Katherine Waterston on navigating the controlled chaos of ‘Inherent Vice’

My first impression of Katherine Waterston in person was surprise at just how tall she is.

I stand 6'2″, and when we were introduced, we were eye-to-eye. It was the night of the New York Film Festival premiere of “Inherent Vice,” and we were at the after-party at Tavern On The Green. My review had gone up already, and by the time I made it to the party, several of the people involved in the film had seen the review. That included Waterston, who seemed excited to finally be able to discuss the movie with people, and thrilled that people seemed to like it.

While we spoke, I was also introduced to her father, the iconic character actor Sam Waterston, and he couldn't have seemed more proud of her work in the film. Since that night, I've spoken with her two more times about the film. The first was a long chat on a recent afternoon, and the second was on-camera at the recent Los Angeles press day for the movie. I wasn't expecting to talk to her that last time, so it's probably the more informal of the two.

Waterston is young, and it's always interesting to me when you're interviewing someone and you can tell that they haven't been polished or hardened by the system so far. I'm sure in a few years, she'll be way more guarded and slick, but talking to her right now, it doesn't feel like all of those filters have been put in place. She seems a little nervous about whether she's fully articulating herself sometimes, but I like that she's as open as she is.

For me, “Inherent Vice” depends on several different things, including the relationship between Shasta (Waterston) and Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), and Waterston has some very difficult material to play, and she rises to the occasion in style. It's the kind of performance that is an announcement of an actor, an introduction that the audience won't forget.

I asked her when we sat down the first time about whether the reaction was different when the film played at the AFI Fest and when it played at the New York Film Festival. The movie is very much a Los Angeles film, making great use of real locations and built around our real history. “I think that there”s a particular, you know, sort of local pride here, for Paul being a Valley kid, and it was definitely palpable, the energy there and the excitement about it. I”m looking forward to seeing it with a real Saturday night audience in Los Angeles, at the ArcLight or something.”

When I told her that I'd seen the film again since New York, she told me that she's just gotten used to telling people they should see it at least twice. Laughing, she said, “I don”t know why you wouldn”t want to.”

While that sounds like an excuse, or some sort of pre-emptive defense against someone not liking the film, it's not. The film is so dense with information and so busy in so many different ways that you spend your first viewing just keeping up with it, and in some cases, you're not really supposed to be trying to solve things or add it all up. The second time through, it was both funnier and much sadder, and it's because I knew what was happening, and I was able to just watch what it was doing to Doc.

There's a scene late in the film where Shasta comes to see Doc at his apartment, and it's a brutal, difficult, emotional scene. There's so much going on between the two of them, and i think it's true that for many of us, as we get older, we'll have that one person in our lives, the one who you can't leave alone or forget or let go of, but who we'll eternally collide with. There's a physical aggression to the scene that makes it feel constantly just on the verge of spinning out of control, and I asked Waterston about how you approach a scene like that as an actor. What's the conversation you have with the other actor? Or with the filmmaker? How much rehearsal or staging do you do?

“I don”t like to talk about things unless I have to,” she finally answered after considering the question for a moment. “I don”t like to talk a scene to death or over analyze it, especially if I feel like I have some way in on my own. Particularly with Shasta because she is so mysterious, and because she”s so mysterious, I didn”t want to give all my secrets away about her to Paul and certainly not to Joaquin. I don”t really think it serves it if he knows what I think she”s thinking.”

Not every director would be willing to cast a role like Shasta with a lesser-known performer, and I mentioned how much I like that about Anderson. It's important here because Shasta is as close as this movie gets to a femme fatale. I asked how much Waterston knows about Shasta that is not part of the actual text of the film, and whether she pulled that from the book or from Paul or from her own process.

“She”s more mysterious than a great deal of other characters out there, but with every part I play, I try to go as far as I can. That”s a very individual idea, right? What going far is? Or how you go far? Where the edges are, you know? But I feel like most actors just dig and dig and work and work in whatever way they do to try to do as much as they can to portray a character in the limited time they have to play it, whether it”s six months or one month or one week of work, you know. You just try desperately to go as far as you can in the timeframe you”ve got. So it was important for me to know her well and to feel a strong connection to her. That was important to me regardless, you know. I didn”t really think about it in terms of  how much she gives away or doesn”t give away.”

Most of her screen time is opposite Joaquin Phoenix, so chemistry is crucial, and I asked her how he was as a collaborator. Was he welcoming, or did he challenge her? What's that dynamic like?

“I don”t know,” she replied, starting to smile as she thought about Phoenix. “Maybe he was suspicious of me, but I didn”t see it. He covered it up if he felt it, you know. I felt from the start that I was really welcome there and he was really supportive.  When you work with great actors, and Joaquin is really, I think, one of the most wonderful… I don”t know how to say this with enough hyperbole to suit it, you know, but he”s one of the greatest. He”s one of our most wonderful actors, I think, so he does half of my job for me. It is a partnership when you work with someone that good.”

I've heard actors talk about how the Internet has changed their willingness to do film nudity, because you know that as soon as something is available at home, people will pull screen grabs, and they'll live forever online. For Waterston, there is little mystery left after one major sequence in the film, and I asked if she hesitated at all.

“It”s so individual. I mean, I really…. it”s just so individual.”

The thing about that sequence is that she's far more naked emotionally than she could ever be physically. The emotions they're playing, both her and Phoenix, are so raw, and the extra physical component on top of it makes it very complicated.

“Yeah,” she said, taking her time to answer. “Those scenes were incredibly intimate. It”s a really well-written scene and… I don”t know. I guess… I”ve seen lots of films where I thought that the nudity was gratuitous and I thought there was a great imbalance between how many women are nude in film versus men and, you know, I have strong opinions about all of that. But I read the book and we were trying to honor the book and that was as it was written. And on a personal level, I felt, you know, like I was working on a great project with people I respected and felt safe with, so it wasn”t really a big deal honestly. I think trying to get the scenes right and to tell the story is really important, and anything, even like the way my hair looks or whether I have underpants on or not, it”s just not where my brain is going when I”m showing up at work to play a big scene. There”s a lot of other more important things to think about, and I was thinking about those things, I guess.”

The conversations I've been having with people about the film so far focus, in part, on the ambiguity of the movie. There are plenty of things to argue about, including whether or not one of the characters actually exists, and I'm enjoying the conversations so far. It's fun when a film can push different people in totally different ways, and I asked her if she's excited to start having those conversations once people have seen the movie.

“I am so proud to be a small part of a movie that”s making people think. Remember that thing? Thinking? Remember how we used to do that? Remember how we didn”t used to sit back and get everything spoon-fed? It”s so thrilling to leave people with questions and to have them wanting to go back and see it again and going back and seeing it again and then finding a whole different thing there than they saw the first time. Something that has that much to offer an audience. I get really wound up about this and the lack of complex rich storytelling in American movies these days, you know? I”m so thrilled to be a part of one that”s saying 'Hey, you guys, don”t you want something more?' I love it. I think the best entertainment, or any kind of art, frankly, doesn”t spell it all out for you. It gets your mind turning, your mind working, and I certainly don”t have the answers to any of those questions. I have my own opinions, but they”re no more right than yours or anybody else”s.”

One of the things Anderson was known for earlier in his career was holding screenings before production so he could show his cast and crew some of the films that were bouncing around in his head as he worked, and I asked Waterston what films Anderson had shown the “Vice” cast to prepare. “You know, I've heard about this,” she said, exasperated, “but I think he has too many kids now and he's stopped doing this.”

When I told her that was disappointing, she agreed. “Or I wasn't fucking invited. That's possible. I'd heard about these famed cozy pre-shooting screenings that are so much fun and that galvanized the whole cast. But I was not privy to that on this film. I remember someone on-set nostalgically recalling those days, the old days.”

Time passes quickly, and Los Angeles in particular does not have much of a fondness for permanence. We tend to paint over our city as quickly as we can, erasing our history. When you're shooting a film about LA in LA and you're trying to reproduce a certain point in this city's past, you have to look carefully. We talked about how they shot at Manhattan Beach to create Pynchon's Gordita Beach. “I think they did a really good job finding a few locations that you see in the film that really look right for the period. You know that bit where we get caught in the rain looking for the drug dealer? That was a section of town somewhere out east. Way east. Is Pomona a place it could have been? Is that east of LA or am I kind of making this up? I don't know Los Angeles geography.” She started laughing at that point. “I think it's still pretty difficult to replicate the beach aesthetics because… I watched all the moues I could find that were shot around that period near the beach, shot in Venice or shot in Manhattan Beach. I couldn't believe… I mean, I knew that things that changed but I couldn't believe the extent that they had. The opening shot in “Cisco Pike,” he's walking across the canal, and there are those oil things going in the background…”

Flabbergasted by the casual dropping of a “Cisco Pike” reference, it was my turn to laugh. “Yeah, the oil derricks.”

“Right. And there was garbage everywhere. Not a single one of those posh tower box houses that are now all lining the canals today. So I thought they did an excellent job. Of course, we're limited to blinders a little, because if you pull back even a foot, you'll see what we've done to the town.”

The tendency in movies about the '60s or the '70s is to go overboard with the clothes and the hair and the make-up, and if you go just that little bit too far, it's “Laugh-In” suddenly. They were very careful here to keep it subtle, so it feels like a film made at the time, not a film about the time.

“I thought they did such a great job with that,” she agreed, “because, yeah, movies can feel like colonial Williamsburg, like we”re just doing re-enactments or something. That”s all the bigger picture, something Paul does so well.”

If you see “Inherent Vice” as a movie about that moment when California was caught between the fading counterculture and the rise of the Reagan Republicans, Shasta is the one character who can comfortably navigate both worlds. She's torn by the things she gets from each, and that drift she does back and forth is what drives Doc so crazy. “She's been exposed to the darker elements of that life, too,” Waterston said. “And I think there's a price to be paid for that.”

Considering how long her father's been a working actor, I asked if it was easy for Waterston to make the jump to becoming an actor, and if she was able have fewer illusions about how things worked than most young actors. “I think I actually had a great deal of illusions about it, because I saw my father having an absolute ball at work, and I wasn”t there for the years when he was struggling to get work. Seeing someone happy on set is just a very small slice of the reality of an actor”s life. So I actually found I was pretty naïve about it when I started to do it, how hard it was going to be… what the challenges were going to be. The advantage of having a father in the business is that there”s someone as interested in what you do as you are right there in your family, right there on hand. And it goes both ways. We”ve talked for hours about parts he”s playing and he read 'Inherent Vice' when I got the job. We talked about Shasta a lot. That”s what”s special about it to me. I never felt like I had a cheat sheet. I think there”s an assumption that second generation actors have some upper hand, like they know how it all works or something.”

When I spoke with Sam Waterston after that NYFF screening, he was really excited by the movie, very enthusiastic, and it was more than the polite pride of a parent. She smiled as she agreed. “It's really the sugar on top of it when it's a movie that they also just love, that simply as audience members, they were really entertained. My whole family genuinely loved the movies. So they're proud, and they're excited that I got this really lucky break. What was most exciting for me that night was seeing that they weren't screwing their faces around to act like they loved the movie. You can tell. Here, they want to see it twice. When you come from a family of actors, people in show business, they really know to celebrate good news and to celebrate it hard because it”s not every day that you get it. They”re fun for a party for sure.”

She went on to talk about how things were starting to change in her life. “A lot of people who I really respect have already seen it. I”m not gonna lie to you. It”s definitely better than my life was before I got a casting call for a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. I”ve seen a lot more of the rougher side of this business than I”ve seen of the sweeter side. But from my little exposure to this nicer side where you get to work with people who you love doing work you”re proud of in movies you would want to go see as an audience member, I can confirm that it”s much nicer than the alternative.”

With some directors, casting is the one big choice they make with an actor, leaving it up to the performer to build the character after that. Woody Allen is famously hands-off with his actors, and I asked Waterston how much Anderson steered her performance once the process began. “Paul loves actors so much, and I do think he hopes to be able to rely on them so that he can worry about the 10,000 other things he needs to be worrying about every second on set to make a good movie. I”m sure that”s what most good filmmakers do when they cast their films… hire people they can rely on, which I suppose is why it”s extra meaningful to me that he took a chance on me. I don”t know if he perceives it as taking a chance, but it was.”

That's important, of course, because if no one ever took those chances, we'd never have new movie stars, new faces, new voices. I asked her if she had to read with Phoenix before she was cast. “We didn't really read,” she said. “We just kind of talked. The three of us talked a lot.” I asked her if that was just to see the chemistry they had, and she said, “I don't know. We just sat around. Maybe he just liked talking to us. I don't know. I really don't know. I guess the truth is that I really don't care to know. It's his process. I feel like I respect his privacy about it and… I don't know. I think the way that he cast me was very similar to the way that we worked. He's listening and feeling for what feels right rather than coming in with a pre-conceived notion and trying to smoosh you into it, aim you towards it.”

It sounds like Anderson is the opposite of Hitchcock, who basically used his actors like placeholders in the film that he already had finished in his head. Anderson creates a space that leaves room for any number of happy accidents.

“The way he works is he sets a trap for life to happen, and what makes him so brilliant is that the actors can”t see the trap. Once you get a sense that someone is after something, you”ve got to make it cook. You don”t think straight. You”re just trying to hit your mark, get it right, and suddenly you”re a seventh grader, you know, doing a pop quiz on something you don”t know anything about and forget it. You don”t feel free, you can”t play. I don”t think there”s anything haphazard about the way we worked.”

You can see my final conversation with Waterston embedded at the top of this article, and you can see “Inherent Vice” in limited release now.