Katherine Waterston—daughter of Sam Waterston—slowly has been crafting her own career on the stage, on TV and in films without having to stand in the shadow of her famous father. Now she really should be able to leap to a whole other level with her extraordinary turn as Shasta in Paul Thomas Anderson’s wild adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel Inherent Vice. Hitting the screen as the very first person you see, Waterston takes no prisoners in a risky but alluring role that has people talking, in a good way. And in a cast that also includes Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Martin Short and many others, Waterston more than holds her own—she mesmerizes.
How are you doing? Hanging in there?
Yeah. Trying. I’m a novice, so I’m trying to catch up and learn on my feet.
Do you enjoy this part of acting—the business and promotion of awards season?
I think it’s a luxury when you love the thing you’re promoting, and then you don’t have to try to think of something, try and find some angle. So yes. It’s a very happy time.
Are you surprised by the reactions that you’re getting for this performance? Because there you are, in a Paul Thomas Anderson film, opening the movie—first scene, we see you.
I felt so lucky when I got the job. Probably because I didn’t want to get myself into a nervous state or panic while I was working on it, I didn’t really think about its release. And maybe that’s a little bit coming from the theater. I think while I’m doing it is when it’s happening. It’s sort of a surprise always to me with films. It exists later, once it’s been cut together and out in front of the audience a year later or whatever. So I didn’t really think about it, and it’s been really just like having 17 cherries on top of an already really nice thing… I have been an enormous fan of Paul’s work from the beginning, since I saw Sidney when I was in high school. So it’s kind of just out of this world. And then you get to do all your scenes with Joaquin Phoenix. Are you kidding me? And this is a job? You’re going to pay me to do this? Outrageous. It’s really beyond.
What was it like on the set with Paul Thomas Anderson?
I worry sometimes that it might be interpreted as a sort of haphazard way of working, but actually I think that there is really strong intention behind everything that Paul does. It’s just that you can’t feel it, which is a luxury because when you see the wheels turning that can be very distracting—the pressure of what a director wants. It’s like he sets a trap for life to happen, but you can’t see a trap. I know part of it is that he really genuinely trusts the people he hires in front of and behind the camera, and you feel that trust on set, and so you feel safe, you feel free, and when you feel free you do better work. It’s just so logical and yet it’s rare.
Do you like doing movies as opposed to theater?
I love them both, but really for the same reason, which is you feel like you are in a huddle with a community of people pursuing the same task. I love that feeling. I guess I love escaping my life, really. I love going into another world and feeling for this amount of time that this is it, this is the world I’m going to live in. You feel it more during the rehearsal process. You kind of wake up in the morning and you don’t see anybody but these actors until you go home at night and pass out and do it again. So it’s structured a lot like the process when you’re making a film. You just kind of get in that tunnel vision. I like that. I like when the rest of the world kind of quiets. And then you wrap the movie and you’ve got three months of bills to pay that you’re ignoring, or some angry friend that you didn’t call back.
How did you start acting? Did your father encourage you or did you just grow up into it?
I don’t think a single father has ever encouraged his child to (be an actor). Maybe some maniac somewhere. No. I suppose there are stage parents who encourage their kids, but no, he certainly didn’t encourage me. But he didn’t detour me either. I’m sure he was nervous for me just because it’s tough.
You had a connection to Shasta and you could tell on screen.
Thank God. I mean, because that’s a big fear, right? It’s not hard to connect to the characters you connect to, you just do. But the gamble is whether it’s going to read at all. It’s just a dream of the struggling actor to just have a proper shot, not just in a film that people will see, but with a character that’s rich and complicated and that you can show you’re capable of taking on. No one knows you’re capable of taking on a complicated, rich character until someone lets you take on a complicated and rich character, so it’s this catch-22.
How did you get this role? Was there an audition process?
Paul had seen me in the middle of the night on some cable channel in a movie that I made in 2007 called The Babysitters and called up Cassandra Kulukundis—who’s his casting director—and said, “Hey, I found this girl.” And I think her response was, “Yeah, Paul, I’ve been telling you about this girl for years,” because Cassandra had seen me in plays in New York. And then around the time when they were gearing up to do The Master, Cassandra texted me and told me this, and I just remember staring at my phone. This man who I think is so brilliant has seen me in something. I couldn’t believe it. I always imagined that was just going to be my rainy day treat to myself every time I didn’t get a job, I could tell myself, “Well, at least in some alternate universe Paul Thomas Anderson knows that I exist” and that’s something to keep me going through all the heartache and rejection this business serves up. So she told me that story and she told me that they were going to try to find something for me in The Master and I thought, “Oh, boy, I’m so lucky.” And then I heard nothing. So same message came around a year later about Inherent Vice and I thought, “Oh, I’ve received this text before, I know how this goes. I’m not going to hear from her again.” So I didn’t smartly go out and buy the book that day and get prepared because I didn’t think the audition was going to come. And then it came quickly and I didn’t have time to read the damn book and Paul wasn’t giving out the script or even the sides, so I went in to meet Cassandra and I read the first scene in the film cold. And then thought, “Well, that’s as close as I’m ever going to get to that brilliant director.” I had a couple of drinks that night and probably cried into at least one of them, and then Cassandra took the (audition) tape out to L.A. and I started receiving encouraging texts. And then texts asking, “Can you be blonde?” I ran to the salon, sat for 10 hours and came out blond and sent a picture. I didn’t want a reason as stupid as my hair color to be why I didn’t get the job. Then I flew out to Los Angeles with the help of my mother’s hairdresser, who is also a flight attendant and got me a flight for free. It was the end of pilot season, where I hadn’t gotten a job, so I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel. I met Paul right when I got here, and the day he handed me the script he said, “Hi, Shasta.” I thought, “Oh my God. This is it? I don’t even have to jump through five more hoops? He’s just going to give me the job right now? He’s already calling me Shasta?” And then he didn’t give me the job for like another three weeks, which was torture. It felt like years. And then he did.
Katherine Waterston photographed by Mark Mann