When Moon director Duncan Jones first began developing Source Code, he had only one actress in mind for the role of Goodwin, the military officer who commands Jake Gyllenhaal’s time-jumping soldier. To even her surprise, it was Vera Farmiga, who—despite stints as a TV cop on shows like UC: Undercover and Touching Evil—is best known for charming leading men like George Clooney in Up In The Air or Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in The Departed, where sharp wit and alluring elusiveness are about as close as she ever got to a tough exterior. Yet as Jones put it, he needed her because Goodwin was such a closed-off character, and as with all her roles, Farmiga was able to invest even the slightest shift of her eyes with dramatic nuance. If a supporting role in a sci-fi film seems like a strange choice for Farmiga after the breakout, Oscar-nominated year she had in 2009, she’s quick to remind that she’s always defied expectation, preferring to star in smaller indie fare like Down To The Bone, Never Forever, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, or the upcoming Henry’s Crime, and only popping up in studio films when she’s particularly intrigued by the story. Most recently, Farmiga branched into creating those stories for herself by making her directorial debut with Higher Ground, in which she stars as a woman grappling with her faith within a Christian cult—though as with Farmiga’s acting, there’s much more to the story than what’s on the surface. The A.V. Club spoke to Farmiga after the South By Southwest première of Source Code about finding the warmth in even the coldest of characters, why she doesn’t put her faith in the studio system, and whether it’s a dark time for actors like her in Hollywood.
The A.V. Club: After the screening at SXSW, you said that the reason you were drawn to Source Code was the “psycho-spiritual connection.” Could you explain what you mean by that?
Vera Farmiga: What drew me—since the role was so confining, and honestly, it’s the antithesis of all of the roles I am drawn to as an actress—is I felt challenged by this. I saw it as an intricate puzzle. I loved Moon. I want to align myself with bold and exciting, visionary filmmakers like Duncan. So I knew I was going to be part of it, regardless. The challenge for me was to make more of the character than what there appears to be on the page. I had to find something to love about the character—because expository dialogue is irritating to an actor. [Laughs.] It’s maddening. It’s hard to nuance. And a large part of my character is informative. She’s stating the facts, and she’s sort of the whip-cracker on [Gyllenhaal’s] mission. She’s always taking him by the collar and bringing him back to the task at hand. And what interested me was not the lines—it was what was in between the lines. So finding a specific life for the character, that’s what I looked for within their connection. Jake’s character and I are not in same space. We’re connecting on a very spiritual, emotional, and intellectual level, so that arc was important for me. And what I loved about the film—and this is how I probably should have answered the question [at the screening]—is the feeling that I took from the film, and the reminder that life is precious, and we should treasure everything that we hold dear and cherish it. In that way, the film touched me.
AVC: You don’t really seem like a soldier type. Was there ever a point where you wondered why, exactly, Duncan wanted you for this part?
VF: I did. As soon as I read it. Oftentimes, I feel there’s a pattern with me. I feel my fuller-bodied characters are all in the independent films I do, and in the studio productions, I have to work harder to dimensionalize the characters. And that’s certainly part of the job description of an actor—that’s what you’re supposed to do—but you have to work harder at it in the characters that I’ve encountered in studio films. And with Duncan, during our first phone conversation, he stated that he was really interested in breathing more fullness into Goodwin, and searching for that inner life and conveying it. And that’s what interests me more as an actress—what a character doesn’t say, or is having a hard time saying. It’s not necessarily the lines on the written page. It’s in between the lines. And I found more of a playground for myself in this role.
AVC: There is some sort of pattern as well with the characters you’ve played—like in Never Forever, Up In The Air, The Departed, and here—in that you’re playing a person whom you’re not certain is trustworthy.
VF: That was certainly a pattern at one point—certainly with Never Forever and The Departed—with loyalty issues in relationships. I definitely thought that was starting to become a pattern. I don’t feel it as much now, lately, with Higher Ground and Henry’s Crime. Up In The Air is also one of those films where you think that. But you know, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas wasn’t, nor Niki Caro’s film The Vinter’s Luck. I think that pattern may be true of the most successful films, because those are the ones that have been seen. But those certainly aren’t the projects that are dearest to my heart—like Down To The Bone, for example.
AVC: Even when you’re playing someone that the audience isn’t sure it can trust, you lure them in with this natural warmth. Roger Ebert even called you one of the “warmest women working in movies.”
VF: Well, I just work in bringing humanity. I look for struggle in the roles I choose—struggle and perseverance. It’s just part of dimension. If she’s cold, I want to know why. There’s always a reason she’s cold. I think we all have contradictions. So if I am playing a cold character, the struggle is to find the warmth. It’s imperative that whatever character I have does have an arc. So if she starts off a certain way, I like to see her evolve and change and persevere and gain awareness. I like to see the full spectrum. And I do try to infuse it as much as I can. Even the cold, mean-hearted bitches of life are just covering up something. It’s a façade. It’s a tough skin. It’s a callus of sorts, and underneath there is soft skin—you just gotta slash those corns. [Laughs.] And I think that’s part of every tough character—mining that softness.
AVC: You’re obviously really choosy about the roles you take, but after The Departed and then Up In The Air, you probably ended up getting a lot more pitches. How did the roles you were offered change?
VF: Honestly, I’m still frustrated. [Laughs.] Great material does come my way, but it doesn’t always get greenlit. I attach myself to many wonderful projects that I’d like to see realized, but economically, very few films are being made. Higher Ground, for example, is me not asking for permission. [Laughs.] Like everybody else, I just want to be stimulated and challenged and inspired. And it’s a bummer, even after the acclaim of last year. Granted, I was three weeks pregnant at the Oscars, so I knew that I was going to punch out for a bit. So that was a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of time, and work at home and direct this film and star in it throughout the course of the pregnancy—to not wait for something to happen, but be proactive and create the opportunity.
AVC: Is it important to you to not get lost in the studio machine?
VF: It’s just important for me to be part of great storytelling. Of course, I love studio films because you get a great paycheck—or a good paycheck, or a better paycheck than when you do an indie film. You get a paycheck. Sometimes you’re paying to be part of the film when you add it all up, in certain indie roles. You work for scale and it’s on location, and to be comfortable—and make sure that your 4-month-old and your 2-year-old and your husband are comfortable—you’re going to pay more than the salary coming in so that everybody is happy. But it doesn’t matter. I chase after inspiring stories. As long as I come from that place, things will rock and roll.
AVC: It seems like more and more studios are just looking for famous names to plug into lead roles, regardless of how they actually fit. Is that a challenge for you—especially because you live so far away from the Hollywood mill, and you’re not the typical, always-visible celebrity?
VF: There have only been a couple of directors whom I’ve experienced that sort of wishy-washiness with. I’ve been fortunate that the people I’ve collaborated with are great supporters, and have fought for me regardless of what the numbers were. I think it’s the financiers are obviously the ones who look at your “value abroad,” but not so much in independent film. And I think that’s what’s so rewarding as a director—to direct Higher Ground and have complete and utter control. To be able to say, “These are the actors I’ve always wanted to work with. These are the actors that are spot on for this role.” And to have had the support of the producers I had, who were just so much about supporting the director’s vision without limitations. To be able to say, “I want John Hawkes for this role,” and to get him. Although now I don’t think would have been as much a problem, because he’s rightfully been given a spotlight for the past several months.
AVC: He’s had a good year.
VF: And well-earned. But it’s always the way to go. Time and time again, I really think there are very few people who can sell a film, but if the right actor is applied to the right character or the right role, it always works. And people will be compelled by performances, and those films will succeed. As soon as you veer from that, it flops. In my experience.
AVC: There’s been a lot of talk lately about how studios are not willing to take chances on a film unless it’s a remake or a sequel, or it’s based on a fairy-tale or board game or some other established property.
VF: But they are willing to buy films from festivals if they do succeed—and for very little money. [Laughs.] In fact, for probably less money than those projects are made for.
AVC: But as an actor looking for original stories, as you say you are, do you think it’s an especially dark time in Hollywood?
VF: I'm very entrenched in the independent community, and this is why indie films are always just, to me, more vital. They're stories that are told by voices that cannot be hushed. And more often than not, a film will get made with very little money if need be, and with no-name actors, because the story needs to get told. I don’t place my bets on Hollywood. That’s not where I find my most inspired work. I don’t necessarily need Hollywood. You just need to tell a really good story, or have a unique version of a story. And that’s really the equation for a good film. Hollywood will take notice and purchase the film. As far as studio films go—yeah, I know, there is very little being produced in between a $100,000 film and a $100 million film these days. [Pauses.] But I'm hopeful.