Interviewed by: Sam Rockwell
In an industry that likes it’s women to confrom to certain outmoded ideals, Vera Farmiga is making a career out of neither looking–nor acting–the part
Over the last decade, Vera Farmiga has earned the sort of grand affection of the critical community that many of her peers would (and do) pay people good money to procure. She’s been lauded for the ingenuity of her performances in independent films (Dummy, 2003; Mind the Gap, 2004), praised for the intelligence of her work in Hollywood studio flicks (15 Minutes, 2001; The Manchurian Candidate, 2004; Running Scared), and even empathized with for the grace with which she’s handled the most dubious of bill-paying TV gigs (Roar, a Xena: Warrior Princess–esque tunic piece which co-starred a then-unknown Heath Ledger).
But while the acclaim of cineasts has never eluded Farmiga, that one defining performance that truly cements her in the minds of filmgoers most certainly has–and, in a cruel twist of fate, it’s not because she hasn’t delivered it. In Debra Granik’s Down to the Bone, Farmiga plays a working-class housewife who harbors a secret drug addiction. It would be an understatement to say that her face onscreen is emotionally raw, all wide eyes, knowing lips, and hard-won soul. Her unvarnished and decidedly unromantic portrayal also clearly isn’t the stuff of blockbuster box office weekends. It is, however, the stuff of an actress with not only the head and the heart, but the sheer will to uncover what moves, drives, and challenges the characters she plays–and, by extension, the world around them.
Nevertheless, after debuting at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival to an enthusiastic response, Down to the Bone failed to secure wide distribution and Farmiga’s work in the film went largely unseen–though it most certainly did not go unnoticed. Her performance scored the 33-year-old New Jersey native a couple of critics’ awards, not to mention roles in two of the fall’s most highly anticipated new films: Martin Scorsese’s recently released The Departed and the forthcoming Anthony Minghella drama Breaking and Entering. She has also completed three more movies this year alone and is wrapping up work on yet another. Farmiga isn’t your average Hollywood newbie, to be sure. But, then again, being average, the norm, or even what every one expects her to be isn’t what keeps her in business. Actor Sam Rockwell recently caught up with Farmiga on the set of her latest movie, the indie drama Never Forever.
SAM ROCKWELL: How you doin’, monkey head?
VERA FARMIGA: Hi, numb nuts. I’m good. I’m just getting off another arduous day of sweaty work. I’m sitting in front of an undulating fan.
SR: You’re wiped out, aren’t you?
VF: Yeah. Six films this year.
SR: Jesus Christ, you’re a workaholic.
VF: No, I’m not. It’s just that when it comes to having a career in this business, we women have the shelf life of seafood, and you guys have the shelf life of Twinkies. When the work presents itself, you have got to take it.
SR: I hear you. So, I’m watching this film you made a few years ago, Down to the Bone.
VF: At least someone watching it. Man, that was a tragedy that it never came out. Well, I guess it’s not a tragedy anymore, because Netflix is putting it out this month.
SR: That’s amazing, because it’s a great movie with a great director, Debra Granik. And you’re fantastic in it. You got an Independent Spirit award nomination and you got an award at Sundance and an L.A. Film Critics Association award for your performance in it. What’s that like, to get these awards for a movie that doesn’t come out?
VF: it was nice, because it shed some light on the film. I think that the truth and the intent of the film proved stronger than the forces that prevented it from being seen–box office clout, commerciality–you know all those miserable gods that stand at the altar of Hollywood. So it was gratifying to have some kind of support. Some people said that Down to the Bone was dark, and in this industry, as soon as a film is called dark, it’s unsellable. But it’s not. We tell the story of a woman who is a survivor.
SR: It’s one of the best films that I’ve seen about trying to get sober.
VF: It’s about the real work of addiction. A couple of years after it played at Sundance, I still have people coming up to me saying, “Where is this film? I want my family to see it. I want my sister to see it. I want my mother to see it.” So it’s been disappointing for me that people haven’t seen it.
SR: The only other movie that comes to mind that deals with addiction like that is the Ken Loach film, My Name Is Joe . A lot of the people you worked with on Down to the Bone were nonactors, right?
VF: Yeah. It was kind of refreshing. They were real people, so it was a lesson in nonacting in a way. I’m from that part of the world–I live in upstate New York, where the movie is set, and my mother lives up there too, so I know the area and how the women up there move and walk. I know the vibe. For me, it was really about getting in touch with that. I knew nothing about addiction when I started working on the movie, so that was the hardest thing to grasp. I went to meetings and spent some time in a rehab center up there for several days. We met with the women there and were invited into their sacred circle. I also spent time with the woman who was the real-life model for my character in the film.
SR: You’re a real roll-up-your-sleeves type actor. That’s what I would say about you.
VF: Well, I think we can become so lazy as actors. We get a couple of good reviews, we figure out what works, and we just rely on that bag of tricks to get us by. But our real work is to grow. For me, what we do is almost a form of activism. It is a down-to-earth service job. It’s tough but you’ve got to be courageous, because you’re exploring the dark corners of your psyche, and you end up dredging up all sorts of painful, sometimes unresolved, things.
SR: Where did you train to become an actor? Do you have any kind of technique or anything like that?
VF: I went through all that undergraduate circuitry, doing theater in college, but I don’t follow any one school of acting. For me, it really depends on the character I play and who my collaborators are and the material. The script is the blueprint, and from there, it just depends, depends, depends.
SR: So tell me about working with Martin Scorsese on The Departed.
VF: Oh, God, it was joyful. It was really an exciting process. Of course, anybody will proclaim that one of his best qualities as a director is the way that he deals with actors. He loves people and he loves actors. He gives you so much freedom, and when you have that, all sorts of juicy things pop up.
SR: You had to do a Boston accent for this movie, didn’t you?
MF: It’s a somewhat toned-down version of a Boston accent, but yeah, I did.
SR: You play a police psychiatrist.
VF: Yeah. She’s a woman who is supposed to be intuitive, and yet she doesn’t follow her instincts.
SR: I saw Infernal Affairs (2002), the Chinese film that The Departed is based on. It’s a boy-gasm dream.
VF: The Departed is about the Irish gang underworld and the police force in Boston, and the rivalry between the two. But it’s really a story about people making fatal mistakes–walking into the wrong moment, saying the wrong word, making the wrong decision.
SR: What about Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson and the guys in the film?
VF: Well, the primo factor for me in doing this movie was working with Marty and those guys. The script needed some work, but Marty made it clear in the beginning that there was going to be a lot of improvisation and that we were going to do a lot to get it to where it needed to be. I never met Jack, but I did work closely with both Matt and Leo for months and months, relighting the story. Marty expected that from us. He expected us to put our own idiosyncrasies and personal tumults into the film.
SR: Lot of testosterone on the set?
VF: It was a sea of testosterone.
SR: Now how about Anthony Minghella, who you worked with on Breaking and Entering?
VF: Another astonishing man–generous emotionally, so direct. He’s very smart and impassioned but gentle with his actors and his crew. Breaking and Entering was a fun movie to do because I tend to play these dramatic roles and my part in that movie is a bit of a loopy one. I play a Romanian prostitute.
SR: You do an accent in that one too?
VF: Yeah, yeah.
SR: You’re, like, the accent girl.
VF: I want to do Ukrainian one day. That’s my grandmother’s accent.
SR: You learned to speak English when you were 6 years old, right?
VF: Five, six, or thereabouts. Both my parents were from the Ukraine and I was born in the States, but we lived in a Ukrainian community, so all my schooling and extracurricular activities were in Ukrainian.
SR: Did the other kids make fun of you because you couldn’t speak English?
VF: Nah. It was a Ukrainian Catholic school, so everyone was in the same boat.
SR: You’ve worked with some pretty wild people: Jon Voight, Meryl Streep, John Malkovich, Christopher Walken. What was working with Chris like? [imitates Walken's voice] Was he great? It’s very trendy right now, imitating Chris. The people are doing it all the time. It drives me crazy.
VF: [laughs] I do the worst Chris Walken imitation. I can’t do it. Working with him was fun. I remember we were shooting the movie we did together [The Opportunists, 2000], in a hospital in Queens and the first couple of days we sat there in silence, watching these amputees get rolled by, just feeling dejected and having a rough time. So Chris finally looks over at me and says, “Did you ever see Mars Attacks! (1996)?” And I said, “No.” And he says, “You should. It’s a good movie.” [both laugh] My God, it was the worst thing you could say to someone in that moment. But he’s a beautiful, beautiful man. People look at him now like he’s some crazy, funny whack-a-do, but they forget that he was this incredibly beautiful leading man in movies like The Deer Hunter (1978) and The Dead Zone (1983). He was just so elegant and gorgeous. Still is.
SR: And a great actor. I’m really happy that people are finally going to get to see Down to the Bone. It seems like we’re in a moment now where there are either huge blockbusters or really small movies but not much in between. It makes it tough for us to make a living as actors and also make good movies.
VF: Well, I did The Departed and Breaking and Entering last year, but all of the films that I’ve done since then have been independent. All of them. And I keep finding the most compelling characters in those kinds of films. A lot of the roles in the other kinds of films were peripheral princesses or just boring, boring women–female characters that were utterly ordinary and devoid of any personality or spirituality. Is that a reflection of what we’ve become as women? That’s something that we sometimes don’t think about. You see all these stupid, materialist, horny, nympho characters that people put up there in movies, and you have to think: Is that what feminine dignity has come to?
SR: It’s true, which is why it is important that people like you and Patricia Clarkson are fighting the good fight.
VF: So when are you going to come visit me in upstate New York?
SR: What do you have up there? Goats?
VF: I got two angora goats for my birthday. They’re incredibly social creatures.
SR: Are they really? They give you little diseases, though, right?
VF: No! I mean, you’ve got to de-worm them every now and again, but for the most part goats are very clean animals. Not the males, though. They tend to be quite stinky, because they pee all over their beards.
SR: I did that this morning.
VF: [laughs] Well, I hope you come up soon. I want to push you into some mud.
SR: My mom lives up there, so maybe I’ll swing by. Don’t take any wooden nickels–or goats–alright?
VF: Yeah, kisses.
SR: See you later.