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New Testament

Farmiga reaches for ‘Higher Ground’ in directing debut

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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PROVINCETOWN - If you’re surprised to hear that Vera Farmiga has directed a movie, she’d like to know why.

“I’ve heard that before, and I don’t know what it means. Actors direct movies all the time. Storytelling is storytelling,’’ she says.

When Farmiga asks why, it’s out of sincere curiosity. She really wants to know, as if there were an answer out there she that hadn’t yet heard or a reason she hadn’t considered. And as you try to explain what you mean - the surprise isn’t that she’s directed a movie, it’s that she’s directed the movie she has - you realize that everyone who says they’re surprised is kind of wrong and that Farmiga’s intense beseeching, her openness to an alternative way, is what her movie is actually about.

In “Higher Ground’’ (opening Friday), she has cast herself in an exploration of the kind of faith that doesn’t oppress or repress but embraces, rewards, and allows for unjudged doubt. The woman she plays - an increasingly disobedient 1970s wife and congregant named Corinne - pursues what can best be called intelligent faith. And having that intelligence aimed right at you is kind of an electric shock. It can also be disarming. Farmiga was in Provincetown in June to be feted by the Provincetown Film Festival, and when you tell her some woman’s cackle ruined your dinner the night before, she looks stricken and says, “It might have been me.’’ (It was not.) She then concedes that she has a cackle (a slight one) before proceeding to study your laugh and offering this analysis: “There’s resonance. I feel the table shake. It’s an alto.’’

When the subject turns to masculinity in the American movies and how there’s a lot less of it now than there used to be, Farmiga cites the 1930s as a good time for the males of the species. “Those were men, not boys. Men. They had gravitas,’’ curling each syllable of that last word with Mae West-caliber lasciviousness.

Farmiga is one of the movies’ least usual actors. This is partly because of that intelligence, which is more human than necessarily academic, and how her face - an amazingly capacious instrument - registers it. She rarely emotes without it, even in horror-thrillers like “Joshua’’ and the cult hit “Orphan,’’ where how smart she is creates disorienting friction with the silliness at hand. How, for instance, could a Vera Farmiga character not know that her piano prodigy son or adopted daughter is pure evil? And, sure, some shrinks might not know that “The Departed’’ was simply using her as plot device to keep Matt Damon a degree of separation away from Leonardo DiCaprio, but not a shrink played by her.

This is to say Farmiga has an intense credibility that can expose a movie’s bogusness. It’s why her performance in, say, “Up in the Air’’ worked so well. She was four moves ahead of George Clooney. She was four moves ahead of everybody in the crime-thriller “Running Scared,’’ an appalling slice of moist turkey that happens to contain one of her best performances. Farmiga might also be a move or two ahead of you, but she isn’t at all presumptuous about it. A good movie allows her to build or sneak some revelation into her acting so that we’re not thinking about how much she’s thinking. “Higher Ground,’’ based on Carolyn Briggs’s memoir “This Dark World,’’ is that sort of movie. You don’t know where spiritually, vocationally, sexually Corinne is going until she gets there. So, really, it’s not Farmiga’s directing that’s the surprise. It’s the character’s direction.

One Cape Cod afternoon, she sat in some occasional rain and managed to be credible about her love for “Uncle Buck.’’

Q. What was the hardest thing about making a film about religion and faith?

A. Carolyn Briggs [who wrote the script with Tim Metcalfe] and I worked hard to not put our own biases on this fanatical Christian community and to find the joy in it and the wisdom, to find what motivates Corinne. My intention was not to say that Jesus puts women in boxes. It’s that women put women in boxes. Men put women in boxes. Women allow themselves to be put in boxes. So navigating that without judging was tough. My own father is a man of faith, and I’ve always marveled at the devotion. I covet his faith. But if you look at Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama, there are stories of doubt. But not just with God but with every relationship.

Q. Why do you think people are surprised that you decided to make this movie?

A. I think in my work there’s a through line of women always trying to come from an authentic self and persevering. There’s something about these women that I encounter who turn my head, where I say, Oh, I wish I had that gumption. Am I apologetic? She’s unapologetic. Or I wish I could be that self-confident or that vulnerable. So tell me it’s not surprising that I would gravitate toward Carolyn Briggs’s story, her candor. I want to see women who are finding their footing. Directing did come as a surprise to me in that I cherish my collaborations with directors. I like being maneuvered, and I missed that here. But I had the best, most reliable actors by my side.

Q. You also had a crew that knew what was what.

A. They’re the sous chefs. Oftentimes when I find myself not being able to click into the truth of a character’s moment, I’ll have external ignition and oftentimes it’ll be the expression on a crewman’s face.

Q. You’re an untrained director, and you’ve said your film education is lousy. Do you mean that as a moviegoer or as an actor?

A. As a person in the industry. I don’t see many films now in maternity, with a toddler and a 7-month-old. It’s rare for me to go to a movie theater. In meeting with a director or selecting a collaborator, I’ll see reference films. I’m still digging through the gems of the ’70s.

Q. Well if you’re going to be stuck somewhere 1970-anything is pretty good. I’m discovering the ’80s are underrated, too.

A. I agree! I just saw “Uncle Buck.’’ Come on. There’s an innocence in that movie. And yet I think we’re more prudish now than we were back then. I think a lot of movies from that era would not get made the same way now, if at all.

Q. I like the women you cast in “Higher Ground’’ - Donna Murphy, Nina Arianda, your own sister Taissa, but especially Dagmara Dominczyk who plays Corinne’s uninhibited best friend.

A. Isn’t she beautiful? She’s the woman that women want to be. She’s someone who in maternity has not compromised sexuality and identity and independence. Dagmara laughs so easily. We’d see each other on auditions in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and being from Eastern European heritage, we’d go for the same kind of roles. I always felt a natural draw to her. Just on a surface level, she has blatant qualities and possesses such a female power and candor, intelligence, sensuality. Everything a woman should possess.

Q. John Hawkes plays your father. He’s 14 years older than you. Women often play mother to actors near their age. How refreshing to see you try it with a man.

A. Well, John has a boyishness and a wisdom. You get him in one light he looks 12. You get him in another he looks 112. He’s very affectionate and very open. In defending his work and what he needs, he can be quite abrupt and egocentric, like most actors who really care about what they’re doing. We were working extremely low-budget, and there’s very little time.

Q. What do you need as an actor, philosophically?

A. That has slightly changed since having children and being a provider. I can’t be as selfish. I gotta take a paycheck now and then. But it works out for me. The universe draws things to you. [She takes a long pause, looks yonder, then comes back.] I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

Q. You’re saying you need to eat and that woman can’t live by Debra Granik and Anthony Minghella movies alone. Take “Source Code.’’ You know how much professionalism to bring to popcorn.

A. “Orphan’’ was like that, as well.

Q. People love “Orphan.’’ Do you get stopped for that?

A. I get stopped for that. I get stopped a lot for “Running Scared.’’ Blowing the pedophiles away, people really like that. I get stopped for “Dummy,’’ this movie I did with Adrien Brody about the ventriloquist. I usually get stopped in Starbucks for being Patricia Arquette. Go figure that.

Q. That tells me a lot about who’s stopping you.

A. Other people think I remind them of a schoolmate.

Q. Do you then have to divulge who actually are?

A. Well, my husband usually does. And they’ll say, “Oh, what movie have you been in?’’ and he’ll say, “The Departed,’’ and they’ll say, “Who were you in that?’’

Interview was condensed and edited. Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

‘WOMEN ALLOW THEMSELVES TO BE PUT IN BOXES. SO
NAVIGATING THAT WITHOUT JUDGING WAS TOUGH.’
VERA FARMIGA

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