Interview Vera Farmiga
Interviewed by: Sean O’Neal
Source: The A.V. Club
When Moon director Duncan Jones first began developing Source Code, he had only one actress in mind for the role of Goodwin, the military officer who commands Jake Gyllenhaalâ€™s time-jumping soldier. To even her surprise, it was Vera Farmiga, whoâ€”despite stints as a TV cop on shows like UC: Undercover and Touching Evilâ€”is best known for charming leading men like George Clooney in Up In The Air or Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in The Departed, where sharp wit and alluring elusiveness are about as close as she ever got to a tough exterior. Yet as Jones put it, he needed her because Goodwin was such a closed-off character, and as with all her roles, Farmiga was able to invest even the slightest shift of her eyes with dramatic nuance. If a supporting role in a sci-fi film seems like a strange choice for Farmiga after the breakout, Oscar-nominated year she had in 2009, sheâ€™s quick to remind that sheâ€™s always defied expectation, preferring to star in smaller indie fare like Down To The Bone, Never Forever, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, or the upcoming Henryâ€™s Crime, and only popping up in studio films when sheâ€™s particularly intrigued by the story. Most recently, Farmiga branched into creating those stories for herself by making her directorial debut with Higher Ground, in which she stars as a woman grappling with her faith within a Christian cultâ€”though as with Farmigaâ€™s acting, thereâ€™s much more to the story than whatâ€™s on the surface. The A.V. Club spoke to Farmiga after the South By Southwest premiĂ¨re of Source Code about finding the warmth in even the coldest of characters, why she doesnâ€™t put her faith in the studio system, and whether itâ€™s a dark time for actors like her in Hollywood.
The A.V. Club: After the screening at SXSW, you said that the reason you were drawn to Source Code was the â€śpsycho-spiritual connection.â€ť Could you explain what you mean by that?
Vera Farmiga: What drew meâ€”since the role was so confining, and honestly, itâ€™s the antithesis of all of the roles I am drawn to as an actressâ€”is I felt challenged by this. I saw it as an intricate puzzle. I loved Moon. I want to align myself with bold and exciting, visionary filmmakers like Duncan. So I knew I was going to be part of it, regardless. The challenge for me was to make more of the character than what there appears to be on the page. I had to find something to love about the characterâ€”because expository dialogue is irritating to an actor. [Laughs.] Itâ€™s maddening. Itâ€™s hard to nuance. And a large part of my character is informative. Sheâ€™s stating the facts, and sheâ€™s sort of the whip-cracker on [Gyllenhaalâ€™s] mission. Sheâ€™s always taking him by the collar and bringing him back to the task at hand. And what interested me was not the linesâ€”it was what was in between the lines. So finding a specific life for the character, thatâ€™s what I looked for within their connection. Jakeâ€™s character and I are not in same space. Weâ€™re connecting on a very spiritual, emotional, and intellectual level, so that arc was important for me. And what I loved about the filmâ€”and this is how I probably should have answered the question [at the screening]â€”is the feeling that I took from the film, and the reminder that life is precious, and we should treasure everything that we hold dear and cherish it. In that way, the film touched me.
AVC: You donâ€™t really seem like a soldier type. Was there ever a point where you wondered why, exactly, Duncan wanted you for this part?
VF: I did. As soon as I read it. Oftentimes, I feel thereâ€™s a pattern with me. I feel my fuller-bodied characters are all in the independent films I do, and in the studio productions, I have to work harder to dimensionalize the characters. And thatâ€™s certainly part of the job description of an actorâ€”thatâ€™s what youâ€™re supposed to doâ€”but you have to work harder at it in the characters that Iâ€™ve encountered in studio films. And with Duncan, during our first phone conversation, he stated that he was really interested in breathing more fullness into Goodwin, and searching for that inner life and conveying it. And thatâ€™s what interests me more as an actressâ€”what a character doesnâ€™t say, or is having a hard time saying. Itâ€™s not necessarily the lines on the written page. Itâ€™s in between the lines. And I found more of a playground for myself in this role.
AVC: There is some sort of pattern as well with the characters youâ€™ve playedâ€”like in Never Forever, Up In The Air, The Departed, and hereâ€”in that youâ€™re playing a person whom youâ€™re not certain is trustworthy.
VF: That was certainly a pattern at one pointâ€”certainly with Never Forever and The Departedâ€”with loyalty issues in relationships. I definitely thought that was starting to become a pattern. I donâ€™t feel it as much now, lately, with Higher Ground and Henryâ€™s Crime. Up In The Air is also one of those films where you think that. But you know, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas wasnâ€™t, nor Niki Caroâ€™s film The Vinterâ€™s Luck. I think that pattern may be true of the most successful films, because those are the ones that have been seen. But those certainly arenâ€™t the projects that are dearest to my heartâ€”like Down To The Bone, for example.
AVC: Even when youâ€™re playing someone that the audience isnâ€™t sure it can trust, you lure them in with this natural warmth. Roger Ebert even called you one of the â€śwarmest women working in movies.â€ť
VF: Well, I just work in bringing humanity. I look for struggle in the roles I chooseâ€”struggle and perseverance. Itâ€™s just part of dimension. If sheâ€™s cold, I want to know why. Thereâ€™s always a reason sheâ€™s cold. I think we all have contradictions. So if I am playing a cold character, the struggle is to find the warmth. Itâ€™s imperative that whatever character I have does have an arc. So if she starts off a certain way, I like to see her evolve and change and persevere and gain awareness. I like to see the full spectrum. And I do try to infuse it as much as I can. Even the cold, mean-hearted bitches of life are just covering up something. Itâ€™s a faĂ§ade. Itâ€™s a tough skin. Itâ€™s a callus of sorts, and underneath there is soft skinâ€”you just gotta slash those corns. [Laughs.] And I think thatâ€™s part of every tough characterâ€”mining that softness.
AVC: Youâ€™re obviously really choosy about the roles you take, but after The Departed and then Up In The Air, you probably ended up getting a lot more pitches. How did the roles you were offered change?
VF: Honestly, Iâ€™m still frustrated. [Laughs.] Great material does come my way, but it doesnâ€™t always get greenlit. I attach myself to many wonderful projects that Iâ€™d like to see realized, but economically, very few films are being made. Higher Ground, for example, is me not asking for permission. [Laughs.] Like everybody else, I just want to be stimulated and challenged and inspired. And itâ€™s a bummer, even after the acclaim of last year. Granted, I was three weeks pregnant at the Oscars, so I knew that I was going to punch out for a bit. So that was a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of time, and work at home and direct this film and star in it throughout the course of the pregnancyâ€”to not wait for something to happen, but be proactive and create the opportunity.
AVC: Is it important to you to not get lost in the studio machine?
VF: Itâ€™s just important for me to be part of great storytelling. Of course, I love studio films because you get a great paycheckâ€”or a good paycheck, or a better paycheck than when you do an indie film. You get a paycheck. Sometimes youâ€™re paying to be part of the film when you add it all up, in certain indie roles. You work for scale and itâ€™s on location, and to be comfortableâ€”and make sure that your 4-month-old and your 2-year-old and your husband are comfortableâ€”youâ€™re going to pay more than the salary coming in so that everybody is happy. But it doesnâ€™t matter. I chase after inspiring stories. As long as I come from that place, things will rock and roll.
AVC: It seems like more and more studios are just looking for famous names to plug into lead roles, regardless of how they actually fit. Is that a challenge for youâ€”especially because you live so far away from the Hollywood mill, and youâ€™re not the typical, always-visible celebrity?
VF: There have only been a couple of directors whom Iâ€™ve experienced that sort of wishy-washiness with. Iâ€™ve been fortunate that the people Iâ€™ve collaborated with are great supporters, and have fought for me regardless of what the numbers were. I think itâ€™s the financiers are obviously the ones who look at your â€śvalue abroad,â€ť but not so much in independent film. And I think thatâ€™s whatâ€™s so rewarding as a directorâ€”to direct Higher Ground and have complete and utter control. To be able to say, â€śThese are the actors Iâ€™ve always wanted to work with. These are the actors that are spot on for this role.â€ť And to have had the support of the producers I had, who were just so much about supporting the directorâ€™s vision without limitations. To be able to say, â€śI want John Hawkes for this role,â€ť and to get him. Although now I donâ€™t think would have been as much a problem, because heâ€™s rightfully been given a spotlight for the past several months.
AVC: Heâ€™s had a good year.
VF: And well-earned. But itâ€™s always the way to go. Time and time again, I really think there are very few people who can sell a film, but if the right actor is applied to the right character or the right role, it always works. And people will be compelled by performances, and those films will succeed. As soon as you veer from that, it flops. In my experience.
AVC: Thereâ€™s been a lot of talk lately about how studios are not willing to take chances on a film unless itâ€™s a remake or a sequel, or itâ€™s based on a fairy-tale or board game or some other established property.
VF: But they are willing to buy films from festivals if they do succeedâ€”and for very little money. [Laughs.] In fact, for probably less money than those projects are made for.
AVC: But as an actor looking for original stories, as you say you are, do you think itâ€™s an especially dark time in Hollywood?
VF: I’m very entrenched in the independent community, and this is why indie films are always just, to me, more vital. They’re stories that are told by voices that cannot be hushed. And more often than not, a film will get made with very little money if need be, and with no-name actors, because the story needs to get told. I donâ€™t place my bets on Hollywood. Thatâ€™s not where I find my most inspired work. I donâ€™t necessarily need Hollywood. You just need to tell a really good story, or have a unique version of a story. And thatâ€™s really the equation for a good film. Hollywood will take notice and purchase the film. As far as studio films goâ€”yeah, I know, there is very little being produced in between a $100,000 film and a $100 million film these days. [Pauses.] But I’m hopeful.