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An ‘Extraordinary Past’ in the Present

Katherine Waterston on why all these lesbian period dramas indicate a ‘problem, not a pattern’
Photo credit Bleecker Street.

A farmer’s wife, the grieving Abigail, and her neighbor, the free-spirited Tallie, can’t quit each other in the queer 19-century romance “The World to Come.” The women, both unhappily married to men, form an intimate bond that explores how isolation and life’s mundanities can be overcome by passionate human connection.

Portraying Abigail is Katherine Waterston, the British star of “Michael Clayton,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (and its 2018 sequel, as well as the forthcoming third film) and “Alien: Covenant,” while her co-star, Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”), plays Tallie. Based on Jim Shepard’s short story of the same name, “The World to Come,” which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, originally premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, where it won the Queer Lion award for best LGBTQ-themed film.

Waterston recently talked about researching medieval lesbian nuns for the role; how, even though she appreciates all the lesbian love she’s getting for playing Abigail on Twitter, she doesn’t understand Twitter; and why she thinks that, actually, the making of all these lesbian period dramas highlights “a problem, not a pattern.”

Photo credit Bleecker Street.

You narrate the film, and I could listen to you narrate anything all day.

Aww, thanks. Well, we were sort of obsessed with the question of, “What does an inner voice sound like?” The writers had done such a good job at coming up with this language that just felt so embedded within this person, so deeply interior, and we all obviously have those voices within our heads, chattering away all day long. But what the hell do they sound like? Do they sound like us? Are they loud? Are they whispers? And I did a lot of bad at home recording before I sort of found a place that felt not humiliating. Ha!

For the narration, it seems you landed on a whisper.

Yeah. Again, we’re just taking cues from the kind of impeccable script. The voiceover was so carefully woven into the story; it was so obvious when we all read it that they’d worked it intricately into the story, and it was in a kind of dialogue with this closed-off person that you see in the film and how she presents herself to others. And so we wanted to just honor the way they had woven it in as opposed to what you often see with voiceovers, the kind of afterthoughts that are tacked on top of the film. We really wanted to do our best to meld it into the story so that you don’t really hopefully notice it so much.

Lesbian Twitter has been abuzz with photos and GIFs from the movie, some of which are captioned, These GIFs of Katherine Waterston made me more of a lesbian than I already was. Just how clued are you into what Lesbian Twitter is saying about you and your role?

I… I don’t… I don’t understand Twitter. I don’t know how to look at it. I don’t know how to read it. I am a 900-year-old great grandmother. I cannot — I’m just from another time and I can’t work it out. But I’m glad to hear that; that sounds really amusing. I think I’d really enjoy it, if I could only figure out how to read it.

Is it too early to tell what this movie has done for your lesbian following?

Ha! I think I had a pretty solid lesbian following before this movie! I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I’ve been informed and, yeah, I’ve felt the support in the past.

Photo credit Bleecker Street.

When were you first informed that you had a lesbian following?

Friends told me probably similar things. I don’t know that it was Twitter. Maybe Instagram, in some comments.

Was there a particular role of yours that got the LGBTQ community interested in you and your work?

I don’t know. (Hesitates.) The thing that’s making me pause is that I find it embarrassing to talk about why anybody would respond to my work. Outside of any particular group or anything, just the idea of like, “What is it about you that people like?,” I feel embarrassed to answer that. And I think it’s probably better for my work if I’m not so good at understanding that. It’s sort of better to keep a distance. But people send you, like you just mentioned, little things sometimes and I’ve only ever been amused and flattered by those things.

I think what youre saying is: If the lesbian community is too excited by your work, you might just play lesbian roles for the rest of your career. Ha!

Ha! No, no, no! That’s not the concern. I think playing the same kind of roles over and over and over again is underrated. I think there’s a sort of obsession with trying to show the many different things you can do, but if I only encountered really, really amazing scripts about lesbian women for the rest of my career, I’d be perfectly happy. I’m just looking for the best material. I’m not so calculating to worry about being typecast in any way.

Im asking this question assuming you are straight, but is there a kind of sensitivity to playing a sexuality other than your own that is something you considered when depicting Abigail and bringing this lesbian romance to life?

I think sensitivity so far extends beyond, “Am I gonna play a sex scene in a truthful way?” How you relate to yourself and your orientation extends so far beyond sexuality. It’s who you are, it’s who you love. So I think it would be such a narrow view (to say), “Gee whiz, am I gonna get the sex scene right?” (Better) to think: “How am I gonna embody this in a much more complete way?”

And when you say the lesbian community is excited about this, that makes me happy. I feel a responsibility to do my job as an actor, which is to imagine experiences and worlds and periods and everything that I’ve never known and do them justice. So if I am playing a lesbian woman and the lesbian community feels that I’ve done a crap job, that’s a horrible failure on my part. I take that very seriously. But I think it so extends beyond having to play (a) sex scene. But we take these things very seriously, and I think one thing I found sort of challenging with this role was that I wanted to know everything I could know about women from this period who loved each other and (were) met with terrific tragedy and suffered because they couldn’t be together.

There’s obviously very little accounts of these women, particularly working class women, farmers’ wives. We don’t have their journals. We have the journals that were preserved in grand homes in England, like Anne Lister’s diaries. There was also these amazing letters from lesbian medieval nuns that were found from the 12th century. One of them addressed the other as, “My sweet honey, sweeter than honeycomb,” and I thought it was so beautiful and very Abigail. So you find these things; you kind of go digging around to see what you can connect to.

Photo credit Bleecker Street.

That is definitely an Abigail metaphor.

Yeah, yeah. And these people are just striving to articulate these feelings, not only ones that they’ve never had before, but that were so outside of their expectations for what they were going to get from life. These women who had been potentially put into arranged marriages, never got to choose a damn thing in their lives, are now having this. How do I articulate this? It’s the sweetest thing. It’s the best bestest thing, ha! And obviously it’s so tragic and awful, but also beautiful. And I was so moved by that moment of requited love.

There have been many lesbian period dramas in the last few years, like Portrait of a Lady on a Fire, Carol and Ammonite. And, of course, now The World to Come. Did you watch any other lesbian period dramas as preparation?

I’m like the only person who hasn’t seen “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” But I’m just one of those people who’s just — I just watched “The Sopranos”! So I’m on such a delay. Like, I will watch it and I didn’t choose not to watch it because I knew I was making this film. But I did see “Carol” and I haven’t seen “Ammonite.” I want to see them. I’m just slow. Ha!

I dont know if you have anything to say about this, but I think its worth pointing out that the majority of lesbian stories that are being told now seem to happen in the past. Theres a lot of commentaries about this topic on social media and in the press, about how there doesnt seem to be as many contemporary lesbian stories being told right now in film.

That’s interesting. I certainly didn’t think about that while filming. All I can really think about when I’m filming is the film. And I didn’t know “Ammonite” was being made. So I know about the pattern now because journalists have told me. But it is an interesting question, and I think one reason, maybe, is because we’ve neglected an extraordinary past and we’re trying to fill in and build out our histories, and I think that’s important to do. And we’ll be busy doing that for a very long time because we’ve just been watching the boys stories for a really, really long time. There’s loads to explore. And three period lesbian dramas is not a lot. It just feels like a lot because, maybe, it’s a lot more than it’s ever been in two consecutive years ever before. But I think that highlights a problem, not a pattern. It’s not a pattern. It’s just three movies. And I think we’re all longing for a day where they’re not labeled like that, I suppose. Where it’s an interesting story that hasn’t been told and, “Have you seen this interesting story? Or that interesting story?” rather than the thing that isn’t hetero and focused on a rugged white man. But that is an interesting one. I’m hopeful that it’s shifting. Clea (DuVall) just made a contemporary movie (with “Happiest Season”). There are people paving the way.

Photo credit Bleecker Street.
Chris Azzopardi
Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter.