Katherine Waterston was sent the script for Meredith Danluck’s State Like Sleep by a friend. “When I saw the character’s name was Katharine I thought maybe he thought I was right for this because I had the correct name,” the actress told EW. “I figured it was going to be terrible, when you get sent a script in that way it often is.” Instead she was drawn in by the winding narrative of the film and its surprising twists, and before she realized it she had finished reading the script.
State Like Sleep, which you can watch the trailer for exclusively above, follows Katharine, the recent widow of Belgian actor Stefan Delvoe (Michiel Huisman), as she navigates the events leading up to her husband’s suicide, including tracking down his childhood friend Emile (Luke Evans) who works in a seedy and mysterious club her husband frequented. The film jumps back and forth between before and after Stefan’s death, and Waterston’s ability to navigate the complex emotional changes of her character anchors the film.
While Katherine is exploring the underbelly of the club scene her husband frequented and processing his death, she’s also dealing with her mother’s medical problems, and getting to know Edward (Michael Shannon) a more-than-meets-the-eye stranger staying in the hotel room next door. Though the film has many surprises, perhaps the most unexpected is how it uses the conventions of the mystery/thriller genre to delicately tell the story of a woman grieving.
Waterston, on a break from the Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald press tour, talked to EW about the film and, among other things, acting with Michael Shannon and working with a first-time director.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with the project? What drew you to the script?
KATHERINE WATERSTON: I got the script in a very unconventional way. A friend of mine who’s now a teacher sent me the script. He was just friends with Meredith [Danluck the writer/director] and thought it was really good. I figured it was gonna be terrible, when you get sent a script in that way it often is. And he’s not in the business or anything so I sort of wondered, “What does he know about a well-written script?” When I saw the character’s name was Katharine I thought maybe he thought I was right for this because I had the correct name, then suddenly I was reading the last page. With good scripts, just like a good book, you lose time, you forget where you are and I just sort of fell into the story from the first page on.
There are a lot of time jumps in the film, and your character acts distinctly different before and after the death of her husband. Were you filming these scenes simultaneously? How did you distinguish between these very different phases in your character’s life?
I didn’t really think about it while we were doing the film, but psychologically it’s a strange thing to do, to be jumping back and forth. I think we did do the best we could to separate the periods. But there were certainly times where because we had the location for a certain number of days you have to jump back and forth. I think one great advantage I had was that I had the script for many years, as opposed to having it for a few weeks, it just gets in your bones a bit. And I had a strong sense of who she was in those two different periods and the sense of that made it easier to do those shifts. I also think there’s some kind of pleasurable surrender on a film set, where you show up and you have the task of the day and it’s sort of like individual races, and on that day you just have that single race to run and the focus on that is essential and you have to let the rest fall away. And then of course the different actors ground you in the world you’re in.
Michael Shannon’s character is developed in an interesting way over the course of the film. What was it like working with him?
He’s one of the all-time greats and I’ve known him a long time. This was the first film we did together, we’ve since worked together again. He’s just so awesome to work with. I mean I thought it was a really astute choice that Meredith had made in the script to make him what might be a kind of dismissible person, exactly the sort of person you might find in a hotel lobby hitting on some women, that my character wouldn’t think of as much of anything but someone to judge initially, and then when she got to know him a little better might not think of him as much more than someone to have a brief fling with. The complexity of his character’s personality really emerges throughout the film, as she gets to know him better the audience does too.
But the fact that at the beginning he seems like a sort of lousy man, for the character Katharine actually is what makes him approachable for her, because she’s in a very guarded place and if someone was asking for anything intimate it would be very problematic for her. So in a way her judgement of him is sort of essential to her getting to know him better, in a way. He’s unthreatening to her, though he may seem threatening to people watching the movie or appalling, he’s actually very approachable for her because she is deeply afraid of intimacy in her life, she’s shut it off. So I think it actually make a lot of sense, that that particular person she could spend some time with, be open to being around at the beginning of the film.
What was it like working with the writer/director Meredith Danluck? It feels significant that a woman directed this film about a woman’s grief.
I love her so much. I think for me a measure of how much I love a director if I start to get a feeling while we’re working like, “I would die for them.” I get this very strange overwhelming feeling like, “I’ll take a bullet for this person.” I hope I never find myself in that type of situation but that feeling comes over me rarely when I’m working with someone I just really believe in. And I felt that in spades for Meredith. Just a kind of overwhelming feeling of loyalty. I suppose you sort of take a risk committing to work with a first time director, but in a sense if it’s the person that wrote the script and you liked the script then you know a lot about them already from reading it. Then of course she had all this experience making documentary films. It was her first feature but she wasn’t new to being around a camera and I think that that’s really important, the way a film set functions wasn’t a mystery to her.
She has all the things you can’t teach, she exudes confidence and optimism on set. She just has this kind of great energy. I don’t know that I think about people too much in the categories of male and female directors, I don’t really know what the differences would be except for all of the obvious difficulties for any woman working in a man’s world. There can be those challenges but Meredith doesn’t seem to be challenged by them at all. She’s about 5’3″ and she was running that show with no difficulty. She’s a very determined, very focused person. So I just didn’t feel any issues of gender on our set. In that sense I didn’t really experience her as a female director per se.
But having said that, she did give some of the best acting notes I’ve ever gotten and that’s an art in and of itself. You want to be clear and you want to give someone something they can use, but you don’t want to give them so much that it crowds their creative process or distracts from whatever they’re trying to focus on. So it’s a very delicate thing. It was kind of shocking how clear and efficient and vivid her notes were, it really stayed with me.
There’s a lot of complex emotional material in the film. Was there a scene that was most memorable or challenging to film?
There were so many. I think at the very end of filming, when she was editing and realized really what had gone down and she could quantify it, Meredith called me said, “I’m so sorry I did that to you.” It was a very intense process and there was just day after day of intense emotional work. We shot the end of the movie on the first day. And that was intimidating, and challenging, because I didn’t know where I would be at the end [of the film]. It was scary to sort of make a guess of where the character would end up without having to travel through the story yet.
But I also really loved shooting the scene with Michael, which is sort of a weird thing to say because it’s sort of a make out scene. I don’t think actors often say, “Oh yeah, my favorite scene was the make out scene,” because obviously that kind of stuff can be really awkward and strange. But it was so important for the character, the scene where she goes to his room. It’s just that first step into trying to be in the world again and be intimate again. That scene felt like a very important turning point. I love these big scenes that take unexpected turns and the characters and the actors are forced in different directions. They’re like a play in that sense and they’re hard to come by.
State Like Sleep will be released in January 2019.