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Vera Farmiga Takes to Higher Ground

The Oscar-nominated actress discusses her debut as a film director, casting her little sister, and working with theater actors. logo
Vera Farmiga in Higher Ground
(© Sony Pictures Classics)
Vera Farmiga is best known to mainstream audiences for her film roles in Martin Scorsese's The Departed and as George Clooney's love interest in Up in the Air, which earned her a Best Supporting Oscar nomination in 2010. But before that she worked at such theaters as New York's Primary Stages and San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. She's now taken on two roles, as both director and lead actress, in her latest movie, the spiritual drama Higher Ground. Farmiga recently talked to TheaterMania about filmmaking, faith and family.

THEATERMANIA: Your acting career was center stage after earning the Oscar nomination for Up in the Air, why turn to directing rather than chase more high profile roles?
VERA FARMIGA: 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. I was down for the count. And I knew I had to be proactive. In some ways, this was me creating a role for myself. You get tired of complaining about the roles for women -- the lack of depth. Higher Ground is my experiment in proactivity.

TM: So you took on the challenge of pregnancy and your directorial debut at the same time?
VF: Pre-production was my first trimester. I was building a human being at the same time I was building this film.

TM: What surprised you most about stepping behind the camera?
VF: The surprise comes when embracing challenge and to actually see that you can achieve as you reach. That's what's plausible. I don't know lenses or technical stuff but I loved giving actors a choice. The first job as a director is choice. Casting and choosing your department heads. The film directs itself.

TM: The subject matter is faith, religion and self-discovery. Was it tough to explore those intimate questions as a director?
VF: It would be for all of us. If you were to direct it you'd have to have a certain degree of introspection and take inventory of what your spiritual goods are. You'd ask, 'what's my concept of god and holiness and a successful soul? How do I find a way to relate to every single character whether I like them or not?' It's a real lesson in openness and receptivity.

Bill Irwin in Higher Ground
(© Sony Pictures Classics)
TM: And then to take on one of those characters without judgment?
VF: In casting sessions I saw a lot of actors accusing their characters and convicting them. I was surprised to see how fundamental people would be in their approach, which was more of an attack. People come with their own memories and experiences and afflictions, and I found oftentimes that the actors wanted to lash out at these characters and make them un-relatable and unapproachable.

TM: You cast your little sister, 16-year-old Taissa, to play your character in flashbacks. Did the big sister/little sister dynamic ever take over?
VF: I had her best interest in mind. I know what she's capable of. She loved the challenge, was hungry for it and embraced it. I gave her the most sweet "sixteen" that you could ever want! There's a shorthand being sisters. This is entirely new to her, acting was my thing. There was no one else for the role. She's got the perfect combination of strength and vulnerability.

TM: The rest of your cast is filled with theater actors, Donna Murphy, Norbert Leo Butz, Bill Irwin and Nina Arianda. Does it help film actors to have a theater background?
VF: I think the theater background makes you a more inventive actor. Rehearsals and finding what works night after night gives you stamina and openness. Film actors can be very rigid in their ways. I think the biggest quality has to be earnestness, and these actors portray their characters in such honest ways.

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