Vera Farmiga has always been attracted to characters who “embrace the gray.”
So when the Oscar-nominated actress was approached to co-write and direct, as well as star in, an adaptation of Carolyn Briggs’s memoir, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, she immediately grasped Briggs’s ambiguity. Briggs longed to find a faith community while at the same time she was repulsed by it.
Initially, Farmiga’s biggest concern was whether she could actually direct.
“I had a moment of panic where I sent the script to Debra Granik—half hoping she would take it on,” said Farmiga, referring to the director (Winter’s Bone) who had cast her in her break-out role in 2004, Down to the Bone. “But she forced it back on me and said she was willing to mentor me through the process.”
Farmiga pushed forward, newly pregnant with her second child, and after a few very intense months of working with Briggs on a screen adaptation, she dove into Higher Ground, her directorial debut that will be released on Friday.
“We had many conversations and so understood each other,” said Briggs. “I felt very alone in my experience, and our lives and journeys had echoed each other’s. We share a spirituality that is very similar. Doubt is a part of faith.”
Farmiga plays Corinne, who as a young woman (played by her sister Taissa) becomes part of a fundamentalist Christian commune after experiencing a spiritual awakening with the near death of her child. The story spans decades in Corinne’s life. Farmiga’s lyrical eye brings the beauty of her beloved upstate New York, its woods and lakes, to represent the character’s belief of God’s hand in the universe.
The second of seven children in a tight-knit Ukrainian Catholic household, Farmiga said her parents hoped their children would embark on their own journey to find God and understand what it means to be holy.
“I really have a great respect for men and women of devout faith,” she said adding that she often coveted her father’s sense of utter faith and joy. And yet, her inquisitiveness and restless mind seem to make it hard for her to be a full-on believer.
But Farmiga sees the film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year to mostly strong reviews, as encompassing more than just religion. She and Briggs also changed the tone of the story, making it a little lighter than the memoir by including more sensuality and some humorous riffs on sex between married couples and the beauty of the male organ.
“For me the film is about faith but not only faith in deity but also in our husbands, wives, friends, community, and the yearning to belong to a community,” Farmiga said. “Our story is not about loss of faith—but loss of an impoverished faith. It’s getting rid of a destitute faith that is not working for you.”
Farmiga, 38, has a tendency to pause and think for several seconds before she speaks. She is an unusual beauty, with large piercing blue eyes that are at once open and guarded, an oval face, and full upper lip reminiscent of a Modigliani.
Directors swoon at her expressiveness.
“I am drawn to intimate, often uncomfortable portraits of a woman persevering and awakening,” Farmiga said.
"In a world of girls, Vera is a woman and a complex one at that,” said Jason Reitman, who cast her as the rapacious Alex, who captures George Clooney in Up in the Air. “She surprised me on every take. I can't help but to think she surprises herself. Often as a director, you want to tell an actor how it sounds... But with Vera, that doesn't matter. What matters is how it feels."
Granik found Farmiga to be one of the rare actors who willingly reveals herself and delves into a role wholeheartedly—whether it is dressing the part and playing it in her now detailed and intricate audition tapes (which she sends out to casting directors) or getting friendly with snakes and spending time in depressing upstate New York rehab centers as she had to do in Down to the Bone.
“She is so brave, she is involved in the art of risk taking,” said Granik. “She is willing to have a creative conversation with you.”
While Farmiga can be serious and quiet, those who know her well tell of her spontaneous goofy side—like ordering complicated instructions for coffee in a thick Eastern European accent at an Iowa Starbucks drive-through or dancing in supermarket aisles to mortify her younger siblings. She was the “court appointed” clown at all family birthday parties.
“My role was to make them laugh, embarrass them, and put a smile on their faces,” she said. Her memories of family life include summers camping out in a 10-man tent looking at the stars.
“We are a very close family and we would connect our sleeping bags together,” she said. “I have tender, romantic associations with upstate New York.”
Although she wanted to be an optometrist, she changed her mind when she got the lead in one of her high-school plays. Having grown up with the folklore of Ukrainian culture, including dancing in a troupe, the stage felt like home.
“I didn’t grow up watching film but as a Ukrainian-American, music and stories and dance are crucial,” she said. “My grandfather would tell us stories about runaway doughnuts that refused to be eaten and talking goats and three-eyed witches in the forest.”
She laughs at the oft-reported notion that she lives on a farm in upstate New York with a herd of goats. While she does own two goats, they are more pets than farm animals, and she laments not buying sheep, which do a better job of weeding. She and her husband, Renn Hawkey, wanted to make cheese and milk with their goats, but they failed miserably at breeding.
“We are big dreamers and not big researchers,” she admitted. “The highly prized goat semen arrived in a tank of nitrogen. It did not occur to me that this was not a turkey baster.”
While her life in her home in upstate New York with her husband and two children seems idyllic, Farmiga said she will continue to be attracted to characters that are dark, complex, and layered.
“I am drawn to intimate, often uncomfortable portraits of a woman persevering and awakening,” she said. “Those are the same stories I was drawn to as a kid. It’s Alice in Wonderland. In fact, in Higher Ground, you could say it’s Alice going down the hole and encountering the Mad Hatter’s tea party.”