Interview: Vera Farmiga – On the up
Interviewed by: Locke Peterseim
Here’s an offer you don’t get every day: a Hollywood starlet invites you to bed. Well, to be accurate, invites you on to the bed. For Vera Farmiga â€“ best known for her role in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed â€“ the lure of her London hotel suite’s four-poster has proved too much.
Wearing a striped blouse, black skirt and bright red lipstick, she lies on the duvet and props her head up with one arm, beckoning me to “come hither”. Is she taking her latest role, as a sexually independent business executive in Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air, a little too far? No. She is simply tired.
Jetlag? She shakes her head. “I’ve been here for a few days, but it’s just been one tremendous day,” she explains. “I have a nine-month-old son who is teething. We’re back at the hotel and we can’t co-ordinate sleeping schedules.” Normally, when an actress says ‘we’ in reference to a newborn, she’s referring to domestic help. But Farmiga is more traditional when it comes to parenthood, with her husband of 18 months, musician Renn Hawkey, doing a spot of babysitting. She may “barely” be coping with the sleepless nights, but can’t resist pulling out her phone and showing me a picture of her “monkey”, a blond boy named Finn.
With motherhood taking up her attention, the 36-year-old Farmiga has barely had time to bask in the attention that Up In The Air has gleaned. She’s already been nominated for a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actress, and an Oscar nod now seems a certainty. The film follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a “career transition counsellor” hired to fire employees in a professional yet clinical manner. He spends most of his life jetting between cities, racking up frequent flyer miles and bedpost notches in equal measure.
Loosely adapted from the Walter Kirn novel of 2001, it’s the film’s arrival in the midst of global recession that makes it feel so wincingly accurate. Farmiga, who grew up the second of seven children in working-class New Jersey, admits it was this that caught her interest. “What was most poignant for me was the thought, ‘Here’s someone talking about unemployment,’” she says. “My father has been laid off countless times. He’s a systems analyst. He writes computer languages. He’s been a victim to ageism. It’s easier to hire a kid right out of college who will take a quarter of the pay. So that was vivid to me.”
Added to this, she gets to play one of the juiciest female roles of recent times. As Alex Goran, she plays a like-minded executive who becomes a casual bedfellow of Ryan’s on his travels, even telling him “think of me as yourself, with a vagina”. Alex’s voracious post-feminist attitude to sex was another attraction for Farmiga. “It was just fun to see female desire portrayed in such a shameless, demanding, unapologetic and liberal way,” she says. “She’s as wham-bam-thank-you-kind-sir as he is. She fits very nicely into Ryan’s philosophy of attachmentless existence.”
Ryan begins to fall for Alex and reassess his life. Farmiga, who played a prostitute in Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering, has been surprised by the reactions of women in the United States, where the film has taken $37million. “I seem to have become a heroine for middle-aged women,” she says. “I thought I’d have the opposite reaction. They thank me for illuminating this perspective on libertine female desireâ€¦ normally, it’s such a masculine role.”
But she admits being anything but self-assured on set. “I was hormonal from pregnancy â€“ a month and a half from birth. So I was ultra-sensitive and not as confident as I usually am.” It’s not just lack of sleep either, she says. “As a mother, your body is not your own. Here I am â€“ breastfeeding, breastfeeding, (then acting with] George, breastfeeding, breastfeeding, Georgeâ€¦ so it was a very emotional experience. I didn’t feel as confident, as self-possessed and as sexual as Alex.”
Still, her own career confidence must be riding high now, after working with the likes of Scorsese, the late Minghella and Up In The Air‘s Reitman. “I’ve been up-and-coming for years,” she smiles, “decades!” In truth, it’s been 13 years since she made her Broadway debut as an understudy in Taking Sides before, 12 months later, starring opposite a then little-known Heath Ledger in the TV series Roar. Along the way, she pitched up in supporting roles in Autumn In New York alongside Richard Gere, 15 Minutes with Robert De Niro and Dust opposite Joseph Fiennes, but it was an independent effort that finally made people take notice.
The film was 2004′s Down To The Bone, and Farmiga’s role as a mother struggling with addiction won her a Special Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and best actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics. “That’s where I got most of the attention,” she notes. “I think Scorsese’s interest was piqued.” As was Reitman’s, who called Farmiga to audition for his debut Thank You For Smoking, though “it didn’t pan out”, as she puts it. Subsequently taking a small role in Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate remake, it was in 2006 that Farmiga finally stopped being up-and-coming â€“ winning roles in The Departed (as Matt Damon’s girlfriend) and Breaking and Entering.
It represents a remarkable rise, not least when you consider that Farmiga â€“ who grew up in a Ukrainian Catholic home â€“ didn’t even speak English until she was six. Given her Cate Blanchett-like versatility, it is a shock to hear acting was not considered when she was a girl.
“I had no pre-conceived notions of how my life would turn out,” she says. “I was mercurial in terms of what my vocation would be.”
During high school, she admits, she went from wanting to be a shepherdess, to an ophthalmologist, a music therapist and a concert pianist.
Still, she was always surrounded by the arts. “In Ukrainian cultureâ€¦ the arts and music, singing and dancing are so important,” she says. “Any excuse at a holiday, birthday party, anniversary, or holy dayâ€¦ we would always get together and do it!”
While she toured as a Cossack-dancing teenager with the New York-based Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, it was only in her final year at school that she switched to acting â€“ after she had her heart broken. “I needed an outlet. I didn’t want to just sit there (and mope], so a friend encouraged me to try out for the school play, and I did. It was a cheesy melodrama, but that’s where the seed was planted.”
After graduating, she attended Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts before heading to Broadway. Shortly afterwards, she met first husband, French actor Sebastian Roch, on Roar. They eloped to the Bahamas in 1997â€“ though split in 2005. She hooked up with Hawkey, the synthesiser player with underground band Deadsy, shortly afterwards â€“ around the time she started counting A-listers like Jude Law and Matt Damon as her leading men.
Having recently completed Niki Caro’s forthcoming period drama The Vintner’s Luck, her next A-list companion will be Keanu Reeves in romantic comedy Henry’s Crime. Directed by British filmmaker Malcolm Venville, whose debut 44 Inch Chest is released the same day as Up In The Air, she plays an aspiring actress in Buffalo. “It’s like Buffalo 66 meets Bullets Over Broadway,” she grins, just as the PR arrives to wind up the interview. We shake hands and Farmiga collapses into her pillow with a groan. Only lack of sleep could stop her right now, it seems.