I’m thankful that our interview kicks off with such a candid admission from such an ostensibly confident and composed woman. She speaks in a dignified manner, carries herself in such a way that brings certain words to mind—courtly, elegant, well-bred. I feel comparatively bumbling.
So, here we are: Instead of bagels flown in daily from the East Coast, we get impossibly handsome waiters decked out in Band of Outsiders. We’re sitting on the terrace, overlooking a spangled swath of Hollywood Hills, and I’m thinking about the fact that Waterston has essentially skyrocketed to fame overnight. The British-born actress is in L.A. ahead of the release of Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s ridiculously anticipated take on Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name. Waterston here plays Shasta Fay Hepworth in a performance that’s buzzing in all the right circles. “I feel like Paul just pulled me 20 rungs up the ladder,” she says. “It’s absurd. It’s so fuckin’ nice, so fuckin’ nice.”
Waterston is incredibly easy-going and unentitled, even though her mom, Lynn Louisa Woodruff, is a former supermodel (“She’s still a stone cold fox,” Waterston mentions) and her dad, Sam Waterston—the face of Law and Order—has earned several nominations for Golden Globes, Emmys, and even an Academy Award. “My grandfather warned my dad when he started to get a lot of work: ‘Fame is like smoking cigarettes. It won’t hurt you if you don’t inhale,’” she says. “I think [my dad] really took that to heart in raising us.”
It’s clear this is a woman who’s worked hard for her success, who’s worked through the workaday pitfalls of “The Industry,” until, she puts it, “someone is ballsy enough to say, ‘I think she could do it.’”
Then there’s the issue of having to find challenging work. “So many parts are in support of some male hero,” she says. “I’ve been reading a lot of scripts lately where the only woman in the film is holding a small child and saying, like, ‘I don’t know, Bob. I don’t have time for this, you figure it out.’” She says this last part in her best motherly rom-com pantomime. “I mean, big break of it aside, just to have an interesting character to play and to get to live with them for a while. That alone is fucking rare.” And her Inherent Vice role as the femme fatale surfer ex-girlfriend of Joaquin Phoenix’s pothead detective Larry “Doc” Sportello, who she hires to investigate the disappearance of her current boyfriend, is nothing if not interesting.
I ask if she’s started getting recognized. “Absolutely not,” she says. “No.”
“You don’t feel like after this movie it’s going to happen?”
“Oh, God,” is her only response, and she seems to slip into epiphanic reverie, gazing not at The Hills beyond, but allowing her eyes to settle in the gauzy middle distance. Certain weights and gravities appear to be sinking in.
The waiter interrupts. We both order Earl Gray teas. “Do you have almond milk?” she asks. Then, to me: “There is a part of me that feels like I should be grittier than drinking almond milk.”
“I don’t know,” she says, breaking her reflective silence and picking up where she left off. “I haven’t really thought about it honestly.” Again, she pauses. “Face the reality, toots,” she says, laughing to herself. “People will see this picture!” There’s another, longer pause. “I think it’s probably better not to think about those things.”
I ask what it was like working with heavyweights Anderson and Phoenix.
“I don’t know how to talk about it,” she says. “You know, it meant so much to me and whenever I hear myself talk about it, it sounds like I’m reducing it somehow by trying to put words to it. It was just the single best thing that’s ever happened in my life. It’s absurd. I couldn’t dream up a better scenario than getting to act with Joaquin and getting to be directed by Paul.”
We get the check and both have to use the bathroom. We keep chatting all the way into the stalls, and through our respective visits. Then we exchange a hug before she heads over to buy a shirt for an industry event the next day. She’s still grounded in the present, I think to myself, just so long as she doesn’t inhale.
Photographer: Frederic Auerbach for opusreps.com. Stylist: Rita Zebdi for jedroot.com. Hair: Jamal Hammadi for wschupfer.com using Hamadi Organics haircare products. Makeup: Mai Quynh for starworksartists.com using Kiehl’s. Manicure: Whitney Gibson for nailinghollywood.com. Location: Gallery ALL at gallery-all.com, 218 W. 3rd Street, Los Angeles.