Vera Farmiga interview: Chats ‘Up in the Air‘ and her craft
Interviewed by: Stephen Whitty
Source: The Star-Ledger
In the new “Up in the Air,” George Clooney plays a frequent-flier hatchet man who jets across the country orchestrating layoffs. Itâ€™s all done with cool precision â€” the same way he books his hotels, orders his meals and decides whom heâ€™s going to sleep with.
Until one day he gets a shock â€” a woman whoâ€™s just as corporate, calculating and commitment-phobic as he is. In fact, she says so.
“â€˜Think of me as you, with a vagina,â€™?” actress Vera Farmiga blurts out, gleefully quoting her own dialogue. “Thatâ€™s the one line I practiced over and over again in front of the mirror. Itâ€™s a fine line to read, you know. Really, one of my favorites.”
The character, Alex, is one of Farmigaâ€™s favorites, too.
“Itâ€™s a very masculine kind of feminine desire, which I found appealing,” she says, sitting in a swank Manhattan hotel room. “She doesnâ€™t temper her desires at all. She makes clear her needs and expects to have the world accommodate them. Itâ€™s not a character we often see on-screen, and when we do, more often that not sheâ€™s bereft of dignity. So that was cool.”
Farmiga, 36, is a pretty cool customer herself â€” bluntly honest, casually feminist and sure of who she is.
She grew up in New Jersey, spoke only Ukrainian until she went to school, had Catholic school days full of “knee socks and rosaries” â€” and then decided to become an actress, landing in Australia on a wanna-be “Xena” show called “Roar.”
She has pursued a busy career in movies while remaining based on a goat farm in the Catskills, where unwanted scripts are turned into festive bonfires â€” and where she auditions by making her own short films, shooting herself in full costume acting out the big scenes.
And, having reached a sort of career tipping point two years ago â€” with the female lead in “The Departed” and one big profile calling her the next Meryl Streep â€” she instead pulled back, taking time off to get married, have a baby and turn out a string of indie dramas.
“Iâ€™m not in this for the achievement,” she says. “Iâ€™m in it for the illumination. Thatâ€™s how I choose my roles, thatâ€™s how I attract roles â€” itâ€™s a very spiritual process for me. And thatâ€™s the only way I could continue, and stay interested. The acting .?.?. itâ€™s really a vocation.”
Itâ€™s also, of course, a job. Farmiga has a house, a family and a bunch of animals to feed; horror pictures like “Orphan” arenâ€™t done solely for love of craft.
But sheâ€™s always intensely watchable. And she always brings something â€” a flash of anger, a gritty sexuality â€” that makes those sometimes improbable pictures feel real.
A Jersey girl breaks out
The honesty was bred in her. Farmiga grew up in Irvington, and went to St. Johnâ€™s in Newark. Later, her large family â€” she has six siblings â€” moved out to several acres in Flemington. Although her father worked as a computer-systems analyst, the Farmigas lived a rural, Old World life, full of church, tradition and nature.
“Each child got to choose a pet, and mine was a sheep,” she remembers. “We got one from a local farm, and I bottle-fed it, and it ran around our backyard. I think maybe I was a shepherdess in a past life.”
Like a lot of immigrantsâ€™ children, Farmigaâ€™s initial career plans were purely practical, yet somehow in high school, the budding optometrist saw a different future. She ended up majoring in drama at Syracuse University. Soon, she was living in the East Village and going on auditions.
Her icy eyes and fierce cheekbones began winning her parts, but mostly in roles defined by their ethnicity, their otherness. Directors didnâ€™t seem to know what to do with her.
Debra Granikâ€™s “Down to the Bone,” though, broke through that in 2005. It gave Farmiga a rare lead as a working-class mother battling drug addiction in upstate New York. It also won her a couple of criticsâ€™ awards and serious attention beyond local indie circles.
It remains, along with “Never Forever” and the upcoming “The Vintnerâ€™s Luck,” “hands down, a favorite experience,” Farmiga says â€” and part of that, she admits, may be that all three films were directed by women.
A womanâ€™s touch
“With all due respect to the men, in these movies the directors and I were all coming at the work from a feminine perspective,” Farmiga says. “Thereâ€™s a shorthand, thereâ€™s a language, thereâ€™s a psychology we understand. .?.?. Those films were true collaborations, and those directors wanted me along on those journeys every step of the way.”
The neglectful mother in “Down to the Bone,” the ferocious prostitute in “Breaking and Entering,” the prickly therapist in “The Departed,” the Nazi wife in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” â€” none of them is a naturally sympathetic role, and most of them are parts more cautious actresses might have avoided. But not Farmiga.
“As an actor, youâ€™re sort of the court-appointed lawyer for the character,” she says. “And thatâ€™s what used to draw me to scripts â€” something in a woman that I wanted to defend, something that I recognized or wanted to understand, something that turned my head. Now that Iâ€™m a mother, I think itâ€™s more the message of the film, or the questions that they pose about life â€” thatâ€™s the magnifying glass through which I look at them now. But at first it was all about the character.”
The character in “Down to the Bone” was occasionally casually nude, like many of the other women Farmiga has played â€” “if youâ€™ve seen â€˜Never Foreverâ€™ or â€˜The Departedâ€™ or â€˜Breaking and Entering,â€™ youâ€™ve seen my full moon, again and again,” she jokes.
Early on, it gave pause to her new husband, keyboardist Renn Hawkey, who wondered if she might stop doing nude scenes now that they were a couple. Farmiga â€” who agrees to them or not depending on the script, the director and the mood on the set â€” then asked Hawkey how heâ€™d feel if she asked him to stop playing certain notes. He dropped his objection.
Still, as comfortable as she is with her body, Farmigaâ€™s quite aware that sexism and double standards apply in the industry. The marketing for “Running Scared” snipped the sex scene out of the movie and turned it into an online computer game; even though she goes naked in the love scene in “Up in the Air,” her co-star remains discreetly draped.
“I think that was the one directorial misstep on Jason Reitmanâ€™s part,” she says frankly. “I think it would have been so much fun to see Georgeâ€™s hairy butt. But I think things are changing. Certainly some of the actors Iâ€™ve worked with, bold actors like Peter Sarsgaard and Sam Rockwell, theyâ€™ve shown their parts. Itâ€™s becoming less taboo. Weâ€™re finally sort of acknowledging, hey, men have genitals too!”
The simple life
Farmigaâ€™s no-nonsense approach serves her well. When Martin Scorsese talked to her about a role in “The Departed,” she bluntly told him the part still needed some punching up. (Scorsese, who agreed, calls her a “fearless” actress.) Many industry watchers thought “The Departed,” released the same year as “Running Scared” and “Breaking and Entering,” positioned her for a giant career surge.
But who says thatâ€™s what Farmiga wanted?
Instead she poured herself into extremely risky projects, like the interracial love drama “Never Forever” or the kinky art-house picture “Quid Pro Quo.” And she got pregnant, and she got married to Hawkey â€” once “Dr. Nner” in the band Deadsy and currently a writer and carpenter.
“We have enormous families, so it was all very â€˜Deer Hunter,â€™” Farmiga says of her wedding, “but without the Russian roulette. There was folk dancing, singing, all this ritual â€” but what I had not thought of was the fact that I was five months pregnant. We had chosen this flamboyant, decadent tango as our first dance and then when it came time, we literally couldnâ€™t get close enough!”
Their son, Fynn, is 10 months old now, and today is the first day that Farmigaâ€™s been apart from him. When she went to the Toronto Film Festival two months ago, the whole family simply piled into their car and drove up together. “Itâ€™s agony being away from him,” she says. “But itâ€™s getting cold and Renn has to get this barn up and get our tractors in before the snow comes, so theyâ€™ve stayed up there.”
Farmiga likes staying up there herself, with her family and her animals. What had been a childhood hobby has turned into a business, a hedge against the uncertainty of the arts and an artistic outlet; the couple now raises angora goats (or tries to â€” their first attempts at artificial insemination didnâ€™t go too well). After the shearing, Farmiga spins her own wool, then turns the yarn into clothing.
“Thereâ€™s always a lot of wasted time on set, just sitting around,” says the actress, who was always a serious knitter. “So hereâ€™s an activity to keep me out of trouble. Itâ€™s very therapeutic, really, just sitting there and listening to the click-click-clicking of the needles. Itâ€™s hard for me to just sit still and meditate, so this is one way .?.?. .”
She hugs herself and shifts on the couch, tucking her bare feet under her. The fancy dress seems to be suddenly growing tight; the high heels were kicked off long ago. Although “Up in the Air” is a big film for her, and the studio, and Farmiga has been uncomplainingly promoting it for months, itâ€™s clear she yearns to get back upstate, with her husband and her baby and her knitting and her goats.
“Iâ€™ve never been sucked into the glamour of it all,” she says. “Thatâ€™s not where my career has been founded. Iâ€™ve never graced the cover of a fashion magazine. I was on the cover of Cookie with Fynn, but only because I was rather coerced by the two grandmothers, and I thought the story might be helpful to other mothers who were going back to work. The glamour of it, I can live without. I like being upstate. It gives you some perspective. Itâ€™s far enough away that I can really see what matters, and what doesnâ€™t. And itâ€™s a lot easier to breathe.”