Religious experience on higher ground

By Helen Barlow

As well as starring in a film about Christianity, Vera Farmiga was thrust into the director's role, writes Helen Barlow...
Vera Farmiga star and director of film Higher Ground, with co-star Dagmara Dominczyk. Photo / Supplied
Vera Farmiga star and director of film Higher Ground, with co-star Dagmara Dominczyk. Photo / Supplied


When hot-shot director Jason Reitman was looking for an actress to not only co-star with George Clooney but to beat him at his own game - seduction - in the high-flying world of business travel in Up in the Air, he couldn't have chosen better than the mesmerising Vera Farmiga. She got an Oscar nomination for that role and since then has appeared in positions of power as an Air Force captain controlling what was left of Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code, and as a CIA agent trying to track down Denzel Washington's alleged traitor in the current box office hit, Safe House.

But also following the success of Up In The Air, Farmiga made her directing debut with the highly original Higher Ground, in which she also stars as a woman who lives in a devout Christian community.

"I am attracted to these films for the same reason people are attracted to any faith or dogma. It's really a way of putting yourself into perspective of this thing called life," she says, with those piercing blue eyes beaming. "It's about figuring yourself out, figuring how to be at peace with yourself and having compassion and making sense of this world that we live in."

She says directing Higher Ground, which opens here on Thursday, had been a fluke and a necessity. "I wanted to play that role, so the only way I was going to get to do it and explore that character was if financing magically and miraculously came. It was around the time of the Oscars when the spotlight was on me, and it was easier to find the money if I helmed it. That was a surprise to me. It was a challenging and learning experience."

Loosely based on the memoirs of Carolyn Briggs, Higher Ground tells the story of a woman who joins a Christian community with her husband (Joshua Leonard) following a family tragedy and eventually doubts her beliefs. Farmiga is so convincing that we come to believe she is a Christian herself.

"A lot of people have been asking me regarding my own beliefs," she admits, "but I hesitate to talk about it because it's a long conversation. God and I are still working that out and we will be for a while, and I love that. There are a lot of deities out there, as well as a lot of false gods, like technology. Technology is meant to make our lives safer and it doesn't always. Our world is a bit wonky at the moment."

With her classical beauty, Farmiga is a force of nature - and not only in her looks. She has achieved so much. Born into a New Jersey community of Ukranian immigrants, she spoke Ukranian until the age of 6. The second of seven children, she had to be resilient from an early age.

"Having six other siblings to contend with and to compete with I think gives you perseverance and a lot of patience," she says with a chuckle. "You've got to be proactive. When you're one of seven children you fight for food. It's made me more flexible."

Initially, Hollywood sat up and took notice of her talent when Martin Scorsese cast her in The Departed, which she followed up with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Vintner's Luck and the horror flick Orphan, before Up in the Air came along.

"I'd been up-and-coming for 15 years," she jokes. "There had been so many things I am very, very proud of, that didn't hit big. I'd been working steadily and had a career that was compelling to me at least. Whether people see my work or not, I feel very blessed and fortunate to be able to do what really interests me and makes me feel passionate."

Interestingly, it was on the French set of The Vintner's Luck, an intriguing New Zealand film (where Farmiga played a 19th century woman who has a brutal mastectomy) directed by Niki Caro, that Farmiga reached a turning point in her life. Having previously been married to French actor Sebastian Rohe, she was newly hitched to American musician, Renn Hawkey, and was trying to have a family. Yet seemingly everyone who signed up for the woman-dominated production was having babies except for her.

"We were supposed to shoot the film a year earlier and had to postpone, because Niki was pregnant and my co-star Keisha Castle-Hughes was pregnant and several of the female producers were pregnant. It didn't seem fair. So a year later we met to regroup and still I wasn't pregnant. Yet Niki assured me that by the end of filming I would be - and I was, eight weeks pregnant with my son, Fynn. Niki was my angel in that respect."

She fell pregnant with her daughter, Gytta, when financing came through for Higher Ground.

"The financier suggested we shoot before my baby bump emerged and in this economy you have to seize the day, because even the best scripts don't necessarily get greenlit easily. So you can't make excuses and say, 'I don't have any energy' or 'I'm hormonal', or 'I have morning sickness'. But you just go for it because you don't know if the opportunity will be there in six months.

"Life is all too brief and it's important to cherish the time that you have here."

Lowdown
Who: Vera Farmiga, actor and director
What: Higher Ground, opens March 1

- NZ Herald

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