Vera Farmiga Gets Down to the Bone
Interviewed by: Terry Keefe
Source: The Hollywood Interview
It’s been over 4 years since we last met with Vera Farmiga and they’ve been very good to her. At the time, she was doing publicity for 15 Minutes, an action thriller starring Robert De Niro and Ed Burns in which she played a supporting role of an immigrant hairdresser who witnesses a murder. The actress was in the early stages of really getting noticed at that point, having landed other roles in Autumn in New York with Richard Gere and Winona Ryder, as well as The Opportunists with Christopher Walken. On a strictly visual level, it was easy to see why she was garnering attention from these small parts.
Blessed with a model’s looks, there is something strikingly otherwordly about her which stands out even in an industry known for its lovely ladies. Round features mix with angular ones on her face, which is topped off by stunningly large blue eyes. But perfect cosmetics aside, there was also clearly acting talent there, which she went on to display in television work such as the series “UC: Undercover” and the films Dummy , Iron Jawed Angels , and The Manchurian Candidate .
On an interpersonal level, this writer recalls that Farmiga appeared resolute in not getting too sucked into the L.A. machine. A cell phone had been provided to her for use during her stay, and she referred to it as “this vulgar thing,” with a laugh. Then, as now, Farmiga spends much of her time at her home in upstate New York and commutes out here when work requires it. Her desire to center her life close to home in Ulster County made Farmiga an ideal fit for director Debra Granik, who was putting together her feature project Down to the Bone some two years back. For a long time prior, Granik had been shooting videotape of the life of Corinne Stralka, a housekeeper in upstate New York, along with the lives of her children and boyfriend. Corinne was a recovering drug addict and Granik used those tapes as the inspiration for a short film entitled “Snake Feed,” in which Corinne, her kids, and boyfriend played themselves. Down to the Bone would be a feature-length treatment of the same material, and in Farmiga, the director found a partner who was as interested in uncovering truth as she was. With a bare bones crew and shooting on digital video, Farmiga and Granik crafted Down to the Bone using largely non-actors and in real locations in upstate New York. Farmiga lived briefly at a rehab center as research and helped populate the film with some friends and neighbors in smaller roles. The film which has emerged takes a sparse fly-on-the-wall approach, which very much feels as if you are in the room with these characters. That isn’t always a place easy to be, as the film never goes for a real manipulative moment to jolt you out of the malaise that is the reality of an addict’s life. But it is perhaps the most honest portrayal of drug addiction captured in a narrative film yet. Farmiga’s performance garnered a Special Jury Prize for acting at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, along with a Best Director nod for Granik. Both well-deserved.
Farmiga will soon be seen in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson, as well as in Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering with Jude Law. And this January she’ll be seen in Running Scared with Paul Walker.
Did you watch any of the original documentary tapes that the director Debra made of Corinne in preparation?
Vera Farmiga: I watched them once. The film is really a hybrid form, of documentary/cinema verite. It’s a combination of scripted documentary from the real-life models, to scripted improvisation from Debra, to improvisation (with the actors) as the script is loose in format, particularly in regards to the scenes in rehab and the ones with the children, to the fact that I live in that part of the world in upstate New York and I bring my own experience to it. So I did watch them once, but I also spent a lot of time with Corinne. We cleaned houses together. I spent lots of time watching her and listening to her. I was right alongside her on my hands and knees scrubbing floors. You know, that original short won Best Short at Sundance, and the audience was really curious. They wanted to know more about where these characters went and what they did.
We are also. Where did Corinne’s life go from where Down to the Bone leaves off?
Clean and sober for a long time now. Relapse is often a part of recovery, so there were a lot of hurdles and obstacles. But to obtain anything spiritually, there will always be pitfalls and obstacles in the way. It was a day-to-day struggle. But she is clean and sober. She’s got a warrior spirit.
Did you feel the responsibility of taking on her mannerisms in your performance or it was it more her essence that you were going for?
Debra was very clear to me that she didn’t want me to mimic. Although it was Corinne’s story, I wasn’t “playing” her, and Debra wanted me to use her as a source of inspiration. But for me, she moved me so much that I did adopt a lot of her rhythms, and her energy. The way she walks, she has this kind of tough girl exterior which really contradicts the sort of brittle fragility she had inside, at that point of her life at least. So I guess I did adopt some of her mannerisms, along with those of a few of the women who I met when I attended rehab [for research]. Namely, those of a girl named Vera who I met. [laughs]
How long did you attend the rehab program?
Several days and several nights. We slept there. It’s amazing to me how open these women were, but it’s a curious thing to be involved with, because it’s their healing process. And you don’t want to interrupt it. You also don’t want them to perform for you. It’d be great if there was a glass window you could just observe through. But we were actually in the circle, in the meetings with them. It was a tricky situation, but they welcomed us. Their hearts and spirits were open. Ours were too, our intentions were clear and innocent and very simple. They knew that, so they trusted us. We shared with them our stories also. We’d partake in conversations, not necessarily about addiction, but wherever the conversation would go.
What was the process of working with the non-actors like?
You know, I absolutely loathe and am terrified by the notion of improvisation. It wasn’t as frightening for me in this experience though. Somehow it wasn’t so daunting. Debra put out an ad in podunk newspapers to come and be a part of this, and a lot of people showed up. The audition process for Debra with these lay people was to give them a situation and have them improvise. Sometimes though, even though they were so compelling to watch and had so much to bring to the roles, once it was scripted they froze up. And all those little beautiful gifts of their personas would disappear. So, we kept it loose and we would improvise. Like my friend Walt [who lives in Ulster County and is in the film] has that scene where he brings the deer head to me. He was given a situation and Debra encouraged Walt to go from there. He brought so much to it. He took the deer head from me and had that line about putting it against the knotty pine. That’s who he is. It’s hard to even write that. It’s things like that which are the treasures of this movie to me. It really helped me to be in an authentic environment. Sometimes you just find yourself on a black soundstage, surrounded by plaster. To have real materials, to have a real knotty pine wall [laughs], it helps. We shot in all real locations in Ulster County. It makes a big difference, because the scent is just there. The scent of a real police station, you know? You don’t have to pretend as much.
As opposed to a lot of films about drug addiction, Down to the Bone doesn’t have that big histrionic breakdown scene. It portrays addiction much more as quiet suffering.
Yeah, because addiction is pretty monotonous. They always seem to glamorize it in the media and fashion and photography and music. There are people in the culture who can just dabble in it and shrug at it. But for people in real addiction, it’s really a drab thing. The monotony of it on a daily basis is what’s so scary. This is your life on a daily basis. That’s the grisly, grim reality.
It must have been a temptation to go for those big moments though.
Because we’re used to seeing something to get our adrenaline going. To manipulate you into some place, because you only have an hour and a half to tell the story. And instead of doing that via words and imagery and photography, the tendency in movies is to manipulate the audience into saying “This is how you should be feeling. You should be feeling sorry for this woman. So let’s bring on the violins and cellos.” And this film has none of that. Debra is really forcing the audience to sit there for this slice of life. A day-to-day reality of struggle. Debra is so full of integrity.
You also didn’t have that fetishizing drug scene that seems to be in every drug film, with the needle slowly being inserted in the most glam manner possible with a hip score.
Oh, she was careful not to show any needles. Very little usage on-screen actually.
You’ve been getting much bigger studio roles now. Was there anything bigger on the studio level that you had to turn down in order to do this much smaller project?
No, the studio roles came because of this film. I had been steadily working and getting good feedback. But I consider this a gift from Debra. She entrusted me with this. There was no reason, box office-wise, that I should have been given that opportunity. But she did. We laid eyes on each other and trusted each other and there was an ease between us. We had the same philosophies and ideas about filmmaking, I think. This film is why I’m getting the higher-profile films. It’s interesting, because no one’s seen it other than a few privileged industry people and a few eager festival goers in Marrakesh and Utah [laughs]. But the performance has made an impact in the industry. Working with Marty Scorsese and Anthony Minghella has obviously been great, but the film I just came off of was very much in the spirit of Down to the Bone. It’s called Quid Pro Quo, directed by Carlos Brooks. His writing is just impeccable. You know who your character is because it leaps right off the page. It’s rare to find that, and it’s usually where people want to take risks. That’s where my heart is at.