I feel lucky every time I get to interview Vera Farmiga, and not just because I think she's a gorgeous woman. I also happen to think she's one of the finest actresses working today and she's an intelligent, enlightened person whose perspective on her work and career is clear and well articulated.
Before her Oscar-nominated performance in UP IN THE AIR, most people only knew her as essentially the woman in THE DEPARTED, or perhaps you remember her as Paul Walker's sexy-as-hell wife in RUNNING SCARED. Or as the maybe-crazy mom in either JOSHUA or ORPHAN. And if you didn't blink, you may have seen her as the philosophical Russian prostitute in Anthony Minghella's BREAKING AND ENTERING. But it was her portrayal of a drug-addicted mother in DOWN TO THE BONE that set the critical world afire, so much so that the L.A. Film Critics Association named her best actress of the year in 2004.
Prior to this most recent interview, I'd seen her in two great roles this year: as the military scientist guiding Jake Gyllenhaal through the SOURCE CODE and as the snooty small-town actress in HENRY'S CRIMES, opposite Keanu Reeves. But her latest work, HIGHER GROUND, marks both the single best performance of her career since DOWN TO THE BONE and her directing debut. It's a film that takes faith and those who are faithful or in a spiritual crisis seriously. And the result is a gripping work that showcases the likes of Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, John Hawkes, Donna Murphy, and Dagmara Dominczyk in a film based on the memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs (who co-adapted her own book).
This is the first time I had interviewed Farmiga in Chicago (the first time was on the phone, the second was in Austin in March during SXSW press for SOURCE CODE, and the fact that she remembered that meeting tempted me to add "great memory" to her list of positive qualities. She has a tendency to speak softly when she speaks, and that forces you to lean toward her, creating a type of intimacy that is often missing from these kind of interviews. I hope that translates. Enjoy Vera Farmiga…
Capone: Hello. We actually met earlier this year in Austin.
Vera Farmiga: I know, for SOURCE CODE, right?
Capone: Yeah, in Austin.
VF: Oh yeah!
Capone: We did talk about HIGHER GROUND a little bit, but at the time I hadn’t seen it.
VF: We did, didn’t we?
Capone: You were still buzzing about the Sundance screening.
VF: I must have been coming off the high of Sundance, yeah. So when did you see it?
Capone: Maybe three or four weeks ago. Something like that.
VF: [Laughs] And how many films do you see a week?
Capone: Ah, I see your point. Fortunately I wrote down all of my questions right away, then and then I reviewed and refreshed them yesterday. It’s interesting, in seeing some of the interviews that came out of Sundance that you did, a lot of people wanted to put this film--and I don’t think in a bad way, I think it’s actually in a great way--in the same category of what Robert Duvall did with THE APOSTLE.
VF: That’s a great compliment.
Capone: It is, because that’s a terrific film and it’s one of those very rare films either in or outside the studio system that treats the faithful with respect, whatever that faith may be.
VF: Well it’s really chronicling an actual journey, an honest depiction of struggle and devotion.
VF: As we know with every human relationship we have--whether it’s with our families or in our marriages and our partnerships and within our communities, our siblings, our best friends--it’s hard to have faith and this one just takes it a step further and puts God in that relationship. I think we all have our definitions of what God means, whether it’s a concrete masculine guy with a beard and a staff up there, or if it’s abstract or whether God is love or an energy. We all have our definitions, whether you look to Islam or Hinduism or sweat lodges.
We are all searching to define it and struggling to define it. THE APOSTLE was a film that is very fully dimensional portrayal of that relationship, that spiritual relationship to Sonny and his God. I loved watching Duvall get angry at God. I just thought that was such an amazing scene, that prayer where he is like, “I am angry at you! I am angry!” and he's screaming the way we do at each other you know, and it was refreshing to see someone behave like a quirky human.
Capone: And treating God like another person who just happens to have a little bit more power maybe and influence than you do, and there are scenes like that in HIGHER GROUND, where your character gets really frustrated with not being able to find that connection.
VF: Yeah, not being able to feel that presence, not feeling that hand anymore, not being guided, treading water in a way. [Laughs] "When’s that life preserver coming?” So Duvall, yeah, and his direction, his acting, the way he portrayed spiritual crisis and struggle…
Capone: So was that a film that had any influence over you when putting your film together?
VF: Extremely. It’s one of my top-five films.
Capone: Okay. I had seen it come up as a comparison, but I didn’t actually know if it was something that you had placed any value in.
VF: Yeah, yeah, it’s one of my favorite films, and I just wanted an opportunity… It’s my way of experimenting with better roles for women. I wanted that kind of material.
Capone: You mentioned community earlier, and what’s funny about this particular community that your character finds herself in is there is just as internal politics and gossips in this "ideal" community as in a community of neighbors. And there’s a strong statement here about the role of women in these communities.
VF: This was a very particular time and place in history. Women were struggling to be heard and were trying to find their own voices and footing. This is a very sort of fringe patriarchal group that she found herself in; I’m not saying some large statement about Christianity. I would love to see a more even playing field with more female pastors.
Capone: Especially behind the pulpit, that’s definitely where you dig your heels in, so to speak.
VF: Sure, I mean that’s part of her frustration, sure. It’s one of her limitations where she feels diminished.
Capone: It feels like the men are scared, because she actually seems good at it and she’s articulate.
VF: Oh but it’s terrifying to be usurped, isn’t it?
Capone: By a woman or by anybody, I guess.
VF: I think Norbert Leo Butz did such an amazing job as that pastor. I think the whole film hinges on his earnestness, and even at the end there is growth in his character. I mean he lets her speak, but for whatever reason, maybe that day his ego took over. This comes form Carolyn [Briggs]’s experience within her very specific community that she worshipped in.
[At this point in the interview, Farmiga does something very funny while trying to come up with specific word for "communing with believers,"--perhaps the word congregate--and she throws herself down on the sofa she's sitting on trying to think of it, which ultimately she never does.]
VF: Let’s rewind the tape. [Laughs]
Capone: No problem. I’ve talked to a lot of actors who say that they tend to choose roles that scare them a little bit, to the point where they don’t even know if they can actually get away with playing it. Was this character tough to crack for you? Was it scary to play someone like this?
VF: Yeah, I felt that fear, because it’s challenging, because it requires a certain amount of openness and introspection, receptivity. The subject matter requires courage, because you are saying, “I’m not going to try to make a film that fits into any easily marketable strategy and deals with a portrayl of faith.” I needed to explore something that touched me after reading Carolyn’s memoirs and then forging the script with her. She wrote it, but I was there developing it, and it took an enormous amount of courage to say, “I know there are these kinds of films about faith and these kinds, but I don’t want to make those kinds of films.” I wanted it to come from my perspective and the way I had been touched by reading this and exploring this character and meeting Carolyn. This search for enlightenment, I’ve been touched in a way that I am coming from my own perspective. It takes a lot of courage to chave your own perception of things.
Capone: Does that mean this is the most personal thing you've ever done?
VF: No, there’s a lot of me and there’s very little of me at the same time. As a photographer, automatically the assumption is I'm a religious person and people want to know what my beliefs are, and I find that I navigate away from saying anything about where my own beliefs lie.
Capone: I wasn't even going to ask you.
VF: [laughs] See, you get it. And I can’t just do it in a five-minute interview. It’s like “Have you got five years to get to know me? And along the way we can discuss.” Also, people have such different perceptions and experiences of a film that I might want it to serve as a vehicle of self reflection, and just the challenge of directing and the idea… The only way I could make this project was if I directed, that’s the only way financing would come. [Laughs] The first time doing anything is always nerve-racking, especially without experience.
Capone: I wnat to ask you about directingin a second, but you just mentioned something about how there are different perceptions of this character in this movie. One of the perceptions might be that Corinne [her character's name] is someone who is never happy with what she has, because she never seems quite content. Did you try to take that into consideration and work around that?
VF: That is such an amazing question for Carolyn Briggs. I think she would be a good source, and you should feel free to call her actually. I don’t know if you have to go through Sony to do it, but this is from her psyche, and that’s such a wonderful question for her.
Capone: But the challenge for you is to make it more than that.
VF: Yeah, yeah, but what is happiness? Happiness is living a life of passion and intimacy and coming from authenticity from a genuine self. If that’s the struggle. She’s not going to be happy until she learns to do that, despite everybody’s ideas for her life. She has to concentrate on her own perception of things, and that happiness will come if she finds a way to have faith, which means courage, perseverance, hope, and finding it in herself. She’s constantly looking for a savior in all of these relationships, whether it’s clinging to Ethan or clinging to Annika. And when all of these relationships dissolve or are taken away from her, she’s drowning. So it’s these moments of doubt and disbelief and disenchantment that you know you're going to learn something about yourself.
Capone: Aside from just being in charge of the set, what did the art of directing mean to you in terms of how you were going to get this film done?
VF: Tone. There’s so much humor in it, and that’s something that once you see it you understand. At Sundance, we came away with more laughs than comedies at Sundance, and it’s not the mean, snickering, “Oh look what doofuses these characters are,” but recognizing yourself and chuckling along with the characters in their yearning to be better lovers, to be better disciples, to be better husbands or mothers.
It’s a very delicate and tall order to see it through the bifocal lens of gravitas. It’s a heavy-duty subject matter, very personal and subjective to people, and to be able to look at it with lightheartedness was very tricky, and I really feel like the challenge was to not affect it with any kind of bias, which is hard to do. I look at the film, and there are some scenes where I think, “Maybe I could have toned that down even.”
At the same time, there’s one scene in particular where I’m thinking about how one of the women, the pastor’s wife prays [Laughs], which is really floriferous and dramatic, but I think there’s so much earnest prayer in the entire film that it’s okay and some people are bad pray-ers. [Laughs] Some people don’t pray really well. Praying is a hard thing to do. Some people are very sloppy. I mean it’s terrifying. Have you ever been asked to pray out loud for people?
Capone: I don’t think I have.
VF: You are either really good at it or you’re not, and I think the more you do it, the easier it gets, but it’s one of the hardest things to do eloquently and it’s an amazing tool/ Regardless of your religion, it’s an amazing tool for tapping into our potential and our strengths, and I think vocalizing things and meditating over things is incredibly powerful tool, and some people are more eloquent than others.
Capone: You have John Hawkes and Josh Leonard in this film. These are two of my favorite actors right now, and half the time I see them in movies I don’t even know they're in them until I see them on the screen.
VF: I know!
Capone: I just saw John in a movie yesterday.
VF: Which one?
Capone: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE.
VF: I haven’t seen it.
Capone: Oh my God, it’s so good.
VF: Is it? Okay.
Capone: But that was at Sundance too right? Was this an opportunity for you to get to work with some of these people that you have admired for a while?
VF: Yes, that was another reason why I was assured of directing, because that was a contingency, “I get to pick the actors that I want to work with,” and because of that Oscar nomination, I was given such long slack on my leash and I really had the great gift of choice, and the right actors got the jobs and I felt enormously blessed to work with them. These are the actors that make you a better actress.
Capone: I just saw yesterday or the day before that is has been announced that you were making a film with Mark Strong.
VF: CLOSER TO THE MOON. That’s something I’m just so unprepared to talk about it. I’m so unprepared…
Capone: [Laughs] I don’t know anything about it other than you have a Romanian director and a Romanian story. So do you get to pull out one of your great accents for this one?
VF: No, we're not going to be doing Romanian accents, which I was looking forward to, but…
Capone: You could do that.
VF: I can, but it’s very difficult in period pieces in Slavic countries to… For example, with films about the Holocaust, BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS was like that, we were playing German, but speaking in English accents. So in that sense, it’s better to just have everybody do the same perceived pronunciation in English. I mean, if I’m doing a film with a period piece in Romania, I should be speaking Romanian. But that’s just not how we are communicating.
Capone: But who do you play in this movie?
VF: [Clearly embarrassed] I’m so unprepared to talk about it. You have to understand…
Capone: I can ask you another question about HIGHER GROUND, that’s fine.
VF: Yeah, ask me another question about this, not that I’m not excited about it, but I have too many balls up in the air.
Capone: I was going to as you about casting your sister as a young version of you, was that kind of freaky?
VF: It’s cool, because that’s how Hollywood works, that nepotism. [Laughs] Look at the Coppolas, look at the Gyllenhaals, look at the Spellings. She did not want a career. I kind of maneuvered her into it, because of obvious genetic reasons. She looks like me, she moves like me/
Capone: She does, and I didn’t know she was related to you, until after I saw the movie.
VF: It’s the same genetics, and she was the right age, and in order for you to care about this maternal relationship with a child before their conversion and their gratitude for life, the audience had to in the space of one scene, you just had to develop 20 seconds of a very deep tenderness for this mother and daughter. She just was the right age. That was one of my contingencies, I said, “There’s something very special about her,” and that transition from adolescence to adulthood is a tall order and so many years pass that it has to be seamless. So I didn’t even look at anybody. I didn’t make her audition' I just knew I could manipulate her into the right report. [Laughs] I knew I would get it through thick or thin, and it was actually quite easy, because she's so open. She’s courageous. She’s a real cool kid.
Capone: I terms of balancing the work you do between the studio films and these independent ones, you are very committed to doing independent films to the point where you're probably not making a dime doing them. But are you kind of where you want to be right now in terms of that balancing act?
VF: I love it. I mean a good story is a good story, and I feel like I’m privy to working with… I get some great terrain, some really odd terrain to explore as far as stories go and I work with the best people. Yeah, a paycheck is great occasionally, but I’m just chasing the inspiration and I try to keep one foot in each camp, but that’s just my karma. I’m kind of a magnet, things just come to me, and I take most of the stuff that comes to me, and it’s just the kind of stuff you draw. You take movies for different reasons. It’s a job, after all. [Laughs]