Alien: Covenant – Katherine Waterston on New Terrors & Importance of Ellen Ripley

We sat down with Katherine Waterston on the Alien: Covenant set to talk Ridley Scott's bloody vision, and the enduring role of Ellen Ripley.

When I first meet Katherine Waterston she jauntily strides, beaming, into the room of waiting journalists, a room surrounded by inspiration boards for Ridley Scott’s forthcoming Alien: Covenant. We’re on the set at 20th Century Fox’s studio during a chilly June day in 2016 in Sydney, Australia. The poster boards surrounding us belie the winter cold, boasting, instead, fecund forestry from New Zealand, manicured gardens, and even specific types of spores. Others showcase pictures that embody fear, like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Waterston appreciatively comments on the beauty and intricacies of these boards; nothing escapes her – we can only hope she’s doing the escaping in Scott’s upcoming feature film.

Scott’s film is a sequel to Prometheus (2012) and promises from its trailer to feature more thrills, screams, and terror than its predecessor. Waterston plays Daniels, the Chief Terra-formist aboard the Covenant ship. Bound on a colonizing mission, Covenant seems to find “paradise.” But things take a turn for the worse and soon the crewmembers are soon fighting for their lives.

Sprawling her long, leggy limbs across a chair, evoking the physique of a 21st century Sigourney Weaver, the star of the original Alien, Waterston enthuses over her experience on-set, working with Scott, the challenge of mitigating fear, and the concept of a “strong” woman character. 

Can you start off talking about your character and her role?

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She’s the Chief Terra-formist on this colonization mission…. There’s this massive wing of the ship that’s dedicated to all the machinery that will be required when we get to the planet to make it habitable. So there are these beautiful space greenhouses and all sorts of hard core farming equipment that they’ve built, incredible stuff. So yeah, [my character knows her] way around that stuff, forwards and backwards and I’ve been working on it for 10 years.

How would you describe Daniels’ personality?

I don’t think she thinks of herself as particularly special. She’s very smart, she’s good at her job, she likes her job, and she’s a worker. The events of the film reveal parts of herself to herself that she didn’t know she necessarily possessed. And that was really interesting to me. That’s the kind of thing that keeps me awake: What will you do in a crisis? Will you be the type of person who makes decisions quickly or do you fall apart, weep.

I thought I saw that when I read the script that she didn’t start off in this film strutting around, knowing that she can kick ass. She sort of discovers her strength and her courage as the circumstances, that I can’t talk about, present themselves.

Describe the hierarchy of the group.

I think because she doesn’t think of herself as the cat’s pajamas, she’s one of them. And like Ridley in the first Alien she’s technically third in ranking at the beginning of the film.

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Does your character own a cat?

Ah. You know it’s too fun not to answer that question [laughs]. It’s a good question.

On the one hand I think when you’re doing a sequel or any type of follow-up that people really love you can feel that’s terrifying and a huge pressure. It’s also a kind of really great, if you’re not taking that negative point of view about it, it can be really inspiring. There’s nothing that didn’t work so there’s no “what should we fucking avoid.” But what do we love about this that like all the other fans, because we’re fans too, really enjoyed about that, and how do we bring that to this and not just copy it, but steal from it a little bit?

I think a lot of all the actors talked about that. And you know, we’re nerds, so you have a little time to think, “Well, what are we doing in the corner? Can we be having a little adlib about something else? Or what’s this relationship?” And we didn’t really have to force that – that just came about because all of us like our jobs and like to play.

We’ve been talking today about how Ridley Scott is a very detailed filmmaker. I’m curious how he helps you build the character and the relationship with the group.

You know he doesn’t really… This is always such an interesting question to be asked, and very understandable because people would want to know how the director is working with the actors. But I think that most of the directors I’ve worked with, they don’t really help you find the character or build the character; they’re usually pretty good at casting for what they want. And also, the best directors I’ve worked with have tremendous amount of faith in what the actors will bring; they don’t have time to hold your hand through figuring out who your character is.

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That’s why they trust that you’ll go into your corner and do your work, and one thing I really love about Ridley is he sets the unspoken expectation that you’re going to go into your corner and do whatever the hell you’re going to do, but what I love about him is his excitement is palpable about what you’ve come up with. Or you have an idea in the moment and he’s like, “Let’s not fucking talk about it just show it to me, just try it.”

You know what he always says is the worst thing we can do is try it, and it’ll be wrong. “Let’s shoot the fucker” he says about 500 times a day. And you know it’s great, like let’s get our hands dirty, it’s not going to be the end of the world, nothing’s going to go terribly wrong if I try something that’s idiotic, and then it’s liberating and when it’s liberating you tend to feel happier with the work because you’re free in it which is the whole fucking point.

You’re working with Michael Fassbender playing two different characters. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

Yeah! It’s awesome. It’s really been so so wildly fascinating to work with an actor who’s playing a robot. I mean really mind-blowing. It’s surreal and like nothing I’ve ever done before, and probably won’t get to do again. Just because everything—any interaction is met with something I’m not used to getting from another thing, another person. Human beings either engage by paralleling or by contrasting, and somehow neither are happening with him so it’s just surreal. And it makes my job really easy, because I cannot forget that he’s a robot. I never feel like its Michael.

It’s just what he’s doing is so powerful and so convincing that I kinda’ get excited to work with him, and not just in the scenes where we’re running from something sketchy, but talking to each other because I don’t know what it’s going to feel like. To discover that on-camera, what our relationship is—because I’m quite bonded to one of the character’s he’s playing—and to try to figure out what it is to be bonded to a human thing that looks like a human, and figuring out what that would be, I feel like I’m kind of getting to time travel to what my grandchildren will actually experience, you know? And it’s really awesome; it’s really mind-blowing and it’s really fun.

Ridley said when you came into this room, “Look how terrified she is!” Have you been put through your paces in this film?

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Well, I mean the first day when you come into a meet and greet with all the other actors, it’s almost always more terrifying than anything you’ll ever have to do on-camera. Just because, it’s excitement. I’m very shy just meeting people, and this room is intimidating to me. You don’t make a movie in one day. But when you walk into this room you think, “Holy shit! We have to do all of this!”

But what’s great about movies is you just go step by step. And anybody can kind of handle one intense day on-set and then you go to bed, and then you do it again and—it’s much scarier when you’re looking at the whole thing ahead of you than when you’re a worker bee going through your day.

What’s the relationship like between Daniels and Walter? Are they friends? Colleagues?

Yes. We are friends. That’s sort of what I was talking about to explore that relationship which is strange. Even as I say now in this interview, “We are friends,” I think obviously Daniels knows that would be a ridiculous thing to say about a robot, and yet she feels it about a robot. Do you know what I mean? And then David, I meet him in the film. He’s new to me.

How do their personalities compare?

They do differ a great deal. And I just think if I mess with it by talking about it, it will just take away from the experience of watching it. I know this for a fact. I saw a scene that they do together which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen onscreen. I was so excited for it and also jealous, because they’re totally going to steal my thunder, those two robots!

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Daniels also has a close relationship with the captain. Can you talk at all about that?

Everyone’s a couple on this ship. So there are two people [my character] has known for 10 years while we’ve been prepping this whole project. And…I don’t know what else I can say. I don’t know what else to say about it other than you can imagine it’s probably not that hard to feel close to Danny McBride. He’s so lovely. And he’s actually quite moving in this film.

I mean everybody’s knows he’s hilarious, and so totally gifted which can actually be kind of problematic for me in this movie because there was one day when we had to get into space suits and like look at each other in a way like we’re preparing for something quite terrifying, and I look and he started to put his helmet on and they’re a little tricky to put on. It’s all really functional, and there’s something you have to move to clip in and have to shove these two little panels back, and something got caught, so I looked at him, you know all grave and serious, but the helmet was just a little bit off. And he just looked like he was in a sketch routine all of a sudden, and I just completely lost it.

But he’s not [comic relief]. And you know that’s Ridley. He just has this eye for casting, and it’s really interesting to see. Just some smaller parts that just got cast from a tape are so complex and beautiful. Like these guys playing the soldiers they look like, you know I’m almost six-feet tall, and I feel actually safe around these dudes, they’re just so much bigger than me.

But they’re all really tender and soulful too, and you think when I look at the picture of the whole cast, “Huh, there’s a pattern here. All these guys are endearing.” And obviously, I think it’s part of this appeal he’s after because he knows some of them aren’t going to make it to the end. He wants people to be sad about it. Like Harry Dean Stanton. You just love him from the second you see him onscreen, you know? And it’s traumatic later on.

Could you talk about the atmosphere on-set and just being scared?

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I guess like anything that demands a lot from you, a performance that demands a lot from you, you have to conserve your energy. I find with playing fear I really have to conserve my energy. It’s weird. Someone told me yesterday, someone on the crew, said, “Sometimes I talk to you after a take and I can see you’re not there at all.” I feel like the light switch goes off, because it takes a lot of energy to amp yourself up that way. Sometimes you hear a creak in your house and you can hear your heart beating in your ears, and you can’t generate some of those adrenal releases. But it takes a lot of energy to go into that stuff.

And that’s been actually an interesting process to dedicate myself to, one I’ve never done before. It’s legitimately freaky, a lot of stuff in this film.

How are you actually interacting with the creatures? Are you interacting with someone in a suit? A green screen?

All of the above. Lots of different fellas in suits. Extraordinary movers and amazing stunt guys that Ridley uses just so we can have the feel of it when it’s not even on-camera at all. Which can be weirdly amazingly terrifying, even though I can see it’s a fella with a beard in a gray sweat suit, but he’s running at me. And then there have been more, well I’ve worked with lots of different sort of alien things.

One really scary thing was I was being chased by one and I was in a really cumbersome outfit, and it wasn’t easy, the area I was running through, and I really felt like I wasn’t maybe going to get away fast enough. It’s always better when it feels real, you know? I hustled that day. And Creatures [Design] also include all the amazing work they’ve done on the people who get attacked. I mean, there have been times when I’ve thought with the actor in front of me it’s been a beanbag body with a perfect face. That actually is maybe the most chilling thing to witness is your friends all damaged.

I’m wondering if you took any cues from what Noomi [Rapace] or Sigourney did?

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I mean I don’t know about cues. Obviously, I’m a fan. So I’ve watched these films not ever realizing I was going to be a part of it, and I mean on some level I think Sigourney’s performance, this might sound like a little bit of a stretch, influenced women in strong roles ever since, because what Ridley did with that character and what she did with it when she played the part was, I think really ahead of its time, but really on the money just my perception of what women are like, which is they are everything, just like men. They are scared shitless sometimes, they are courageous sometimes. And this idea that gets bandied about so much about strong women as opposed to what other type of woman?

You have to make a distinction? I don’t understand this. And also that it always has to be strong. The one-note strong character. As opposed to the non-strong character that sometimes has other experiences or emotions. But when I saw Alien, the first Alien, I thought that it was doing that, and a lot of other people are doing that now, and that really influenced the industry in a big way. So I’ve probably been taking cues from her performance in a way my whole life on and off-screen.

It’s just to me a very relatable, excellent depiction of a woman. But at the same time, I love what Noomi did, it was very different from what Sigourney did. I don’t think she felt any responsibility to be like Sigourney. I don’t feel any responsibility to be like that. There are some traits all of these characters share, but there are also some differences. Obviously we’re different people and bring different characteristics to it.

Obviously it must be great to be part of that legacy she established in the first film. And at the same time, you know you’re going to get newspaper headlines that say, “Is This the New Ripley?” So how do you deal with the weight of that?

I just ignore it. I don’t read about anything about Hollywood stuff. I have enough sketchy negative voices in my head that I conjure all on my own. I find I reach my limit all by myself, I don’t need to go looking for more. And even just as an audience member, I don’t really, sometimes I like to read about a film after I’ve seen it, but I like to go in fresh before. And so I don’t really engage with that stuff.

The thing that always struck me about the original Alien was she survives until the end, and I feel like in a way it’s a sort moral reward for her being the only one to recognize the danger that guy was in. Does your character in this movie have a similar moral quandary that she’s dealing with?

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I don’t know if for her it’s moral, because in that, it was “do we or do we not let him on,” right? Is that what you’re talking about when you say moral quandary? I don’t think it really plays out like that—I’ll say she has really good instincts like Ripley did.