Katherine Waterston isn’t a believer in big breaks. The “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” star has been working steadily on stage and screen since the early aughts, but had long ago given up the idea that she was suddenly going to become some big star.
“I basically never believed that I was a commercial actor, Waterston recently told IndieWire. “Just because of the outcome of many auditions over time. No one hired me.”
That’s changed, and with the J.K. Rowling-penned series now set to span a whopping five films (all the better to keep still-rabid “Harry Potter” fans happy), Waterston seems to have the kind of job security that any actor would kill to get.
In the film, she plays Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, an employee of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (think Ministry of Magic, just across the pond) who has been relegated to a shoddy job after one too many magical mishaps. When she discovers that fellow wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has illegally smuggled a bunch of magical creatures America, she sets about bringing him to justice. A simple enough plan soon goes wildly off the rails when Newt’s animals escape, and the two tumble into the kind of dangerous conspiracy that Potterheads will feel very comfortable enjoying.
In short, it’s a starring role in a blockbuster — and Waterston didn’t need a big commercial profile to get it.
Before “Beasts,” there was a brief period of time when Waterston did think that she could turn her talents into something more commercially viable. After graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, her first two gigs in Hollywood were television pilots, and Waterston remembers thinking that if producers were willing to put her on primetime TV, perhaps she really was a commercial actress. There were precedents in her family, too: Her father is Oscar nominee Sam Waterston, and her older sister Elisabeth is also an actress.
However, neither show was picked up. Waterston wasn’t heartbroken over that turn of events, but she did think it meant she would be redirecting her passions for the foreseeable future.
“It’s very easy to think that the way things are is the way things will stay, and life just isn’t like that,” she said. “I had convinced myself that the way things looked is the way things would remain.”
And things didn’t look so bad. Waterston’s early years on the big screen were marked by small roles in interesting projects, including a bit part in Tony Gilroy’s Best Picture nominee “Michael Clayton” and a similarly blink-and-you’ll-miss-her role in Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock.” Where she really hit her stride was in the independent film world.
Filmmaker Marianna Palka, who wrote Waterston and her sister Elisabeth into her film “Good Dick” back in 2008, remains a vocal fan of the actress. The pair first met in London in the late nineties and quickly sparked to each other, later becoming roommates in Los Angeles and continuing a deep friendship that bled over into their work together.
“She and her sister Elisabeth were written into the ‘Good Dick’ script by me as ‘giggling Waterstons,’ because as women, they gave me joy, and as comrades in film arms, I knew they’d understand the script, the story, healing nature of [the film],” Palka recently told IndieWire.
The part was a small one, but it allowed Waterston to start exploring an indie community that would go on to embrace her. And nearly a decade later, Palka remains impressed with what Waterston brought to the table.
“When I say she’s generous to work with, it’s an understatement,” Palka said. “There’s no end to her.”
After “Good Dick,” Waterston went on to appear in a series of indie offerings, including Jake Schreier’s Sundance premiere “Robot & Frank,” Paul Weitz’s “Being Fynn” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves.” Then came Paul Thomas Anderson.
The filmmaker cast Waterston in his twisty 2014 dramedy, “Inherent Vice,” as wild leading lady Shasta Fay Hepworth, a role that demanded much of her, both emotionally and physically. But despite landing a part – a big part – in a long-awaited feature from a modern master, Waterston refused to rest on her laurels, and just kept plugging away at her work.
Soon after wrapping “Vice,” which later world premiered at the 2014 New York Film Festival, Waterston was cast in a different kind of breakthrough role: The actress was a late addition to Alex Ross Perry’s 2015 psychological thriller “Queen of Earth,” only joining the project after the original actress had to bow out of the film a week before shooting started.
The filmmaker keenly remembers the panic of trying to find someone to play the part of Virginia, who faces off against star Elisabeth Moss in a mind-bending battle of wits that hinges on their dueling performances. Waterston saved the day. She may even have saved the film.
A Quiet Breakout
“Elisabeth [Moss] and myself were being sent lists of every actress in New York who was available,” Perry recently told IndieWire. “Joe Swanberg had met with Katherine previously and when we saw her name on a list, he stood up and said that she was truly unique and worth pursuing.”
Perry had to trust the fellow filmmaker’s opinion, because he literally had no other choice. “We didn’t have any time to spare,” Perry said. “We could only send the script and offer to one actress, with a strict 24-hour deadline to read it and talk to me.”
Four days later, they were shooting.
While Perry was deeply impressed with his late-minute addition, Waterston never let on that she was about to break out in a major way. She remained, as ever, engaged with the role at hand. But he knew he had stumbled on to someone very special. The project wrapped five days before “Inherent Vice” premiered at the New York Film Festival.
“We could tell that Katherine was an actress who had been operating at a consistently high level,” Perry said. “She was literally hours away from the world discovering just what she was capable of.”
After “Inherent Vice” premiered, Waterston was suddenly an actress on the rise, though she’d been working on stage and screen for over a decade. Even in Hollywood, there’s no such thing as an overnight star.
Waterston’s next big role put her in the path of yet another great director, cast as the mother of Steve Jobs’ first daughter in Danny Boyle’s long-gestating biopic “Steve Jobs.” Even then, Waterston remained firm in her dedication to the work.
“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,” Waterston told IndieWire in an interview about the film last year. “But really it’s not so different. You’re still pursuing good work. You still panic that you’re doing it all wrong.”
Which might explain Waterston’s mindset when she was first asked to audition for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Waterston might not be a fatalist, but she’s certainly realistic in her expectations.
“I actually had recently auditioned for something else that I didn’t get, so I was sort of expecting this to go the same way,” she said of her first “Beasts” audition. “I did the audition in New York and left it and got on with my life because I thought I wasn’t going to hear anything more from them.”
One week later, they asked her to come in and read with newly minted Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, who had been cast as Newt Scamander without having to go through the normal audition process. She was still nervous, and a last minute scheduling snafu didn’t help matters.
“The day I was meant to fly to London, I had my suitcase packed and was literally rolling it out of my apartment and they called me and said they had to reschedule,” she said. “The more you wait, the more the anxiety builds.”
Like many actors, Waterston doesn’t enjoy auditioning, even though she’s been doing it for years now. “I find it to be a totally different beast, no pun intended, than acting, because once you’ve been hired, you feel a lot of love, support and permission to play and to fail,” she explained. “Whereas in an audition, you feel pressured to do well and get it right which I feel is so antithetical to the way I work.”
Still, she’s got a sense of humor about it. “Actors are sensitive freaks, but it amazes me that it is something that I haven’t improved on over the years,” she said with a laugh, perhaps acknowledging her famous family.
When Redmayne admitted to Waterston that he was nervous, she was flabbergasted. “I thought, ‘what the hell, how is that possible? You just won the Oscar. How could you be nervous?,'” she remembered.
But it helped, and Waterston nailed the audition.
“Actors have so little control over which projects come to them and when,” she said. “I think most actors act the way I do, which is that you take the best opportunity the way that comes your way and try your best to get the parts that are available and seem the most interesting to you personally.”
“Fantastic Beasts” isn’t the only major project Waterston is involved in these days. After joining the Harry Potter universe, she made the jump to another beloved franchise with a starring role in Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” which opens next summer.
“It just worked out like this that I ended up in these two preexisting worlds back to back,” Waterston said. “I felt challenged and stretched in very different directions, and that’s the hope and the dream. It was a very stimulating, interesting, and exhausting year.”
True to Her Roots
Next up, Waterston will star in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Current War,” alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, and she recently wrapped a role in Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky.”
After “Alien” finished production earlier this year, Waterston returned to her indie roots for Meredith Danluck’s “State Like Sleep,” and she’s hopeful that she can find more time for the sort of stage roles that used to dominate her schedule. But she understands the lucky position she’s in now.
“Of course it’s one of the great gifts of doing these bigger films is that you can help to finance smaller films and thereby get access to them,” Waterston said. “But when it comes to my interests, I love working on small films, I love working with small crews. I love the intimacy of it, and I love the quick pace of it. You don’t have time to second guess yourself and that can be really energizing.”
Waterston isn’t quick to forget the community she comes from, and they’re not eager to let her go either, even with all of her big blockbuster trappings.
Perry, who was there just as everything was changing, may have put it best. “I am lucky,” he said, “to have been able to sneak in there before the rest of the world got wise.”
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 18.