Katherine Waterston has been acting for 10 years, but her standout role comes in Inherent Vice. She plays Shasta Fay Hepworth, a girlfriend of P.I. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who goes missing. Doc’s search for Shasta unravels many other mysterious conspiracies in a drug-fueled ‘70s Los Angeles mystery.
At the film’s Los Angeles junket last weekend, Waterston was a picture of class. She was lovely toward everyone in the room as we sat in a roundtable and asked her questions about Shasta. Inherent Vice opens this weekend in New York and L.A., and wide January 9.
Nuke the Fridge: Did you know when you auditioned or were offered the part that this could be a real breakthrough role for you?
Nuke: That it would be such a breakthrough role for you?
Katherine Waterston: No, it’s been so nice, the response. I didn’t even allow myself to think about the final product when I was working on it because I didn’t want to get in my own way or concern myself with it while I was working. You can sort of self-sabotage if you’re thinking about the final finished product. You want to be free.
Nuke: So I should ask why did you want to fight so hard for it?
Katherine Waterston: For so many different reasons but one of the big reasons is the same reason that any actor fights to be in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie is just to get to work with him. I had a friend around the same time I got this job who had been cast in a film by another really well-known talented director. He was, for sport, having his friends guess who the director was. He was so excited and he’d say, “Just imagine, the best director you could work with, the dream for any actor, who they’d love to work with.” He got so frustrated because everyone kept saying Paul Thomas Anderson and it wasn’t Paul. He’s just so great to work with. Obviously I wanted to work with him before I knew what it was like to work with him but I had seen these incredible performances that he had gotten out of actors and not just what he’s gotten out of them but what he allows them to do, the room he gives them. You can see that in the film so actors know about that even if they don’t know his reputation. You can see it. So that was big, and I don’t know, just to be one of the first people ever to get to speak Thomas Pynchon language. That’s so thrilling, and this amazing cast. Joaquin is extraordinary. I’ve followed his career and loved him for so long. I couldn’t have invented a more appealing scenario for myself. I couldn’t really imagine something that could top it.
Q: Did you think of Shasta as the heart of this story?
Katherine Waterston: I guess I did always, even when I first read the novel and the script and started thinking about the film. I did always see it as a love story. I guess I just so immediately loved Doc, his spirit and his relentless optimism despite being confused all the time. It’s a very optimistic confusion. I didn’t want to simply create some kind of cruel femme fatale because I wanted the audience to respect him on some level, to see why he would care about her beyond just sexual attraction or some kind of manipulation or control she had over him in that way. I wanted there to be a genuine connection there. That’s really important to me. I thought it was important to the film.
Katherine Waterston: Joaquin helped me in every scene in the same way. No more in that one than any other, just by being such a generous partner and so inventive and exciting to work with. But, I think that scene is so incredibly rich. I really wanted to play and I never felt concerned about it because I thought it was so honest and surprising and strange and true. So I really wanted to get my hands on it. Everyone’s asking me, “Was it nerve wracking to do a sex scene, to be nude on film?” I’ve been thinking about maybe there’s something wrong with me that I didn’t find it nerve wracking. I do wonder perhaps if I wasn’t working with people who created such a safe environment, and to say safe is really just another word for working with people I liked, just nice people, I might’ve felt differently about it. But I guess mostly I just felt a responsibility to Shasta and she was not uncomfortable, so I just wasn’t even allowed to engage with that myself. It’s what I was hired to do.
Q: Aside from the source material, did you look at any other films? How did you find this girl?
Katherine Waterston: I like to just immerse myself as much as possible and you don’t know what it’s going to give you, what’s going to stick or what’s going to resonate. Some of it’s in there banging around and maybe it’s something you’re using and you’re not even aware of it. It’s all just an effort to increase the odds that you won’t be lousy in whatever that is that you do. For me, I watch loads of films. I really wanted to see films that had exterior shots in Los Angeles around that time. It was really important to me to feel the world, what it looked like, so I found some very strange films. I went to Cinephile on the westside, this video store. They’re an amazing resource. Those guys know everything, like, “No, that was 1971, we can’t give her that one because she’s staying strictly ‘70s and earlier.” So I’d watch Cisco Pike. and this really bizarre film called The Witch Who Came From the Sea that was shot in Venice. I was so shocked at how much the seaside neighborhoods have changed since then. That was useful to me, and music but in terms of creating the character, you can’t lean on any visual reference or anything for that. It’s much more internal.