“I’m new to this,” says Katherine Waterston, the young star of The Babysitters, a midnight-dark comedy featuring John Leguizamo and Cynthia Nixon. “I’ve done a lot of theater, and when you leave the stage, that’s the end of it. This is so much different. It’s just sort of shocking that this film is out in the world now.” There’s an excited lilt in her voice, bordering on panic, as she discusses her breakout role as Shirley, a naive high school student who, through a series of simple events, becomes the leader of a prostitution ring involving underage girls and married locals. The film, although thoughtful and challenging, won’t be for everyone. Waterston’s commanding performance, however, is so deeply felt and nuanced that it can’t possibly be overlooked. In fact, her languorous—and then breakneck—transition from innocence to experience easily rivals those of Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood. Below, Sam Waterston’s daughter opens up about law and disorder.
BLACKBOOK: Are you as organized as your character Shirley?
KATHERINE WATERSTON: As an actor, you can’t possibly plan anything because you never know what’s around the corner. Your livelihood is at the whim of other people. Sometimes you get cast in something and you have to fly somewhere a few days later, regardless of what you’re trying to get done in your life. So I feel like whenever I try to be organized, it ends up being more chaotic, because I make plans and I have to break them. It’s a wonderful excuse for me.
BB: Does that sort of thing appeal to you? The idea of hopping on a plane and doing something at the drop of a hat?
KW: I can’t tell if it’s a chicken or an egg thing. I don’t know if I wanted to be an actor because I didn’t want to know what was next for me, or if I’m disorganized like this because I am an actor. I can’t tell where it began.
BB: David Ross, the film’s director, said that he grew up learning to fear office life. Given that your father is a famous actor, were you raised in the same way?
KW: Initially, I didn’t know that people didn’t travel all over the place for work and have different jobs all the time. And it’s not just my dad. I come from a family of crazy artists, so I think I was probably seduced by all of that. It’s always been a part of my life. But it’s nice because we didn’t grow up around any of the showbiz stuff. My attraction to acting was always for the fun of playing, and becoming someone else, not for any desire to have my photograph taken.
BB: So the red carpet stuff isn’t appealing?
KW: There are so many celebrities who haven’t really having done anything. But I’m not the kind of person who goes to the opening of an envelope. I’m far too socially awkward for that. When my dad started out, acting wasn’t something that people thought was a respectable way to live your life—he came from Boston, the land of the WASP. But now it’s something that little kids dream about. He came from really wanting it, because no one was going to be too happy about it, so he had to be sure that he meant it. And I think it’s harder to tell what you’re really after these days, because celebrities have become our royalty now. It’s easy to think it’s all about attention and glamour. But a couple years out of college, struggling to get a job, you realize if you really want it or not.
BB: I’ve spoken to a number of young actors who have famous parents in the business, and it’s been suggested that this can be a blessing and a curse. What has your experience been like?
KW: I’ve never gotten into any rooms because of him, I don’t think. I never really sensed that he had a lot of influence or power in the business. [Laughs.] But, what’s nice is that we now have this pal-like relationship. We’re able to shoot the breeze about the ups and downs of the industry. He’s a wise, old sage—maybe that’s overdoing it, but you get the idea. It’s also probably easier to step out from his shadow because I’m a girl and he’s a boy. I think it’s hard when you look just like your parents.
That said, people say we sound the same. And I know I look like him. My mother is this Italian knockout, and none of us look like her. It’s like the greatest tragedy of all time.
BB: Let’s talk about the movie. Is there a specific moment in The Babysitters when you think Shirley makes the transition from naive girl to outright prostitute?
KW: Wow, that’s so interesting. I’ve never been asked that question. I think it happens when she doesn’t want to take the pills in the cabin and John’s character makes her. There was actually another sex scene that was cut, just after she took those pills, in which she’s totally detached, just kind of just lying there, and it’s really disturbing. But the prostitution, it’s her way of acting out with the hopes that he’ll say, “Stop doing this! I care about you.” Unfortunately, he keeps not saying it.
BB: You’re not the first actress to say that she’s fed up with stereotypical representations of young women in film. But some high school girls—and boys—are quite vapid and simple.
KW: I think it would be so much fun to play the tragically two-dimensional character as well. But I get frustrated when a character is being written as if they were more complicated, when the writing doesn’t support that at all. I think women get the bum deal because, ultimately, no matter how much people want to believe they’re creating these interesting characters, they just want the movie to sell. It’s more a criticism of the business than the characters. How much do we want to be challenged? In terms of these teenagers, we so often see a girl who is either one or the other—innocent or experienced—without any tug-of-war.
BB: Was it difficult for you to reserve judgement of Shirley?
KW: No, not really. I guess I’m not uncomfortable with the idea that good people do bad things.
BB: Did playing Shirley make you more sympathetic to public figures, say Eliot Spitzer, who are outed for their deceitful acts?
KW: Yes, absolutely. It’s easy to judge things in black and white. But when you actually think about these people, if you look at who they are and what they are, then you can understand how things happen to them. I don’t think understanding criminals makes you a criminal. Even though I can’t relate to wanting to be a prostitute, I can relate to being really confused about what’s right.
BB: Are you anticipating any backlash to the film from those who think it exploits young women and sensationalizes sex with minors?
KW: I’m sure there will be some of that. But as an actor, especially when you’re starting out, you feel so grateful when someone gives you a beast of a role, instead of the movie star’s best friend who wears a lot of lip gloss and says things like, “Why don’t you go talk to that cute boy?” It feels wonderful to divide people and spark those conversations. I’m even divided over it.
BB: What about on a more personal level? Was your family like, “This is your big debut, Katherine? As the head of a prostitution ring involving minors?”
KW: [Laughs.] First of all, when you read a script, you never know how far the project is going to go. A lot of people I know thought they were getting their big break and then the film doesn’t even get released on DVD. It just kind of disappears into the ether. I think that anyone who knows me knows that I couldn’t live with myself if I had passed up playing such a weird, interesting role. And I hope it will be one of many. At the moment, it’s a pretty big deal, but hopefully it won’t be the only big deal.
BB: Has it been a struggle for you, starting out?
KW: The hardest thing about being an actor is that you’re left alone with your thoughts for too many hours a day. Work is this wonderful distraction, and with actors, there is so much downtime between jobs where you’re left picking yourself apart. That’s a lot of work if you tend towards self-loathing, which I certainly do.
BB: How was Cynthia Nixon? Do you know her as an accomplished actor, or as Miranda?
KW: I first saw her when she did a play with my father. I was just a kid, and I didn’t know what was going on, but I thought she was just incredible. And then I saw Little Darlings, somewhere around that time. She’s been working for so long, and to see someone who was working as a child who turned out so well is really impressive. She has this amazing ability to fill out a scene.
BB: Without slamming “Sex and the City,” it seems like these are the types of female characters you talked about earlier—women who are meant to be deep and introspective, but in actual fact, say stuff like, “While Charlotte was going Uptown, Samantha was going down on the delivery guy.” Nixon’s performance always seemed to elevate the script. KW: Without slamming “Sex and the City,” I’m going to totally agree with you… which I guess is slamming “Sex and the City.” [Laughs.]