Vera Farmiga Struggles with Faith in Her Directorial Debut, ‘Higher Ground’

Brussels sprouts and beer. It’s not a pairing I’d ever considered, but for Vera Farmiga, it’s lunch. At least, that’s what she’s having on a brilliantly sunny July afternoon in New York when we meet at the restaurant of the Crosby Street Hotel, a posh spot in Soho with an attractive young staff and an old-fashioned drawing room. Yet these are no ordinary Brussels sprouts. These cute little cabbage cultivars are enlivened by the addition of bacon and sliced apple, which is a lot more appetizing than, say, hair.

“As a child I hated Brussels sprouts. They would make me gag,” says the stunning, blue-eyed Ukrainian-American actor who played one side of a love triangle formed with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar winner The Departed, and ruffled a few hotel bed sheets with George Clooney in the critically acclaimed 2009 film Up in the Air, a role that earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. “But Mama was always looking over our shoulders because Stalin wants you to eat everything on your plate,” she continues, referring to her parents’ experience under the ever-present watch of the mustachioed former Soviet Premier. “I would wrap the Brussels sprouts in a napkin and excuse myself to the bathroom, but I wouldn’t flush them—I would just put them on the bottom of the wastebasket. Sure enough, Mama comes in, goes straight to the wastebasket, picks them out—with hair on them and everything —and makes me eat them. And now I love them.”

Farmiga, 38, gracefully sips her Chimay and picks at her Brussels sprouts, insisting that I try one. She’s right, they’re amazing. They’re also easier to digest than the controversial subject of her latest film, Higher Ground. It’s her debut as a director, and she plays the adult version of the film’s protagonist, Corinne, who comes of age in an evangelical Christian community in the Midwest and begins to question her faith as her marriage falls apart. With a delicate yet confident touch both in front of and behind the camera, Farmiga creates a narrative that makes the Christians—who are as fervent as they come—relatable, and renders Corinne’s search for something to believe in as vivid as a baptism in the cold waters of a mountain lake.

The material is pretty deep, and despite how smoothly the story unfolds—writer Carolyn Briggs adapted the screenplay from her 2003 memoir, This Dark World—it takes a while to absorb. I arrive at our interview fresh from a screening of the film, feeling somewhat off balance as I meet its maker. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting to feel much sympathy for the hyper-religious characters in the film, my youthful experiences with the church having left me indifferent at best to organized worship. But Higher Ground challenges the notion that anyone can be reduced to a single dimension. In a film that could have easily trafficked in clichés, her characters—from the adolescent Corinne, played by Farmiga’s kid sister, Taissa Farmiga, to the adult Corinne’s husband Ethan (Joshua Leonard), to Pastor Bill (brought to brilliant life by Norbert Leo Butz)—are complex, nuanced, and conflicted. You’d have to have a lot of scar tissue to not be touched by it on some level.

I’m still processing it, I admit to Farmiga, explaining my initial hesitance to embrace a group so certain of their own salvation. “Yeah, so am I,” she replies, as the waiter fills our water glasses. “But those are my favorite kinds of films. You can have an entirely different perspective, and yet have empathy or compassion and feel for the characters. This is something that challenged me emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.”

Much like her character in Higher Ground, Farmiga is envious of those who have their relationship with God all figured out—part of the reason she took on the project more than three years ago. As the second of seven children from a religious household in New Jersey, she knows how it feels to long for a deep spiritual connection.“I grew up in a Catholic home, and my dad is a believer,” she says. “I yearn to attain what he has, and I’m jealous of it, and I covet it, because he is someone who feels the breath of God on his face.” image

But what of those so-called Christians who spread intolerance, stoke xenophobia, and cast judgment on those with different belief systems? “I know Christians can be very un-Christlike,” she says. A handful of scenes reflect this: Corinne stands idly by as her husband throws her drug-dealing sister out of their house with no second chances offered; a smug Christian marriage counselor explains away Corinne’s internal conflicts by saying, “You are worshipping at the altar of yourself.” Passing judgment, however, isn’t Farmiga’s goal. “I don’t have a bone to pick with the community,” she adds. “I’ve taken many, many parts of it and still hold on dear to them. But it’s hard to talk about. It was just easier to put all these perceptions, these feelings, these ideas, these struggles of my own and just throw them up on the screen.”

Higher Ground certainly includes plenty of struggles. There’s Corinne’s growing doubt in her own faith, of course, but there’s also jealousy, temptation, dishonesty, resentment, abandonment, and a healthy measure of good old American sexual weirdness among the other characters. Corinne’s husband, Ethan, listens to Christian sexual self-help tapes in an ultimately futile attempt to learn how to pleasure her better, while her friend Annika amuses herself by drawing pictures of her husband’s penis. (“Ned loves looking at his penis drawings,” she says to Corinne.)

Yet, as the Bible tells us, those who search for something with all their hearts are bound to find it sooner or later, and Corinne, while not quite reconciling her religious faith by the end of the film, certainly seems to find a measure of peace within herself, as well as the strength to move forward. “My favorite films that I’ve participated in are stories of women experiencing an awakening,” she says, anticipating a question about her predilection for strong female roles. “It’s that simple.”

Higher Ground drew nearly unanimous praise from audiences at Sundance, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Tribeca Film Festival, but perhaps the most surprising endorsements come from conservative Christian audiences, who, Farmiga says, appreciate the realistic portrayal of their flock. “There has been a tremendously positive response from [Christian] viewers who are just relieved to see something fully dimensional,” she says. “Some of the Christian films that I’ve tried to watch are kooky and one-dimensional,” she continues. “Good films about faith challenge me in ways that keep me open, receptive, and vulnerable, and my intention was to portray the story—the search—in full. Doubt is a part of faith, and I don’t think that makes it anti-Christian.” And how has the other side taken it? “I’ve had agnostics and atheists who’ve seen it and are moved,” she says. “I think that there’s no way that you can’t acknowledge this film as being a part of a real journey.”

Farmiga’s own journey has taken her a long way, from practicing 10 hours a day with a competitive Ukrainian folk dancing ensemble as a child and teenager (which involved “hopelessly romantic Catskillian nights”) to Syracuse University, where she studied acting, to an Australian television series called Roar (in which she acted alongside the late Heath Ledger) to her breakout role as a drug-addicted mother in Debra Granik’s independent drama Down to the Bone.

It was around that time that comparisons to Meryl Streep began being made, and roles opposite some of the world’s most famous actors started materializing. Still, the old trope about staying grounded seems to describe Farmiga to a tee. When she’s not working, she spends her time with her husband, Renn Hawkey, who was the producer and musical director of Higher Ground, and their two young children—one of whom she was pregnant with during filming—in their Hudson Valley home.

And while she no longer tends a flock of angoran goats as she once did, she still gets plenty of dirt under her fingernails. “I’m an obsessive gardener,” she says. “I’ve been working on my garden for seven years now, and I’m about two planters and a dumptruck load of mulch away from getting it where I want.” With that, she’s off to spend Friday night tending to more domestic matters, such as a dermatitis-afflicted husband, a sniffly baby, and some backyard grilling—the reason for her light lunch. “I’ve got poison ivy to scratch and a runny nose to wipe,” she says, as she gathers her belongings, wishes me well, and disappears into the busy streets of Soho.

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Photography by Eric Guillemain. Styling by Anna Bingemann.

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