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Vera Farmiga interview

2010-02-02 18:06
 
Two months after giving birth to her much-adored son, Vera Farmiga was on set filming Up in The Air for director Jason Reitman, starring opposite George Clooney. Life doesn't get much more full, or exciting, than that, she notes.
 
Vera Farmiga plays Alex in Up in the Air - a must-see movie for which both herself and co-star George Clooney are Oscar-nominated.

"It was quite a shock to the system and I'm not going to pretend that it wasn't tough being a new mother and going back to work like that," she says. "But you know I wouldn't have missed it. It was a fantastic experience."

Farmiga was already heavily pregnant when Reitman offered her the key role of the sexy, fiercely independent businesswoman Alex in Up In The Air. Alex meets Ryan Bingham – played by Clooney – on the road. Bingham is literally a fellow traveller - a man who shares the same lifestyle, flitting from one airport to the next, in town for a meeting before moving on to the next place.

There's an instant, mutual attraction and Bingham – a man who believes he is happy living out of a suitcase with no real human connections – begins to fall for the funny, bright and sensual Alex and senses that life just might offer more than fleeting moments of pleasure in anonymous hotels.

"Playing Alex was like walking a tightrope," says Farmiga. "I found it challenging because what I admired about her on the one hand is that she knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go after it.

"It was delicious and rare to see female desire portrayed in such a libertine and shameless way. And in a way, it's a very masculine portrayal of love and sex and so that was really cool.

"But on the other hand, the challenge for me was to portray that with femininity and make her appealing and not frightening. That's a balancing act, let me tell you."

It's a balancing act that she pulls off with considerable style. Farmiga, who is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the best young actresses around, was hand picked for the role by Reitman, who went into production on Up In The Air fresh from his critically acclaimed, Oscar nominated triumph on Juno, a bittersweet comedy about a pregnant teenager.

"I saw Vera for the first time in Down To The Bone at Sundance," says Reitman, "And I thought she was spectacular in that film where she played a heroin addict. And then, I saw of course The Departed and a few other things and she's just so strong, and she's capable of such femininity and aggression, simultaneously, and she's just a woman.  In a world of girls, she's a woman."

In fact, Reitman and Farmiga almost worked together on his first film. "I'd met Jason on Thank You For Smoking and it didn't pan out," she explains. "So I knew him and I knew his films, of course, and loved them.

"I just think that he's a really important filmmaker who is really telling stories about social consciousness and awareness. He can take subject matters like teen pregnancy and unemployment – which is at least part of the story in Up In The Air – and throw them on the screen and break fertile ground for comedy.

"It's very rare to see intelligent comedy of the kind that Jason is so very good at. So as you can imagine, I was delighted when he called me."

She was also a little worried that the biggest event of her personal life – the impending birth of her first child, Finn  – might rule her out of the frame.

"I think I was seven months pregnant when I first met with Jason and he offered me the role. It meant that I would have to start work two months after I gave birth to my son, Finn.

"And then my son came along and they were so accommodating and the schedule was relaxed, for me it meant shooting two, three days a week. So I found time to exercise and get my very hormonal head straight!

"But I have to say that it was tough. First of all the lack of sleep a new mother experiences is maddening. And your body is not your own – it's the baby's. So I think I could have had an easier time stepping into Alex's very confident, self-possessed shoes and it was tricky at times.

"But at the same time, I felt more empowered and work will do that for you as a woman. The experience of giving birth itself made me feel more womanly and that added to the role in a way – in unexpected, wonderful ways. But it did."

Working with Clooney was a richly rewarding experience, she says. And far from being intimidated by his fame Farmiga was eager to discover what he was like as an actor and a fellow collaborator. She wasn't disappointed.

"You know I'm really nonplussed with actors," she laughs. "I don't care who they are. It's been the same since I was a child and I've never understood that fanaticism or that worship of fame.

"I looked at George as a collaborator. I respected his work and everything I'd heard about him as a man and as an actor was good. And he was absolutely great. He has such a warm presence and it's easy to bask in it when you are working with him.

"And you know I think because he has directed himself he is very concerned with the performances of the people around him. His concern was to draw the most delicious performance from me and my mission was to get the best out of him. And it worked really well.

"So I cherished collaborating with him and it wasn't scary at all – he's the least scary person you could meet because he's charm on two feet. And it's genuine. He has a sense of humour that is so attractive and the most appealing thing about him is his almost childlike zeal for work and his respect for the work and his respect for fellow actors.

"We're all on the same level as far as George is concerned and he doesn't pull any bullshit – none whatsoever. So it was very, very easy working with him."

For Farmiga Reitman's story – based on the novel by Walter Kirn – is about human connections. Bingham has lost touch with the real world and suddenly finds that the life on the road that he has lived for years is rather empty. He beings to question what the future will hold and hope that, maybe, there's another, more fulfilling life.

"You know we live in an age where we all communicate by the most impersonal ways – via the Internet and texting and so forth. I think that our story is asking the audience to re-examine their lives, in the way that Ryan Bingham does, and choose what's important."

Farmiga was born and raised in New Jersey the second oldest of seven children. Hers was a big, bustling, affectionate family of Ukrainian descent and she found her way into acting via performing with a Ukrainian folk band.

"With my family if there's any excuse for a get together we do it," she laughs. "And the guitars are whipped out and there's lots of singing and dancing. It's like the wedding scene from The Deer Hunter.

"I came to acting via folk dancing. I became a professional Ukrainian folk dancer in my late teens but storytelling and folklore was always a central part of my relationship with my family, especially my grandparents.

"I actually wanted to become an eye doctor, a surgeon, and I was all set to go to college and study for that. I remember I was playing soccer and I'd been benched because my health papers hadn't been cleared. That coincided with my heart being broken for the first time and I needed an outlet, something to focus on.

"I didn't want to just sit there and watch my friends play ball so a friend of mine encouraged me to try out for this silly melodrama and I got the lead. It all started from there, really."

Farmiga went on to study at Syracuse University's School of Performing Arts and made her stage debut as the understudy in Taking Sides. Her TV debut came opposite Heath Ledger in the Australian series, Roar.

Her film credits include working with Martin Scorsese on the Oscar winning thriller, The Departed, the box office hit Orphan and the Holocaust drama The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. She won the Best Actress Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for her performance as a drug addicted mother in Down To The Bone.

She lives with her husband, musician Renn Hawkey, and their son, Finn, in New York State.

Q and A follows:

Q:  How are you?

A: I'm good.  I'm knackered, I'm delirious and I'm a bit crazy at the moment (laughs). I haven't slept in three days since I arrived here in London. Jetlag just affects me in a real visceral way, I can't find my footing. And I have a nine month old who's teething at the moment, so we can't coordinate sleep schedules. But really, it's all good.

Q: I read that you had just given birth when you started on Up In The Air. That must have been hard for you…

A:  I was hired when I was six months pregnant. I had my first meeting with Jason when I was six months pregnant and I was nine months when he gave me the job, at which point I weighed as much as George (laughs). I got the job on the understanding that I would be able to shoot in two months and I was. They scheduled it so that I had a good month and a half, two months to be a mama. And they were so accommodating and the schedule was relaxed, for me it meant shooting two, three days a week. So I found time to exercise and get my very hormonal head straight! But I have to say that it was tough. First of all the lack of sleep a new mother experiences is maddening. And your body is not your own – it's the baby's.

Q: It's always a tough time for a new mother going back to work. And making a film with a new baby must be quite a challenge..

A: Yes, I think I could have had an easier time stepping into Alex's very confident, self-possessed shoes and it was tricky at times.  But at the same time, I felt more empowered and work will do that for you as a woman. The experience of giving birth itself made me feel more womanly and that added to the role in a way – in unexpected, wonderful ways. But it did.

Q: I was talking to Anna Kendrick, one of your co-stars in Up In The Air, and she was telling me that at first she felt a little intimidated at the prospect of working with George Clooney. What about you?

A: You know I'm really nonplussed with actors. I don't care who they are. It's been the same since I was a child and I've never understood that fanaticism or that worship of fame. I looked at George as a collaborator. I respected his work and everything I'd heard about him as a man and as an actor was good. And he was absolutely great. He has such a warm presence and it's easy to bask in it when you are working with him.

Q: So on set he's just one of the guys?

A: Yes, he is. You know I think because he has directed himself he is very concerned with the performances of the people around him. His concern was to draw the most delicious performance from me and my mission was to get the best out of him. And it worked really well. So I cherished collaborating with him and it wasn't scary at all – he's the least scary person you could meet because he's charm on two feet. And it's genuine. He has a sense of humour that is so attractive and the most appealing thing about him is his almost childlike zeal for work and his respect for the work and his respect for fellow actors.  We're all on the same level as far as George is concerned and he doesn't pull any bullshit – none whatsoever. So it was very, very easy working with him.

Q: Your character in Up In The Air is a very self possessed, confident woman who knows what she wants. You might even say that she behaves more in the way that we've traditionally expected male characters to behave. Was she easy to play?

A: Playing Alex was like walking a tightrope. I found it challenged because what I admired about her on the one hand is that she knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go after it.  It was delicious and rare to see female desire portrayed in such a libertine and shameless way. And in a way, it's a very masculine portrayal of love and sex and so that was really cool. But the challenge for me was to portray that with femininity and make her appealing and not frightening. That's a balancing act, let me tell you.

Q: Without wishing to give any of the plot away, your character does spring a huge surprise in the story…

A:  (laughs) She does, but it was clearly defined from the beginning. I can't really say anymore about that!

Q: OK, I take your point. But what did you see as the central theme of the story? Is it about isolation?

A: You know we live in an age where we all communicate by the most impersonal ways – via the Internet and texting and so forth. I think that our story is asking the audience to re-examine their lives, in the way that Ryan Bingham does, and choose what's important.

Q: What would it be for you?

A:  My family every time. My family anchors me – and by that I mean my husband and my child and my larger family. And the nucleus of my family is everything.  It's what motivates me, it's my reason for being, it's my inspiration.

Q:  You come from quite a large family yourself don't you?

A:  Yeah, so does my husband – there are seven children in his family, massive family, my son has twelve aunts and uncles.  And that's not even counting my first cousins, who are like brothers and sisters to me, who are also additional uncles and aunts to fit in - so it's wonderful madness.  

Q:  Do you all get together?

A:  All the time. With my family if there's any excuse for a get together we do it and the guitars are whipped out and there's lots of singing and dancing. It's like the wedding scene from The Deer Hunter.

Q: Is your husband from a similar background?

A:  No, he's not Ukrainian, he's American, but from such a tactile family, what's wonderful about his family is that the way that they love each other and how they show their love, and they're just so affectionate with each other. It's so beautiful to see and to be part of them.

Q:  How did you guys meet may I ask?

A:  We laid eyes on each other and we were zonked, it was love at first sigh (laughs) It was immediate. It happened five years ago and we met on a set - he was visiting a director friend who was executive producing a television show I was doing in Vancouver, and I knew my life would change.

Q:  Where do you live now, you East Coast or West Coast?

A:  I'm East Coast, I'm in New York, but I'm in the countryside, I'm two hours north of the city.  That's home base.

Q: Work wise, things are going very well for you. Have you finished The Vintner's Luck?

A: Yes, and I have seen it and I love it. Niki Caro is a great director and it's an incredibly ambitious story about a Vintner who meets his guardian angel once a year. And I'm going to be directing a little independent film, which I will shoot on a very low budget and use lots of non actors. It's based on a novel by Carolyn Briggs called This Dark World and it's a portrait of a woman grappling with her faith, her Christianity.

Q: Will you act in that as well as direct?

A:  I will, for now I will.  It's still in development, and we are casting now.  I have a great cinematographer by my side and we'll see if his eye through that camera is enough.

Q: Is it just this film that you want to direct or will you direct more in the future?

A:  Just this one, I think. I feel the need to have creative control with this. It's not my great ambition to be a director but I really would like to tell this story and I would like to be behind it.

Q:  So why this story, why does it touch you so much?

A:  It's very personal to me and my experience with Christianity and faith. And that's why I want to make it accurate.

Q: Where did the desire to act come from with you?

A:  Folk dancing.  I became a professional Ukrainian folk dancer in my late teens, but, storytelling, folklore, was always a central part of my relationship with my family, especially my grandparents…

Q:  They would tell stories about where they came from?

A:  Stories, and I belonged to a dance company called Syzokryli, and it was based out of New York, and it was storytelling with dance, it was music, singing, dancing, and expression. That stuff was always there and a part of life for me. So it's not farfetched that I would end up doing this.

Q:  But was there a specific thing that led you in?

A:  There was. I wanted to be an eye doctor, a surgeon, I was all set to go to college to study optometry and I was playing soccer and I had been benched, because my health papers hadn't cleared and I just didn't have the patience and it coincided with my heart being broken for the first time, and I needed an outlet.  I just didn't want to sit there and watch my colleagues play ball.  So a friend of mine encouraged me to try out for this silly melodrama and I got the lead role and from there I was encouraged to continue. And here I am.

Q: Was that first role on stage?

A:  On stage, in like a high school theatrical production…

Q:  Funny how these things change lives.

A:  Yeah. I had no notions of the stage or the screen whatsoever; I didn't even grow up watching films. But with acting, I loved how people were affected by it.  And I loved that I could move someone and I could have empathy for a character.

Q:  OK. Back to Up In The Air. We've talked about George being a great collaborator. What about Jason?

A: I'd met Jason on Thank You For Smoking and it didn't pan out. So I knew him and I knew his films, of course, and loved them. I just think that he's a really important filming who is really telling stories about social consciousness and awareness. He can take subject matters like teen pregnancy and unemployment – which is at least part of the story in Up In The Air – and throw them on the screen and break fertile ground for comedy. It's very rare to see intelligent comedy of the kind that Jason is so very good at. So as you can imagine, I was delighted when he called me.

Q: With such a great part too..

A: Absolutely. What attracted me most about her was that it's a portrait of female desire in a libertine and unapologetic and shameless way. I thought that was really cool to see it portrayed that way. And like I said, the challenge was walking that fine line, honouring that power, and yet not frightening off the audience (laughs). It was a wonderful tightrope to walk. But you know, Jason was inspiring to work with and the script was hilarious and the dialogue was incredible. And your dance partner makes all the difference – and George was a great partner.



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