VERA FARMIGA: The Hollywood Interview 2009
Interviewed by: Terry Keefe
Source: The Hollywood Interview
The first time we interviewed actress Vera Farmiga was in early 2001, at Swingers Diner on Beverly, over French fries. It was around 8 in the evening, as she had to spend the day auditioning for a network pilot. She was promoting a supporting role in a relatively forgettable Robert De Niro-Ed Burns cop thriller called Fifteen Minutes, where she played a Eastern European hairdresser who witnesses a murder. Parking was scarce in the neighborhood, to the point that we first met that night while angling for the same spot. Today, things have changed somewhat. Weāre meeting at a ridiculously large and posh board room at the Beverly Hilton, which reminds of the one in Network where uber-exec Ned Beatty chews out Peter Finchās Howard Beale. Valets take care of the cars. A number of publicists and assistants abound. Itās all part of the studio publicity machinery for Up in the Air, the feature film directed by Jason Reitman, in which Farmiga stars with George Clooney. Strong Oscar buzz abounds on the film, not just for Reitman and Clooney, but also for Farmiga this time around.
Up in the Air introduces us to Clooneyās Ryan Bingham, a corporate down-sizer who travels the country some 300 days of the year firing vast numbers of employees for companies too gutless to do it themselves. Bingham has been aptly referred to by Reitman as a sort of ānew speciesā of human, in that he travels so much that his home is in the air. He obsessively collects frequent flyer, hotel, and rental car points, and seems to have adapted the philosophy that if he just keeps moving, heāll never have to get too tied down to any placeā¦or anyone. At a hotel bar, he meets someone he perceives to be the female version of himself, Farmigaās Alex, who shares a uniquely modern courtship scene with Ryan, as they seduce each other with the power of each otherās preferred traveler club cards. āJust think of me as you with a vagina,ā Alex says to Ryan, and with that, he believes he has found his perfect woman. What Ryan doesnāt realize is that in his relationships with Alex, and his unlikely young protĆ©gĆ© Natalie (played by Anna Kendrick), he is unconsciously forming a sort of surrogate family. In the sky.
The films of Jason Reitman walk a fine line between comedy, often black comedy, and drama. Deep characterizations of unlikely heroes are found in his Thank You For Smoking (2005), Juno (2007), and Up in the Air, but the films are also sprinkled with sharp comedic dialogue. Farmiga fits well into the Reitman universe, as she is able to deftly hit the comedic beats, but also bring to the surface the largely unspoken levels of loneliness which are definitely an element of what drives Alex. The world of plane-rental car-hotel-conference-plane that she inhabits is in part a role-playing fantasy, something she knows inherently but which Clooneyās Ryan must learn the hard way.
Between our first meeting with Farmiga and this most recent one, we also spoke with her in 2005 about Down to the Bone, the low-budget character study in which she plays a sometimes-recovering heroin addict (read that interview here). Down to the Bone won a Special Jury Prize for Acting at Sundance, and although few in the general population of moviegoers saw it upon release, Farmiga credited the film, at the time, with helping her land a role which just about everyone saw, as the psychiatrist Madolyn in Martin Scorseseās The Departed in 2006. It seems likely that Farmiga was consequently offered a lot of paycheck-style studio film roles in the wake of The Departed, although one has to assume that Farmiga has largely avoided those projects. While she has made somewhat larger commercial films such as the recent Orphan, she has also continued to pursue roles closer to the indie Down to the Bone in both scope and spirit, playing a disability-obsessed sexual explorer in Quid Pro Quo, the wife of a Nazi officer in the bleak childrenās tale The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and a woman in an interracial marriage in the lower-budgeted Never Forever. She had mentioned at the time of Down to the Boneās release that these type of smaller, character-driven roles were where her heart was. You hear talk about wanting to mix more commercial projects with smaller, higher-quality ones from actors on the rise all the time, but Farmiga has actually followed through on it. With Up in the Air, sheās landed the rare project that is the best of both worlds these days, a studio film with dynamite characters.
[Note: There are some indirect plot spoilers in the text of this interview.]
Jason Reitman wrote this role for you in Up in the Air, but he also made you audition.
Vera Farmiga: Yeah [laughs]. Yes, he did.
Whatās up with that?!
[laughs] Heās a master of contradiction. Look at all his characters. You know, I was very pregnant when we met. And then I was even more pregnant when he handed me the job, and by the time we started filming, I weighed more than George Clooney. I had just delivered a baby, and the studio was stressed about the decision. And so, he just said, āVera, I hope you donāt mind,ā and weād already met, up for a chamomile tea, at Gramercy Park Hotel, early on in the process, but he couldnāt quite make the decision, because it was a big decision to make for him. I kept insistingā¦I said, āCall up every director. Call up Scorsese, heāll tell you about my record…ā [laughs]
Scorsese should be enough of a good recommendation, right?
But Jason said, āNo, I talked to everybody!ā And so I said, āWell, if I tell you I can do it, I can do it.ā
Was your pregnancy the main issue?
Yeah, I think he was moreā¦not so much physicallyā¦he was more worried about my mental capacity, and if I could handle all of it. In my eighth month of pregnancyā¦I think it was in my favor that everybody else that was being considered probably was pregnant, too. [laughs] But so, he actually made me read the scene with Anna Kendrickās character. And he came back, to the Gramercy Park Hotel, with a video camera, and heād hired two local actors from the city to sit in and read for Georgeās and Annaās characters, and he videotaped me, and I got a call that night. [laughs]
(George and Vera compare frequent flier and travel mileage point cards.)
You do a lot with silence in this film. Her non-verbal moments arenāt just reaction shots. Sheās an enigma, and hiding a few things, and you can feel that in her glances. How much of that silence are you consciously filling, and how much is just your screen presence?
I love the silent moments. I cherish the silent moments in film. Itās even more important and telling of a character what they donāt say, what they choose not to sayā¦and what they may be thinking but donāt say. What they canāt say. What theyāre incapable of saying. That is as revealing, if not more, than what a person actually says, so I love that, and that for me is something that I focus on as an actor, and obsess over, and relish. [laughs]
It occurs that you have to be in the moment to do silence properly on-screen.
And sometimes I take it to extremes, because Jasonās biggest direction of me was, āVera, you gotta say it faster. Can you pick up the rhythm?ā
I guess I can also see that, because the first scene where you and George meet has a real Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell-His Girl Friday fast repartee to it.
Yeah, youāre right, because there is a rhythm…thereās a rhythm to Jasonās writing, and you have to honor it. Itās like the metronomeās on, and you do have to honor that metronome, and keep up with it. And thatās part of whatās so sexy [about the two characters], the rhythm, the tennis match, the banter. They finish each otherās thoughts, and theyāre on very even, equal footing. But then there were moments, like at the wedding, when you see them exist without any words. Whatās so sexy about this relationship isā¦itās hardly anything that happens in the bedroom. Thereās no allusions, thereās like one allusion to them having a romp, but I think whatās so sexy about it is that Jason is just very old-fashioned in the way he portrays a romance. Look at Juno. You root for the relationship, and itās just so authentic and heartbreaking, but itās really just the conversation between them, and who they are together, and words that they exchangeā¦thatās whatās so sexy. I love that because Iām always on a hunt for a good old-fashioned romance.
What is true of all of three of Jason Reitmanās film is that he keeps this fairly light tone overall, but also has these deep characters and overall themes. How much of the tonal balance, and how it should be played, is obvious on the page, and how much do you have to find in the execution?
Heās a master of finding that, and we also struggled at times. There are certain lines that my character has that are hilarious, but could be as vulgar as could be if you donāt hit the right chord with them. The āvaginaā line [Editorās Note: the classic one-liner delivered by Farmigaās character.] is an example. Just talking about genitals is a funny thing, is a tricky thing, and the word āvaginaā is not a word that you hear all the time. Itās such a critical word, but actually, when you say it, thereās all sorts of imagery that pops up, and you know that line, in particular, is probably going to be a sound bite in the film. And thereās a lot of pressure on that line, and I find with Alex, she says the most ā¦sheās a sexual adventuress, the things that she says are demanding and liberal and unapologetic, and yet the key was to find a dignity in delivery, and infuse it with as much dignity and self-respect in honoring thyself, herself, an integrity of self, as possible. That was the key to Alex.
The key one-liners like that oneā¦how much did you practice them on your own in front of a mirror?
That one ā in my trailer, all the time.
If I remember correctly, that line is also delivered on the phone with George. So you didnāt have him to play off directly on one of the biggest quips of the film.
Yes, but George was in the room. Heās very generous and heās available, and he was there, that was one of the first things we shot. The first scene is always the hardest scene for me in any film, always the first scene. I gotta get that out of the way, and then I can relax into a performance. Itās just how it is with me.
As Ryan falls in love with Alex, did you play her as falling in love with him, also? Because she pretends not to, but -
Well, I donāt know if she pretends not to, and this is interesting about how Jason directed me, because I wanted to infuse it moreā¦look, itās undeniable what they have is a real thing. And obviously sheās pretending through it, but she wouldnāt be there if she sincerely didnāt enjoy it. You look at them, and I think what exists is a real thing. Call it love, call it what you may. Sheās just someone who follows her rules, that sheās established. I always pressed Jason, I wanted to know, āWhatās going on with her? Whatās happening in her life? Is she insatiable? Is she uninspired? Is she ā¦ um … a player? Is she so dissatisfiedā He said it didnāt matter. I said, āBut it matters. I need a backstory.ā Whoās to say, that in her home life, people arenāt condoning that kind of behavior, and saying, āYou know what, you look like you need something I canāt provideā¦ā And whoās to say that she doesnāt have a very liberal partner? Okay, so the thing was to not judge it, that was the biggest thing for me, was not to judge that character, and not even to determine why she is the way she is, but like a court-appointed lawyer, before the jury of an audience, defend that character. Find something to defend, and this is a woman ā¦ who is compartmentalizing her life, and you only see one facet of it. You see her as a romantic operative. You see her in the romance aspect of her life, and we donāt know what happens everywhere else, in those other compartments.
You donāt even know what she does for a living, exactly.
You donāt. Thatās another thing I kept pestering Jason about. āWhat does she do? Who is she?ā He goes, āI donāt know.ā Iām like, āWhat do you mean you donāt know? Youāre the writer. Tell me what she does!ā [laughs] And then he had to give me [something], because I said, āListen, itās gonna determine what shoes I wear, itās gonna determine if I have a clutch or a handbag or a backpack or a briefcase.ā Heās like, āUh, letās make it the same thing as Ryan – she instructs companies how to run a better business. Sheās a businesswoman, in short.ā But so, yeah, you donāt know much about her, at all.
Itās interesting because Jason also said last night at the Q&A that he doesnāt like back story. And back story is such the rage in American films today. We have separate films in super hero franchises just to explain the back story.
Yeah [laughs]. Thatās true. Itās funny.
What did you have going through your head, though, in the scene when you are standing in the doorway, with him standing outside? You mustāve come up with some additional back story for her in that moment.
The staging of that scene is pretty genius. Jasonās got me at the top of the steps, with the exterior lighting of the brownstone highlighting me, and thereās George on the bottom of that staircase, looking up, meaning his big brown hound-dog eyes are gonna be the biggest, brownest hound-dog eyes heās ever given, as he looks up, and sheās unattainable. So just that proximity and that elevation above him, in being on the top of the stairs when the truth of who Alex is unveiledā¦did a lot of the work. And then for me it was just responding to what I was being given. I was reacting to what George was being given, and was giving me, and thatās itā¦that reaction. I wasnāt really thinking, but sort of just looking at George, and reading his face, and just sort of serving back what he was serving me.
Jason has mentioned that George never leaves the set. Which could drive you crazy with some fellow actors, or it could be great. I assume the latter with George, because everyone seems to love him.
Itās good with George. You want him around, because heās single-handedly responsible for that tone onset, which is a very frivolous jungle gym. Sense of humor is everything to him. He loves being at work. He respects the crew. He befriends them. He befriends everybody. Heās very open-hearted, and childlike, and happy-go-lucky, and eager to share himself. He loves to make people feel special about themselves. Itās a great gift that he has. Heās a magnet.
Let’s talk about the shooting of the scene where you and Anna Kendrick meet and compare your expectations of the ideal man in front of George. It’s one of the best scenes in the film and also reveals new levels in both the female characters.
That was a long day. We shot the whole morning, so it wasnāt the whole day, but it was the first time that Anna and I got a chance to work together. It was really two different storylines. She was never onset when I was thereā¦and we established our different relationships with the crew, and so I got very quiet that day, and I just wanted to watch her work, because she is so compelling, and sheās such a force of nature, at her age, sheās so self-possessed, and has a wicked sense of humor, and so sharp, and I loved watching her work. I became very sort of quiet that day, and even took my cues from her, watching someone being given this tremendous opportunity, and using it as a springboardā¦and I love the scene, and for Ryan itās wonderful, because itās everything his character has fought against, which is paternity, and husbandry, and yet here he is, taking to his somewhatā¦his travel wife and his business daughter. That was cool.