Actor calls her own shots
Interviewed by: Jim Schembri
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
When opportunity knocks for Vera Farmiga, chances are she’s responsible.
To speak with Vera Farmiga is to speak with the most un-Hollywood actor you could wish for. No airs. No graces. No interview rote. No studio buffer. No specially connected conference call. No waiting by the phone. You’re just given a direct number to call her at a relative’s home in Colorado.
She’s in high spirits. Fresh from the artistic triumph of her directorial debut, Higher Ground, and best known for her Oscar-nominated performance opposite George Clooney in 2009′s Up in the Air, Farmiga is about to enjoy what she hopes will be a strong boost to her Hollywood stock. In the thriller Safe House, Farmiga stars as Catherine Linklater, an office-bound, exposition-spouting CIA agent trying desperately to track down an alleged traitor, played by Denzel Washington, who has been selling secrets to enemies of the US.
The role was first written for a man. ”My feeling is that there was probably a lack of oestrogen in the cast,” Farmiga says. ”I guess there was a great dearth of female characters, so they decided to take Linklater and give him a vagina.”
Legend has it that Vera Farmiga burns the scripts she doesn’t like in a ritual bonfire. It’s a great story, but only half-true and without the bird-flipping connotation.
“It’s not as anarchic as the media would like it to be,” she says with a laugh. “I live in up-state New York and we don’t have proper garbage disposal, so we have to take our trash to the transfer station and separate the plastics from the burnables. My scripts are watermarked and I don’t want them to end up being sold in St Mark’s Place in the East Village with my name on it, so it becomes fertilizer and the ashes get dispersed on my garden. But the media has turned it into something far more volatile!”
The chance to work with legendary American actor-writer Sam Shepard and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson got Farmiga excited, especially after seeing a rough cut of The Guard.
“I was on the fence about [it] for several weeks while they were wooing me,” she says. Then she heard who she would be sharing the bulk of her screen time with. “What can i say? They’re thoroughbreds. That was the draw for me. I knew that I’d be fending off Brendan’s advances when it comes to free-balling and improvisation. He’s the equivalent of a doberman. He’s just a great guy, a heart on two feet, a gentleman.”
But there was a more prosaic motive to take on Safe House.
”For obvious reasons, it’s the kind of film where the probability of it being successful is high, given its pedigree,” she says.
”And unfortunately – well, not unfortunately – the truth of it is that you have to balance the kind of career that I have, which is small, independent films that nobody sees, like Higher Ground, which are real projects of the heart, with things that will keep your digits up.
”Safe House is that kind of an opportunity for me. It’s not so much for credit, it’s also for stability.
”You earn very little money on independent films and I’m the provider for my home, so I do have to think of taking one for the accountant time and again and that means studio pictures.
”[You're not going to hit] a home run every time but it’s true, box-office clout is a real thing to consider for financing for distribution, it’s just part of the equation. When producers consider hiring an actor or actress, they’re also looking at who will sell this film abroad.”
Farmiga has tasted clout. Her Oscar nomination for Up in the Air helped turn Higher Ground into a reality. ”That was key in that scenario,” she says.
”I wanted to play the character so much that I could have made it for pennies â€¦ I would have bought my own Red camera and shot with non-actors.”
The film was still a low-budget effort, made for about $1 million.
”This was an opportunity for myself,” she says. ”I didn’t want to direct, it wasn’t something I wanted to achieve; it was by necessity I found myself at the helm. But without that momentary spotlight, the financing would not have come.”
Though the film was critically lauded and Farmiga describes it as the proudest of her career, Higher Ground struggled for an audience.
“I think it has a shelf life on DVD and I find the word of mouth is still getting out,” she says. “It’s inspired work for me, and it’s a universal message regardless of what your faith is and regardless of what your spiritual tenets are. It is faith presented accurately, it is Christianity in the trenches, it’s a great deal messier and far more frustrating than is usually portrayed in film.”
Taking her cue from such Hollywood greats as Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn, Higher Ground was also an expression of Farmiga’s firm belief that women need to create their own opportunities in film, rather than wait for offers. “It was me not wanting to stand by, itâ€™s me not wanting to ask for permission,” she says. “It’s me saying ‘OK, Iâ€™ve done this over 30 times; I know what moves me, I know what kind of portrayal of women I want to see that I’m not necessarily seeing’. That was just me taking the reign in my own hand and cracking the whip.”
When asked how she feels as she approaches 40 – the age Meryl Streep (and many others) have nailed as being when Hollywood loses interest in actresses – she pauses. Not one to force an answer, she says she has to think about it and asks for an email address. Less than 20 minutes after the interview ends, this pearler pops up in the inbox.
”How do I survey the ol’ 40s approaching arid landscape of work opportunity? Hmmm. I can’t get my knickers in a twist about my age and ageing in an industry that caters to the ids of 14-year-olds.
”I’m from the school of, if you want more, you have to require more from yourself. I’m just going to advance confidently in the direction of my dreams. F— ‘em. As I age, I want to see stories about women my own age; inspirational, illuminating stories. I’ll develop them, I’ll produce them, I’ll direct them, I’ll finance them, I’ll distribute them if I have to.
”There are women who make things better, there are women who change things, there are women who make things happen, who make a difference. I want to be one of those women. If I turn 40 and overnight become frustrated with the scarcity of roles, I’ll vent through my pen and write myself some roles.”
More power to her.