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'Inherent Vice' actress Katherine Waterston talks NYC and lessons from dad, Sam

Katherine Waterston attends Deadline's The Contenders at DGA

Katherine Waterston attends Deadline's The Contenders at DGA Theater in Los Angeles on Nov. 1, 2014. Credit: Getty Images / Imeh Akpanudosen

Katherine Waterston may not have quite the name recognition as her award-winning actor dad, Sam, but that may be about to change given the major buzz surrounding her performance in "Inherent Vice," Paul Thomas Anderson's new film that opened Friday.

The groovy, 1970s-era tale -- based on the bestselling novel by Thomas Pynchon (his first adapted into a film) -- follows Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a stoner detective investigating a mystery concerning his seductive ex, Shasta (Waterston), while hounded by a crazy cop (Josh Brolin). It's a hallucinogenic trip, part comedy, part crime thriller.

Waterston, 34, an NYU alum, has appeared on screen ("The Babysitters") and stage ("The Cherry Orchard"). And you can catch her tomorrow at Joe's Pub, in the Public Theater, along with Emmy and Tony Award winner Cherry Jones and others reading from great literary works to celebrate Lapham's Quarterly, a history and culture magazine helmed by acclaimed writer and editor Lewis Lapham.

She spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

Shasta is such a wild California girl -- a far cry, I'm guessing, from the girls you grew up with in Connecticut.

Yeah. I've never met anyone like Shasta ... in Connecticut or anywhere else.

Paul Thomas Anderson's films -- like "Boogie Nights," "There Will Be Blood" -- are deliciously unpredictable. Could you tell what this film would be like when you auditioned?

Actually, Paul didn't give out the script before the audition, and I hadn't read the novel yet. So I arrived at the audition and was handed a few pages, which ended up being the first scene in the film -- it's also the first scene in the novel -- and I basically read it cold. But the strange thing is, when the writing is really good, you can actually get a lot from just a few pages. I felt an immediate connection to Shasta right away.

That's an intense audition -- not knowing what you'll have to do till you get there.

It can be kind of liberating, actually, but yeah, it's nerve-racking, too.

There's a lot of great buzz about your performance. Is that fun or ... weird or ... what do you make of it?

I mean, sure, it's a relief. It certainly beats the alternative of being the first person to be considered lousy in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. That had definitely crossed my mind. I was a little nervous that I might ... I don't know, let him down in some way.

And how was it working with Joaquin Phoenix?

He's just a dream partner. I could work with him for years. He's incredibly inventive and generous and playful.

You had fun on set.

Absolutely. Start to finish. Actors ... are weirdos, so maybe it's not everyone's idea of fun. But certainly for me, this is the stuff that excites me and gives me a purpose in life. I couldn't have cobbled together a more perfect situation in my mind. Paul is my favorite director, and Joaquin is my favorite actor. It's like a dream come true.

So the film opens, then tomorrow you switch gears entirely -- going from Shasta to Scarlett O'Hara, reading from the book "Gone With the Wind" at Joe's Pub in the East Village.

These Lapham's Quarterly events are so much fun. Every time they ask me I say yes, and when they don't I wish they had. They're these great nights celebrating language. It's such a treat to hear the other actors reading their books, too. I'm excited, but I don't want to talk about it too much because I get nervous about these things. Of what a big undertaking it is. But I'm looking forward to it.

It's a cool magazine. It reminds you that history is vibrant, relevant. But a lot of folks don't think that way. Are you ... a closet history geek or what?

I'm a huge nerd for the Quarterly. It's so well-curated. I wait impatiently for every issue.

One obligatory Dad question: He's had an impressive career -- have you gleaned lessons from it?

Absolutely. I guess, when it comes to parenting, the most effective stuff is what you do by example, right? You can tell your kids to eat your vegetables, but if you don't eat your own vegetables, your kids'll think it's bull. ... So I think the most he's given to me in terms of acting has been his incredible body of work. And his guts.

Everyone knows him as prosecutor Jack McCoy from "Law & Order," of course, but I saw him at The Public playing King Lear and, yeah, he was pretty phenomenal.

I loved that production. He continues to challenge himself and make brave, cool choices, and I just really admire him. He's been an inspiration.

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