Vera Farmiga Offers up ‘Quid Pro Quo‘
Vera Farmiga discusses the romantic drama ‘Quid Pro Quo‘ and her role as an able-bodied woman who desires nothing more than to live life in a wheelchair.
Interviewed by: Jenni Miller
Vera Farmiga has played a variety of wildly different roles: a mother with a ravaging drug problem in Down to the Bone; an employment councilor who dates a ventriloquist in Dummy; a married woman who falls in love with the man she hires to impregnate her in Never Forever; a psychiatrist who sleeps with her patient in The Departed. But her latest movie, Quid Pro Quo, is probably her strangest so far β and the most challenging. Farmiga plays Fiona, an able-bodied museum restorer who, for reasons of her own, desperately wants to live life as a paraplegic. Her desires lead her to a strange romance with the wheelchair-bound Isaac, played by Nick Stahl, in this dark drama. Vera Farmiga sat down with Premiere to discuss the challenges of playing someone who won’t feel whole until she is paralyzed, a love scene involving a wheelchair, self-demand amputees, and why the taboo can be so erotic.
What convinced you to participate in this film?
I grew up watching Murder, She Wrote and Love Boat… Quirky detective stories and oddball romances. I imagine initially that’s what drew me. I love romance… I am always on the quest for an unusual romance, and this was it. There always has to be something about the character in the script that really turns my head and Fiona β I have a stiff neck from craning at this one. My initial response was she’s that woman in your life that you are absolutely terrified of but at the same time have to be around. She fascinated me. And the fact that it is just an unusual detective love story, and also a taboo subject that you don’t hear anything about.
Is this a real phenomenon?
It’s a real thing. It’s a very real thing.
What sort of research did you do?
There was only one book at the time that I could get a hold of, which served as my Bible for the project. It was called Amputee Identity Disorder: Information, Questions, Answers, and Recommendations About Self-Demand Amputation [by Gregg M. Furth and Robert Smith]. And aside from that really there is so much pain, guilt, disgrace, and shame associated with this syndrome that it is impossible to sit down with someone. There’s no related literature… At the time there wasn’t. The only support system I could find was online, which is always probably the biggest source of all my research. And there are so many support groups.
Apotemnophilia, [which] I think is maybe an even outdated term, is how I referred to it as I was researching it. I think it might be [referred to now as] BIID, Body Integrity Identity Disorder β wannabes is the street term, but it is a real thing. It’s people, able-bodied people wanting to be disabled. The thing is, it’s a syndrome that has a different signature… with each case, he or she has a different psychology. Every case is deep-seated and unexplainable. I think the only thing in common is that it’s just this mental torment. And for me, I think it wasn’t so important to understand [why] β I think it was virtually impossible to understand why Fiona is the way she is. It was more important for me to get that when it comes to apotemnophiliacs, the mental torment and the anguish of wanting to be paralyzed is the greater agony, is the greater pain, is more painful than amputation, and that sort of gave me a springboard and a direction.
She’s a tough character… One of the most consistent thing[s] about Fiona’s character [is] her inconsistencies. She is someone who shrugs off her syndrome as much as she revels in it. She laughs at herself as much, really, as she cries for herself. There are so many contradictions to her. She’s larger than life but she feels very small. She is a total overachiever but can’t achieve wholeness in her sense of being. So she’s really mercurial, and with a role like this, you wish you had the luxury of time so you could play everything in two completely opposite ways.
[BIID] is a real Mad Hatter’s tea party. There are several categories within that β there are the wannabes, who really differentiate themselves from the pretenders, who really differentiate themselves from the fetishists. For apotemnophiliacs, there’s no sexual gratification in it whatsoever. It’s really an arousal of their identity, as the fully functioning human beings that they know they can be, if only… And there’s usually a real line of demarcation on their body [gestures to her wrist] that this part, left below my wrist does not belong here, or, you know, right above the knee. It’s unexplainable. It’s not something that Quid aims to explain. Carlos [Brooks, the director] kept saying, because it’s so uncomfortable, and I think he’s not someone who, if you met him, you’d see he’s not someone who gets off on, like, pointing to sensationalizing something like this…. He’s so much more discreet than that… He kept telling us, “I want you to approach this whole thing from the perspective of that moment that happens between deep sleep and wakefulness.”
The whole thing feels sort of like a dream sequence. It has that amber glow look, and you look like almost Veronica Lake. It’s got that sort of noir-ish thing going on.
Yeah! And I think that is what we aimed for. It was also an easier way… of dealing with everything that was so uncomfortable to delve into in the script.
It did seem like there was a little bit of a sexual component to Fiona’s syndrome β the corset, the leg braces.
I think Fiona is the ultimate actress. I think what she does is she plays dress-up… She takes on this character; she explores these different facets of this character sexually, sensually, intellectually, emotionally, until she can come to some greater truth about herself. And that’s how I approached it as well. Like, she’s constantly pushing; she’s constantly testing. She’s also the audience, you know, watching herself and critiquing herself as she goes along. So there is [a sexual component], I can’t say it’s so deeply rooted that it’s just sexual gratification, it’s not. It might be an element for Fiona.
That first scene you sleep together, I believe she is literally sort of stroking the wheelchair as she’s kissing him.
Yeah, because you know, that scene was written in a very open way. It literally just said on the page, “They kiss,” or it might have even taken it further than that, but it didn’t say specifically what to do. And Nick and I have two totally different ways of approaching the work, and I’m so much more, “Let’s see what happens, and let’s play around and surprise me,” and he’s more, “No, I need to know what’s gonna happen,” which is always so stimulating for me. It’s fun to tickle him that way, and Carlos kept, especially for that love scene, the camera rolling… [In] New York apartments, all the floors are really wonky, so I couldn’t just sit like this in a wheelchair, the wheelchair would keep rolling, so… it clinked into his and it became this ballad and this dance.
Are you going to keep focusing on independents? Because you’ve struck a nice balance between things like The Departed and The Manchurian Candidate.
You know, it’s interesting. The last several projects, the last three projects, were studio projects… A couple of them start off as independents, and now have gotten taken hold of by Miramax and other [studios]. The next three things I’m very proud of are…. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Orphan, which is a major Joel Silver film…
Orphan sounds a lot like Joshua.
The only thing really that’s similar to it is that she’s a mother who’s having a hard time being a mother. It’s radically [different]. There are enough differences in the plot; it’s actually a twist, another twist that you’ve never really seen in films before, and it was that twist that made me say yes, I’m going to do this film. And working with Peter Sarsgaard. From the outside, it does sound [like Joshua] and that was a big concern of mine when I took it, but the character is so radically different. I’m not suffering from psychotic post-partum depression [in this film]. It is really a story about a husband and a wife who are having trouble in their marriage, and who feel like the only way they can [re]unite is by adopting an Orphan. Working with Peter Sarsgaard is amazing. That was worth it alone….
I just did a film with [director/writer] Niki Caro, an epic 19th century film called The Vintner’s Luck, about a countess… Things come to me, you know, and directors come to me and scripts come to me and I gravitate towards some and [not] others.
What do you think about the market for women in film?
I have been fortunate, fortunate to work with a handful of women. I think the playing field for me in terms of the projects I have been blessed to be a part of is I have worked with men but I have [also] worked with as many women. Those experiences with women have honestly been some of the most exhilarating projects. It is usually the love story that I tend to gravitate towards [with] women… Like Never Forever [director] Gina Kim, working with her on that; Niki for [The Vintner's Luck], a love story as well.
There’s a lot of talk these days, especially with Sex and the City and soon The Women, if the studios are going to start listening to the market, playing to it more. What do you like to see? What are you interested in working on?
I go towards interesting story lines. I really do. And directors, be they male or female… It’s always just the interesting story lines and the characters you can’t turn away from, that you have to embody. I don’t really know what I look for honestly until it is in front of me. Until all of a sudden my eyes light up and I read something unusual, or I sit down with a director, and sometimes I’ve read a script and [I think], “Mayyybe,” and then they have such an extraordinary vision for it that I think, “Okay, I’m in.”…. I never know until it’s in front of my face. I don’t know what I’m looking for next. I need a break next!
For people with BIID, from what I’ve read, some of them would prefer to have actual medical attention as opposed to their own, in this case “Ginger Jake” [the almost-mythic concoction sought after by the wannabes in Quid Pro Quo], and I’ve heard stories of the really extreme methods people go through to obtain their desires, and I’m wondering what you think about that.
You know, you read these testimonies online and there’s such a sense of aloneness and this desolate feeling of despair, just feeling so alone in this, and self-demand amputation is illegal [except] under only the most rigid psychiatric evaluations and testing. There’s only a handful of doctors and hospitals that will approve self-demand amputation, so people go to great lengths… throw themselves in front of trains, use shotguns, hurt themselves. I don’t know what to think. I can’t even imagine… This obsession completely possesses these people, and there is a real sense of spiritual unrest. The cases I’ve heard of and read about of people actually going through [amputation] β whether they’ve done it themselves or had it professionally taken care of β there is a ninety-something percent satisfaction, that these people say that they feel more spiritually fulfilled and it’s not a case of being disabled any more, it’s becoming able-bodied… feeling whole in relation to that broken person within. I cannot pretend to comprehend it, and it’s very difficult. I mean, this is like the same thing as transgenderism a while ago; people couldn’t fathom it… I have no personal feelings towards it; I couldn’t, especially having to play Fiona.
When you play a character like this, you have to assume a respect. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand them; you have to respect [the character]… The characters [you play], you have to defend them, like a court-appointed lawyer in front of the jury of an audience. So the thing about Fiona, I always have to use an analogy of a tree; this whole morning I was [in upstate New York] and I planted so many shrubs and trees and saplings, and every spring I’m hacking away at unyielding limbs and throughout the summer and the fall you see these trees producing more fruit and flowers and leaves and growing, and it’s like, you liken them to young saplings who you’ve gotta take an axe to, and they will bear fruit.
On one hand, Fiona was so open with Isaac about this, presenting herself, and on the other, she felt such a sense of shame β The terminology of “coming out of the closet” β “I’m coming out of the closet to my mother,” or as one of the other wannabes said, “I’m coming out of the closet to my shrink about being in my wheelchair.” I thought that was an interesting contradiction.
She’s riddled with them. In every scene I found a complete contradiction to what I think she is or how I thought she would [react] to something… She’s mercurial. She’s as scary as she is amusing to me.
Do you have any sort of strange fetishes that you’re willing to share?
I was probably initially attracted to this script because as a kid β I’m not a wannabe, I’ll tell you that right now! … I always wanted a cast, you know, I wanted a cast that I could show up to school [with and have] people sign it; I wanted crutches… Every time my dad took me hiking in the woods, I’d grab every shiny three-leaf shiny plant that looked like poison ivy and rub it on my face in the hopes of getting a rash. I’m sure it was an attention-seeking deficit disorder and not [laughs] a body integrity image disorder, but any fetish…. No. Probably none that I would want to share! [laughs]
Why do you think the transgression of taboos has such erotic power? A lot of your roles seem to have that conflict… The Departed, a psychiatrist sleeping with her patient, for example.
I imagine that’s part of eroticism. Mystery and taboo. [laughs] Why I’m drawn to that in my roles, or why I draw these roles to me is something I should probably explore with a therapist, but I don’t know. I think more for me, it’s not just so much just transgression or eroticism for me, it’s more [of an] awakening. I do look for roles in which women have some sort of awakening, whether that’s sexual or sensual or emotional or spiritual, that’s what I do look for.