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Vera Farmiga on Her Directorial Debut Higher Ground and Her Advice for New Oscar Nominees

Most actresses would use an Oscar nomination as leverage for a bigger paycheck in a studio movie, but the spiky, intelligent Vera Farmiga isn’t like most actresses. Instead, while riding the acclaim of her work in Up in the Air, which found her nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Farmiga decided to make her directorial debut with the Sundance competition film Higher Ground — and she did it while pregnant, too. Farmiga stars as a young mother who’s spent the majority of her life living in a fundamentalist community, but is beginning to question everything she’s familiar with at the same time as her marriage (to Humpday’s Joshua Leonard) is falling apart. Vulture sat down with Farmiga earlier this week in Park City to talk about directing while pregnant, shooting a sex scene that starred her younger sister, and the then-imminent Oscar nominations.

You’ve been a Sundance juror here before, right?
Yeah, I’ve been here in so many different capacities. I think first in 1997 as an actress for the Director’s Lab, and then a little film called Love in the Time of Money, and then in 2004 at Sundance, coming here with Down to the Bone was life-changing.

Having been here as a juror, what is it like to now have your film be judged? Can you imagine the conversations between the jurors taking place?
As a director? I don’t feel judgment, I really don’t — so far I feel respect and love and warmth. I think I have the support of this institute because they’ve been so nurturing to me in my career, and I also stand assured that the films that I’ve been here with are my most inspiring works and the most dimensional characters I’ve played. I get attention for other studio films, but I don’t necessarily think that that’s my greatest work, and I really do feel that about the films that I’ve been here with. Yes, I’m directing myself in a performance, but I’m really proud of this, so I don’t feel judgment.

You finished shooting this movie fairly recently and at the same time, you had a baby. How did you find the time to complete it?
The film is still damp! It is dripping dry, fresh out of post. We made it by the skin of our teeth, and I know there are filmmakers who take a very long time to tell their stories, but with the energy of the Oscar nomination [for Up in the Air], financing came. When the script wasn’t even 100 percent finished, [financiers] happened to be six miles from my house where I live in the country in upstate New York, and they were willing to shoot before my baby bump emerged, because I had just found out I was pregnant. So we did preproduction in my first trimester, production in second trimester, and postproduction in third trimester. And here I am! There were a lot of things gestating and being born.

Part of your lore as an actress is that you used to make these really incredible audition tapes —
So did I audition for myself? [Laughs.]

I wondered if that taught you a little something about directing yourself as an actress onscreen.
No, I don’t think so, because you’re always scrutinizing yourself. You’re not privy to the editing room, but —

There are lot of actors who won’t watch themselves on film.
Yeah, and there are some actors who watch them over and over. [Laughs.] With playback, I’m either-or. Sometimes you get a really excited director who says, “Come see what you’ve just done!” I don’t get crazy about watching myself, and if I don’t see it, I don’t care — I’m pretty relaxed that way. But as far as not having playback [on Higher Ground] when you’re directing yourself and other actors, you don’t have the full periphery. You don’t know that there’s an extra with a shaved head, but we’re supposed to be in the seventies. So it was really frustrating not having playback all the time.

There are several films addressing religion at Sundance this year, including yours. Is there something in the air? Why this, now?
Honestly, I think a good film is spiritual, regardless of whether its subject is faith. It’s a really harsh, rude mess of a world we’re living in, and 2012 is around the corner. [Laughs.] But why did the festival programmers choose all these movies? It’s between God and them.

What was your own relationship with religion like growing up?
I hesitate to talk about it, just because it’s such a personal thing for me. I also don’t want people to know so much about what my path has been, because I’ve designed the film to be about what the character’s journey is, hopefully. So I don’t want that to taint what they draw from it, but I do think I’m on a guided tour of the universe, I really do. We’re mates, God and me. We’re working it out.

I have to say, I didn’t realize until the movie was over that the girl you’d cast as the younger version of your character was your actual sister.
Taissa, yes. I’m so proud of her.

I couldn’t believe that you’d found a talented actress who had such an uncanny resemblance to you. Did you always intend to cast her?
I always knew. And I just heard recently that my producers were freaking out that I cast her without auditioning her or putting her on tape.

Had she acted before?
No, with no intentions or any aspirations of it at all.

Have you turned her? Does she want to keep acting now?
You know, she had so much fun, and she’s been encouraged quite a bit. She’s a cool cucumber. She says, “Let’s play it by ear.” She also is someone who goes after inspiration, even the few sixteen years of her life. I think she’s extremely compelling and very unique compared to her group of peers. She’s got something very special.

Was Josh Leonard flattered that you cast Boyd Holbrook, a top male model, to play the younger version of his character?
[Long laugh.] That’s very perceptive, given Josh. That was Josh’s choice, by the way. I gave him several options and I made sure that he was privy to the online audition tapes of young Ethans, and sure enough, he picked Boyd! But justly so.

Was it awkward to direct your sister at any point?
Not at all.

There is a scene, though, where you have to shoot her losing her virginity onscreen.
Yes, I know, and in the way we chose to photograph it, I think it’s so sumptuous. It’s really sensual, and they look like a couple of kids from The Blue Lagoon, and then that scene takes a turn into something quite the opposite, given how we twisted it and decided to put another fantasy sequence at that moment. So it had a sense of humor to it that just lightened it up a bit. There were 40 people around them, but she’s got a sense of humor about things and she’s very open and so bold. I was probably tougher on her than anyone else just because I’m her older sister and I can be, but she never buckled. She was never scared. I adore her. It was honestly a breeze to direct her, a breeze, and good fun.

The Oscar nominations are about to come out —
I know, fingers crossed for Debra Granik.

Whom you worked with in Down to the Bone. What did you think of her work directing Winter’s Bone?
I think it’s quintessentially Debra. It’s just everything I admire about her as a filmmaker, and everything I’ve absorbed from her, which is hopefully being fully in the world and being authentic and not judging. She is a magnifying glass, and there’s so much truth and honesty to the way she tells her stories. There’s not one false moment, and you see it again in Winter’s Bone, and in Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, absolutely.

What’s your advice to the women who will find themselves nominated for Best Supporting Actress, like you were last year?
My only real advice to Oscar nominees is, “If you haven’t actually seen a competitor’s film, don’t fib and say you have and blow smoke up their wahooziewhatsits.” Always best to be frank and tell them the truth.

Vera Farmiga on Her Directorial Debut Higher Ground and Her Advice for New Oscar Nominees