“It’s a jolt of adrenalin every time she beams that way,” says Vera Farmiga, gazing down at baby Gytta, who is in her father’s arms, in their fragrant peony-filled garden in Ulster County. “She fires those constantly throughout the day.” Nearby, two-year-old Fynn is toddling around with a net, chattering sweetly to himself about catching frogs in the nearby turtle pond. It’s been one day since the family returned from several months of travelling, and they are all happy to be home (including three pet goats that had been “stranded at the in-laws”). “Since Fynn was born, really, we’ve just been on the road. I don’t think Gytta has been home for four or five weeks in a seven-month span of her life, so it’s nice to be back,” says the sky blue–eyed actor as we slip onto wooden loungers in the shade of a large weeping willow tree on a warm, summery afternoon.
An actor in demand, Farmiga is best known for playing George Clooney’s high-flying love interest in the critically acclaimed film Up in the Air (for which she garnered an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress), as well as her appearances in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and indie hit Down to the Bone. She is celebrated for her soulful face, especially her eyes, and her serene beauty is just as captivating in person. Most recently, the 38-year-old appeared in the time-travel thriller Source Code alongside Jake Gyllenhaal. Her own leading man, film producer and screenwriter husband Renn Hawkey, and their two children travel everywhere with her. “I don’t know how to be away from my family,” she says, smiling. “They’re my everything, and they need their mama, and we make it happen. It’s a tremendous source of strength, actually, for me, and joy.”
In her latest film, Higher Ground, (scheduled for release in Toronto and Vancouver on September 23), which Farmiga stars in and directs, several family members are on the cast list, including Hawkey, Fynn, Farmiga’s two sisters, her sister-in-law Molly Hawkey, and the couple’s mothers and grandmothers. The moving, nuance-filled story follows a woman living in a tight-knit spiritual community who begins to question her faith. “It’s really about the river of yearning that flows through the human existence,” Farmiga reflects, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders and pulling her knees to her chest as a breeze rustles through the trees. “To have intimacy not only with God but with your parents, in your marriage, in your relationships with siblings.” She adds, “I’m proud of the way the film portrays spirituality in full dimension, without decree, judgment, or mandate.”
The most difficult part of balancing directing with acting “was being five months pregnant [with Gytta],” she says. She also had to direct a sex scene featuring her 16-year-old sister, but Farmiga enjoyed working with her. “Taissa and I have always had a closeness. She’s a goofball of the highest order, and it’s easy to laugh with her,” says Farmiga. An acting novice, Taissa gives a touching performance as Corinne, and the likeness between the sisters is uncanny. “I love the way her face interprets emotion. I just think she photographs like a Titian painting,” says Farmiga. Taissa has since been invited to Los Angeles to shoot a pilot. “She was really just being a good sport when she agreed to do it [appear in Higher Ground], and I don’t think it’s ever been something that she envisaged for herself, but a lot of attention came her way,” Farmiga explains.
Farmiga grew up in New Jersey; her parents, Michael and Luba, are Ukrainian immigrants and their heritage was a source of great pride. Farmiga spoke only Ukrainian until she went to public school at age six. “I had a very musical childhood,” she says. Her fondest memories are of summers spent in upstate New York in a 10-person tent, sitting around a campfire with her family (both she and Hawkey have six siblings) singing Ukrainian songs. By her teens, Farmiga was touring the tri-state area (as well as Ukraine) as a professional folk dancer. “One of the reasons I live up here is because of romantic associations with a time of life when I was dancing,” she says, taking in the scenery that reminds her of the Carpathian Mountains.
Farmiga, who grew up in New Jersey, wore glasses as a child. As a result, she set her sights on becoming an optometrist—until she discovered acting.
Farmiga wore glasses as a child and, as a result, set her sights on becoming an optometrist—until she discovered acting. “[When] I had my heart broken for the first time—one of those moments of adolescent frustration—someone suggested, ‘Why don’t you try out for the school play?’ and I did and I got the lead role, and it went from there.” She switched gears and took a last-minute audition at Syracuse University, where she enrolled in theatre. “It was one of those little surprises that happens, a fork in the road that you take,” she says.
Guiding her acting choices, Farmiga looks for roles that “delight” her, as opposed to the next big blockbuster; it’s not a case of steering clear of Hollywood. “I’ve said things in my 20s, but I don’t know what the hell I was talking about,” laughs Farmiga, referencing her past sentiments about Tinseltown. “I love going to Los Angeles.” As she has most of her film meetings over iChat, Farmiga mainly visits for press junkets and awards ceremonies. “I need Hollywood as much as it needs me, so it’s a mutually dependent relationship,” she says.
A defining moment in her career came when she appeared in Down to the Bone in 2004, which was filmed not far from her home, near Woodstock. In the starring role, she gives a spellbinding performance as a working-class mother battling drug addiction. One of her proudestprofessional triumphs was when she received the 2005 L.A. Film Critics Award for best actress.
When Farmiga speaks about her husband, her face lights up. “I wish we met earlier, because I never understood procreation in this way until I met him,” she says. (Farmiga was previously married to French actor Sebastian Roché.) “This is kindred spirits—this is someone I have a deep, deep friendship with, in a way that I had never known.”
Early on, she and Hawkey created a powerful bond. “There was a recognition, aside from the very palpable kinetic attraction that we had,” Farmiga says of her relationship with Hawkey, who was a musician in Los Angeles at the time. (The pair met in 2004.) “It was love at first sight with Renn. It really was. He knocked me off my feet, and family is so dear to me, and it is to him too—and it’s part of our identity.” They married in September 2008.
The following year, she gave birth to Fynn, and just two weeks after, she had her first costume fitting for Up in the Air. Yet the film wasn’t all smooth sailing. “There was some concern [from the studio] about weight, and if I could lose it,” she says. Feeling the most insecure she had ever felt going into a project, Farmiga almost walked away. “I really felt like through all that, I just had to learn how to lighten up a bit—but it’s hard,” she says.
Thankfully, Clooney was on hand to keep her (and the rest of the cast) laughing. “That’s really the most attractive thing about him. His looks pale in comparison to his sense of humour,” she says, grinning. “The production company could save a hell of a lot of money just by having him admit that he hardly ever goes into this massive trailer that he gets because he’s there on set delighting everybody and joking around. He gives so much of himself. I think that’s something that really sets him apart from a lot of people.”
What she also loved about working on Up in the Air was her headstrong character, Alex Goran. “It’s always a treat to play characters who are unapologetically and passionately themselves,” she says. In the film, Alex is sexually frank and oozes seductive allure. “The gender-flipped scenario of frank female sexuality was refreshing to portray.”
In Duncan Jones’s Source Code, released earlier this year, Farmiga plays an Air Force officer who is Jake Gyllenhaal’s only contact with the outside world. For most of the film, we just see Farmiga’s face on a monitor, yet she delivers a powerful performance. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to work much with Gyllenhaal, as their characters exist in two separate realities. “I worked with the idea of Jake Gyllenhaal,” she says.
When taking on roles, Farmiga says, “I just have to be touched by it, and that’s really the only criteria by which I pick things.”
When taking on roles, Farmiga says, “I just have to be touched by it, and that’s really the only criteria by which I pick things. Although that doesn’t always pay for that addition [to the house] that we’ve been wanting to do for the last seven years,” she says, laughing. “So it’s a balance now that we’ve multiplied, and the accountant is leaving messages. There are lots of things to consider now, and creativity and inspiration don’t always go hand in hand with paycheques, so it’s just a question of finding that balance.”
Life has changed since having children. “I have a deep sense of purpose that I didn’t have before,” she says. “Just about contributing to the world in a way that it makes my children grow up in a better place.” Her own upbringing has influenced her parenting. “We would spend a lot of time in nature, which was of utmost importance. There’s a holiness to nature,” she says, pulling her hair back from her face and looking deep in thought.
When asked if they have a number of children in mind, she muses, “I don’t know—it might be a genetic thing, because our mothers are women who excel at child rearing. They loved being pregnant, and now they make the most excellent grandmas.” At the ultrasound, where Farmiga and Hawkey found out Gytta was a girl, the nurse joked that they could stop now. “He [Hawkey] said there was a vision of a third, and I said, ‘Pace yourself!’ ” Farmiga exclaims.
“One of the most important things I’ve learned from Renn is the art of letting things go,” she admits. “He harbours nothing, and I’m very Slavic—I can wallow a little bit, and he is someone who things just roll off of.” Having a sense of humour is essential. “Laughter is the best medicine for us. We just keep each other chuckling,” she says. “As long as we’re extremely well fed and well sexed.” Clearly enjoying being at home, the couple are hoping to have a vegetable patch by next year, plus a barn, and eventually a greenhouse. They’d also love to be off the grid and self-sufficient. “We’re big dreamers, and we love doing things with our own hands,” she says.
In her career pipeline, Farmiga’s next film release after Higher Ground will be Safe House, which is currently slated for early 2012. The story follows Ryan Reynolds as an agent given the job of escorting a dangerous criminal (played by Denzel Washington) to safety. “I play a branch officer of the CIA Africa division,” she says. “I’m a rogue agent.” Farmiga particularly enjoyed working with Sam Shepard and Brendan Gleeson, the latter of whom she found “mischievous and so engaging as an actor.”
In the past, Farmiga has complained of a lack of decent roles for women, but Higher Ground gave her an opportunity to develop a multidimensional female character. After debuting the film at the Sundance Film Festival to favourable reviews, she may take on more directing in the future. “I will do it again,” she says, explaining that it would have to be a very personal project as it so absorbing. “I like punching in and punching out as far as acting.” Hawkey has written a script called Flying Squirrels, a comedy about a big family, which she will direct.
This evening, her best friends are coming over for dinner. Afterwards, they will go for a night swim and “sit here while Fynn counts the stars, and we’ll sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle,’ ” she says, sighing. “It’s really just a simple life. It just keeps getting better and better. I feel centred. Happy. Inspired.