Vera Farmiga, profiled by Jenny Halper

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When Vera Farmiga was preparing to play an underemployed drug addict, shivering in a rehab center and working the grocery checkout line in upstate New York, she probably didn’t know she was making the movie that would ultimately land her a plum role in “The Departed.”

Though Farmiga may be best known to Bostonians as the cop shrink caught in a romantic triangle with Matt Damon and Leonardio DiCaprio, the 33-year-old actress is fast becoming a fixture of the indie scene, with roles in forthcoming films like “Joshua” “Never Forever” “In Tranzit” and “Quid Pro Quo.” But it was her decidedly unglamorous turn as coke-addled mother in Debra Granik’s “Down to the Bone” that caught Martin Scorsese’s eye.

“Ellen Lewis, my casting director, mentioned Vera to me, and I saw a clip of the film,” Scorsese said. “I couldn’t see anything from the clip, because often these clips are sent, and they look like images from the guys in 1968 when they landed on the moon. The reception was better there.”

So “The Aviator” director, searching for an actress who could make the female protagonist more than pretty window dressing, watched the entire movie.

“I heard about the process and the way they worked on the film, and the series of films they’re working on up there, in upstate New York, and it reminded me of the early days of Cassavetes working in New York, making independent films, working with the actors, improvising, rewriting.” Scorsese said.

Inspired by the experiences of Granik’s real-life friend, “Down to the Bone” tells the story of Irene (Farmiga), who works as a grocery check-out girl while dangling on the cliff of a coke habit her husband (Clint Gordan) takes lightly. After trying – and failing – to exchange her son’s birthday present for drugs, Irene checks herself into a clinic, where she meets a recovered addict (Hugh Dillon) who works as a nurse; after Irene moves back home the two begin an affair that threatens Irene’s tenuous stability as he turns back to drugs.

No mobsters here, but the inner demons in “Down to the Bone” are every bit as dangerous as Jack Nicholson’s power-crazed Costello. Irene, like Madolyn, is tugged between two men, forced to choose between love and responsibility. Both films strove for authenticity, shooting on location, “The Departed” in Boston and “Down to the Bone” in Farmiga’s upstate New York hometown, where Farmiga invited old friends to join the cast and wore many of her own clothes.

Low-budget efforts paid off pre-Scorsese when Farmiga was honored with a special acting award at the Sundance Film Festival and a Best Actress award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Though “The Departed” probably didn’t have the actress sifting through her wardrobe, Farmiga researched Madolyn – her job as a psychiatrist, her infidelities – every bit as meticulously.

“I met with a woman by the name of Deborah Glasser, who is a police psychiatrist of the LAPD ,” Farmiga said. “She said, “Oh, dear, no, she’s doing everything wrong. No way would she sleep with a client.’ And that’s the moment my character became really interesting to me. I thought, ‘ah, something for me to play.’ She is as duplicitous as everyone else, she is pushed by her desire and pulled by her conscience.”

Pre-production, Farmiga spent hours with Scorsese, Damon, and screenwriter Bill Monahan developing character complexities. Not uncommon for an independent film (sections of “Down to the Bone” were improvised and re-scripted after rehearsals) but a major studio picture? With a director as legendary as Scorsese?

“I entered into this being prepared to meet megawatts of talent, and you expect there to be a certain chasm between you,” Farmiga said. “There wasn’t. These guys were so nurturing and encouraging and inventive. Marty really asks you to bring your own tumults, your own idiosyncrasies. It was truly a collaborative process.”

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Jenny Halper

Jenny Halper is the film editor of Spare Change News, a Cambridge bi-monthly dedicated to empowering the homeless. She's written for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Now, NewEnglandFilm.com, amNewYork, Beliefnet, Cinema Confidential, Park Slope Reader, and Knit Simple Magazine, among others, and has served as a film critic/entertainment reporter for Track Entertainment and ClickFlicks.net. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and New England Fiction Meeting House, and has been a finalist for prizes from Glimmer Train and the Sonora Review. A graduate of Northwestern University, she is currently earning an MFA at Emerson College.