It’s only appropriate that actress Katherine Waterston has returned to the New York Film Festival with her latest high-profile role. After all, it was at NYFF that the long-time actress broke out with her turn in last year’s “Inherent Vice.” This time around, Waterston is starring in yet another anticipated film from a beloved director: Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.”
In the ambitiously scripted look (thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s snappy three-act structure) at the late Apple founder’s life, Waterston plays Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’ jilted college lover and the mother of his first child, Lisa. As Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) ascends to the top of the technology heap, Chrisann appears to battle him for support — financial and otherwise — for both herself and her daughter, an understandable claim that Jobs frequently rebuffs. It’s a rapid-fire, meaty role for Waterston, and another big step forward for an actress who became “the next big thing” over a decade into her career.
Waterston recently hopped on the phone with Indiewire to talk about her very big year, including “Steve Jobs” and her upcoming role in the sure-to-be blockbuster “Harry Potter” prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
This has been a very big year for you. We can actually date it to last year when “Inherent Vice” premiered at the New York Film Festival. How are you dealing with everything?
I don’t know. It’s funny, because I think that when you are struggling as an actor, you imagine that if things were to pan out, everything in your life would change. But really it’s not so different. You’re still pursuing good work. You still panic that you’re doing it all wrong. I don’t know. I think the only real difference is that people ask me more questions about my work than they used to and sometimes I have to get dressed up. But it’s really not that different.
It must feel pretty special to be back at NYFF with “Steve Jobs” after the reception “Inherent Vice” got last year.
I personally love it because it’s my hometown and my family can come to premieres and I’ve always been a big fan of the festival. You know, New Yorkers love it. I’m not so big on competition and I love that it’s a non-competitive festival. I struggle to make sense of the idea that there are best anythings at this stuff we do. I’ve always really loved the festival.
It’s funny as a marker of the year. There’s this woman who does these portraits in these wonderful Polaroid prints at the festival, and she has ones of me from the year before. Last year I was freaking out before “Inherent Vice” came out, and now here I am again.
Is it strange to be deemed an emerging star after working in film and especially theater for so long?
I don’t really think about it too much, honestly. I think public perception is always funny and I think that no matter what it is, it feels a little inaccurate because it is some kind of projection.
But I’m so happy to be getting the work I’m getting, I’m not really thinking about what people are calling me or not calling me or what they’re recognizing or not recognizing. I know that I’ve been plugging away at this for a long time. And the truth is that I really was under the radar and Paul [Thomas Anderson] did basically pull me from obscurity, so it’s not entirely inaccurate.
I imagine that after “Inherent Vice,” you had a lot of new offers thrown your way. What made you go for “Steve Jobs”?
Did you just say that I had a lot of offers? [laughs]
Well, I imagine you did.
Who told you that? [laughs] I don’t know. That’s not really what my experience has been. That’s kind of the same. It doesn’t change when you have a lucky streak. Most people, not just actors, like to challenge themselves. So if you reach some level, you just want to push further and figure out what you can achieve or learn. If you work with some great people, it only makes you want to work with more. And it’s hard to find those people and particularly find the ones who want to work with you.
Did you audition for the role?
I auditioned for “Steve Jobs.” Obviously, I had competition because everybody wants to work with people that good. I think I would have guessed five years ago that if I had gotten a job like “Inherent Vice,” I would have been overwhelmed by the opportunity, because I never thought it would work like that. In my experience, you still have to read a lot of stuff and look around and then show up and fight for the part, unless you’re very powerful. And even then, I don’t know. I have friends who are doing extraordinarily well and they’re still not in something they love. I think that that feeling, unfortunately, doesn’t go away, but at the same time, there’s something kind of good about that. It keeps you active if you have to keep fighting to prove yourself.
There was a heavy rehearsal period for the film, which isn’t often the case with movies. Was that essential for you to get into character?
I loved the structure of it. Having many rehearsals is basically unheard of in film. But what was really downright bizarre about the way this one was designed is that we stopped production. The crew stopped, people went home for the week. The crew stopped filming, and that just doesn’t happen unless you run out of money. And then we went back to the rehearsal room. That was sort of the most useful element for me in terms of rehearsing at all, because it gave us a chance to have some sense of the passage of time — for me, I’m not in the third act — between the first and the second acts of the film. I love rehearsing.
And you come to it from a background in theater, too.
I’ve been doing theater for a long time and I don’t have an aversion to rehearsal. But I didn’t want to know exactly where I was going in the scenes, and I was a little concerned about figuring it all out before we shot the first scenes in act one. Because I didn’t want to lose the feeling that Chrisann didn’t know what he [Steve Jobs] was going to throw at her.
On the one hand, I think that by the time you meet her in the film, it’s well into a long history, and so they know the arguments. It’s familiar to both of them. But at the same time, I think they were really good at playing each other, getting into each other’s weak spots and everything. And so I didn’t want to be so rehearsed, so familiar that I couldn’t be surprised by him. I think that when you’re trying to get the attention of someone who is so smart and quick and cunning, as he was, you kind of have to come in prepared.
I think she had some idea of what she may be able to say to him to get his attention, but then he might take a turn she’s not ready for, and she’s lost the argument. I basically didn’t want to be too ready for him because I think a big part that’s so frustrating about the dynamic for her is that he’s out to win and when he wins, she’s on her own again. I’m not saying this well. I didn’t want to become fixed in in the scenes.
I love rehearsing, but I was a little bit nervous that it would take someone the electricity out. So while we were rehearsing, I felt I held something back and kept some secrets for myself so that when we got in the room, it could still feel new and uncharted.
How much did you know about Chrisann and her relationship with Steve before you took the role?
Nothing. I was sent the script in May of 2014, and then I didn’t audition until something like October or November of 2014. So I had time with these words. I couldn’t stop thinking about them.
For a while there, it wasn’t clear if the film was ever going to be made.
I didn’t know what was happening with the movie, I was auditioning for other things, getting on with my life. But a piece of a scene would pop back into my head and I would walk around my neighborhood saying the lines, and I couldn’t quite shake her. And every time I dropped back into my head, I felt like I discovered something new and a scene I hadn’t noticed was there before.
I compare Sorkin’s writing to matryoshka dolls, because the more time you spend with them, you think you’ve cracked it, and then there’s another one in there and another one and another one. He’s packed so much into these scenes but in such a subtle way that you can’t see everything that’s there on the first read. It takes time living with it to chip away at it, to mine it. And if you give it more, the more it gives you back. So I had this lucky, private rehearsal period with it that just happened out of the random circumstances of the movie changing studios and everything. So I spent all this time with Sorkin’s interpretation of her.
Did you read up on Chrisann during the time period?
I didn’t go research it because I didn’t even know if I was ever going to get an audition, let alone a chance to play her, so I didn’t want to encourage myself to get attached to the part. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what would be in the scenes and what they were about. They have a history, she’s very frustrated with him, he knows how to push her buttons, she’s trying to push his, and they’re fighting over a kid. But the more I got into it, I was like, she admires him, she resents him. Clearly, he really knows how to hurt her and she really, clearly suffers from that. And also she tolerates it, she takes it for the sake of her daughter.
There’s a line where she says, “Humiliate me all you want, but eventually you have to face the fact that I’m in your life and you’re in mine.” I think about that line, and she really meant it. You know, you can do your worst and I’m not going anywhere. She’s very honest, and I think that shows that she knows him so well. She knows what he does to people, and she’s seen it for a long time, and it’s not going to work on her.
That was potentially my initial research, just the script and who was this person in this script. I spent months with her there. And, of course, once I got the part, I read the [Walter] Isaacson book and I watched YouTube clips of her that I could find to get a sense of her and I talked to Sorkin, who had spent time with her. And she wrote a book that I read. Sorkin, of course, didn’t read that book, but I read it, not with any kind of goal in mind. You just get your hands on whatever you can get your hands on and find out later what fits and what drops. You just immerse yourself and see what works. And a lot of it I didn’t think was necessary for shooting the scenes, but it was helpful for me to connect it to her.
When you’re playing a real person, where’s the line between an impression and an impersonation? Danny seems to have been much more interested in getting impressions from his actors.
I think it really depends on the project. It’s communicated quite clearly with the structure of the film that this is an interpretation. We all know that all of these events didn’t happen over three days in this man’s life. And even Kate [Winslet], who spent a lot of time with the woman she played, talks about her character as a character. There were pieces of other people he worked with that Aaron folded into that character. And I think that applies for everyone in the film. We’re this ensemble, and there are many more people that were in his life.
But you know that these are amalgams of many relationships, so I think that that’s particular to this film. That’s a very unusual way of telling this story. It’s not a biopic. It’s a portrait. It has Aaron’s interpretation all over it. Obviously, he did tremendous research. And we all felt a moral responsibility to be truthful as we could be, but really to the script because it is an interpretation. But, of course, you can’t walk onto something like this and not think about the people you’re playing and not feel concern and even protectiveness. I don’t think any of us entered it lightly. On the other hand, I admired and respected her from the beginning, so it wasn’t difficult or a stretch for me to be sympathetic to her. That came immediately.
You’re doing a “Harry Potter” prequel right now, and I feel like there are similar issues of being respectful and protective of a universe that a lot of people love. Do you feel that?
It’s really the same answer. My responsibility is to the script and to my director and to my castmates. I feel like with most jobs, there’s plenty of time to panic about all of that where you’re in the period between the last day of shooting and when the movie comes out. I feel like when I’m working, I can keep my head down and try to stay focused and not let those thoughts gain ground and make my heart pound. You just don’t want to invite them in because that’s obviously the worst thing that can happen to you while you’re working, to become debilitated by your own fears. So I just I try not to think about those things while I’m working. Thank you for reminding me. [laughs]
I do what I can to think of it as an incredible positive. Because usually when you work on a film, you think, my God, is anyone going to come out and see this? Of course, you don’t know if anyone is going to like it and you hope that they will, but we do know that people want to see this. In a certain sense, it’s like when you get into the semifinals or something and you’ve got the fans who are thinking about the next game and hoping you do well. So I’m trying to live there. I’m trying to be optimistic about it and think that they’re rooting for us.
“Steve Jobs” opens in limited release on October 9, with further expansion to follow.