The star of The World to Come gives a career-best performance in this hardscrabble tale of female longing.
At the time of writing, Katherine Waterston is locked down in London, on hiatus from shooting the third instalment in Warner Bros’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise. Being in isolation these past months has given the British-born American actor plenty of time to reflect on her role in Mona Fastvold’s lyrical frontier western The World to Come, which Waterston describes as one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.
She plays a 19th-century farm worker who, aptly enough, is cut off from the outside world, solely reliant on her caring but emotionally distant husband (played by Casey Affleck) and the small patch of land they have cultivated together. Secretly she harbours a desire to break out of her domestic shackles and forge a deeper connection.
LWLies: The World to Come is set in Upstate New York but was filmed on location in Romania, on sets built from scratch. How was that experience?
Waterston: You know, it’s just occurred to me that the two most helpful things I’ve ever experienced as an actor are having a script for a long time, and shooting on location. Because it takes time to get a character in your bones. And to be able to have low-stakes time with a character where you can just daydream about them and you don’t have to deliver anything or get anything right is such a gift.
With this film I was lucky to have the script for a year before we started shooting, and I was so unprepared for how much arriving in Romania would do for me, how much it would give me. It was completely overwhelming. Just because it was so remote – we were about four hours’ drive from Bucharest, and the air was like air I had never breathed before, it was so crisp and clean. We were working very long, very hard hours, but being in that environment was really quite energising. There was no burnout on set from anyone, which is pretty rare; I convinced myself it was the beautiful country air.
Maybe there’s nothing more important when you’re watching films than being able to focus. There’s obviously in between takes so much going on on set, and no actors under any illusions about what they’re there to do. We have to deliver in these brief moments when they call ‘acton’ and tell this story; in this case a story that meant so much to all of us. So the pressure to maintain that focus is quite high, and when you get to have an immersive experience where you essentially live your days on set and off – we never left the mile radius of the set for the whole time we were shooting – it really helps you to stay in the state of mind of the character.
How long was the shoot, exactly?
It was so intense it feels like it was so long, but actually we only shot for three weeks – that was in the summer – and then we returned in the autumn and shot for I think seven or eight days straight. I’m not even sure I’m supposed to say that, I’m sure it’s some kind of SAG breach or something [laughs]. But it was really important to Mona [Fastvold] from the beginning that we captured the different seasons. If you try and fake it the audience will pick up on it. You can always tell if it’s supposed to be a certain time of year and someone’s bundled up and you’re supposed to be able to see their breath but the sun feels too warm, or there’s a nice big green leaf in the background.
Especially for Case [Affleck] and I, there were so many scenes of us just labouring on the farm, and I think it serves the film to see those scenes and it also served us to actually experience them and to feel the stakes of that kind of lifestyle. If you lose a chicken in a storm, for example, it really matters; the health and well-being of the farm was in direct correlation with the health and well-being of these two individuals. Shooting those scenes and going through the seasons really gave me a feel for what that kind of life might be like.
You used the word ‘immersive’ earlier. Does working with a small cast and crew enhance that?
If I look back at the films I’ve made, there’s an energy on set when a script is really good. On this film, there were many people who didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak a lick of Romanian, so in that sense it was much more of a vibe, there was a feeling in the air of that kind of energy, but it wasn’t so much verbalised. But that was actually very helpful to me, my character being so locked within herself and isolated in her daily experiences. It was oddly helpful that everyone was speaking a language I didn’t understand, I wasn’t distracted by someone saying, ‘Oh, we’re never gonna get that shot before the sun sets.’ I was less conscious of the daily struggles on a film set, which are inevitable, and I was able to stay in character.
This is in essence a love story, but it also addresses themes of domestic violence, the historical subjugation of women, isolation, and motherhood. What was it about the script that appealed to you specifically?
When I opened the script the first time, on the first page there was a line of voiceover that I don’t believe made it into the final cut: ‘At night I often wonder if those who have been my intimates have found me to be a steep hill whose view does not repay the ascent.’ I hadn’t even gotten halfway down the first page and from that line I knew I was going to love the film and I knew I was going to love the character. It so struck me, the idea of someone who has such selfless concerns haunting her at night. That was a very compelling idea. And also, the idea of being an asset, which is another description on the first page of the script. I just thought that was a really loaded and interesting notion. Obvious negative and positive connotations come to mind.
At that point I didn’t even know about the love story or anything of this world. As the big themes and events of the film were revealed to me I just felt like I was being taken on such an exciting journey. The scenes play like scenes in plays, and in the best plays I’ve worked on there’s no end to the work you can do on them. I would love to make this film five times. There was just such tremendous room for the actors to play. We all very quickly became very invested in trying to mine these scenes for whatever truth and fun and love we could find in them.
Were you able to do any research into what life was like for a woman like Abigail at this time?
I did read the Anne Lister book which was helpful, although she was from a different country and of a different class. Her diaries were written in a code and family members found it years later and decoded it and then hid it again and then it was discovered again. It’s the most fascinating story, and as I was reading it I was like ‘This should be a film’ and then I realised someone already made a TV show about it.
I also read a lot of very niche, obscure stuff about farm life in the 19th century that I don’t highly recommend. The writers gave me a reading list that was really helpful, books they had referred to in the process of adapting the short story. But I think the whole notion of research is a kind of dangerous thing, like it’s a way to prove that you’re a serious actor. Having said that, what I do find helpful about it is where it can randomly take you. When you dig around enough, sometimes you stumble on a good idea.
That’s the way that I prefer to use it, as a springboard for the imagination. But there’s so little known about the life of a farm woman from that period in history. The original short story was based on a farm log that was all about how many eggs were produced that week and that sort of thing, and there were just one personal line in the entire book and it was: ‘My best friend has gone away, I do not believe I shall ever see her again.’
There’s one scene I wanted to ask you about, which is the blizzard sequence. What was that like to film?
One of the books I read was ‘The Great Storms of New England’ [laughs]. Yeah… This film has turned out to be oddly prescient, I think. I remember when we premiered at Venice there’s a scene where Dyer [played by Casey Affleck] gets sick, and the first time he coughed in the film, I felt this tension move through the audience. It so surprised me because these were the things when we were telling this story that we thought people would struggle to connect with. You know, pre-pandemic, is anyone going to relate to how terrifying someone getting a cold might be at a time when something seemingly quite innocuous could actually be deadly.
I think, given the time the film is coming out, people are going to be more moved by the storm sequence because we have all experienced our own vulnerability over the past year. So much of this film is about physical vulnerability, how precarious our lives are. That’s what I was struck by watching this film, just how vulnerable these individuals are and how much is at stake when things we don’t think of today as being a big deal, like a snow storm, happen. I’m curious, what struck you about it?
There’s a particular image that’s lodged in my mind, where Abigail seeks shelter in a barn that turns out to be occupied – it really emphasises how isolated and vulnerable she and everyone in this world is.
I think one thing that’s so smart about the story and how it’s written is it isn’t the story of two women running from their horrible spouses into each other’s arms. Certainly on Abigail’s side it’s a much more complex dynamic; there’s a real bond and real love between her and Dyer. I suppose the storm scene also illustrates what an asset she is to him, her responsibilities to him and to the farm that extend beyond the romantic. They are truly allies; she is his protector and much as he is hers; their relationship is an economic relationship and they are dependent on each other. It’s a really beautifully and intricately presented examination of partnership.
The World to Come opens on limited release in the US on 12 February, and is available in the UK from 2 April.
Published 11 Feb 2021
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