Vera Farmiga Stars in Controversial Film
by Paul Fischer
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Luminous Vera Farmiga plays the wife of a Nazi concentration camp commandant whose son befriends a Jewish inmate with tragic consequences. The actress was born second of seven children on August 6, 1973, in Passaic County, New Jersey, USA. She did not speak English until the age of six, and was raised in a strict Ukrainian Catholic home of her father, Michael (Mykola) Farmiga, and her mother, Lyubov (Lyuba) Farmiga. She attended a Ukrainian Catholic school, then went to public school, and was a shy nearsighted girl wearing spectacles while practicing her piano, and was switching to contact lenses for dancing. Farmiga was touring with a Ukrainian folk-dancing company in her teens.
In 1991, she graduated from Hunderton Central regional high school and initially dreamed of becoming an optometrist, but eventually changed her mind, and studied acting at Syracuse University’s School of Performing Arts. She began her professional acting career in 1996, making her Broadway debut as an understudy in the play Taking Sides. Her stage credits included performances in The Tempest, The Glass Menagerie, Hamlet, and in a well-reviewed Off-Broadway production Second-Hand Smoke (1997). At the same time, she made her television debut as a female lead, Catlin, opposite then unknown Heath Ledger in Fox’s adventure series Roar (1997).
In 1998, Farmiga made her big screen debut in the drama Return to Paradise (1998), then played daughters of Christopher Walken in The Opportunists (2000) and Richard Gere in Autumn in New York (2000). She starred as a working-class mother struggling to keep her life and marriage together while hiding her drug addiction in Down to the Bone (2004), for which she won Best Actress Awards from the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Farmiga’s acting talent shone in a range of characters, from her memorable role as the senator’s daughter opposite Jon Voight in The Manchurian Candidate (2004), to a mental patient in an insane asylum in Neverwas (2005). She co-stars as the wife of a mobster opposite Paul Walker in Running Scared (2006), as a humorous prostitute in Breaking and Entering (2006), and as a doctor in The Departed (2006).
Farmiga was formerly married to a fellow actor Sebastian Roché, whom she met during her work on Roar, and the two eloped to the Bahamas after the series end in 1997. Their marriage ended in divorce in 2005. She shares time between her residencies in New Jersey and in Los Angeles. Her activities outside her acting profession include reading, playing her piano, and spending time with her pet angora goats, an obsession she had since she was a child.
Farmiga talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: I guess my big concern is—I mean, I don’t know if people going into this will know the ending. But if they happen to have an idea of what the ending of this movie is, what do you think—what do you hope audiences will get from saying it?
Vera Farmiga: You know, I have to say—I mean, I know the ending. I’ve read the script, I’ve read the book, I shot the film, I know how it ends. I’ve seen it five times, and I’ve seen it with several different audiences. Every single time it affects me the same way. And I think when I—look, I don’t want to tell people what they should feel when they see this film. I know what I feel when I see it. I know that I sort of—I mean, my experience of reading the film I was absolutely slain in the spirit. And what I embarked on was a sort of intense self-examination. It’s a film that does show how cruel human beings can be to one another. It shows how apathetic and how disinterested they can be, but it also illustrates how generous they can be.
PF: Had you read the book before you took the film?
VF: No, I hadn’t. I had no knowledge of the book. It did make a splash in the States, and it was on the best-seller lists for a while, but I didn’t catch wind of it. So it was a complete surprise. And I read the script first, and then I ordered the novel and I read it shortly thereafter. And—it was just a powerful piece of literature. And then I read the script again to make sure that it did the novel justice. And I wanted to be a part of it.
PF: What were the challenges to play this character
VF: You know, no. My research didn’t really focus on back story. I mean, usually it is important for me to delve very deeply into that. And I don’t know if it was—sure, you think about it. But it wasn’t a tremendous part of my research.
PF: How did you see the character when you read the script? What were your initial impressions? Particularly the first half of the movie?
VF: You know, there was one line in the novel, I think, which was key for my character, and understanding my character. And what is it that Bruno—Bruno says, “I think this was a bad idea.” And Elsa responds to him by saying—he goes, “I think this is a bad idea.” And she goes, “We don’t have the luxury of thinking.” And that’s exactly it. I think that’s who she is. She’s somewhat oblivious to what unfolds around her. She chooses to be oblivious. Although she starts out very small. She doesn’t question things. She has a very—don’t ask, don’t tell policy. I think she must intuit, and know on some level that people are being horribly mistreated. But, you know, I think she just interprets it as being punished, in her mind. And she makes no effort to go beyond, and seek for herself answers.
PF: When you do a film like this, how tough is it to leave a movie like this, and a character like this—leave them behind at the end of the day?
VF: It was—oh, I’m trying to remember. You know, it’s a macabre subject matter. It’s dark. But, you know, you do live with—I’ll tell you what’s the hardest thing to live with. It’s the constant sort of self-examination in their mind. I mean, you don’t only look—I mean, in my research I did a lot of—I looked at as many documents and transcripts and letters, journal entries, diaries, anything I could find that provided useful historical context for a commandant’s marriage and family life. And I was looking for any snapshots I could find of family life. But I think even bigger than that, ultimately, with every character you play, is the question you ask—how am I similar to this character? And how am I different? How are we alike, how are we different? And in this case, the scarier question to ask was, how are we similar? And what you need to do is, you have to do a thorough examination of your own apathy. And so constantly—you know, that was probably the hardest thing, and the most fulfilling thing to do, is to do that self-examination. I think that’s ultimately what I do want people to draw from it. You know, they will draw from it what they will. But, I mean, that was my experience of the film.
PF: It is unusual for a Holocaust movie to be seen from the German perspective, which is this largely—
VF: It is. I mean, it’s not just a Holocaust film. Well, for me, it was really focusing on the ideology of the time. What the ideals were for German women. To understand what was—you know, for a mother—she is torn, most of the film. Elsa—her intuition and her unease make her unsure. But ultimately, she places her position in society, the safety of her family, above everything else. And thus she suffers in the end. But for me, it was to explore the propaganda of motherhood. The ideology of the time. What it meant to be a dutiful German wife and a loving mother. You know, and to explore that. And I tried to find as many accounts of all women — not just the commandants’ wives, but so many different women from the Third Reich—focus on their stories. I mean, God, from Emmy Goring, Hedwig Hoss, Magda Goebbels, Eva Braun, Leni Riefenstahl. And just to find as much diary entries. And really to understand what basically the essential elements of Nazi ideology, Nazi ideals, was just a pathological attitude to women. Men did not want women penetrating the world of men. And women didn’t penetrate. And—by choice. A choice, to be oblivious. It was a choice. I mean, they were expected to—you know, a woman’s world was her husband. To proved as many children as possible. And then it was her children, and it was the home. And then to be beautiful. And that’s what was expected of them at the time.
PF: Talking about which, you in fact were brought up in—you had a very strict Catholic upbringing as a kid, didn’t you? Or at least your father was Ukrainian. Is that right?
VF: Yeah. Yeah, strict enough.
PF: Did you feel restricted in any way?
VF: Gosh. Compared to what? You know, yes. I mean, there was a great discipline in my family. And I also was brought up as a Ukrainian-American. So our heritage was very important to us. I—you know, strict. Yes and no. It’s all relative, really.
PF: Did you ever rebel against your Catholicism at all? Do you feel there’s a need to do that? Or was acting a way, in some ways?
VF: Yes. I think my chosen profession, by nature, is a rebellion against everything that was inborn and engrained and imposed on me as a child. But, no. Honestly, it was really probably a way to experience other—
PF: Why did you want to be an actor? I mean, where did that come from?
VF: It didn’t come until high school. Until I was benched in soccer for several days, and I just grew bored and tired of sitting on that bench. I also had the first heartbreak of my life, that coincided with being benched.
PF: Are you talking about, you fell in love, and—
VF: Well, yeah.
PF: How old were you at that—
VF: I was a sophomore in high school, or a junior, even, maybe, because I was in varsity soccer, and it was in junior year of high school. And I didn’t want to sit there, so a friend encouraged me to try out for the school play. And I got a lead role. And from them on—I guess it must have been a sort of outlet for me. And was encouraged from then on to do it. I was all set to go to school to be an ophthalmologist. That was my great ambition, really, was to be an eye doctor.
PF: I’m sure you’d have made a very good one.
VF: Well, I always thought I had a knack for telling—I’d be able to extract great secrets.
PF: Is that because you wore glasses as a kid?
VF: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had the most extraordinary collection of spectacles as a child. And I prayed for it. I prayed for myopia. Weird but true.
PF: You obviously spent your formative years on the stage. Do you have a desire to return?
VF: Under the right circumstances, absolutely, because I do miss that journey—that nightly journey from beginning to end, and having that communion with an audience. But it’s grueling, and it would have to be something—the roles in film have been so challenging, and worthwhile. And I also live two hours outside of the city, so I’d have to commit to—it is a grueling run, and a lifestyle, theatre. So it would have to be—I would actually, if it was the right circumstance that presented itself, of course. I would, absolutely. That’s how I started.
PF: You have some really interesting things that you have coming out. What was it like to work with Rod Lurie on Nothing But the Truth? And who are you in that?
VF: I couldn’t wait to work with Rod. I think he has a knack for writing for women. And I play a CIA operative who gets exposed. And it’s sort of very loosely based on Valerie Plame. I mean, it’s not her story.
PF: Obviously you couldn’t talk to her. But did you read any of her interviews?
VF: Yes. And, you know, I had been eying—she’s not the first female operative to be exposed. But she certainly was, when we were shooting it, Valerie Plame’s media moment was upon us when we were filming. And I would come home from set, I’d turn on Meet the Press or MSNBC or Larry King, and there she would be telling her story. So, yeah, of course I drew from that. And the agony of sort of having everything you worked so hard to achieve just be taken away from you.
PF: Orphan is an unusual project, it seems, for you. I mean, it’s a horror film, basically.
VF: It’s a psychological thriller.
PF: What was the attraction of that?
VF: The attraction was the script. I think it was a wild script. I’m a big fan of Polanski films. Always have been. The Tenant, Repulsion. These are all some of my favorite films. I love psychological thrillers. Absolutely love—psychological thrillers and family dramas I love. And this was a combination of the two. And it was a wild script. I had the opportunity to work with Peter Sarsgaard as my husband, which—he and I have been trying to find something to collaborate on. And I thought it was an unusual script, with a twist unlike I’ve ever experienced. So for me, it always stems from the character. And it is really always—I look for some sort of women experiencing some sort of awakening about themselves. And that seems to really be the through-line of my work. But I was riveted by the script, and I always have to be. It’s either the character of—wanting to understand the character, or defend the character, or the story itself. And so all the elements came together again for that film.
PF: And, I mean, I see you’re also working with New Zealand director, Niki Caro. Who do you play in The Vintner’s Luck?
VF: I play the Countess. I play the Baroness, Aurora.
PF: And you wear all these fabulous costumes.
VF: Oh! [laughs] Insanely beautiful garb. Oh, yeah. The costumes were amazing. But I was about ten weeks pregnant at the time, so they were excruciating.
PF: Obviously it’s a drama. Is it a drama?
VF: It is. It’s a love story. It’s a love story. It’s a very sacred and profane love story.
VF: Yes, both sacred and profane. It’s a love story between a vintner, his mad wife, his employer, whom I play, the Countess, and his angel.
PF: Have you signed up for anything else?
VF: You know, there’s various projects in different stages of development which I’m trying to cultivate myself and produce independently, things myself. Yeah. Debra Granik, who I had an extraordinary collaboration with—and probably, really, whom I have to thank—I did a film called Down to the Bone, which started everything, really. And she and I will be doing another film together later on in the year. And there’s a couple projects that really—I give birth in a couple months. So.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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