After almost a decade of acting in movies, Katherine Waterston made a huge splash in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, as Shasta Fay Hepworth, the beguiling dream girl of Joaquin Pheonix’s stoner private eye, Doc Sportello. But in her latest film, Steve Jobs, the actress does a complete one-eighty. She plays the very real Chrisann Brennan, the former high school girlfriend of Jobs who’s all but shunned by the late Apple CEO. As Waterston explains in the following interview, the movie is less a biopic and much more of a portrait, capturing Jobs at three separate product launches throughout his career. The actress also shares some thoughts on working on the much-anticipated Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, adapted from the book by J.K. Rowling…
Nerdist: In your performance and Aaron Sorkin’s script, Steve Jobs finds a way to give life to the kind of character that could easily become one-note. How did you begin to develop the film’s Chrisann Brennan?
Katherine Waterston: The script was sent to me in May of 2014, and then I didn’t audition for it until November or something. I thought that I was going to audition, then the film got pushed. As a result, I went on to work on other things and audition for other things. But it kind of haunted me. I couldn’t stop thinking about this woman and the situation she was in. At that point, because I hadn’t yet gotten the job and I didn’t want to get too attached, I hadn’t read Isaac’s book yet. All I knew about Steve Jobs or Chrisann or any of them really was from the script. I just found that it haunted me all those months. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I found I’d be walking somewhere just thinking the text. So in way, I kind of spent six months with this character before I got the job.
It doesn’t really count as research, traditionally, but it felt like that to me. I felt like I spent a lot of time considering what it would be like to know someone very intimately and watch them, from their perspective, turn into a monster before her eyes. They went to high school together. They were high school sweethearts, and she knew him before all the big Apple stuff happened.
I never asked Aaron about this, but I wonder if she is featured as much as she is in the film, in the first and second acts, because he’d written a portrait of Steve Jobs rather than a biopic, and the presence of someone from his somewhat distant past can infuse some of that history into the film… I feel like I’ve answered forty questions you didn’t ask. [Laughs]
N: No, thank you!
KW: [Laughs] But that was sort of my intro into it. Then I read the book. I went to Aaron with all of my questions, because I wanted to respect their privacy. That’s the one area of the film that really is exploring a very private relationship.
N: The backgrounds of the other characters in film the have been well documented, and the public may have an image of them before seeing Steve Jobs. Less has been said and seen of your character. Did that give you more freedom in the role, or provide more of an obstacle in developing the character?
KW: I know what you mean. When you’re playing Marilyn Monroe, you have a responsibility to look and sound like her that you don’t when you’re playing people who weren’t ever in the public eye. But I think also, more than because she wasn’t in the public eye, because Aaron and Danny very clearly from the start weren’t trying to make a biopic. I’m almost six feet tall. She’s a short woman. I have brown eyes, she has blue eyes. Obviously we did some things to look more like the characters we were playing. Michael Fassbender isn’t a good match for Steve Jobs [laughs], but Danny and Aaron were looking for people who brought what they felt was the essence of the character more than an impersonator. It just wasn’t what any of us were interested in or after in our portrayals of these people. The best way to honor real people when you play them is to try to tell the story of their dynamics and the struggles that they’re dealing with rather than lose sight of the connections and personal relationships, and do a really job at an accent. [Laughs] I just think in this particular case I was focusing on the relationship above all.
Also, we were shooting in San Francisco and all this stuff is very immersive when you’re in a place where they grew up. I spent time poking around areas where they grew up. Although it’s so completely altered by the tech industry. You’d read about where there were orange groves and now it’s a strip mall. So their childhood town as they knew it may be gone, but all of that stuff, when you’re developing a character, is subconscious work. The music you listen to, the books you read, thinking about her life in that environment… It’s hard to identify in an interview. [Laughs]
N: I see what you mean… Chrisann also has a spiritual side to her, which we learn a little about through the course of the film. It stands in contrast to the technological world that the rest of the film presents.
KW: Right. Although Steve was very interested in that stuff as well. All of these people were children of the ‘60s, growing up in and around San Francisco. I think there was also in that environment quite a lot of interest in Buddhism and meditation, and Steve was very interested in all of that as well. He spent a lot of time in India. I think it actually was an area where they had a connection, something in common. Then they sort of used what they learned from it in very different ways. But yes, in the film she is isolated. But I don’t think so much isolated because she has a different approach to life or different values, but because she is the only person that doesn’t belong there at the first launch and the second launch of the film. My isolation and feeling other and different, the way I translated that, it was much more from just walking into a space where you don’t belong… You must have been on a lot of film sets, right?
KW: You know that feeling when everybody has a job to do except for you?
N: All too well. [Laughs]
KW: Like, “I wish that I could just carry a ladder or something so people would know I’m needed here”? Because you feel like you’re standing out like a sore thumb if you’re not doing something? I couldn’t help but feel that way the way that Danny shot those scenes. Everybody has a job and a purpose, and I felt like I had a scarlet letter. I stood out so much. It was great the way that he set it up because I felt really unwanted and really awkward. [Laughs] It’s something I thought about from the beginning when I started working on the character. The courage that she had to fight for her daughter, to be an advocate for her daughter. She put herself in extraordinarily uncomfortable positions. No one would want to put [themselves] with somebody who’s really smart, really cruel, and really quick-witted. She would humiliate herself, and then do it some more, and do it again, whatever it took to get her daughter the help she needed. It’s really striking to me the strength of that. He knocks her down and intimidates her and really hurts her, but she stays standing. The courage that she had to do that was really striking.
N: Can you talk a little bit about the film you’re working on now, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?
KW: Yeah, I’m in London now. We’ve been shooting for six weeks. I’m having an absolute ball. And that’s all I’m allowed to say without getting fired. [Laughs]
N: Were you a J.K. Rowling fan before signing on for the film?
KW: Yeah, totally! It’s so wild to a part of it. I haven’t met her yet. I’m hoping I’ll get to meet her soon… I was joking with Eddie [Redmayne] the other day that we’re used to being alone in a room with another person and a couple of ceilings. There’s a lot more going on. But yeah, it’s always exciting to be thrown into a different environment. Steve Jobs and Inherent Vice, I thought the characters and the tone and everything couldn’t be more different. And all this, it feels like I’m on a different planet. So yeah, it’s always exciting to learn new stuff.
N: Who’s your favorite J.K. Rowling character?
KW: I don’t know if it counts, but I’d have to say Porpentina Goldstein. Because that’s my character! [Laughs]