Katherine Waterston on embracing the magical world of Harry Potter

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Katherine Waterston is about to hit the big time with a starring role in Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. She tells Stylist how the magic happened

Words: Colin Crummy

In JK Rowling’s wizarding world, things are a little unusual. Owls do more than just hoot. Sport is something you do on broomsticks. Your headmaster tends to be handy with a wand. So if you get asked to be part of this ever-expanding magical enterprise, you might be forgiven for acting a little unusual too.

“I found out I got the job but I couldn’t go for a glass of champagne with my friends because I had signed up for this exercise class,” laughs Katherine Waterston, the latest recruit to JK Rowling’s epic universe. “I’d already paid for it – I’m a frugal Yank so I couldn’t cancel. I called my parents very quickly and then got brutalised in a spin class. It was a strange way to celebrate the news.”

Strange indeed, given that the 36-year-old had just landed the job of a lifetime, starring opposite Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, a new, five-part blockbuster film series written by the respected Harry Potter creator.

Although acting is in her blood – her dad is Law & Order veteran Sam Waterston – the New York-based actress might not seem prepared to handle the Potter mania that comes with the job. But London-born, Connecticut-raised Waterston quietly paid her dues on the New York theatre scene before a breakout part in 2014’s screwball arthouse film Inherent Vice and a supporting role in 2015’s Steve Jobs biopic.

Her new gig is a very different beast altogether. And Fantastic Beasts… is a very different animal from JK Rowling’s most famous creation. The film, which started life as a short book written by Rowling for Comic Relief in 2001, is set in Twenties New York, a long time before Harry Potter set foot on the Hogwarts Express. Instead of child stars, Redmayne and Waterston lead an adult cast as Rowling expands her fantastical universe way beyond term time.

Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a sweet, nutty British wizard in Manhattan with a suitcase of magical creatures, whose tendency to wreak havoc risks exposing the wizarding world to muggles (or no-maj, as American wizards like to call us lowly non-magical types). Hot on his case is Waterston’s character Tina Goldstein, an American wizard and investigator at the Magical Congress of the United States of America, who spies trouble. This being a JK Rowling story – her first screen-writing job – larger, darker forces will unite the two in a high-spirited, vastly layered tale with smart, contemporary undertones.

It’s a whole new wizarding world for Potter fans to explore but even if you are unfamiliar with aurors, squibs and legilimency, the combination of Rowling’s smart, warm writing and the oddball chemistry between Redmayne and Waterston makes Fantastic Beasts… utterly compelling.

And even if the Potter world is new to her, Waterston fits right in. She is a real-life JK Rowling kind of heroine: sprightly, witty, honest and yes – over the course of our conversation – even a little unusual, in the best possible sense. Her idiosyncratic charm is clearly working. Next up, she stars in Alien: Covenant, the latest instalment in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror series, followed by Steven Soderbergh’s heist film, Logan Lucky and then the second instalment of the Fantastic Beasts… series, which is due to relocate to Paris. So is she prepared for things to get really weird?

Are you ready for Potter world mania?
[Laughs] I don’t know if I’ve ever been prepared for anything in my life before. I don’t really know how one prepares for the unknown. I really like the fans, they have been so lovely and supportive and enthusiastic through the whole project. We did a fan event in London a couple of weeks ago and I could see people dressed as Tina. I’ve never seen anyone else wear my costumes so that was definitely a trip. I feel like I’m on a sports team with die-hard fans. I feel supported by them rather than afraid.

You’ve described yourself as shy. Does that still hold?
It’s a little bit of a contradiction. I don’t think I’m perpetually shy, I’m circumstantially shy. But yes, I can be. I think it’s quite common for actors to almost rely on their characters to exercise parts of themselves in their regular life they don’t tend to explore so much. I feel a kind of permission and freedom in my work that I might not allow myself in my real life.

How is the spotlight from Fantastic Beasts… affecting that?
I’m constantly struggling in interviews to engage and finish sentences because I am being asked personal questions from somebody I don’t know. That tends to make me feel pretty shy! [Laughs] There’s something innately unnatural about that. We’ve never met and you’re asking me personal questions. It’s a bizarre thing.

And we haven’t even eased into it…
It’s better though; just pull the Band-Aid off quickly! Being interviewed is an odd experience for me because I was an actor a long time before anyone ever asked me a question about myself. When I started being interviewed, I definitely felt I was being asked to defend or explain myself. I recognise I’m very lucky to be in the position I’m in; it’s just new to me and that sometimes makes me feel a little bashful.

What was your first encounter with JK Rowling?
When it was announced I got the job, JK Rowling immediately tweeted that she was very happy I did. My agent sent me the tweet – because I’m not on Twitter – and I remember just staring at it, thinking, ‘What? How is this possible?’ My mind was blown that she even knew I existed. Obviously she was announcing it to all of her followers but I did feel that she was sending me a little telegram. It felt like she was saying just to me, “We’re happy you’re here, welcome.” It meant a lot to me.

You get a tremendous sense from the film of how JK Rowling is involved in every detail. Did you find that when you met her?
The first time she came on set, we dropped our wands or whatever we were doing like we were hypnotised and moved towards her. She has a very commanding and enchanting presence. Obviously she’s reached rock star status and yet she’s very self-effacing, down to earth and just really cool. Talking to her about this world that she’s created, and the details of it, feels like talking to a biographer. She has such a strong and intimate connection to it. It’s like one of those rare occurrences in life when you find yourself sitting in front of a genius and there’s something ‘other’ about them, something different from most people you meet. It feels special.

What did she say to you about your character?
We talked about Tina’s internal struggle and her complexity. That she is capable and hard- working and confident in her work and at the same time she harbours this insecurity that she may not measure up and achieve greatness as an auror [an elite wizard trained in fighting the Dark Arts]. That idea seemed to be very close to Jo’s heart. I also feel it’s quite easy to relate to. As a creative person you have these moments where you feel indestructible in your work, and then you have the terrible times where you feel hopeless. You are filled with doubt and shame. You don’t often see that jumbled up inside one character and when I read the script I was so excited that I could play this person who was really feeling that struggle. I think we both went through that a bit and could [both] relate to it.

Do you think the tumultuous time we currently live in is why the fantasy genre is booming?
It’s such a big question. You can see why it would appeal today, of course. There’s a lot of bad news around and escapism is maybe needed these days. But I also think there’s a great collective concern about the state of the world and something I loved about JK Rowling’s script is that she’s combining these things. She can give us escapism and hold the mirror up at the same time. Maybe we need distance – something fictional to look at ourselves.

Were you a Harry Potter fan before this?
Yes. My first exposure to it was when my little brother [Waterston has two brothers and one sister] read all of the books and didn’t come out of his room for a week, but I have an aversion to bestsellers and am always 10 years behind everybody so I started with the films. When we started shooting, it was really embarrassing. We’d go to the set and I’d say something that everybody else knew. They were like, “Yeah, we read that 15 years ago – catch up.” It was really wonderful to stay immersed in that world though, so when I’d come home from work, I’d pick up one of the books.

What other books do you like to read?
I just started Zadie Smith’s new book Swing Time and it’s amazing. I’ve been lucky to get a couple of early copies of books that haven’t come out yet, which is preferable to me because they are not officially bestsellers yet. If I’m reading a book on the subway, I like to think I’m the only one reading it. I read A Separation by my friend Kate Kitamura [out next year] last month and it’s amazing.

Other than reading what else brings you joy?
People who have a job, or even two jobs, making the time to go and vote. Standing in line for two hours and not leaving so that their voice can be heard. Otherwise it’s obvious stuff: time with my family. I love to walk. My mother’s cooking. I’m homesick, I’m sure you can tell.

Your next role is in Alien: Covenant. How strange was it to jump into that after Fantastic Beasts…?
To be part of this long line of badass brave space warriors that Ridley has created was an incredible leap. The weirdest part of the transition was the day that I went from Leavesden [Studios], where we were shooting Fantastic Beasts…, to Pinewood [Studios] for my costume fitting for Alien. I felt like I was in the poshest, highest-end travelling theatre troupe of all time because I switched from one costume to the next like you do if you’re in a travelling company. I still had my Twenties Tina Goldstein bob but was wearing all this space gear. It was so strange; it was a big part of why I chopped off my hair for the part in Alien. It couldn’t be ‘Tina in Space’.

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is in cinemas from 18 November

Photography: courtesy of Warner Bros