I do struggle doing interviews because I want to help get the word out about the film. But on the other hand, I am a hoarder of my memories.
Norwegian director Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come—adapted by Jim Shepard from his 2017 short story, working here with Ron Hansen—takes her into the 19th-century American frontier, where two put-upon wives unexpectedly find love in the drudgery of their day-to-day existence.
Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and her husband Dyer’s (Casey Affleck) life is a daily round of chores. Having lost a young daughter to diphtheria some years ago, any affection between them has died in the wake of this grief. Abigail’s hardscrabble life is jolted into another dimension, however, with the arrival of new neighbor Tallie (Vanessa Kirby), who is struggling in her own way, bristling at the jealous control of her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott). In a time when same-sex lovers would have been hard put to articulate or even comprehend their feelings, Abigail and Tallie are liberated by their intense bond, filling a void neither of them ever knew existed. It is a tale of two women whose all-too-brief romance is unable to truly transcend the harsh realities of their day.
In a recent phone call with Anthem, Waterston discussed how much she loves beautiful writing, how COVID has brought all of us together, and why she finds interviews tough sometimes.
The World to Come is now in select theaters and hits PVOD on March 2.
You’re always a very compelling actor and a joy to watch, and this role in particular feels tailor-made just for you.
Interesting. Why?! [laughs]
You’re so good in this, and I think it’s this gravitational thing that the audience feels towards certain actors. You’re very likable. I think charisma is one of the few things we cannot fake.
Well, I certainly had a “gravitational thing” when I read the script. [laughs] I was so moved by it and totally impressed with it. It is one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, and the only script I’ve ever read after I’d finished making a movie because I was still so captivated by it. It’s like a great novel that you want to return to. I just felt compelled to take it up again and read it again, and that’s never happened before. I don’t know if a lot of people know this, but the screenwriters [Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard] worked on it for 15 years. When people spend that much time chipping away at something, all of their knowledge about the characters and the world gets embedded in the script. As a result, there’s subtlety and depth at once, which is really rare. The problem I find with these interviews is that everybody keeps trying to talk about my process with me and I just keep talking about the writers because the movie obviously wouldn’t exist without them. Everything that I did on this film was in response to the work that they did guiding me through it.
Looking at the project from the ground up, it is so accomplished and beautifully written. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an audience that doesn’t appreciate it. What was your engagement with the script like in the beginning? I wonder if you very quickly picked out lines that you wanted to have a go at—the text that you could hold and to keep for yourself.
That’s such a good question. But before I answer it, I think you just articulated something important about filmmaking that I never really thought about before but believe it to be true: if the writing is great, the genre doesn’t matter. We are sophisticated viewers at this point. We’ve seen loads of films. So if the writing is great, we don’t care. We want to listen to and watch really good stories. What’s so exciting about that to me is there are films or certain genres that some people don’t identify with: “I’m not a horror person” or “I’m not a historical-lesbian drama person.” But the quality of the writing could open them up and draw them into something that teaches them and expands their perspective. So that’s very exciting. Thank you for making me think about that. That makes me excited about the whole rest of my career! I just want to keep finding scripts that are good enough that they draw people in who might otherwise not be drawn into something.
Anyways, yes. With this script, this text, there were so many pieces of it and excerpts I could mention that I loved so much. There were some that I really used to anchor me and guide me through the process of creating the character and make the film. There was this line or voiceover that’s no longer in the film, which was on the first page: “at night, I often wonder if those who have been my intimates have found me to be a steep hill who’s viewed as not ‘repay the ascent’.” I was so struck by that line and I thought about it all the time: that maybe the world is divided into the people who are kept up at night wondering what they haven’t gotten from life and those who are kept up at night wondering about what they haven’t given to those whom they love the most. And she is the latter, right? She’s someone who’s kept up at night despite her limited means, her hardscrabble life, her loss of a child—the most horrific tragedy that anyone could experience—not wondering about how she’s been ripped off or what she hasn’t gotten, but what she hasn’t given. That was a great anchoring bit of information about this woman that kept me grounded in her. It was what I sort of interpreted as the profound goodness in her.
There was another one that I loved. I can’t remember exactly but: “ever since I was a little girl, I was like a pot-bound root all turned in on herself.” I loved that line because at first I thought, this just means she’s shy! But as I thought about it more, what does it mean to be “a pot-bound root”? It means somebody put you in a pot! [laughs] Right? That’s what it was like to be a working-class woman in the 1800s in—well, anywhere in the world but—this case New England. It meant to be chosen by someone. You didn’t really have a say. There might be one or two fellas your age in your little area of the world and you’re gonna get married off to one of them. They will essentially manhandle you into that pot, that house, that plot of land, and that’s where you will live. You will be unable to, quite literally—to stretch that metaphor out—reach out into the world and extend your roots outside and explore your life as you choose. So that’s what I mean when I say this writing was so good. If you spend time chipping away at it, you see that it’s telling you everything you need to know about these characters.
I also enjoyed all the double meanings in the language. For instance, when Abigail talks about the ice in their bedroom in the morning, it goes beyond the elements. Similarly, when Dyer tells her that he would die without her, you understand that it’s also meant very literally. Because Abigail has an investigative mind, you wonder if she was aware of all of these double meanings as well. Did you play her knowing she’s as cognizant as we are?
Yes. We would have these conversations about this. I think if someone from the outside heard us talking about these scenes they would think, do any of these people know how to act? Have they ever been in a movie before? Have they ever seen a script before? In a way, we collectively realized quickly when we were shooting the film that we have to reach a consensus about what was being understood and what was being misunderstood within these scenes because there was so much room for interpretation. If I’m sort of speaking in code or there is double meaning to something, is the other person recognizing the double meaning or are they not recognizing it? Am I wishing that they did or do I think they did, but they didn’t? We would sort of map it all out and try to figure out the pathway that was most interesting. That applied to a lot scenes, particularly with Vanessa [Kirby] because as they were beginning to fall in love and starting to work out whether or not that love was requited, they would sort of speak in code. In the scene where they first kiss, Vanessa says “I always imagined that I had this dream where I would’ve done something significant and people would recognize me for having contributed something significant” and I tell her “I know what you mean.” So is Vanessa asking if I have dreams that extend beyond this life, these marriages, and this farm? We had to work through that subtext and figure out at which points we realized what the other one was really saying to us.
People ask us a lot about how [Vanessa and I] had this amazing chemistry. Obviously I love her so much and we were really lucky that we hit it off when we met. That is always helpful. But I do think a lot of that—the electricity that plays between us in the scenes—was a result of the script and the work we did on it to understand when they were misunderstanding each other versus when they were really connecting and communicating. And maybe in code that they shared.
Considering our current situation with the pandemic, I think it’s just natural that certain aspects of the film get super magnified, like making subliminal associations between diphtheria and COVID-19. The isolation hits you harder. I wonder if you see the film with this same filter of added relevancy, or perhaps because you embarked on this project pre-pandemic, it remains largely unaffected by our current worldly events?
That’s so interesting. Well, certainly I connected to the story before the pandemic happened. It spoke to me and I thought it might speak to a lot of other people because it’s exploring really profound questions about existence and identity and independence and marriage—all these really interesting questions that are brought up through the film. I suppose I was really struck by what it explores about vulnerability that all four of the characters have and what it explores about intimate relationships. I’d like to think that people would’ve connected to it even if the last year hadn’t played out the way it did. But I’ve been so touched by people’s responses post-COVID where these other themes like isolation, grief, illness, and the fear of the elements become magnified.
When we were at the Venice Film Festival, the death rates were soaring from COVID. You would look over your shoulder when someone coughs. When we were in the theater—a socially distanced, large theater with everyone in masks of course—and Casey [Affleck] got sick at the beginning of the film, there was this palpable tension in the audience. Of course that wouldn’t have been there the year before. And you know, as painful as this time has been for so many, it does also tie us all together. It reminds us that everyone you pass on the street and everyone you meet—although they may cover it up very well—is carrying with them a great deal of pain. I’m very grateful for the timing in that regard because I think it’s a meaningful film for this moment.
Speaking about the Venice experience, you quoted Italo Calvino: “Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once if I speak of it.” Do you feel similarly when you’re asked to speak about your filmmaking experiences? Do you have a want to keep certain memories to yourself, and forever to cherish?
That Italo Calvino quote—it sort of haunts me. I think about it a lot. What’s interesting about it is that if you name something, you lose it. I do struggle doing interviews for the films that I make because on the one hand, obviously I want people to see the films and I’m so grateful to have been chosen to be in them and I want to support the producers and the director. I want to help get the word out about the film. But on the other hand, I am a hoarder of my memories of my experiences and I’m not that comfortable with giving them all away. I’m quite selfish about these memories and these experiences mean so much to me. So I’m working on that. There’s another question that this brings up that I think David Lynch has addressed: the film is the answer. People ask him questions about his films and he says “why are you asking me questions when I’ve given you my answer?” I really do relate to that. I’m a nerd and I like to talk about movies, you know? But I don’t generally know how to explain the explanations. The work is the explanation I suppose, right? So sometimes I find it uncomfortable. This one’s a little bit easier because I can talk about how much I love everybody else involved. [laughs] That’s kind of liberating.