For Vera Farmiga, A Search Leads To ‘Higher Ground‘
Interviewed by: Jack Giroux
Source: Film School Rejects
Vera Farmiga isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. Her new film, Higher Ground, goes to risky territory. Farmiga stars as Corinne Walker, an evangelical woman struggling to deal with the faith that has let her down. And she takes on a second role, as a first-time director.
Farmiga might be best known now for playing the smart, sexy frequent flier who managed to out-seduce George Clooney in the 2009 film Up in the Air. But back when she was a teenager, Farmiga, whose family is Ukrainian-American and who grew up speaking only Ukrainian at home until she went to school, was a professional Ukrainian folk dancer. When she arrived at NPR’s studios to talk about her new movie, she consented to another challenge: a short demonstration of her dancing skills, even though she was wearing heels. She did it â€” twirling gracefully, one hand arched overhead, the other on her hip.
Farmiga, who lives on a farm in upstate New York, is often drawn to indie films. She first attracted mainstream attention as a drug addict in the 2005 film Down to the Bone. So what sparked her interest in Corinne, the character she plays in Higher Ground?
“Look, I’m a thoughtful seeker â€” struggler â€” like we all are,” Farmiga tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block. “Your soul either feels lifted by something that you read, or it feels squashed by it. And this pried it open in mysterious ways.”
Farmiga says the character’s struggle resonated with her on levels that went beyond spirituality and religion. Corinne was “looking for a passionate, intimate relationship with God,” Farmiga says. “Being genuine, that’s the only way to change things about any relationship. She’s looking for that within … the human relationships in her life, with her husband, with her sister, with her mom, with her children.”
She pauses. “This sounds so lofty, but it’s a very humorous film,” she says with a chuckle.
In one of the film’s scenes, Corinne, having seen her friend speaking in tongues, shuts herself in the bathroom and tries to force herself into the experience. She pleads, “Just wash down on me, Lord,” and sings, “Come in thy strength and thy power,” before resigning with a promise to try again later.
Asked whether she had to be mindful of the risk of finding humor in things some people take very seriously, Farmiga says that her approach was reverent.
“I think God gave us senses of humor, and we should use them,” she says. “I’m not throwing jabs. These are real incidences. This is based on a real-life model of Carolyn Briggs and her experience.”
That experience was chronicled in This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, published in 2002. Briggs wrote about her life as a born-again Christian in the 1970s, her struggle with doubt, and the rifts it caused in her family and community.
The experience of shooting the film brought its own set of unique challenges for Farmiga, beyond creating the usual complex depiction of a character for which she has become known. In addition to sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, Farmiga was also pregnant while the movie was in production.
“It was crazed at times,” she says. “First trimester of my pregnancy was pre-production of the film. We shot in second trimester, and post-production was in third trimester. So I was birthing a human, at the same time birthing this film.”
The pregnancy had its benefits, though. Farmiga says that at times, she felt “invincible.”
“I had a lot of energy. It was sort of the temporary insanity of pregnancy that perhaps found the courage,” she says. “Because courage to direct this did not come as a mighty roar. It was sort of a little whisper that said, ‘Try it.’ But what the heck. Anything I’ve ever achieved started off with a ‘Try.’ ”
Her life on a farm in upstate New York removes her from the industry in Los Angeles and even New York City, and Farmiga has developed a reputation for a particularly harsh way of dealing with scripts that don’t meet her standards: tossing them into a bonfire. “Myths,” Farmiga says, before conceding that it’s at least “partially true.”
What’s true, she says, is that her pursuit of complex characters often runs aground in the scripts she reads. “It’s rare to encounter really, fully dimensionalized portrayals of women as I know women to be,” she says. “I want to see women relating to each other more in the ways that have been very helpful and integral in my life. When I look at female characters, I want to recognize myself in them: my trials, my tribulations as a mother, as a lover, as a daughter. I want to see the things that I struggle with. … I want to see the murky stuff.”
She says the distance from Hollywood’s publicity and gossip factories helps when it comes time to portray a character, too.
“It’s really wild. The kind of career that I’m having, and the kind of career that I want to have, doesn’t require a whole lot of prostitution. I don’t have to dress up in skivvies and grace every cover of every hot lady magazine,” she says. “It’s tricky for me, I think. The more I reveal myself, the harder my job becomes. And so that’s always … the challenge: how to preserve myself and how to retain mystique so that people can suspend disbelief when I choose odd terrain.”
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I’m Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I’m Melissa Block.
A few things to know about the actress Vera Farmiga – she was the smart, sexy, frequent flier who managed to out-seduce George Clooney in the film “Up in the Air” – Farmiga is Ukrainian-American, only spoke Ukrainian at home ’til she went to school and…
VERA FARMIGA: I was a professional Ukrainian folk dancer in my late teens. We toured Kiev and (unintelligible). It’s Russian Cossack dancing, so there’s a lot of flair.
BLOCK: So when Vera Farmiga came into our studios to talk about her new movie, I had to ask. Would she dance for me?
FARMIGA: In these?
BLOCK: She was wearing four-inch heels but she did it – twirling gracefully, one hand arched overhead, the other on her hip.
(SOUNDBITE OF HEELS TAPPING ON FLOOR)
BLOCK: Vera Farmiga makes interesting choices. She’s often drawn to indie films. She lives not in L.A. or Manhattan, but on a farm in upstate New York. And her new movie, titled “Higher Ground,” goes to risky territory. She plays an evangelical Christian struggling to hang on to the faith that has let her down.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, “Higher Ground“)
FARMIGA: (As Corinne Walker) Lord, help me. I can’t feel you. I feel nothing. Draw near to me, Lord. Come on, where are you? Huh? Where are you?
BLOCK: That’s Vera Farmiga in her new film, “Higher Ground,” which she also directed. I asked her what sparked her interest in her character, Corinne Walker.
FARMIGA: You know, it kind of affected me in divinely mysterious ways. I try to talk my way around it, trying to – you know, I’m a thoughtful seeker, struggler, like we all are. You know, your soul either feels lifted by something that you read, or it feels squashed by it. And this pried it open in mysterious ways.
I’m really touched, too. I mean, I think it resonated with me on many different levels. Not only is she looking for a passionate, intimate relationship with God coming from an authentic self, being genuine – that’s the only way to change things about any relationship – she’s looking for that within, you know, the relationships of – the human relationships in her life with her husband, with her sister, with her mom, with her children.
This sounds so lofty, but it’s a very humorous film.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: There’s a scene in the movie where you shut yourself in the bathroom.
BLOCK: You have seen your best friend speaking in tongues. You’ve heard her speaking in tongues, and you’re wondering how she does that and what she does, and you try to do it yourself.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, “Higher Ground“)
FARMIGA: (As Corinne Walker) Come on. (Speaking unintelligibly)
I think she says then – afterward – I’ll try again later.
BLOCK: I’ll try again later. Vera Farmiga, you have a big grin on your face. You’re suppressing a laugh as you’re listening to this scene.
FARMIGA: This film delights me.
BLOCK: Were you mindful, though, of that line between offending with humor, of finding humor in things that some people take very seriously? Their religion is extremely serious, and they don’t see humor in it.
FARMIGA: Yeah. But I think God gave us senses of humor and we should use them and I know my approach is a reverent one. I’m not throwing jabs. These are real incidences. This is based on a real-life model of Carolyn Briggs and her experience.
BLOCK: Her memoir.
FARMIGA: Her memoir.
BLOCK: I’m talking with Vera Farmiga about her new film, “Higher Ground.” How hard is it as a first-time director to be that person directing the whole film and also to be the star – to do both of those roles, very different roles?
FARMIGA: It was crazed at times, in particular because first trimester of my pregnancy was preproduction of the film. We shot in second trimester, and post-production was in third trimester. So I was birthing a human at the same time birthing this film. At the same time, you know, that double-edged sword was also – the sharper side was that I felt like I am invincible in that second trimester and I have a lot to draw on – a lot of estrogen, and a lot of uterus to draw on – and, you know, I don’t know; I had a lot of energy.
It was sort of the temporary insanity of pregnancy that perhaps found the courage because courage to direct this did not come as a mighty roar. It was sort of a little whisper that said, try it. But what the heck? You know, anything I’ve ever achieved started off with a try, so…
BLOCK: You live in upstate New York, in the country.
FARMIGA: I do. Yeah.
BLOCK: And I gather that you have occasional bonfires of scripts that you have rejected, with characters that you find completely worthless.
FARMIGA: Ah, the myths.
BLOCK: Not true?
FARMIGA: Partially true, but it’s not so anarchist as it’s been made out to be, but…
But are there – are there – do you tend to find that you get a lot of scripts that you are very happy to put on that bonfire?
FARMIGA: Oh, of course. Of course. My husband recently snapped a photo of the last part, where I was taking the – you know, I was – hey, and I was poking fun of it and I, you know, for fun was just flicking. And he snapped a shot of it, so there is evidence.
BLOCK: Flinging a big…
FARMIGA: A big pile of pooh-pooh script. Yeah. You know, I mean, that’s so judgmental. It’s rare to encounter really – sort of fully dimensionalized portrayals of women as I know women to be.
BLOCK: What aren’t you seeing of the women that you know, that are not coming through in the scripts or in movies that you’re seeing?
FARMIGA: I want to see women relating to each other more, in the ways that I think have been very helpful and integral in my life. When I look at female characters, I want to recognize myself in them – my trials, my tribulations as a mother, as a wife, you know; as a lover, as a daughter. I want to see the things that I struggle with. I want to see forte. I want to see the idiosyncrasies. I want to see complexity. I want to see the murky stuff.
BLOCK: When you think of the demands on you to sell a picture, and to sort of make your name be more than just what it is on the screen, where do you draw the line? How public do you become? How much of a commodity do you become?
FARMIGA: You know, it’s wild. It’s really wild. I think the kind of career that I’m having, and the kind of career that I want to have, doesn’t require a whole lot of prostitution – like, I don’t have to dress up in skivvies and grace every cover of every hot lady magazine. It’s tricky for me. I think the more I reveal myself, the harder my job becomes. And so, I mean, that’s always for me, too, is the challenge. And how to preserve myself, and how to retain mystique so that people can suspend disbelief when I choose odd terrain.
BLOCK: Vera Farmiga, it’s been great to talk to you. Thanks for coming in.
FARMIGA: Thanks, Melissa.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Actress – and now, director – Vera Farmiga. Her new movie is called “Higher Ground.”
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: This is All Things Considered from NPR News.