Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is known for making challenging, sprawling dramas like Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master, but there’s also a comic side to his sensibility, one that comes through loud and clear in films like Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Inherent Vice is arguably Anderson’s most comical film to date. Set in 1970 California, the film blasts through one absurd, pot-fuelled episode after another, juggling the most colourful cast of characters this side of The Big Lebowski. The stellar ensemble includes Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, and Katherine Waterston, a rising star of stage and screen, who may have found her breakout role in Shasta Faye Hepworth, the mysterious “ex-old lady” of Phoenix’s stoner detective, Doc Sportello. We spoke to Waterston about her love of all things Anderson, surviving the director’s demanding casting process, and the film’s hilarious cutting room floor.
COMEDY: How do you feel about the comedy in the film? Did you expect it to be this funny while you were making it?

KATHERINE WATERSTON: I think it’s one of the many achievements of bringing the book to the screen. The novel does that too. You’re confused. You don’t know what’s going on. Something’s sort of sad or romantic and then there’s just some kind of slapstick, hilarious moment. It’s all just mixed in there together and I love it. I hoped it would be there from when I first read the script and it seemed to be there on the page. When I heard that Martin Short was playing Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, it was just one of the most thrilling days of my life. I knew it was going to be great.
The acting feels so loose and spontaneous, you get the sense that some really funny material probably ended up on the cutting room floor.

People who are into comedy should just be writing love letters to Warner Brothers and crossing their fingers that they put together a great gag reel. I saw some things on set that aren’t in the movie that were just so, so hilarious. I don’t even know how Paul was able to choose takes because there are so many great things that Joaquin did that aren’t in the film and what Martin did and Benicio and Josh Brolin. So funny. I love finding out that Joaquin is this incredible physical comedian. Everybody’s seen it because it’s in the trailer, but that one-two punch he swings after he’s been hit… I think about it when I’m walking down the street and I burst into laughter. It’s just brilliant. He’s a wonderful comic. I didn’t get to be a part of too much of that side of the film, but as an audience member, it’s a real treat and I love it.
You’ve said that Paul Thomas Anderson was one of your favourite filmmakers long before Inherent Vice came along. Do you have a favourite performance from one of his films?

There are so many. The first one that comes to mind is John C. Reilly in Hard Eight because that was the first film of Paul’s that I saw, but I’m also remembering one teeny, fantastic moment where there’s some commotion in the background or something. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is talking in the scene and she has this one little moment and sometimes it’s something that small that stays with you forever. He caught that little true moment and I loved it. She’s wonderful in that movie.
You’ve said you spent days hanging out with Anderson before landing the role. What was that process like? Were you talking about the movie or just getting to know each other?

At the time, I didn’t know what on earth was going on. I was a wreck internally because I wanted the part so much, but I didn’t really want to let on what a nervous wreck I was because I was trying to convince him that I could play this true California girl. I didn’t want to seem like a neurotic New Yorker, bugging him about how I was doing and did he like what I was doing. I kind of kept all my neuroses to myself at the time and rolled with it, but I didn’t really know what he was looking for or what I could show him or what I could say or do to convince him to hire me. So yeah, I kind of just sat there.
Had you already auditioned for the part?

I had done a tape in New York, but in a more traditional way of actually reading a scene with the casting director, but I never really felt like I was in a traditional audition setting. We were getting to know each other. Joaquin was there sometimes and Paul’s family would sort of pass through because his office is in his house, so it was all very casual. Then I had a kind of screen test type thing and I thought, “Well, after this, he’s got to tell me I’ve got the job. I don’t know what else can be done.” And then it was still two more days before he told me.
Joaquin Phoenix says he knew the part was yours when he saw your original audition tape, but when he met you, he was intimidated because you seemed nothing like the person in the audition. How did you transform yourself for the role?

You know, it’s so hard to talk about this stuff without sounding hokey. So much of the work I do is subconscious. I certainly have no idea what I did in the audition. I don’t know how I adjusted myself to be more Shasta because I didn’t even really know anything about her then. All I was getting about her was what I saw on the pages. I don’t know what I did that was different or better or more appealing to them than the other tapes they saw. It felt to me like all I did was try to do what was on the page as best I could. And there was a lot on the page. Even that first scene is a very complicated scene. She’s powerful, but she’s also got her tail between her legs. She’s scared, but confident. There are so many contrasting elements to her even in that scene. That was pretty clear to me from the start.
In the novel, Shasta seems to be a metaphor for this idyllic ’60s life that has been lost. Is that something that’s useful to you as an actor or is that just a literary idea for Paul to think about?

I definitely didn’t fixate on it, but I did see her as that. I saw a parallel between the moment in time that the film was taking place and what was going on in her life as well. She had hopes and expectations for how things would be and it didn’t go that way and the ’60s had hopes and expectations for how things would progress and they didn’t go that way. That was a pretty clear parallel. It was fun to sort of play around with the idea of what you do when you realize things didn’t go the way you hoped they would. Do you try to go back? Do you become nostalgic for a time before? Do you find yourself lost and afraid? I tried spinning those questions around in my head a little bit.
Some viewers have found aspects of the film confusing. For those who have issues with clarity and the unorthodox nature of Inherent Vice, what would you say to get them in the right frame of mind?

People assume that, if they’re confused, they’re missing something or the film is abandoning them in some way. I don’t believe that to be remotely true about this film because it’s a story about a man who’s very confused. When you read the book, it’s the same experience. You start to fall into Doc’s perspective and the film does that as well. Rather than separating the audience and leaving them at a safe distance from the confusion, it really envelopes them and invites them in, which I think is thrilling as an audience member—to get to actually have an experience in the theatre. To feel things like confusion, uncertainty, not knowing what’s next, what’s going to happen. That’s not an accident in the film. That’s intentional.
It definitely benefits from repeat viewings.

Most people I know who have seen it twice are just more excited by it the second time than the first, even the people who crazily loved it. There aren’t many movies today that offer so much to the audience. I think it’s an incredible bang for your buck and I always like to see Paul’s films multiple times in the theatre because they’re genuine cinematic experiences. They’re rides I like to go on.