tone useful to you as an actor or just a distraction from playing the scene, beat by beat?
Katherine Waterston: When you work on scenes they tend to tell you what they need. When you start speaking the lines you can tell when they don’t feel right. When they do, it’s because you’ve found the tone that best serves the scene. In the way that Paul works, and the way I like to work too, we explore until the correct tone emerges. One of the fun things about working on this project is that it was based on a novel that changes tone almost constantly. It gives us permission to have a really sombre or scary scene with a joke in it. There’s physical comedy followed by very honest, intimate moments.
JB: Watching your performance I thought about Mary Astor in Maltese Falcon, but I also thought about Diane Ladd. Something about the way you direct your gaze while fingering the mouth of that beer can. Did you look to any models while developing Shasta?
KW: It can sometimes be too much pressure, to be hyperaware of what’s come before. But I did think about women of that period, particular from Southern California. I’m glad that you mentioned the gaze, because a big part of it is they way that they set their gaze. Cowboys have a similar thing, people who set their gaze on some distant landscape, or people who live by the sea. If you spend evenings watching the sun set on the ocean that does something to you. I notice it when I’ve been east for a long time and I come back to California, especially to seaside communities. I watched a lot of The Mod Squad before shooting. I thought that Peggy Lipton had something of a Shasta quality. Perhaps I took some comfort in knowing that [the actress playing] this quintessential California girl was actually an East-Coaster, like me. There was something remote about her. You think about all this before you get to work. Once you’re on set you try to forget it all.
JB: Did you feel like you always understood what Shasta wanted? Her duplicity seems to dictate certain turns in the story. I’ve seen Inherent Vice twice and I’m still not sure if I know what she’s after from beginning to end. Do you need to know?
KW: That makes me so happy that I don’t want to say a damned word. It’s been tough navigating these interviews, talking about making this movie, which is fun to talk about, while not spoiling the experience for the viewer. It’s a fine line that I had to walk, knowing what to express. When you read the novel you become closest to Doc’s experience. Reality becomes as suspicious to the reader as it is to him. I didn’t want to take away from that by being too direct.
JB: Between Shasta, Bigfoot and Doc, you’ve got three characters that in very different ways encapsulate this moment of transition in the culture. Shasta is a product of second wave feminism while also using her sexuality as capital. She seems both progressive and regressive in some way.
KW: To the degree that this is a standard detective story, she’s the femme fatale. But what surprised and challenged me was that she also had to be human, to have a warmth. There has to be more between her and Doc than this sexual hold that she has on him.
JB: Do you relate to Shasta?
KW: She’s very different from me, yet I felt I understood her before I even understood what was going on. It’s exciting to come across a female character that’s complicated and inconsistent and dynamic. So often there’s the good lady or the bad lady, the maternal force or the sex goddess. Shasta’s scared but trying to keep her chin up. She loves Doc but isn’t necessarily going to show it. There was so much in the novel and it was fun to try and cram as much in as possible.
JB: Were you told why you were cast?
KW: No. And I sure as hell didn’t ask because I didn’t want anyone to start thinking it was a bad idea.
JB: What do you think? What do you bring to Shasta that someone else might not have?
KW: It’s sort of impossible to know. Or maybe just too embarrassing to think about.
JB: Why embarrassing?
KW: It’s difficult to measure what things about you make you right for a part. When I was up for the part, I saw so clearly why it had to be me.
JB: I was going to say that when you don’t get a part, that’s when you always know what you could have brought to it.
KW: Right. When it’s about to be taken away you can see so clearly why everything in your life, every idea you’ve ever had, every book you’ve read, every personal thing that’s happened to you has all been leading up to this moment where you get to process this role and put it out in the world in a way that no one else could. Then they tell you that you’ve got the job and it’s like amnesia. All that stuff that was so clear to you becomes foggy and confusing.
JB: This seems like an interesting moment for you. In the last year you’ve had two films come out [Inherent Vice and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves], each directed by one of the most exciting directors in the US. But I never really know if these films that mean so much to us as viewers mean the same to you the actor, if they have an effect on your growth commeasurable with our esteem for the work on screen.
KW: As an actor, being chosen by people you admire is incredibly encouraging. Because we’re just kind of these leaves blowing in the wind. You don’t know how it’s all going to shake down at any given moment. Even with people who are much more successful than me, you never really know. I was at a place in my career where I was pretty beaten down and struggling to get my hands on interesting material. So these encouraging events came when I really needed them. But what’s to be learned from getting to watch great directors at work or being around inspiring actors I feel like I probably won’t be cognizant of for a couple more years.
JB: When you see the finished product and see how your performance works as such a lynchpin in this story, do you learn anything from that?
KW: I’m so proud of this work. I feel lucky to be part of it. But I don’t think I can separate myself from the whole enough to take anything away from it. It’s a miracle that I can even watch it without running out of the room. It’s Joaquin that keeps me watching, because I know that if I look away I’ll miss him.