Vera Farmiga has an astonishing ability to transform herself completely. In the past few years, she’s played a worn-out drug addict, a cop shrink, a depressed young mom, and the carefully coiffed wife of a Nazi Commandant, to name a few. In Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, she stars as a confident frequent flyer who happens to be George Clooney’s leading lady – and has more control over their on-the-run relationship than he does.
“I work very much from the outside in,” Farmiga says as she kicks off a pair of shoes with superhuman heels and curls up on a couch. She settles in to chat about filming “Air” shortly after giving birth, partnering with Clooney, and her attraction to characters that don’t necessarily need to be redeemed. Dressed in a purple silk blouse and form-fitting black skirt, she looks every bit the glamorous Hollywood star – America’s answer to Cate Blanchett – but she readily admits to transforming herself, yet again, while meeting press.
JENNY HALPER: Do you seek characters that most actresses might shy away from — because they have challenging flaws?
VERA FARMIGA: They are flawed – and yet what strikes me about most female characters that I encounter in a script that really turns my head about them is their strength. They always try to persevere. I think the character I played in Joshua may be the only character I’ve ever played who doesn’t persevere. I played a mother suffering from psychotic postpartum who does not deal with the illness correctly and disintegrates. You know, at that point in my life, my sister had a reaction to steroids which were being used to treat her lupus. She was going through a psychosis and it was analogous to this character and it was very real for me, her story, so that’s why it was appropriate at the time. I don’t know if I had made that acknowledgement. I read Brooke Shields’ book, “Down Came the Rain,” and she was so candid about her experience. I read testimonies online and saw that there are steps you can take. With most of the women I play, Illumination comes months after. Which sucks. For Up in the Air, for example, I realized afterwards that my character, Alex, is a portrait of female desire that’s not often seen. Usually when women are so uncompromising and demanding and libertine and shameless about their sexuality, they are portrayed in a way that is bereft of dignity.
HALPER: Your character, Alex, behaves the way a typical man might behave…
FARMIGA: Yeah. It was a very masculine take on desire. This is a woman who has certain needs and that struck me about the role, but it’s the response to the performance that I’m getting from women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s who say “wow this is refreshing. I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a caretaker, I’m a provider, it’s about everybody else’s needs rather than my own.” I think they recognize someone who is true to her own needs. She’s in it for the enjoyment. It’s a fine line to tread to still come across as soft and feminine.
HALPER: Her clothes help with that image, don’t they?
FARMIGA: I work a lot of times from the outside in. I really enjoy it – like a child playing dress up. Hair and makeup and everything is where I start delving into the character. The shoes are so important, for me, because that determines the gait of a character, how she walks through space, what her tempo is. Look at these numbers – these are one part dominatrix, one part athlete.
HALPER: Are they Vera or are they Alex?
FARMIGA: This is Vera prepared to meet the press. This shoe gives you a certain staccato and a certain lift. This is a shoe of a woman who is trying to convey something. And look at how I am with you, I’m barefoot on a couch, this is the real me. At home I’m in farm gear – flannel shirts and jeans. This is dress up for the Hollywood part. But it makes a difference.
HALPER: How did giving birth so close to production affect your performance?
FARMIGA: I was rocking an extra fifteen pounds. I had just given birth two weeks before my first costume fitting. The script came when I was five months pregnant. I knew my chances were shot, I thought “this is not gonna happen,” and Jason and I had met previously on Thank You for Smoking and it didn’t work out, but I said, “can I just put it on tape?” This isn’t uncommon for me – I live two hours north of the city so it’s always been easier to put myself on tape than come in. I’m at a point now where work begets work and directors know my work, but if it is something that’s stiff competition I do still opt to put myself on tape. I really wanted to keep that camera above my big belly, but my agent insisted I meet with him and be upfront. It was a huge chance he took because we were going right afterwards and it was my first child but I really think it added a whole dynamic to the performance – a power and a prowess and sensuality.
HALPER: Does being a mother make you feel more attractive?
FARMIGA: Yes, because I’ve never felt more womanly than I did after giving birth, the empowerment that comes when you experience that power of being able to birth a human, bring a human into this world is so invigorating, so…I felt invincible. There were still times when I would come home and just weep. I was very tired and in certain respects it was difficult, normally I think I would have an easier time tapping into her assurance, her self-possession her, confidence. It was lack of sleep most of all, it was hard to always feel put together as Alex does.
HALPER: Did George Clooney’s energy help?
FARMIGA: It’s a holy energy to be around. His presence is so invigorating, it’s joy. You just want to collapse into it because he’s so warm. His sense of humor is the most attractive thing to be around and I needed that, and he was a big support certainly in the 8th and 9th month of my pregnancy when I was getting really big. I was late with the pregnancy and it ended up in a C section. It was George saying “Who cares if she’s big?” And George and I collaborated enough to really click into each other. That comes from him being a director…he cares more about your performance than his own. He really wants to draw the most delicious performance out of you.