Equally comfortable performing Chekhov as she is working with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson or Ridley Scott, leaving indelible stamps on independent features and Hollywood blockbusters alike, the Anglo-American actor can do it all. Talking to friend and special guest editor Michael Shannon, Waterston reflects on the dreamy nature of her craft, climate change, the limits of language, and how motherhood will forever shape future performances
Michael Shannon: It’s been a while.
Katherine Waterston: That’s true.
Your new film, The World to Come, was extraordinary. How did it come to you?
The director, Mona Fastvold, sent me the script and after reading the first page, I didn’t read the rest for a week. I got scared – it was that good. There was a line: “At night I often wonder if those who have been my intimates have found me to be a steep hill whose view does not repay the ascent.” I found the character – a rural New England woman in the mid-1800s with no prospects, no autonomy – who was kept up at night wondering not what they didn’t get out of life, but what they didn’t give, so striking.
You do a lot of voiceover work for the film too: How was that part of the process? Did you record the narration before, during or after the filming? Was it a challenge or were you comfortable with the process?
Yeah, it was a long process. I started trying to figure it out about a year before we started filming, just recording and deleting a lot of terrible attempts at home, and then, on set, Mona would have me do scratch recordings on the day – to time shots and sometimes whole scenes with the voiceover. Finally, in post-production, we hunkered down and recorded it all a final time. That was a wonderful experience – to have the time to fine tune and tinker with it. I loved the single-mindedness of that task, just me, Mona and David, our editor, in a windowless room, zeroing in on it. I guess I love obsession – the focus that makes the rest of the world fall away. It was a great way to end the project. I felt ready to leave the part alone after that final round.
You don’t get that feeling of completion often… You usually have to be Zen about it, shrug your shoulders and walk away.
I relate to how David Fincher works – shooting take after take to get it right. I could just do one scene for days and be perfectly happy. Painters talk about it a lot, that one of the hardest things is knowing when to stop. Actors don’t have to know when to stop because someone else stops us. I don’t have a sense of when something’s really done; I just want to keep trying. It’s why I like the theatre, because you get another shot. You can keep chipping away at it.
It’s a strange thing to do your whole life, going from person to person. Now that you had a kid, do you feel more grounded in your own life and less suited to it? Or do you still have that desire to take a trip outside yourself?
It’s hard to talk about acting without it sounding obnoxious… I like getting to understand a character, a person, celebrating the best things about them, revealing and even admiring the things that are ugly and questionable about them. You’re hired to embrace everything, and it doesn’t feel entirely dissimilar to forming friendships – getting to know a person and letting them teach you things. Acting, I suppose, provides an escape – a freedom – but it also feels so incredibly normal at this point, and essential to my life. I’ve had this year to find out what it’s like to live without it – my life is certainly less rich.
The reason I ask is because I did the same play twice, before and after I had kids. My character had children; the first time, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It just rewires your central nervous system.
It is such a profound experience, having kids. Before I became a mother, I’m ashamed to admit, it never occurred to me, when I was playing someone who had children, that I should do research. I figured… I’ve seen kids, my siblings have kids, I know what kids are about; that, by osmosis, I’d learned about parenthood. I look back on parts, like my role in Steve Jobs, and think I would have played them considerably differently now. Even though I thought I was pretty out of my mind in that film, fighting for my child, I would’ve been tearing the walls down if I had someone denying paternity whilst my kid was freezing at night and the guy was making that kind of dough. They would’ve had to call security! It’s the power of these feelings and the depth of them that rattles me all the time. I see now that I took that for granted as a performer. Of course, in The World to Come I lose a child, and that weighed heavy on me, knowing what I know now.
Are you good at playing?
My grandmother was a great player, and my dad used to not fully understand that she was an adult, she was that good. So, the bar has been set high. Slapstick is big in this house, a lot of pratfalls – I feel like I’m training for vaudeville. Despite everything getting more complicated, maybe, when we have children, we revert to simpler… tastes? Maybe it’s the pandemic talking but I’m drawn to silly things right now. It’s been such a grim time, I just want to do something absolutely ridiculous.
Our circumstances demand it. You and Vanessa Kirby had some serious chemistry in The World to Come. How did you orchestrate that?
I was cast as someone who describes herself as a ‘pot bound root’ turned in on herself, so I needed somebody who could blow the doors open and force Abigail to engage. There’s a lot to be said for hiring people who admire each other’s work, because you feel safe and hopeful from the start. And then, if someone’s a really present actor who is willing to play with and off you, it breeds confidence. All the scenes between Tallie and Abigail were subtle, charged, intricate dances – so I needed a partner who could really engage with me, surprise me. I couldn’t think of anyone but Vanessa for the part and was so relieved when she said yes.
I do think too high a premium is put on chemistry or, maybe, that it doesn’t mean what many people think it means. We had a script where the chemistry was built into it; sometimes we are speaking in coded language (which is inherently sexy); often the communication is non-verbal, we’re just whiling away the time together. That’s all in the script, so as long as we were willing to follow its roadmap, that chemistry was there. Good writing leaves room for the performers to question each other, play with each other. Maybe the tension created by engaging with another is what we mean by chemistry? Perhaps we rarely see well-developed characters truly communicating on screen?
I have a pessimistic view of human communication. I think it’s ineffective 99.9 per cent of the time. That’s why it was pretty powerful watching you two communicate so meaningfully through, or beyond, language, non-vocally, because words so often fail. David Lynch, who extremely dislikes explaining his work, said a couple years back that “A film or a painting – each thing is its own sort of language and it’s not right to try to say the same thing in words.”
I love that sentiment. This feels a little different because you’re my friend and it might be easier for me to talk about acting with actors, but there is a possibility that talking about what we do too much could interfere with what we’re trying to do. What is that Italo Calvino line about Venice? “Perhaps I’m afraid of losing all at once, if I speak of it.” In acting school, the students were divided into the people who didn’t truly enjoy acting but were getting better every day at talking about it, and those who didn’t want to talk about it anymore, but wanted to get up there, make mistakes, figure it out and “get dreamy”, to quote Lynch again.
Sometimes talking too much interrupts your encounter with the world. That being said, one of my favourite things in the world used to be reading interviews in magazines when I flew. Do you enjoy reading them?
There was a great one between Zadie Smith and George Saunders in Interview magazine a couple years ago, but they speak in paragraphs and it sort of makes me want to pull the sheets over my head because I can never compete with that. I would like to interview you, but we’ll do that another day.
For what magazine? Town & Country?
For some reason, I’m picturing you on the cover with flowing hair to the mid-waist, ’70-style fan blowing it back. It could look quite good, actually.
Well thanks. Your character keeps a diary, have you ever done that yourself?
When I was young, yes. My parents took me out of school a lot, which I don’t recommend. I missed some very basic math. I mostly wrote about where I went and what I saw on the road with my folks. I also quickly realised it was a covert opportunity to curse, so all my old journals are pretty vulgar.
My dad said if you’ve got something important to say, write it down. Acting teachers wanted me to keep a journal, you know, “The Artist’s Way”.
You ever tried that?
No, I’m just freestyling here.
Apparently one of its rules is to walk into a museum or a cinema every day at some point. That seems like a nice rhythm to have – drop what you’re doing: ‘Sorry, it’s my Artist’s Way moment.’
We’re going to have to come up with a COVID Way. I was meant to do a production of Waiting for Godot before all this, and there was a suggestion of doing it online. Samuel Beckett on Zoom? Not in my lifetime. It’s spooky not having live music too.
That must be a big one for you.
I hear that you’ve been busy trying to make other people’s lives a little bit easier during these challenging times. The environment is something that I’m deeply concerned about – have been ever since I was a kid – and this is an issue that’s been on your mind as well. Especially now that we have a new president, I’m hoping America is taking this seriously again.
I was despairing a great deal when Trump was in office, worrying about bringing a child into such a broken world. I was without hope before I got to know Christiana Figueres and what she’s up to. She shepherded the Paris Agreement and is a total bad-ass who coined the term ‘stubborn optimism’ about climate change. It’s an essential approach because without a determination to stick with it, without hope that we can solve this, we’re completely screwed. Her approach and extraordinary dedication helped me to get over myself. I stopped despairing and started to think about what more I could do to help. I got involved with an amazing project she’s working on called Count Us In. The United Nations has identified 16 actions that, on an individual level, can make a really big impact on the reduction of global emissions. The platform allows you to select and, crucially, track your chosen actions so you can see the wonderful thing you’re contributing to. Some of the actions are only for the rich and able, like promising that your next car will be electric, but many are easier to commit to, like eating more vegetables for the next two months, or riding my bicycle x number of times instead of driving. We’re keen for as many people to get involved as possible, because the aim is global behaviour change that plays out on an individual level. Beyond reducing emissions, the data of individual actions that Count Us In aggregates, inspires and puts pressure on multinational companies and governments when they see how many people actually care. Collectively, it all makes a difference.
Hallelujah… That’s amazing, that’s really something. It sounds like participation on your own terms, without somebody lecturing you. That is one of the fundamental problems: loneliness – thinking you’re alone with this seemingly insurmountable challenge. With COVID, you’ve been sequestered in the UK for the whole year, pretty much. What’s your frame of mind? Are you getting antsy?
I am done with this thing, for sure. But my gripes are insignificant. I recently talked with a woman who works in Lima, Peru, installing a sawdust toilet-system to a very large portion of the city’s population who have no running water. I cannot complain. For me, slowing down has been an opportunity to remember what matters. Not seeing my family, being 3,000 miles away, is my number one beef; then, after that, it’s everybody else… It’s people. What else matters? I miss people, and not just the ones I know and love, but, you know, being in a crowd – sharing laughter with strangers in cinemas… I miss being anonymous in a dark room.
Well, I miss seeing you around!
I miss you too, Mike!
Photography Guen Fiore
Styling Marianthi Hatzikidi
Production The Production Factory
This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here