Vera Farmiga isn't one to shy away from a challenge. Her new film, Higher Ground, goes to risky territory. Farmiga stars as Corinne Walker, an evangelical woman struggling to deal with the faith that has let her down. And she takes on a second role, as a first-time director.
Farmiga might be best known now for playing the smart, sexy frequent flier who managed to out-seduce George Clooney in the 2009 film Up in the Air. But back when she was a teenager, Farmiga, whose family is Ukrainian-American and who grew up speaking only Ukrainian at home until she went to school, was a professional Ukrainian folk dancer. When she arrived at NPR's studios to talk about her new movie, she consented to another challenge: a short demonstration of her dancing skills, even though she was wearing heels. She did it — twirling gracefully, one hand arched overhead, the other on her hip.
Farmiga, who lives on a farm in upstate New York, is often drawn to indie films. She first attracted mainstream attention as a drug addict in the 2005 film Down to the Bone. So what sparked her interest in Corinne, the character she plays in Higher Ground?
"Look, I'm a thoughtful seeker — struggler — like we all are," Farmiga tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "Your soul either feels lifted by something that you read, or it feels squashed by it. And this pried it open in mysterious ways."
Farmiga says the character's struggle resonated with her on levels that went beyond spirituality and religion. Corinne was "looking for a passionate, intimate relationship with God," Farmiga says. "Being genuine, that's the only way to change things about any relationship. She's looking for that within ... the human relationships in her life, with her husband, with her sister, with her mom, with her children."
She pauses. "This sounds so lofty, but it's a very humorous film," she says with a chuckle.
In one of the film's scenes, Corinne, having seen her friend speaking in tongues, shuts herself in the bathroom and tries to force herself into the experience. She pleads, "Just wash down on me, Lord," and sings, "Come in thy strength and thy power," before resigning with a promise to try again later.
Asked whether she had to be mindful of the risk of finding humor in things some people take very seriously, Farmiga says that her approach was reverent.
"I think God gave us senses of humor, and we should use them," she says. "I'm not throwing jabs. These are real incidences. This is based on a real-life model of Carolyn Briggs and her experience."
That experience was chronicled in This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost, published in 2002. Briggs wrote about her life as a born-again Christian in the 1970s, her struggle with doubt, and the rifts it caused in her family and community.
The experience of shooting the film brought its own set of unique challenges for Farmiga, beyond creating the usual complex depiction of a character for which she has become known. In addition to sitting in the director's chair for the first time, Farmiga was also pregnant while the movie was in production.
"It was crazed at times," she says. "First trimester of my pregnancy was pre-production of the film. We shot in second trimester, and post-production was in third trimester. So I was birthing a human, at the same time birthing this film."
The pregnancy had its benefits, though. Farmiga says that at times, she felt "invincible."
"I had a lot of energy. It was sort of the temporary insanity of pregnancy that perhaps found the courage," she says. "Because courage to direct this did not come as a mighty roar. It was sort of a little whisper that said, 'Try it.' But what the heck. Anything I've ever achieved started off with a 'Try.' "
Her life on a farm in upstate New York removes her from the industry in Los Angeles and even New York City, and Farmiga has developed a reputation for a particularly harsh way of dealing with scripts that don't meet her standards: tossing them into a bonfire. "Myths," Farmiga says, before conceding that it's at least "partially true."
What's true, she says, is that her pursuit of complex characters often runs aground in the scripts she reads. "It's rare to encounter really, fully dimensionalized portrayals of women as I know women to be," she says. "I want to see women relating to each other more in the ways that have been very helpful and integral in my life. When I look at female characters, I want to recognize myself in them: my trials, my tribulations as a mother, as a lover, as a daughter. I want to see the things that I struggle with. ... I want to see the murky stuff."
She says the distance from Hollywood's publicity and gossip factories helps when it comes time to portray a character, too.
"It's really wild. The kind of career that I'm having, and the kind of career that I want to have, doesn't require a whole lot of prostitution. I don't have to dress up in skivvies and grace every cover of every hot lady magazine," she says. "It's tricky for me, I think. The more I reveal myself, the harder my job becomes. And so that's always ... the challenge: how to preserve myself and how to retain mystique so that people can suspend disbelief when I choose odd terrain."