“Fantastic Beasts” Set Visit Interview: Katherine Waterston

It’s Katherine Waterston’s day off, but she’s gamely come out to speak with us at Leavesden anyway. Like the other actors, she’s brought her wand, and I’m immediately drawn to its simplicity. This is what I imagined wands looked like when I read Harry Potter for the first time. It’s dark brown and plain – it could be a conductor’s baton if you didn’t know better, just slightly thicker than you’d expect. But of course, we do know better. This is Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein’s wand, the wand of a MACUSA employee and (as we know from information previously released by J.K. Rowling) of Newt Scamander’s future wife.

Waterston’s manner is more reserved than that of some of the other actors we’ve spoken to, but it’s clearly because she has connected deeply with her character, and she seems almost protective of letting us know too much about Tina (of course, I’m sure a contributing factor is the strict embargo the actors themselves are under). Waterston has thought a lot about Tina and her place in the magical world, and it’s immediately apparent that she’s just the type of person in whom fans want to rest their hopes for the future of Rowling’s cinematic world. I have the feeling she won’t let us down.

Press:
Is it strange for you to realize we’re a little less than a year out from the movie opening and people can buy your wand and that you’ll be on toys and T-shirts and all that? Is that sort of strange in your future?

Katherine Waterston:
Well, I did think about that a little bit when I was figuring out the costume and figuring out which wand to pick because I was just approaching it the way I always do. I mean, obviously, this is my first wand, but picking shoes for a character, the clothes, and all the different things that you consider when you’re figuring that stuff out during pre-production… some of it has to do with practical needs, and then specific little weird ideas you have about the character that nobody else ever knows about. And that all of those decisions were ultimately going to maybe wind up on a doll or something.

It seems so weird. It’s a wild thing because they’re so personal to me – those decisions and which wand I picked –  and it’s really almost an entirely private matter. [There] were things about one wand I was attracted to over another, [which] I never talked to anybody about. I didn’t talk to David about or anything. It just was like, “Yeah, this makes more sense for Tina,” but then that’s going to go into some kind of mass production. [laughs] It’s really so strange.

Press:
We had a chance to visit the MACUSA set, and it’s really beautiful, but one thing that a couple of us noticed is that there'[re] these statues of presumably pre-eminent wizards that are up on the columns around there. And we noticed that they’re all men. And you can imagine that perhaps in a 1920s government there’s not much female representation. Is that something that your character deals with at all? Does she feel those pressures?

Katherine Waterston:
Are they really all men? That confuses me, and I can’t even tell you why.

So what was really important to me was that it was heavy enough because initially, it wasn’t heavy enough and also, that it was sort of simple because the wands pick you. And I was wondering what a wizard would feel like when their wand picked them, what it looked like. Would you think, “Oh, maybe this is a bad sign, that it’s not so special looking.” Is this going to mean I’m not going to be much of a wizard or a witch? So that was the question that I wanted to have, so that’s why it’s simple.

But to answer your question, I feel like there’s the period the film is set in, but then there’s also a lot of, sort of, magical permission in the world we’re creating. It doesn’t seem to be divided by race or sex in ways that the world was in the ’20s or in the way America was in the ’20s. We have a female President. Is that a secret? There are different rules than our world.

[Since this interview was conducted, it has been confirmed that the president of MACUSA in 1926 is Seraphina Picquery, played by Carmen Ejogo. This may have been what led to Waterston’s initial confusion.]

Press:
What was it like to become the next big female character from the Harry Potter universe when Hermione become an icon since those books came out? Taking on that mantle of [someone whom] some people probably look up to?

Katherine Waterston:
It never occurred to me to compare myself to her just because we’re both female, in any way. They’re totally different characters, and I don’t feel like I’m stepping into her shoes simply because I’m a woman. It’s just amazing to be a part of this world that means so much to people. I don’t have any problem with considering it in that way. It just never occurred to me to think of it in those terms, and probably, it would make me nervous at the thought of it [laughs] because she was so good in those films. So I just don’t think about that.

Press:
Alison [Sudol] was saying you guys had a little bit of freedom, especially since these aren’t characters that readers already know, so how did your character develop once you took on the role and started having conversations with David and maybe J.K. Rowling?

Katherine Waterston:
Yeah, it’s strange because the last two films I did were based on books. One was based on a biography, and obviously, I was playing a real person in the film. [The film] before that was based on a work of fiction, so I had a lot of experience recently working with that kind of guide. They’re both really fun ways to work because when you have the material, then you can mine it and reread things, and two people read the same book and have a totally different idea of what a character will look like – all that stuff – and it’s so personal. So I really enjoy having that, but then, of course, without it, you have more responsibility as an author in a way. Obviously, we have the script, but to fill in those blanks – it’s hard to measure if you work more at that kind of development. When you have the source material or not…

Press:
Did it change very much from what was on the page at the beginning to when you started shooting?

Katherine Waterston:
I mean, again, it’s sort of the same way as when you read a book; it’s the same thing when you read a script. Sometimes we’ll walk into a set, and I’ll think, “Oh, this film doesn’t look like this.” Because I read the script, and I saw it in my head in some other way. Which is a lot like what happens when they’re writing a movie that’s based on a book – I’m like, “Ah! He doesn’t have a beard.” You have these visions in your head about it.

I feel like you come in with some sort of good foundation for who the character is, and then it does grow and change every day. You have to be available to let that happen as it goes because every scene is a discovery – informs the character more – and that’s what’s so much fun about working on something that takes a long time to shoot, because you have more time to live with the character.

Press:
It seems like, from what we’re hearing, Newt has been spending a lot of time with these creatures that he’s studying. And Tina, it seems like she’s maybe reserved, might be a bit “by the book.” I don’t know how she is socially, but I’m curious to know how these two characters find a connection. I don’t know how many details you can go into on that, but just their general chemistry.

Katherine Waterston:
Well, that’s something that even if I was allowed to talk about, I probably wouldn’t want to talk about because it’s so much fun to go to a movie and find out how people connect and what that’s about, and the gift of this one is that you guys don’t know. Because they aren’t the book, so I feel like it’s a nicer thing for me to do to not tell you about that because then you can get to find out by watching it.

Press:
Were there any rituals that you did? Or any music that you listened to or anything to really get into the character of the period and the actual character?

Katherine Waterston:
I guess, what is it…? Superman goes into the phone booth to change or something. I feel like there’s this idea that that’s how actors work, that we have to place ourselves somewhere, and then suddenly the character [laughs] emerges or something. I feel like it’s a lot more… there’s no guarantee like that. One day the way the shoes make me walk might really ground me or something. And another day I might just feel like, “Eh, these are just shoes,” and I don’t [have a] connection to it, and then you need something else. Or some days you just don’t know why, but you just don’t have to do anything at all to help bring yourself into the moment of the world; it’s just there for you.

So I don’t have a “thank God I have this song to play because without it who knows if I would’ve been able to find this character” or something. But a lot of the actors are listening to music from the period. So sometimes also just the atmosphere can be helpful. You hear something coming from another trailer, and you’re like, “Oh, right, yeah, of course, it’s the ’20s.”

Seeing all the extras around who… there'[re] 11,000 extras [who] will pass through this film by the time we wrap. And I’ve never worked on a film like that. Even films I’ve worked on that have lots of street scenes – because the budget was low, they [are] either recycling extras or are finding ways to justify or angles to shoot out to use fewer people. I feel really grateful to them on this because they do a lot of the work for me, too.

I remember – I think it was the first day of shooting – I rounded a corner that is a New York City street corner that had been built here, and it wasn’t just extras walking around in costume. It was – that’s a couple, and they’re having a fight, and they got into a car accident, and there’s a mechanic there fixing it. And there’s just all of this detail and so much of it no one will ever see. Sometimes I’d look at the angle of the cameras and I think, “All those guys on the trolleys back there.” Maybe no one’s going to see them on those trolleys, but I can see them, and I can feel them, and they are giving me a lot to make myself feel, trick my brain into thinking I’m in this world. And so I don’t remember the question, but that’s something that’s going on. [laughs]

Press:
Speaking to those details when we were on the set of MACUSA. There were all these small little details, like one slip of paper where you have to document what spells you cast on your visit. And so I was…

Katherine Waterston:
Were there loads of desks where you were?

Press:
[Nods] So I’m just curious because we’ve had eight films and the books to figure out how the British wizarding world operates. What can you tell us about what the day-to-day life of the American Ministry of Magic is like? What are their concerns?

Katherine Waterston:
I mean, there’s a big concern I’m pretty sure I definitely am not allowed to talk about what’s going on in this film. As you saw, there’s a lot of bureaucracy, and… you probably saw the tube things coming off the desks, so we’re using delivery systems of the period but in a much more magical way. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say how.

I keep saying things like this to you guys to see if you’re going to be like, “Oh, right, they told us that already.” [laughs] When I see blank faces, I’m like, “Nope, not that.” But that’s, again, another cool way that we’re mixing the magical world with the period, aesthetically. But there’s a very clear power structure, and some people are more powerful but not unfair. I’m nervous to tell you anything. Oh my God…

Press:
I was going to ask you about the political feel in the atmosphere of the movie because it seems to be a lot more focused on the American Congress than the Ministry of Magic ever played in the British Harry Potter world. And we have a lot of central characters that work within MACUSA, so I was going to ask you, just in general, how American politics has an influence in it?

Katherine Waterston:
Well, I don’t know. I sort of feel like that’s a better question for Jo because it’s her invention, but I think part of it might be just due to the fact that this is a story about adults. I mean, we’re not in the classroom, because we’re adults, and so it’s just a natural place where they would go once they’ve all grown up. And then, I think, also, there is this factor of the outsider in America that is part of why… [laughs] So boring. I can’t tell you anything.

Press:
Can you talk about meeting J.K Rowling and your first thoughts about when you first read the script?

Katherine Waterston:
Well, I just met her. So that I can answer more easily, probably, because that’s more fresh in my mind than the first time I read the script, which is now, like, seven months ago. But we all just stared at her and smiled [laughs]. [I’m] dumbfounded to be finally meeting her. And then, almost as soon as we started speaking to her, she started to do what I imagined she would do and was hoping she would do when we met her, which is just start telling us stuff, because she has this encyclopedic knowledge of this world. It really exists in her mind and to such incredible detail, so I just had to fight the urge to pull her into a corner and just hog her about Tina questions because I know she probably knows, like, how I skinned my knee when I was five or whatever. She just has that kind of detailed mind.

And when I first read the script, I just thought it was beautiful. It was really moving and really didn’t feel like number nine; it didn’t feel like this tired thing. It felt really fresh and new, which was what was so appealing about it to me. And also, [it felt] moving [laughs]. Now, we just sit around biting our nails, hoping that the movie’s as good as the script. Because we started off with a good thing, which is a good, good way to choose projects.

Read the rest of our Set Visit coverage here.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Additional formatting provided by Catherine Lai.