Vera Farmiga is an Academy Award-nominated actress who is about to make her directorial debut with the movie Higher Ground, in which she also stars. Her portrayal of a hard-driving, brook-no-bullshit businesswoman in Up in the Air, for which she garnered an Oscar nomination and with which she nearly stole the show from co-star George Clooney, forced viewers to confront the question of what a female version of Clooney’s character might look like – and how our beliefs about gender, work and love might make us view that female version differently than the male version.
Higher Ground, will be released in theaters next week. Farmiga plays Corinne, a woman struggling with her Christian faith in the face of sickness, inequality and disappointment. It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors, thanks to the nuanced and touching portrayal of the relationship between Corinne and her sister, the friendship between Corinne and her best friend Annika, and the amusing but sometimes depressingly familiar depictions of older women in the church reminding the younger ones of women’s proper place behind and beneath the men. It’s based on the memoir This Dark World, by Carolyn Briggs, and in Farmiga’s hands it’s a thought-provoking, well-paced film that handles all its characters, even the ones who do wrong, with compassion and without judgment. Which, I suspect, would be what someone like Corinne would say is the point of faith and religion in the first place.
It was an absolute pleasure to sit down with Farmiga who, based on her favorite fictional heroine, seems to be a kindred spirit to many Feministing readers.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Vera Farmiga.
Chloe Angyal: Why this movie, and why now?
Vera Farmiga: That’s a question that I’m still trying to answer. It deals with these abstract themes that are very resonant to me as a wife, as a mother, as daughter, as a community member, as a thoughtful searcher, seeker, struggler. My head turns any time that those abstract themes come up. Courage, authenticity, being yourself, stepping outside of everybody else’s roles for you and concentrating on your own perception of things. Stamina. Suppleness. Receptivity. Openness. That vulnerability is as important as strength. Tolerance. These themes resonate with me, and they’re ultimately what being human is about. Since becoming a mother, since giving birth, death has never been as vivid to me, mortality. Because you realize that your time on this earth is small, and what are you going to do with that time? Before having the responsibility of taking care of other people, I couldn’t understand the concept of contributing to the world in a positive way and leaving behind a better world, a gentler world, for my children to grow up in. A more tolerant world. Arming my daughter and arming my son to be spiritual warriors.
It’s still mysterious to me, and I’m still figuring it out. Sometimes you don’t concretely know why you have to do something.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in a real life?
VF: There are so many! Kundera heroines come to mind, Edith Wharton heroines come to mind. Anna Karenina. Clare Huxtable from “The Cosby Show.” I grew up watching television, I did not grow up watching films. So that was my reference point. It’s so hard to choose, like choosing a favorite amongst your offspring. I don’t have a single favorite, impossible, but if you’re putting a gun to my head – I’m going with feelings here, the kind of feelings where I wanted to be her – Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Yeah, why not. Call me square, but Anne of Anne of Green Gables. For her enthusiasm, her self-acceptance and distinguished self image, her whimsy, the joy she spreads, the way she uses her words, her expression, her big ideas and her big words. “I’m not a bit changed–not really. I’m only just pruned down and branched out. The real me, back here, is just the same.” For “There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting.” And for her phrase “kindred spirits”.
In real life, the people I say you will never have heard of. It’s the dancer and choreographer of my Ukrainian dance ensemble. I was a professional Ukrainian folk dancer in my late teens, and that’s where I learned grace. The art of grace. And elegance. It’s my piano teacher, and my mother Luba Farmiga, and my mother-in-law Penny Hawkey, my grandma Nadia Spas, all my aunts. The fierce, elegant, classy, intelligent, graceful, extremely funny, candid, honest women of my everyday life. These are my role models. These are women that I know very personally, who have been great models of strength of character and who have defined for me what it means to be a woman. My best friend Helen Oscislawski, the Annika of my life, my best friend in all the world who, no matter if we have three years apart, we can pick up a phone and call. My abs were so toned in high school because of all the laughter with her. In her I saw the reflection of who I wanted to be because of her strength of personality and character.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
VF: A news story that impacted me recently was the testimony of the 7-year-old Bangladeshi boy who was tortured by a crime gang that starves and injures children and pimps them out for begging because passers-by will give the children more money. There are other children who are captive, who haven’t been found.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
VF: Marmite, toast and butter, lapsang souchong tea with milk and a dollop of brown sugar, and Debra Granik, the filmmaker who made Down To The Bone and Winter’s Bone.