'State Like Sleep' Star Katherine Waterston On Balancing Indies And Blockbusters [Interview]

Over the past decade, actress Katherine Waterston has built up a solid filmography of work that had made her one of the most eclectic and reliable performers around. After years of theater work and taking meaty supporting roles in such films as Michael Clayton (her first film), Taking Woodstock, Robot & Frank (as well as a semi-regular role on HBO's Boardwalk Empire), she made an impressive showing as Shasta Ray Hepworth in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's 2014 marvel Inherent Vice, which effectively opened the flood gates for Waterston to take roles in Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth, Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs, Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant, Steven Soderbergh's Logan Lucky, and in Jonah Hill's directing debut Mid90s, in rapid succession. But it's her work as young witch (and agent for the Magical Congress of the United States of America) Tina Goldstein in 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and last year's Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald that have garnered her worldwide attention.

Between her Potterverse obligations, Waterston has managed to squeeze in a few smaller-scale movies, including her current release State Like Sleep, from writer-director Meredith Danluck (North of South, West of East), in which she plays a woman whose actor husband (Michiel Huisman) died unexpectedly a year earlier and she is only now dealing with the emotional consequences. The film co-stars Michael Shannon as an unexpectedly helpful neighbor, and Luke Evans as her husband's oldest friend. The piece begins as a mystery but turns into a genuinely moving film about grief and coping, and it's these hidden themes that particularly intrigued Waterston about the role.

In 2019, looks for Waterston in the Norwegian production Amundsen, from director Espen Sandberg (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales); the sci-fi love story Fluidic; and hopefully the long-delayed (former Weinstein Company title) The Current War, in which she plays Marguerite Westinghouse, wife of electricity pioneer George Westinghouse (also played by Michael Shannon).

/Film spoke to Waterston recently (via phoner from England) about the troubled character she plays in State Like Sleep, her love of all things Michael Shannon, and how living an actor's life away from home made it easier to identify with the stateless person she was playing. State Like Sleep is currently available On Digital and On Demand, and playing theatrically in select markets.

This film is a wonderful misdirect. It moves for a while like a mystery but then it shifts into an honest portrayal of grief. I can imagine that reading this screenplay for the first time was a bit of a revelation. What do you remember about that first read through?

Yeah, the scripts you read where you genuinely don't know where something is going to go, they stand out for that reason alone. And this one certainly was one of those for me. It was so powerful to me and felt so honest and true, and all the noir-ish, who-done-it moments were earned because of what was going on and so keenly observed in the inner life of this character. That's what was so brilliant about it—Meredith takes this temporary madness that is grief and applies it to this kind of thriller structure. It actually fits so well. There's that wonderful C. S. Lewis book "A Grief Observed," where there's a line in it where he says "Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead." You're just trying to make sense of something the feels nonsensical to you and to get away from the pain. I thought exploring how we mourn and how we suffer in this way was very innovative but not untrue or dishonest, and that got me really excited.

The film made me realize that we process sudden death differently than one that might result from a long-term situation. Sudden death sends us into this strange investigative mode.

Yes. We talked a lot about Joan Didion's thoughts on it in "The Year of Magical Thinking" and how the rational mind makes sense of something horrific and painful and disorienting. I don't know if Meredith and I got into why that happens, but I know I thought a lot, as we were making the film, about [her character] Katherine's reluctance to initially face this loss and to let the grief in when she does return to face it. I was thinking a lot about how recovery can feel like a betrayal if you stay stuck in your own life; it's a way to hold onto the connection to the person who's gone. If you stop your life from moving forward, it's a way to stay bound to them.

So here is this woman who is going through the motions, but she's not living. She's not taking pleasure in food, she's not sleeping, she's not laughing. She has cut herself off from the world and from the one thing that will one thing that will let her live again, which is facing the loss. I thought that was interesting, when a reluctant person is forced to face it and what happens when all of the stages of grief converge, interact and spiral together—it's almost violent, and you see how there's no good avenue to go down. The person is miserable not facing it, but facing it will be miserable too.

That's the predicament and why I thought while reading and making the movie that the introduction of Edward [Shannon] was so interesting. To have someone who seems like a bad guy makes it easier to open up to because you know you're not going to have to be responsible for this person or commit to them in any way. It's a safe place to dip your toe, as it were, into living again. But then it turns out that someone who would be remotely attracted to Katherine is someone who understands loss too and is lost too. She thinks she's inching her way back into life in a very, very safe way, but actually she's run into something extreme.

I have to thank you for contributing to a film in which Michael Shannon is portrayed as a sexy leading man, with no irony. I had completely forgotten that you two have worked together twice now playing a couple. Is it fun to watch him and work with him on that level?

We actually made The Current War after State Like Sleep, but I had known him for 10 years before that. We'd done a workshop of a play in New York. I met him when I was 24 or 25, and I'd known him and been a huge fan, of course, of his work over the years. I can't take any credit for putting him in this role; it was Meredith's brilliant idea. But I think most people who know him would not be surprised to see him in a role like this at all. He's so convincing playing unusual people and some pretty scary dudes, so I can understand how the public might be surprised. But in reality, as I'm sure you know, he's really funny and charming and smart and has all the necessary characteristics of a leading man. He's just too interesting to play them all the time [laughs]. I thought it was a brilliant idea and I'm so glad he did it, and I think he's one of the greatest actors who has ever lived.

Getting to do The Current War after this was such a treat, but it fucked with my head and made me think we were contract players for a studio, and we were just going to keep getting to work together, which is totally my expectation now and not how the movie business works. But I hope to get to work with him again because he is so inspiring and creates such a great feeling on set. All actors want to work with people who raise the bar for them, and when you've got a great script and great director and great co-star who says "Let's take this thing that's already good and take if further," it's really exciting.

One of the things that binds your two characters is this idea that you both are away from home, in Brussels, being homesick. Were you able to identify with that longing to go home and be a fish out of water in a foreign country?

I hate to ruin the movie magic, but we actually shot this in Toronto [laughs]. They did a good job, and there are a few little parts of Toronto that, when framed correctly, look a lot like Brussels. We got lucky there. That's something in the script that both Mike and I identified with. As actors, you're always on the road, living in hotels. It can be very disorienting. Just as all travel can, it can also free your mind up a bit to see things from a different perspective. The character Katherine is very uncomfortable being forced back into this environment against her will, but the place permits her to face a lot of things by herself that she could avoid in the comforts of home.

I know a lot of actors I've talked to have said that you can see aspects of your life more clearly when you remove yourself from a familiar place and gain that perspective you get from being far away. But Katherine, she so forcibly disconnecting herself from the world around her that actually the feeling you get from spending too much time in hotels might not affect her as much as it does other actors I know. She's already denying herself that. But certainly, the strangeness of hotel life is something Mike and I knew about and used in the film.

Now that you're part of this Fantastic Beasts franchise that comes back into your life every couple of years, has that changed the way that you have chosen the roles you do in between? Maybe you're looking for shorter-term commitments or smaller roles.

I don't really care about the size of the part. It's just the scripts and the characters and the people I want to work with. I did the first Fantastic Beasts and went right into Alien, and that was a lot of time away, but it was so much fun and I learned so much. I don't really plan it t hat carefully, because it's so hard for movies to come together—big or small—and you never really know what's going to work out in the window you have available. There are so many factors that have to come into place that are out of my control entirely. I love doing small films and try to do them whenever I can and anyone will have me, but I'm not really that calculated [laughs]. Maybe I should be. I just kind of follow my nose.

Katherine, thank you so much for talking. Best of luck with this.

Thanks, I appreciate it. Take care.