Interview With Vera Farmiga

By  February 24, 2010

Two months after giving birth to her son, Vera Farmiga was on set filming Up in The Air for director Jason Reitman, starring opposite George Clooney. And now she’s nominated for an Academy Award for her work in the film. A baby, a hit film, and an Oscar nom… Life doesn’t get more exciting than that.

Vera Farmiga

How are you these days?
I’m good.  I’m knackered, I’m delirious and I’m a bit crazy at the moment. 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.

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

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.
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.

What was it like working with George Clooney?
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.

So on set he’s just one of the guys?
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.

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?
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.

But what did you see as the central theme of the story? Is it about isolation?
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.

What would it be for you?
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.

You come from quite a large family yourself don’t you?
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.

Do you all get together?
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.

Is your husband from a similar background?
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.

How did you guys meet?
We laid eyes on each other and we were zonked, it was love at first sight. 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.

Where do you live now, you East Coast or West Coast?
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.

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

Will you act in that as well as direct?
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.

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

So why this story, why does it touch you so much?
It’s very personal to me and my experience with Christianity and faith. And that’s why I want to make it accurate.

Where did the desire to act come from with you?
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…

They would tell stories about where they came from?
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.

But was there a specific thing that led you in?
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.

Was that first role on stage?
On stage, in like a high school theatrical production…

Funny how these things change lives.
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.

Back to Up In The Air. We’ve talked about George being a great collaborator. What about Jason?
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.

With such a great part too.
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. 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.

*Up in the Air comes to DVD and Blu-Ray on March 9