Interview: Vera Farmiga Talks āSource Codeā
Interviewed by: Jeff Leins
Source: News in Film
At the South by Southwest Film Festival, we had more than eight minutes to sit down with Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga, one of the stars of Duncan Jonesā Source Code.
The talented, cat-eyed Farmiga plays Colleen Goodwin, the military officer who welcomes Jake Gyllenhaalās Captain Colter Stevens back to reality after heās plunged continuously into the finite, 8-minute world of the Source Code. Farmiga discussed with us how she became involved with the project, the process of shaping the role with Duncan and Jake, and the difficulty of acting with only a camera lens, as well as brief forays into the philosophy and science of Source Code.
Have you seen the film all the way through?
Vera Farmiga: Yeah, I saw it yesterday. I also saw it in my living room. I just had do some satellite interviews. It helps to see the film before you talk about it. The process of it and seeing the finished product are two entirely different things for most films.
Especially with a film like this. Did you do a lot of research for it?
Farmiga: Look, earlier in my career I played uniform women and thereās always the politics of gender within that profession as a uniformed officer and who your boss is, what your job is. The dynamic is certainly something to consider though. Iāve talked to many uniformed officers, female officers. So, that is something thatās in the back of your head. I donāt think it was so much considering that as what her task at hand is, which is to save a whole lot of people. I think all of us could connect very easily with that idea and that urgency and the need. You turn on the television and donāt you wish you had a program like this so you could give fair warning or to evacuate, whatever the disaster may be. Hindsight is always 20/20. I think, who amongst us canāt connect with that?
This wasnāt a real research kind of a role it was really just using your imagination and working within the confines of the role which was pretty limited. As far as the kinds of roles that Iām normally drawn to are pretty much the antithesis of this character. But arc is always important to me and I found the challenge of that arc within these limitations of these 8 minute increments. I found that to be compelling, how quickly she changes. And the moral dilemma within that, treating culture as a science project first, and then getting to know her personally within these 8 minute increments and then having that impact the way she does her job.
So thatās really what I focused on most, all the sort of psycho-spiritual energy between the two and how best to convey it when the actor is not in your presence. So I did not work with Jake [Gyllenhaal] at all, except for in rehearsal. Itās important in rehearsal to hash out some stuff. We sat opposite the table in rehearsal so we had that time spent. He was there a couple days reading lines off camera, but other than that it was a script supervisor and me staring into the barrel of the lens, which is extremely difficult to do for an actor that spends most of their time ignoring it. Iāve only been asked once to do that. There was this one moment in Manchurian Candidate. I think as a device he used an audience connection. I thought it was one of those difficult things for me to do. To know that, oh God, your face is gonna be distorted in really outrageous ways the ways. The way your face tends to do when you look into your iChat camera. Thinking about the character in these ways, how best to convey the emotional life of the character and the mental life with very little movement and the confines of the space.
Correct me if Iām wrong, but wasnāt the part originally written for a man?
Farmiga: I donāt know. It doesnāt surprise me. But thatās interesting Iāll ask Ben [Ripley] about that. How interesting, I wonder if it was.
How did you become involved with the film?
Farmiga: Iām a tremendous fan. It really stems from that. I saw Moon at least eight times. Sam [Rockwell]ās a good friend of mine. Heās an actor that is just too much under the radar. Heās gotten a lot of attention. Iāve worked with him. Iām so fond of him. I just dug his performance. I thought really highly of Duncan as a story teller. I thought heās a unique voice, a new vision for a genre that I donāt really connect with thatās really plot driven. He shines a spotlight on the characters and really operates from that angle. He makes you use your noodle when you watch a film. Itās not only stimulating so many visceral ways, this film in particular, but you really got to think. Itās mind bending and boggling. It took me several reads of the script, even on set it would stillā¦ Itās interesting how articulate he is prior to shooting on the visuals. You walk into preproduction studio and every space on the wall is filled with visuals, which helps you create the character psyche.
It came to me because I was a fan of Duncanās, of Moon. I love puzzles. Iāve loved putting puzzles together since I was a kid. I think every piece is important. The role itself isnāt something I would probably be drawn to, normally. But I really love any film, honestly, that leaves you with a healthy perspective on life. Iām a mom with two kids. I have a 4-month-old, a two-year-old and an amazing husband. So itās a good reminder to cherish the now and cherish everything that you hold dear in life. I love the note that it ended on, in addition to all the levels that the script works on. I just wanted to be a part of that puzzle.
When you and Jake were rehearsing, was there anything that changed from the script that came out of those rehearsals?
Farmiga: Sure, sure. Oh, what can I tell you preciselyā¦ I think there was a big change in the scene where she revealsā¦ I think each character has some sort of revelation of a life beyond what you see on screen. A family life beyond that. I think the scene in which Colter asked me if Iāve ever been married before. I think it explored more a history. Where that ended up being, that scene in particular, the first time their really personal with each other. I think that morphed and changed. Iām not even sure from what.
I have this strange brain that compartmentalizes every job experience. I truly, literally, forget. I donāt care how great the experience was, I just forget. I have to take copious notes to see what I was thinking at the time. I know it was something to do with that scene and getting that right, making it brief. These are 8 minute increments. It is plot driven. Youāve got to keep that train running so to speak. Thereās no time to wallow. Thereās an urgency, thereās a tempo, thereās a staccato, to the piece on a whole that you have to honor. I know that scene as an actress I wanted to luxuriate, I wanted more depth and more exploration of my character. But we ended up paring it down to the essential what would convey that she has issues. Itās trusting. I just directed my first film and editing was probably the most surprising thing about it. You donāt have to beat audiences over the head. You can trust that theyāre savvy enough to pick up details. You donāt have to spoon feed them every information. So that was something that I learned from the new experience of directing.
You and Jake only have about two minutes before you push him back into the Source Code, how did you keep your energy up to be so simple but be so exact while you were doing that?
Farmiga: I do have tendency to embellish and luxuriate. To me whatās most important, and this is where I had to be efficient and this is where Duncan was very useful as a director, cracking that whip saying āurgency, urgency, urgency, keep in mind there are hundreds of lives are about to be lost.ā And he really kept reminding me of that. Because I think the tendency as an actress, what compels me about a character is not what the written lines are, what happens between the lines and what the character is not saying. To me I always tend to luxuriate that way because I think thatās what flushes out a role for an audience. Thereās great opportunity there as an actress. I think itās Duncan being the metronome. In a role like this you almost want to do more, you tend to want toā¦ You know I only have a certain amount of time and heās like ānoā deflating that accordingly, every time it opens up.
As horrific as the Source Code is, the actual reality of the machine and the hardware, it did work. Sort of. So if you found out there was something like a Source Code going on right now, would you support it and why? Or would you be against it?
Farmiga: You know, I think thereās a little box you check off on your license that probably should be honored. If you donāt want your body used post mortem in this very scenario, as useful as it can be a tool. Some of us our soldiers, some of us our not. We all want peace. But some of us our soldiers, some of us donāt have the heart and the mind. Some of us donāt even have the faith and force. So yeah, I think we all should really consider that box. But thatās the moral dilemma and thatās the consideration for my character. She gets to know Jakeās character and feel for him. And know him personally and love him in that sense and care for him. Her job becomes harder and harder to execute. Whereas Rutledge is a man of science, with good intentions, but it still can come across as ruthless. Which it is. You have an original idea, someone has already thought of it. So if this film exists then maybe this program can exist. I donāt know. I didnāt take physics. I was able to skirt that one and take a really good art class instead in high school. I think there should be outright volunteers if that is a valid scenario.
[This one question contains spoilers.] So there is the alternate universe aspect of this and, briefly, youāre playing a second version of your character. Did you think about giving that second version of your character different motivations or different emotions?
Farmiga: Yeah, I didnāt get that far. I didnāt get that far because it blows my mind. [laughs] I think itās very scary, another me. I donāt know if itās the same, it depends. I have no idea how to even begin to think about it. Itās too challenging for my small brain. I donāt know. No, I donāt think it was so important to be so precise in that frame of thinking to convey that last final moment of bewilderment. But, you know, anythingās possible. The way you think about it is, āHow would I have done things different? How can I approach things different?ā Often times in my own life I wish I had a couple chances at reacting to things.
Did you guys talk at all about the muli-verse? Or any of the science behind it all?
Farmiga: Yeah, Duncan has that kind of a brain. I like listening to it. But Iām very much me, and in the now. I guess you have to be a philosopher by nature in that respect. Itās too mind boggling for me.
What was the most difficult part about filming Source Code?
Farmiga: The most difficult thing is having a scene where thereās legitimately two characters, but not being in the presence of each other. Shooting is difficult and acting with those physical limitations, thatās the hard part. But you know, expository dialogue is maddening for an actor. It really is. Itās boring. All it is in information. Itās very difficult to infuse character in it and nuance. And thereās a whole lot of it, for me. So finding my way through that was a challenge. Conveying that in an interesting way was challenging.
You mentioned that because you had to stare at the camera while you were shooting those scenes. Was there an iChat where you got to see your own image?
Farmiga: There was only a camera, like a barrel camera. That was right in front. Not only that camera, thatās Jakeās perspective. Then you have the audience perspective and thereās usually two cameras from either side at different lenses, preserving the audience perception of me. So weāre going between these two different experiences, Jakeās character and the audienceās perspective. So in a couple days we had speaker systems, Jake showed up and did his lines. But you see in the last moments of the film what Iām actually seeing to be able to communicate. Thatās an entirely differentā¦ again, I donāt want to reveal too much. I wish I could see if thereās a pupil dilation thing that happens, or if it actually works. Thereās a couple times when I thought, āUgh, let me try staring at my reflectionā so it feels like there someone there. Because you can see your little self in the thing. I donāt know if it brings your, then I stop, because I think Iām gonna come across cross-eyed. So I stopped after a while.
Did it ever get any easier?
Farmiga: Yeah, yeah, once you accept it. Everything is easier after day one. The first time your really in your uniform and you feel that starch and the polyester, it takes a good 24 hours to get through the first day. Then everything comes easier, for me at least. I just have to get through the first day. Then thereās more of an ease to it. But yeah, embracing that. Whatās interesting too is that Duncan gave us the luxury, because it was just one space, we had the luxury of chronology and be able to shoot the scenes in sequence. Even my discomfort, the actorās discomfort with it, also translated to my discomfort with him and getting to know this guy whoās a part of this mission.
After being sort of bottled up in this movie, would you want to trade places with Jake and do the running around?
Farmiga: I feel like I usually get that role, especially in independent cinema. This is a studio film and I find that studio films I donāt often get the role, but in independent films I do. I do more independent film, than I do studios. I do get the opportunity a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot. Just with smaller paychecks.
How as the screening last night and your feelings with the audience Q&A?
Farmiga: Yeah, they seemed to be really embracing and energized by it. They were really receptive audience. I LOVE watching films. Most of the films I do are supported by independent film festivals. Thatās usually the launching pad for the kind of films that I do. I just love their eager festival goers, theyāre also the harshes critics. These are the kind of people that see a lot of movies. Since they really love film and you also see a lot of it, I love experience that. Theyāre passionate audiences. Particularly a film like this is meant to be seen on a large screen, not on your own personal device. I donāt often go to see these kinds, you know action, thrillers, I normally donāt see these kinds of films. So it was really exciting for me to experience the way films should be, with congregation of people. People vibe off each otherās emotions, someone giggles, that gives you permission to laugh.
Have you been to South by Southwest before?
Farmiga: No itās my first time. Itās usually Sundance or Toronto, but this is my first time here. I think Up In the Air came, but they didnāt invite me. [laughs]
Iām not sure what itās called technically, but the thing you say to Jakeās character to bring him back, I donāt know what the technical term isā¦
Farmiga: āBeleaguered castle, acknowledge transmission.ā
Do any of those things have significant meaning or hidden meaning?
Farmiga: Ask Duncan, I know Duncan will know the answer to that. I canāt remember what it is. Good question. I donāt think itās just a random, I think there is a significance, it might be a Ben question.
How many times did you have to say it?
Farmiga: Several times. Every time you see me. I think I start off each scene with that rant. Calling him into the mantra. Itās his mantra, itās what clicks him into my reality.
If you could give a small tid bit of advice to actors, what would that be?
Farmiga: If youāre frustrated with not working, then create your own opportunity. I think itās so easy these days with cameras becoming cheaper and cheaper each year, and everythingās turning digital. Camera phones. I think short films are as important as features. If youāre frustrated, just do it. Thatās how I directed Higher Ground, this was after the Oscars last year. Granted, I found out I was 2 weeks pregnant three days before the Oscars, so that put me out of the loop for certain things. Great material always comes my way, but still, given the economy, itās really few and far between to read those gems. Itās pretty cutthroat for actresses that are vying for those roles. So my manager gave me that advice. He was like, āWhat are you waiting for? Stop asking for permission.ā Just create your own opportunity. Where there a will thereās a way. But youāve got to have a story to tell, or an idea. If you want to work badly enough, thereās always people you can collaborate with to at least keep your craft sharp, to keep your mind.