Vera Farmiga: rare breed
Interviewed by: Mick Brown
Source: Telegraph (UK)
Vera Farmiga does nothing by the book. She dared to give Scorsese filmmaking tips, flashed Jude Law, and avoids auditions by making videos in her house in the country, where she knits wool from her angora goats. Now the Ukrainian-American actress is getting inside the head of a death camp commandant’s wife.
When the actress Vera Farmiga appeared in The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film about the Boston underworld, the tabloid newspaper the New York Post ran an interview with her. The headline read ‘Departed‘ star so real she still lives with goats.
It was the ‘still’ that did it – the apparent astonishment that having enjoyed the attentions of both Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in the film, Farmiga should be holding out against the seductive blandishments of Hollywood in favour of a smallholding in the rural fastness of Ulster County, upstate New York, in the company of her boyfriend and a handful of angoras.
Two years on, Farmiga’s star has risen yet further, and it is a mark of how untouched she is – how real, if you like – that nothing has changed.
‘You know, I really wanted sheep,’ she says. ‘They’re more useful, but there was none available. I was tired of weed-whacking a 100ft plot that was very rocky, and so I thought I’d get a couple of animals to graze. So I got goats. But they’re browsers, not grazers – they prefer to reach up for their food. These guys were bottle-fed hand-raised by their farmer, so they’re very affectionate. Ours are like a couple of Great Danes; they know their names, they’ll come when they’re called.’
One thing led to another. Before long, Farmiga’s boyfriend had bought her a portable spinning-wheel – perfect for taking on film sets. ‘It fits in a backpack. I clean the wool and spin it between scenes.’ She pauses. ‘You know, honestly, if I didn’t do what I do, I would be a shepherdess, and I would probably go back to college and get a horticulture degree.’
Farmiga is an actress who, thus far, has played small parts in big films, and big parts in small ones. Her role in The Departed, playing a police psychiatrist, and a brief, if indelibly memorable, cameo as a Romanian prostitute in Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering notwithstanding, most of her work has been in independent cinema – the kind of films that win critical plaudits and prizes at festivals, but make it to only limited cinema release, if at all. Down to the Bone, which she made in 2004, and for which she won several best actress awards, never even found a release in Britain.
This week, however, sees the release of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, an adaptation of the critically lauded novel by the Irish writer John Boyne. Scripted and directed by Mark Herman, who also directed Little Voice and Brassed Off, the film tells the story of a German boy, Bruno, and a Jewish boy, Shmuel, who strike up an improbable friendship across the barbed-wire fence of a concentration camp. Farmiga plays the role of Elsa, Bruno’s mother and the wife of the camp commandant.
‘How badly did I want this role?’ she says. ‘I wanted it badly. The novel is such a powerful piece of literature, and I needed to be a part of it. It was that simple. That’s the only criterion for me with scripts – I’ve got to be affected by it, and not just for the moment, or that day. I have to think about it, and to keep thinking about it. And this was unforgettable.’
Vera Farmiga has a soulful, Modigliani, Mittel-European countenance (she is Ukrainian by origin), which seems both to hint at some tantalising folk-memory of melancholy and sadness, and to suggest the promise of smouldering seduction – often at the same time.
Herman describes how when Miramax suggested Farmiga for the role of Elsa he looked at every film she had made ‘and she was never the same in any of them, and terrific in all of them’.
She has come to New York for the day, leaving behind her goats and her boyfriend, Renn Hawkey. They have been together for four years, and are to be married next month (‘like the wedding in The Deerhunter‘). Hawkey used to play keyboards for a goth band named Deadsy, but has recently given that up – ‘it was too rough-and-tumble a lifestyle, I think’ – to become a carpenter. Much more noble, I say. ‘It is! There was always a slight embarrassment when I had to admit he was a rock musician,’ Farmiga says.
She has entered the restaurant where we meet with a tentative air, automatically reaching a protective hand to her stomach as the hostess pulls back her chair. At the age of 35 she is four months pregnant with her first child, and still reeling from the physical tumult of her condition. For the first three months she could do nothing. ‘I had this progesterone coursing through my veins and it paralysed me,’ she says. ‘I felt like I had the flu every day. I didn’t have the focus to read, to knit. I was useless.’ She gives a beaming smile. ‘And now I feel invincible.’
Vera Farmiga was born and grew up in an insular Ukrainian community in New Jersey. She regards herself as Ukrainian-American. Her father was a computer-systems analyst, her mother a schoolteacher. Vera was the second of seven children, and the oldest daughter. She spoke only ‘Ukie’ until she was six years old, and describes a childhood filled with folk stories, singing and dancing. For a number of years she performed with a dance company called Syzokryli.
Her early ambition was to be an ophthalmologist – as a child, she says, ‘I thought I could tell everything about someone from one glance deep into their eyes’ – and while her own vision was perfect, she prayed fervently to wear glasses: ‘attention-seeking, I think’. Her prayer was answered in her teens when her sight began to fail. For years she wore glasses, then contact lenses and she recently had laser correction.
She began acting in school dramas when she was 16, after being dropped from the school soccer team, and went on to do theatre studies at Syracuse University’s School of Performing Arts. After working in theatre – ‘off off-Broadway’ – she landed a role in a television series, Roar, filmed in Australia, in which she starred alongside a young Heath Ledger – a series, she says, that ‘wanted to be Braveheart but turned out more Xena: Warrior Princess‘. It enabled her finally to pay off her college tuition fees, and led to her marrying Sebastian RochĂ©, a French actor who was also appearing in the series. The marriage ended five years ago.
She worked mostly in television, with the occasional, fleeting film role. When I ask what she wanted from acting at this stage, she falls silent, shakes her head, then shudders.
What’s a horrible memory?
‘No – I have a horrible memory. I can never remember anything. I think I just wanted to work – television, film, it didn’t matter.’
She got her first (small) role in a big film in 2001 in 15 Minutes starring Robert De Niro, but the film that caught people’s attention and won her awards was Down to the Bone, a studiedly down-beat story of a domestic cleaner struggling with drug addiction, written and directed by Debra Granik, and based on the life of a woman named Corinne Stralka. The role was typical of the way Farmiga likes to work. She sat in on group-therapy sessions in a rehab centre, and for a week worked alongside Stralka as a domestic cleaner. ‘She made me pick all the pubic hair out of the soap.’
There is a general rule of thumb in the film world that you live where the work is, which usually means Hollywood. But Farmiga continued to live not far from where she had grown up, in upstate New York, in a small colonial-style house, tending her garden and her goats. ‘It’s an olfactory thing,’ she says. She needs ‘dense patches of green moss. And living where I do has always been a great vantage point for me. It allows me to live in a simple way where I don’t need to feel the pressure of taking this role or that role just in order to maintain the lease on my very expensive hot-rod car. There’s none of that.’
In lieu of attending auditions, whenever she read a script that interested her she would make a mini home-movie of the character she wanted to play, acting out the part while a friend fed her lines. ‘With the program on a Mac you could really edit it in a very clever way, fade in and fade out, have intimacy with the mikes, the lighting, and have the luxury of takes – you could make yourself as ugly or as beautiful as you wanted. They always resulted in a meeting – a flight over to Los Angeles to meet the director. Even if at the end of it all I didn’t get the role it would be fine because I’d already executed it in my own living-room.’
It was one of these audition films that led to Scorsese inviting her for what she calls ‘a chemistry read’ with Leonardo DiCaprio, and her role in The Departed as a police psychiatrist who counsels good cop DiCaprio and bad cop Matt Damon, and ends up in bed with both. She was elated to get the job, of course, although she told Scorsese she thought her character was ‘underwritten’.
It’s a brave actress, I say, who tells Scorsese that.
‘Oh, no. The wonderful thing about Marty is that he will say, listen the part’s crap – it’s not quite there but we’ll get it there, and are you game to do it? So we worked to build her up to introduce inconsistencies and contradictions and all the stuff that makes people human.’ She pauses. ‘I need a director as much as they need me.’
It was while Farmiga was filming The Departed that Anthony Minghella offered her the role of a Romanian prostitute in Breaking and Entering. The script required her to sidle up to Jude Law, who was seated in a car, and provocatively yank open her fur coat. What Law did not know was that Farmiga was wearing nothing underneath.
‘It was just me and Anthony messing with Jude, and his reaction is priceless – embarrassed and amused and giddy,’ she remembers with a laugh. ‘Anthony was just so mischievous. He created a playground for us; it really was like a swing-set for us little kids to jump around and play on.’
Minghella was a true friend, she says, and his sudden death earlier this year was ‘a tough one. We had a very brief collaboration, because the part was very small. But there was a great ease between us, and we always planned on doing more work together. But just his friendship, little emails here and there, the calls he made on my behalf – he was a big champion for me, always.’
Since Breaking and Entering she has had leading roles in no fewer than eight films. She played a mother disintegrating in the face of the realisation that her nine-year-old son is evil in the psychological thriller Joshua; a married woman who pays a Korean immigrant to make love to her in order to conceive a child in Never Forever. ‘Independent cinema is where the work is most exhilarating, where I have most fun and where I find the most like-minded people to work with,’ she says. ‘And it’s also the work that I’m drawn to myself.’
The simple fact is, she says, that films made by the major studios offer fewer challenging and interesting leading roles for actresses. ‘Women are marginalised and under-dimensionalised,’ she says. ‘There aren’t enough women distributors, producers, directors, writers – the playing field needs to even up, and when it does you’ll see better roles for women. It’s as simple as that.’
When good roles do appear, the competition is fierce – most of them going to a small circle of established names. Farmiga came close to landing the role of the mid-1960s Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, but the part went to Cate Blanchett, who was subsequently nominated for an Oscar. ‘The minute I knew Cate was interested in the role, I knew it wasn’t going to happen.’
Ironically, it was her almost-but-not-quite-famous status that was to prove crucial in Mark Herman casting Farmiga for the role of Elsa in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. ‘She’s of a level of fame that was just right,’ Herman says. ‘I didn’t want to have too-big names in this film, because I always think it helps with the believability if the stars are not superstars.’
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas follows Bruno, the eight-year-old son of an SS officer (played by David Thewlis) whose promotion takes the family from their home in Berlin to a new posting in a rural part of Eastern Europe. Confined to his new home, and staring longingly out of a high window, the lonely Bruno glimpses what he takes to be a farm in the far distance. Determined to explore, he evades the watchful eye of his mother and escapes over the garden wall. At length, he comes to a barbed-wire fence, on the other side of which he spies a boy of his own age, dressed in striped pyjamas.
The character of Elsa, Bruno’s mother, is only thinly sketched in the novel, but Herman felt it was important to bring her to the fore if the film were to succeed. The model of a loving and dutiful wife, Elsa seems to be in ignorance of what is really happening on the other side of the fence; only when a young officer gloatingly lets slip that ‘the farm’ is really a death camp does complacency turn to horror, awakening a conflict between personal love and common humanity.
Herman describes Elsa as the conscience of the film. ‘I wondered whether seeing the events solely through an eight-year-old’s eyes could hold the film all the way through,’ he says. ‘So Elsa is us, in a way – the elder perspective. She is somebody you can empathise with.’
Herman says that one of the things that convinced him that Farmiga was right for the role was the dedication she brought to it. Even before she had got the part she had spent a month on research, reading accounts of the lives of the wives of Nazi officers, including Teresa Stangl, the wife of Franz Stangl, the commandant of SobibĂłr and Treblinka, and Hedwig HĂ¶ss, the wife of Rudolf HĂ¶ss, the commandant of Auschwitz.
Remarkably, perhaps, camp commandants were allowed to have their families living with them in close proximity to the camps, although they were sworn under the threat of death not to reveal what actually went on there. Stangl was so dependent on his wife and daughters to maintain his emotional stability that he moved them to an estate just a few miles from the SobibĂłr camp, where he supervised the gassing of some 100,000 men, women and children.
When Frau Stangl learnt from another German officer the true nature of her husband’s job she broke down, but apparently rallied, allowing herself to be convinced by his explanation that he was in charge only of ‘construction work’. Even after Stangl was transferred to Treblinka, where 5-6,000 Jews would be gassed each morning, after which Stangl would eat his lunch and ‘take a little nap’, his wife remained loyal.
Rudolf HĂ¶ss also installed his family in a villa close to Auschwitz, producing four children of his own in the years that he was supervising the extermination of some 1.5 million people. HĂ¶ss would later claim that he had lied to his wife about the goings on at the camp – when she first arrived, she referred to Auschwitz as ‘paradise’, claiming that its inmates lacked for nothing.
She planted a garden bursting with flowers, while her husband listened to the Auschwitz symphony orchestra. HĂ¶ss told GM Gilbert, a British Army psychologist who interviewed him during the Nuremberg trials, that Hedwig only discovered the truth during a party at their villa when she overheard comments by the Gauleiter of Silesia, Fritz Bracht, about the mass gassings occurring at the camp. Thereafter, she refused to sleep in the same bed as her husband and, according to Gilbert, ‘they became emotionally estranged from each other’.
None the less, at the end of the war it took six days of interrogation by the British before Hedwig finally relented and wrote down the address of the farm where her husband was hiding out. Hedwig was released, remarried and is said to have subsequently moved to America, where her children live now.
‘Hitler said, “The greater the man, the more insignificant should be the woman”,’ Farmiga says. ‘The commandants kept what was happening from their wives, but I think it was a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. In the case of Elsa, realisation takes a while coming. She questions nothing at all, she never probes. She knows on a certain level that people are being “punished” in her mind, but she makes no effort of her own to go beyond the forbidden fence and seek out answers for herself. Her world, and her perspective, is very narrow; it’s only what concerns herself.’ She pauses.
‘What you do in any role to understand the character, and particularly a role like this, is to put a magnifying glass up to yourself and see how you are alike and how you are different. For me that means exploring where I have been apathetic and disinterested, and where my vision has been very narrow. Maybe this has been something to do with not having been a mother up till this point, and not having more purpose. But there has been a tendency to just focus on what immediately concerns me and my interests. So exploring that and questioning and comparing to Elsa was really where I started from.’
Early on during filming in Budapest, Farmiga made a point of travelling to Auschwitz and Birkenau. ‘I wanted to be able to walk and see what the prisoners saw. I wanted to know the layout of the camp in proximity to the commandant’s living quarters. I wondered what the commandant’s wife would have seen and not seen. The place and the stories are so beyond the normal constraints of humanity that no reaction felt correct, and everything I was feeling felt somehow inadequate. I felt thoroughly slain in the spirit, wondering why it is that evil can replace good, can besiege it and submerge it.’
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is not a comfortable film, but it is an extremely powerful one. Herman avoids the trap of oversentimentalising the friendship between the two boys and, true to the ‘child’s-eye’ view of the book, he shows us nothing of what is actually going on in the camp until the last five minutes of the film. ‘The best horror films keep the monster away and out of sight, and they’re much more horrific for it,’ he says. As a consequence, the emotional punch, when it comes, is all the more gut-wrenching. Farmiga says that when she saw it for the first time she was ‘unable to speak for two days. I couldn’t find my voice, I was so affected by it.’
There are times, she says, when acting can be ‘of service’, and making this film was one of them. ‘I do think it’s a case of “lest we forget”. As time passes, the Holocaust recedes further into history, but these fences exist all over the world, in Darfur and Kosovo, in Iraq. This story could just as easily have taken place in the Christian-Muslim world. Acting can have a useful purpose. It sounds so grandiose and weird coming out of my mouth, but I do think it’s as simple as that – to blossom and to serve. And it’s the only way to feel this profession can be noble.’
Farmiga has three films awaiting release – including The Vintner’s Luck, based on a novel by Elizabeth Knox and directed by Niki Caro, who made the acclaimed Whale Rider – but, for the moment, no plans to make another. Her impending motherhood, she says, is ‘the biggest role of my lifetime’, and one that, in a peculiar way, she feels she has been rehearsing over the past four years with all the roles she has played. ‘So many mothers,’ she says with a sigh. ‘And I became so depressed after each one. There has just been a tremendous void in my life, and I just need creative purpose, to have my own family, to be that sovereign queen.’ She laughs. ‘That’s all I’ve wanted.’
The goats, of course, will have their part to play in this. She has been knitting angora hats for the baby, and attempting to perfect the tricky art of shearing. ‘It’s like wrestling,’ she says. ‘Each animal only has about five minutes’ patience, and you can’t have what are called double cuts, because the garment becomes itchier if you have shorter fibres. You section the fibre into bits and pieces, but then you have these sections around the teats and genitals which I don’t know what to do with.’
She thinks about this. ‘A scarf, perhaps.’ And laughs. ‘For your enemy.’