HEAT VISION

Katherine Waterston on 'The World to Come' Venice Premiere and HBO's Ambitious 'The Third Day'

Katherine Waterston
TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images
The actor, who recently had a bout with COVID-19, examines how she chooses roles and reflects on working with Michael Fassbender in 'Alien: Covenant.'

Katherine Waterston is having a moment. Fresh off the world premiere of her latest film, The World to Come, at the Venice Film Festival, Waterston’s new HBO limited series, The Third Day, is also set to debut on Sep. 14. The World to Come, which has already been met with glowing reviews, also stars Vanessa Kirby, along with Casey Affleck and Chris Abbot. Waterston and Kirby play 19th-century farmers’ wives, Abigail and Tallie, whose unhappy marriages yield a friendship and passionate romance. Despite their obvious on-screen chemistry, Waterston and Kirby had little time to develop a bond prior to shooting Mona Fastvold’s drama.

“We sort of fell into a friendship quite quickly, and we were lucky because we didn’t know each other. We met only once before we started shooting, and the shooting schedule was incredibly ambitious,” Waterston tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was all quite intense, so we didn’t really have three weeks of casual rehearsal where we could kind of get to know each other better. So we were just fortunate, in that sense, that we did just hit it off so quickly. [Vanessa is] easy to like. It’s not hard. We did have that, but I could credit the writing as much as just the natural chemistry that we had.”

Waterston, who recently endured a bout with COVID-19, also shares what it’s like to attend the Venice Film Festival in the COVID era.

“The festival is being incredibly strict and responsible about social-distancing and mask-wearing. The only people I’ve gotten quite close to are people, who, like me, have had COVID,” Waterston shares. “The show must go on, but with new rules. So, yeah, we’re making it work. I think the difficulty is that everybody’s so happy to be here, but nobody can see that everybody’s smiling because everybody’s wearing masks.”

Waterston’s upcoming HBO limited series, The Third Day, also stars Jude Law and Naomie Harris, as the series is divided into summer, autumn and winter sections. The summer and winter sections are separate yet interconnected stories that are told over three episodes each. The autumn portion will feature a 12-hour live performance at the very island where the rest of the series was shot.

“I just thought that was so incredibly strange and ambitious, and I wanted to see behind that curtain and just be a part of something I felt was ballsy and innovative in television,” Waterston explains. “Then, the global pandemic happened, and we’ve had to adjust what the live element is. But I think the pandemic led us to the best version of the live element."

In a recent conversation with THR, Waterston also reflects on working with Paul Thomas Anderson and Ridley Scott, as well as reuniting with actors like Michael Fassbender and Michael Shannon on different projects.

So how’s Venice?

Amazing. Absolutely amazing. And beautiful.

The World to Come just premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and the early feedback is quite strong. How did the premiere go from your perspective?

What’s so strange is that I didn’t really have any expectations. (Laughs.) I just didn’t think about it. It’s always such a shitshow. You’ve got hair and makeup, and the clothes, and you’ve got to wear some kind of strange brassiere. And the clock is ticking until you’ve got to get out the door. And when you get there, there’s all these pictures, people shouting at you, the lights and interviews. You also can’t see the interviewer because you’re taking so many pictures, and you're blinded from the flash. Then, you get into a seat, and you see the film on a big screen for the first time. I was just sort of all caught up in my own little whirlwind there. And then, at the end, suddenly, “Oh fuck, right. Are they going to clap or not?” (Laughs.) It was sort of in the moment that it occurred to me for the first time that I should be worried and maybe just collect our things and shuffle out of the theater. But, yeah, I was quite surprised. Also, I think there are a few funny moments, but it’s not like you get evidence from the audience as you go, that it’s going well. It’s quite a quiet watch. (Laughs.) So you don’t really know until the end how the audience feels. It was pretty overwhelming.

How did the festival feel in terms of COVID safety?

Well, the festival is being incredibly strict and responsible about social-distancing and mask-wearing. The only people I’ve gotten quite close to are people, who, like me, have had COVID.

Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.

No, it’s okay. Apart from that, we’ve been pretty careful, and that’s great to see. The show must go on, but with new rules. So, yeah, we’re making it work. I think the difficulty is that everybody’s so happy to be here, but nobody can see that everybody’s smiling because everybody’s wearing masks. (Laughs.) But, yeah, the energy is really great. It feels wonderful just to be connecting with all of these friends now, and old colleagues and film fans who are hungry for things to get up and running again.

Since your characters have a rather intimate relationship, did you and Vanessa (Kirby) have time to establish some rapport prior to shooting? Or did you rely on good old-fashioned acting for that?

Well, I think we were really lucky because we got along really quickly. We sort of fell into a friendship quite quickly, and e were lucky because we didn’t know each other. We met only once before we started shooting, and the shooting schedule was incredibly ambitious. We shot in two parts — the summer section and the winter section. I think in the summer section, we didn’t have a single day off. I think we shot through seven-day weeks, with rehearsal before the scenes in the morning. It was all quite intense, so we didn’t really have three weeks of casual rehearsal where we could kind of get to know each other better. So we were just fortunate, in that sense, that we did just hit it off so quickly. She’s easy to like. It’s not hard. We did have that, but I could credit the writing as much as just the natural chemistry that we had. We both loved the script so much and understood that every scene required pretty meticulous mining for answers. And we were really in it together, working out and sort of calibrating the development of these feelings, not overdoing it too quickly and letting it take its time. What you see in the writing is two people who, as their feelings develop, are very weary to communicate them. There’s a lot of speaking in code and so we had to translate that code so we knew what we were saying. And then, we had to ask ourselves, “Well, if one person is speaking in code, does the other person necessarily understand it? Are we sometimes trying to say things to the other that the other doesn’t fully understand?” So we really ripped apart those scenes, talked about them incessantly and worked on them at every free moment just to really try to figure out what to reveal and when, and just map that progression carefully.

I consider you to be a chameleon because I never seem to immediately recognize you on-screen, and I don’t think it’s just as simple as having a different look for each of your characters. Have you heard this before from anyone?

Yeah, I feel kind of embarrassed to confirm that I’ve heard this because it’s obviously a kind of bragging. I don’t know how to talk about it, but I have heard it. People have told me that I wasn’t the girl in Steve Jobs or Tina in Fantastic Beasts. People have said, “No, that’s not the same person.” I mean, I’ve had a few encounters with people who have been agitated with me and say, “No, that’s not true.” (Laughs.) So that’s weird. And I’ve had dinner with people who have seen films that I was in, and they don’t think they have. Someone recently asked me who I was in Fantastic Beasts, and I was like, “Well, the girl next to Eddie (Redmayne).” (Laughs.) I don’t know what to say. Yeah, you’re not alone. I don’t know why. I think my face can look like a lot of different things, I suppose. I don’t know. I mean, I would obviously love to think that it’s the result of my hard work; I’d love to think that, but I don’t know. I do know that I love playing different kinds of people. I’m not the first actor to say this, but when you put on someone else’s shoes, it completely changes how you walk and how you feel. Costume has always been really important to me, and it almost feels like cheating. I don’t know where any of us would be without costumes. It gives you so much, and it does so much work for you. So I know I rely heavily on that, and I involve myself with that part of the process in a pretty intimate way. I just love working with costume designers. In a way, I think building a character is sort of similar to the work a director has in putting a whole film together. You have these visions in your head that come from the research, the daydreaming and the reading of the script that you do. But they live in this place in your mind, and your imagination is very difficult to articulate. Then, you have to try, as you talk about the collar of your shirt with the costume designer or the framed pictures that are in your bedroom to the production designer. How do you get these visions in your head out into the world? How do you get those visions in your head into that collaborative process with everybody else involved? If something in that process makes me kind of disappear, that’s fucking awesome; I’m so happy to hear that. But I don’t really know why it happens, if that makes any sense. (Laughs.) I don’t know why people don’t recognize me from different films. I mean, obviously, there is a fear that I haven’t made an impact. (Laughs.)

It’s definitely a compliment since there are certain actors who are so recognizable and famous that their characters become interchangeable.

Well, thank you.

Jess, your character in HBO’s The Third Day, is a lot of fun I must say. I’m still laughing over her “Oh God, butter” line.

(Laughs.) I loved that line.

Was the writing, especially for your character, the ultimate draw for you?

It’s actually not always hard to identify what the big draw is. When I read The World to Come, there was a line, a voiceover, that wasn’t even a third of the way down the first page. And when I read it, I was in. Sometimes, that happens. The line was, “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.” They ended up not needing it in the film, but I was so blown away by this notion of someone whose life is so limited. Obviously, a woman who doesn’t enjoy the freedoms I enjoy today, who, at night, wonders if she’s a disappointment rather than if she is disappointed. She’s not thinking, “Oh poor me, that I have a hungry appetite for knowledge and a bigger, more interesting life than I have.” She’s not thinking, “Poor me.” She’s thinking, “I wonder if those around me are satisfied.” I just found it so devastating, and that was a very clear thing. But usually, the decision to do a project is based on all the people involved, the script and maybe where you’re at in your life and what you feel you have to give.

So it’s hard to kind of pinpoint a specific thing for why I wanted to do The Third Day or what the primary reason was, but I was incredibly drawn to this live element that we haven’t done yet with Punchdrunk. They produced the show and were hugely involved in the making of it. From the beginning, when I first heard about the project, I knew that there was going to be a theatrical element to the show. I just thought that was so incredibly strange and ambitious, and I wanted to see behind that curtain and just be a part of something I felt was ballsy and innovative in television. Then, the global pandemic happened, and we’ve had to adjust what the live element is. But I think the pandemic led us to the best version of the live element, which will be a 12-hour performance that Jude and I are going to do on October 3 with the Punchdrunk performers on the island where we filmed the show. They’ve now really woven it into the story, and we’ll really have a summer, autumn, and winter section of the show. This live event will be the autumn section, and none of us know what we’re in for. I’ve never done anything close to a 12-hour performance. I started in the theater; I fucking love it, and I’m so excited to find out what this will be. It’s this sort of amalgam of television and theater. So that was a really big draw because I kind of couldn’t believe my ears. It just sounded so harebrained, you know? We’re going to do a TV show with an episode of theater in the middle. (Laughs.) So, yeah, that was a big draw, but of course, character, obviously. I’m always interested in what the challenges will be, and with Jess, there’s some things I can’t really talk about because I think they’d kind of ruin the show. But yeah, there’s a really fun thing to work out with her. It’s a little like the challenges in The World to Come and what do you reveal about a character and when? I think the intricate process of revealing a character is a very interesting question, or something I’m interested in finding right now. Sometimes, when you’re young, starting out and excited by a character you’re playing, you kind of want to spew it all out at once, you know? To have the patience and the planning to let it emerge in time — and letting go of that need to show off all you think you can do in the first scene — is something I’ve really enjoyed in the last few jobs I’ve done. I suppose it’s a slightly more patient way of working. 

You’ve worked with quite a list of acclaimed directors, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Ridley Scott and Danny Boyle. When you move on to other projects and encounter particular challenges on those sets, do their voices stay with you at all? Do you ever use their past words to solve something in the present?

That’s such a great question that no one’s ever asked me before. I knew from the start of my career that I was greedy and that I wanted to work with the best. As I’ve had a little more control over my career and have had more options than I did at the beginning, some of those dreams became realities. And I still feel the same way. I still, obviously, want that for myself. Back then, I wanted to work with them because I loved them; I was a fan. I thought I would be pushed best by them and that I would be stretched and challenged in ways that I wanted to be. And I wasn’t wrong about that. But what I didn’t expect to get from them was an education, not just about how to work or how to deliver a good performance, but how to thrive in a collaborative environment. What I was so surprised to get from them was so much more holistic than just about becoming a good performer or something. I feel like this is always in my mind when I arrive on sets now. It’s their love of making things and their joy on set; that was the thing. All these directors I’ve worked with are unique. They work in very individual ways and are very different from one another. Paul would sometimes return to a scene and reshoot it altogether. Whereas Ridley might do one take, or two if you’re lucky. But the through-line that I started to notice as I worked with all of these brilliant filmmakers was their joy and their enthusiasm. I’ve been so fucking lucky to work with them, and they all have their own personalities that they express in different ways. When I started out, I was just so nerdy, and I wanted to work really hard, I wanted to be challenged and I took it all — and probably myself — too seriously. I started to notice that all of these people that I had put on such a pedestal — whose films I’d either grown up with or discovered as an adult and was completely blown away by — were all quite committed to a sense of play that they never really lost on set. There’s a lot of stressful things going on, and obviously, they’re all masters. So they could tend to that stuff easily, but that was the through-line. I thought, “Okay, this is important. I can’t lose this myself, either.” And I suppose that’s a takeaway from working with them, but I also think it’s probably just the result of getting older. When you’re young, you feel you have this tremendous amount to prove to yourself, to your peers, to your heroes, whatever. And then, as you get older, you realize, “Oh for fuck’s sake, life is hard. Make ‘em laugh.” (Laughs.) It’s not always about taking yourself so seriously, I suppose.

When you and Michael Fassbender reunited on Alien: Covenant, did the two of you hit the ground running despite playing markedly different characters than the ones you played in Steve Jobs?

I love that guy. I haven’t seen him in a while actually. (Laughs.) Yeah, probably. I think it’s just great when you already know your costars. On Covenant, I don’t think I’d ever worked with Billy Crudup, but I’d known him for a really long time from New York theater stuff and hanging around. Having had the experience on Covenant of working with someone who is just an old pal and a former colleague is not that different. It feels comfortable, and having something of a shared experience or shared past can feel quite freeing. You do hit the ground running a little bit. You just don’t have to waste any energy or effort with the niceties of a budding friendship or something. You can get right into it, and I suppose there’s an element of trust. Whenever I’m working with somebody that I’ve worked with before, I have a little bit of confidence that they didn’t say, “Oh no, absolutely not her,” during the casting process. (Laughs.) So that always makes me feel a little bit more welcome, I suppose, and it’s just always great fun. I worked with Michael Shannon twice, too, and it's so much fun. It’s just so much fun working with people multiple times. And Jude (Law), too. We did Third Day together, we were on Fantastic Beasts, but we never really had any scenes together. We were just pals from the press tour, so it does make things better. There’s a strong argument to be made for the studio system. I could play around with the folks I’ve worked with thus far for years and not get bored. And certainly, there are many actors I’ve worked with that I’d love to work with again.

I come from a family of doctors and lawyers, so I did everything possible to buck convention. Since you have a handful of family members in show business, did you resist the urge to follow suit for a while? Or did you gravitate in that direction pretty early?

I resisted it. When I was a kid, I was really headstrong. I was conscious of the sort of von Trapp aspect of my family and I didn’t want to be just another one of the singers, you know? And I was just quite self-conscious about it. I wanted to be my own thing. I felt very creative from a young age, and so I tried everything else under the sun. I was a useless painter. I loved photography, and I thought maybe I could be a photographer. I spent my teen years in the dark room, which is a perfect place for an angsty teenager. (Laughs.) And then, when I was 18, I got really scared. It was the age where I suddenly realized that life is uncertain and often quite short. And I saw my future without acting in it, and it terrified me. So I kind of, in a sense, came out to my father (Sam Waterston). I don’t know why, but I thought that if I told him, I would have to do it. So it made it real to tell him, and I never looked back.

***
The Third Day premieres Sep. 14 on HBO.

HEAT VISION LATEST NEWS
LATEST NEWS