Vera Farmiga is a wonderfully talented actress, but with her self-effacing laugh, easy disposition and comfortable slouch, she has a lot of work to do before she perfects the character of a swaggering director. She swears life behind the camera wasn’t a burning professional goal of hers, but Farmiga spent several years work-shopping a screenplay based on Carolyn Briggs’ “The Dark World” with Briggs and fellow writer Tim Metcalfe. The result is her wonderfully subtle directorial debut, “Higher Ground,” and it’s as full-bodied, honest and moving a portrait of a young, fundamentally religious family, and all the struggles they experience, as has ever been put to screen — perhaps no small coincidence given that Farmiga cites another labor of love, Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle,” as a case study for her work. At a recent press day at a Beverly Hills hotel, ShockYa had the opportunity to take part in a roundtable interview session with the Oscar-nominated multi-hyphenate, who also stars opposite Joshua Leonard in the movie. The conversation is excerpted below:
Q: Did the Academy Award victory for Kathryn Bigelow make a difference in the perception of this movie, in your opinion?
Vera Farmiga: No, none whatsoever. (laughs) No, there’s a lag time, right? Kathryn Bigelow won the (Best Director) Oscar the year I was nominated for “Up In the Air,” and you can’t look at the next year because those films have already been green-lit. So I think this next awards season, we’ll see. But I don’t think it’s a gender bias to this story, or most stories. There’s shouldn’t be one.
Q: What about your own (Oscar) nomination?
VF: Did it change the types of stories I encounter? I’ve been fortunate to have always been challenged, and actually the one thing that it gave me, coming from a personal place, is that I also embarked on pregnancy. Two nights before the Oscars I found out I was pregnant, so I couldn’t necessarily take advantage of things that were coming my way because I was down for the count. I knew that I had to be proactive, so I asked, “What am I going to do with this wonderful energy coming my way, with this wonderful spotlight?” So “Higher Ground” is an experiment in proactivity.
Q: Acting in your own film is a tall order. Did you ever think of casting anyone else to play your role?
VF: There was a shorthand in directing me. (laughs) I knew the approach I was going to take as an actress, and it was one of compassion. I approach a character in the same way that court-appointed lawyers in front of a grand jury defend their characters. And after I agreed to direct and we could start casting sessions, I saw a lot of actors who were accusing their characters, and convicting them. I tried to walk away from this film so many times as a director. One of the times was when I had to write a manifesto so actors could understand what my approach was going to be. You see a religious person, you meet them in character — I was surprised to see how fundamental people get in their approach. And it’s an attack, not an approach, actually. People come with their own memories and perceptions and afflictions and their own experiences, and often times I found that the actors wanted to lash out at these characters, and make them unrelatable and caricatures. And then Norbert Leo Butz (who plays Pastor Bill) walked into the room. He has so much earnestness and joy. I went for the really earnest actors. And Norbert — well, the film hinges on his commitment.
Q: You used to send in audition tapes as an actor, right?
VF: That’s the word on the street. Before I had a body of work and resume that people could really see. Now, more often than not I have an iChat meeting with the director. I don’t have to audition so much anymore, but things sometimes get really high stakes, [because] it’s put-up-your-dukes for those fuller-bodied roles. I live in upstate New York, and back when I was auditioning more, that was what was going to make me do my best work — not living in Los Angeles or New York or whatever. I fell in love with this property, and that’s where I needed to be. And I think there was a mystery, also, that came with the tape. I mean, the moment you meet me you automatically experience the person and there are already judgments. But there’s a great mystery to experiencing my interpretation that way, via tape.
Q: Were there real-life parallels between your own somewhat fundamentalist religious upbringing and that of your character, Corinne?
VF: Well, [my family] comfortably went between [Ukrainian Catholicism and Pentecostalism]; my parents found comfort in both. It’s a pendulum of Christianity, really. One is very ritualized and ornate; Ukrainian Catholicism is a lot of marble and granite and gold… pomp and circumstance, and ritual. God, to me, was a very big presence, as big as the church. Everything was grandeur. God was out there, but I couldn’t talk to him unless I went to the confessional and talked to the priest. But we went comfortably … [through] every single domination you can think of because my parents are seekers, and that’s the faith they were raised with and the faith they introduced to us. So in a way you can correlate it directly. And I certainly, as far as directing goes and being a voyeur [of] this community, didn’t feel as though I would be perceived as a Philistine on the subject matter. [The film] can be set in any denomination, in my opinion.
Q: Did you find any surprises on the other side of the camera?
VF: There was so much I had to navigate through. I was [pregnant], building a human being at the same time I was building this film. …If you challenge yourself, there’s an overcoming [of] doubt or insecurities. So I don’t know lenses, I don’t have the technical savvy. But I’m bolstered by Michael McDonough’s vision as a cinematographer. You hire people to do their jobs. I loved having choice. I loved being able to [cast] these actors who should be working more and more, and choosing selfishly for myself, because they make me a better actress. I loved having that choice. The producers gave me a lot of slack, for whatever reason. Half of them were European, who believe in the auteur theory, and a director’s vision. I could communicate what my approach to the story was going to be, and once they understood it, they gave me free reign. Maybe it had something to do with the Oscar nomination too. They all encouraged me.
Q: You also get to direct your little sister [Taissa], who makes her acting debut in the movie. What was it like bossing her around?
VF: There are different tactics. She might interpret it as bossing, but… nah. (laughs) There’s enough of an age difference between us (21 years), and she knows I have her best interest in mind. I know what she’s capable of, too. I loved challenging her, and she loved the challenge. She embraced it, she was hungry for it, and I gave her the most “Sweet 16” summer you could possibly want. …There was really no one else for the role. I could fudge every other incarnation of the characters, but I needed here (Vera points to the area just around her eyes), and [Taissa] had that, and also possesses that mixture of strength and vulnerability that that character has.
Written by: Brent Simon