“Ridley Scott gets off on terrifying the audience” – Katherine Waterston on Alien: Covenant

Katherine Waterston tells us about stepping into Ridley Scott’s world with Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant arrives in UK cinemas today, with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus follow-up promising to bring the terror back to the Alien franchise. It follows the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship searching for humanity’s new home which takes a chance on a seemingly perfect planet and pays a terrible price…

While the crew is led by Billy Crudup’s stiff-necked Oram, Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is the film’s star, and the star of Queen Of Earth, Inherent Vice and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is superb as the team’s best hope for survival. We talked to Waterston about jumping into a franchise with so much history, working with Ridley Scott, the Ripley comparisons and why real characters make Alien terrifying.

How does it feel to be standing on an Alien movie set?

I think the first time the cast got in the ship you feel like you’re in an Alien museum. Of course we’d all been cast, we knew we would be on a spaceship at some point while we were shooting but there’s something so exciting and bizarre about being inside something that looks like a scene from films that we all loved so much.

So I think there was certainly a moment, and it was a collective moment, it wasn’t just me, we were all looking around at each other, like “I can’t believe we’re here!” And Ridley steps on and he says “You pull this lever and we’ll shoot the fucker, what’s the worst that can happen, we’ll be wrong, alright! Let’s see what it looks like!” I think that first day we were on the ship was pretty overwhelming. But it happened to me multiple times throughout the shoot. A lot of times you have a lot of work to do and you’re busy and distracted by all of that, but every now and then he’d call cut and somebody’s fidgeting with a light and it would hit me again: “My god, I can’t believe I’m here.”

Did you know that you’d be reading for Alien: Covenant when Ridley Scott first asked to meet you?

Yes, because I think when I first met with him they didn’t know what to call it so I think they were calling it, not his team, but I think my agents were calling it Prometheus 2. I think they had some sense that it was an extension of that world, but I didn’t know for what part or anything.

Frankly, actors meet with directors all the time so I hadn’t read a script, I wasn’t emotionally invested in it the way sometimes you become when you’ve read a script you respond to. I was thrilled to meet him and I thought I would never hear from him again. Those meetings happen all the time and they often don’t go anywhere. So I was pretty shocked when I heard that he was thinking about hiring me for the lead for this film.

What was that meeting like?

It might sound strange but he actually, he sort of pitched himself to me and I remember sitting there thinking, “Why is he trying to tell me what it would be like to work with him?” Even it was a miserable experience I would be clamouring to work with him, but it obviously wasn’t, he’s so lovely to work with. But basically in that first meeting he just described to me how he liked to work. Maybe he was trying to assess if we were on the same page about that but everything he said would have been music to any actor’s ears.

He said “I don’t give a lot of direction, I don’t like to get in an actor’s way, I hire people I think are good and let them figure it out themselves, obviously if there’s a problem I’ll tell you, and I like to shoot quickly so that we can all get home in time for dinner!” So you just have this unfussy attitude about it, but even from that first meeting, I thought what a kick he got out of doing what he does.

I think a lot of people think it has to be painful to be good and he’s not one of them. He enjoys himself immensely on set and it sets the tone. So we work really hard but everybody, the entire crew, he makes them feel like they’re buzzing with excitement just to be a part of it, and to work with someone who is genuinely happy to be there, that shouldn’t be rare but it is. Obviously he’s able to enjoy it because he can handle the pressure of it because he’s got a little bit of experience, you know!

That must help when you’re working on something with as much history as this!

Yeah, I’m sure that the pressure of working on things like this that have a following and there’s a lot of expectation around, I’m sure that the pressure of that manifests itself in ways that close friends of mine could maybe recognise, but our jobs as his collaborators to leave all of our problems at the door a little bit, whatever insecurities we might have or anxieties about filling these big shoes and all of that.

Just like in any field, you have a responsibility to the people that hired you to do your job. So in a way that responsibility alleviates the pressure that you might impose upon yourself in the face of a franchise like this. It’s all kind of in those quiet hours at home or when the film finishes that I found myself acknowledging how intimidating the whole process was but you don’t really feel it.

The ensemble cast is incredible as well.

That’s a big part of what Ridley was saying to me in our first meeting. He gets actors he likes together and then he lets them behave on camera, and so I was thrilled when I saw the cast coming together. Obviously I knew that Michael Fassbender would be a part of it and I’d worked with him on Steve Jobs and was thrilled to get to work with him again, he’s amazing. And Billy Crudup was in a production of Arcadia that I saw when I was 15 and it had a huge impact on me and was one of those experiences that I think influenced my decision to become an actor. So I’ve known him a long time, and Amy Seimetz did a film with my brother in law Louis Cancelmi called Gabi On The Roof In July that she acted in almost 10 years ago and I saw her then, and I was blown away by her.

Working with good actors is the same as working with a good director, you just walk onto set with a certain amount of confidence and ease because you know there are people there who are going to help keep the ball in the air, you know? It’s always a comfort, the thing that’s intimidating is working with people you think are lousy, you know?  Plus they’re just cool people, they’re talented people, they’re nice people and funny, so it was easy to act like we liked each other!

It’s interesting that the characters are colonists looking for humanity’s new home, it’s such a hopeful place for a film like this to start…

Yeah! I mean, it’s a bit twisted but it gives you further to go! I was reading a lot of Carl Sagan when we were shooting this movie and there’s this quote I remember, it’s something like “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” That caught my attention when we were shooting this because it’s all these couples going into the unknown and maybe what appealed to them about the exploration of the universe is to do it in partnership, in unity in this way, and obviously that all doesn’t end well!

I thought that was beautiful because it is overwhelming for us to contemplate the vastness of the universe. Even when you see a newborn child it feels a little bit beyond your ability to comprehend, you know, it’s overwhelming and I always thought that was a beautiful sentiment, that the only way to handle it is through love. But yeah, doesn’t work out so well for us on this movie!

Obviously the lead in any Alien film will be compared to Ripley, but are there any similarities?

There are certain similarities to Ripley, the circumstances that she finds herself in this film are quite different emotionally but I can’t really get into that because it gives it away too much. But like Ripley at the beginning of the film she is third in command on the ship so she’s very capable and successful in her field and everything, but she isn’t the boss. But she has very good instincts and is very very sharp, but I think like all human beings she doesn’t know what she’s made of, she doesn’t know at the beginning of the film how courageous she is. As the shit begins to hit the fan, it turns out that she has clarity in the face of chaos.

I was struck by that and attracted to it, because I think we all wonder how we’ll handle unpredictable crises. You hear stories of women lifting burning cars to save their children and stuff but we don’t know if we’re going to be the ones to somehow harness that freakish strength, will you help someone in need or run away? We don’t know this about ourselves until we’re tested. I don’t think she necessarily thinks she’s an extraordinary human being but she does turn out to be.

How was it being able to work on actual sets with practical effects?

It’s great, it’s great fun and it’s always better to have something practical to work with. To me it just, it allows for more freedom in the performance. Sometimes when you have to stare at a point, an orange X on a stick or something, it’s difficult to find nuance in that or to play it a number of ways to give the director options because the stick isn’t a scene partner, it can’t respond to you. Whereas even a puppeteer with the head of an alien on a stick can interact with you in a different way take by take so there can be more variation there.

There’s a scene where I’m in a very heavy space suit and I have to climb a ladder and I was being chased. And if they had said “OK, run up that ladder like you’re being chased”, I could have done it, I’m an actress, I could have performed it! Maybe it just comes down to what’s more fun for me and I don’t know, maybe an audience member wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference but it was much scarier to know I was being chased. And maybe that sounds ridiculous because of course we know that we’re on a soundstage in a studio in Sydney and I know that I’m not actually in grave danger but it felt different to me and, in a twisted masochistic way, more enjoyable.

That grounding in reality is so important for the Alien movies, especially the first one.

Well, I know that what I was struck with from the first film was that these people all seemed really real, and yeah, they were hurtling through space but they had office dynamics. These two don’t get along with one another, these two are griping about the union, and I think it’s always been so grounded in reality so then when these horrifying unimaginable things begin to occur, it’s that much more terrifying because it seems like something that could really happen.

I think Ian Holm and John Hurt and obviously Sigourney, those actors in the original film, Harry Dean Stanton, you know, they just grounded it in a way that I think made the horror that much more terrifying and Ridley is a master. He understands what the audience needs and what the audience doesn’t need to see. And he understands that our own minds are sometimes really much more disturbing than any image he could create. So he knows when to show us something and he knows when to leave us to our own devices and I think it’s that kind of combination that ends up making the film that much more terrifying. Everyone always talks about Tom Skerritt’s death and you don’t see it.

And that’s just really great taste and takes a lot of guts that I think a lot other films are kind of afraid to do. He genuinely gets off on terrifying the audience so yeah; he sets the bar high for himself. He wants to be able to walk into the theatre and hear people scream and duck under their chairs. I think probably he’s just trying to push that envelope for himself and as a result we all benefit by getting scared out of our wits. I mean, I have a difficult time watching these kinds of movies so I’m kind of dreading seeing the final film to be perfectly honest, but I will force myself to do it once!

Alien: Covenant will be released on 12 May. Read our review here and keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.