Vera Farmiga excels at playing women on the edge of crisis. Sometimes it’s the sort of personal upheaval everyone experiences from time to time, as with the philandering workaholic in Up in the Air that earned her an Oscar nomination, or the full-blown descents into madness of Orphan and The Conjuring that made her a blockbuster star. But in her latest effort, the low-key dramedy Boundaries, she lands somewhere in the middle of those two registers.
The film joins Laura (Farmiga) in the middle of a therapy session during which she’s not quite in a state of mania, but definitely not a picture of wellness, either. She’s overtaxed in work and love, her need to care for stray animals has blossomed into a diagnosable compulsion, and to make matters worse, she has to drive her weed-dealing father (Christopher Plummer) across country to stay with her sister after he gets ejected from his retirement community. It’s enough to make a woman snap, but sometimes a breakdown is just what it takes to let the healing begin.
It’s the stuff indie film festival plaudits are made for, though the material’s plenty personal to Farmiga. Growing up in an all-Ukrainian enclave in New Jersey (she picked up English at 6), family has always been a major part of her life. Over the course of an affable sit-down with Vulture, the actress reflected on halcyon memories of her own family road trips, reconciling immigrant and American identities, and just what happened with her accent in The Departed.
Is that your private journal?
Yeah, but it’s really just a list of stuff I’ve got to do in upstate New York. It’s more functional than anything. I’m not bringing my cell phone around anymore. At least I’m trying not to, I’m trying to put it down as much as possible.
For the whole psychological effect? Everyone seems worried about what constant usage is doing to our brains.
It’s more the radioactivity. They’re carcinogenic! Cancer’s on the rise.
I’ve been told not to work with the laptop directly on the lap, because that’ll just fry … everything down there.
Aptitude for procreation, sure, probably want to hold on to that one. But I dunno, I’m just putting it down to put it down. I want to be more present, especially when I’m with my kids. I’ve neglected social media, dropped it for a little bit, because it started to irritate me. Occupies too much time! You blink, and you’ve suddenly been scrolling for a half-hour, and that’s a half-hour I could’ve spent learning to play “Bohemian Rhapsody” on my new red piano.
Unplugging is easier said than done, though, especially for someone who travels a lot on a demanding work schedule.
The other day, I realized there are about 40 to 50 answering-machine messages from my agent that had been mistakenly left at my home upstate. I just love that they assumed, “Eh, she must be busy. She’ll get around to it.” That’s just my style.
So, Boundaries — what’s the longest road trip you’ve ever taken?
My family would always do Irvington, New Jersey to Miami Beach, Florida. We’d do that every summer in an uninsulated van, jam-packed in the heat with these massive pillows my mother would sew. We’d pile in with a little toilet so we didn’t have to make pit stops, just 48 hours of straight driving. The toilet had mushrooms drawn on it.
Was there bickering between you and your siblings? Any threats to turn the car around?
There was a lot of singing! We were the family Von Trapp, going down the coast. We’d try to find polyphonic harmonies to every Ukrainian folk song every written. There were the four kids, my mom was a stay-at-home mom, dad was a systems analyst computer programmer, so we’d drain them. No fancy hotels, but sometimes we’d stop at the Day’s Inn for a night if we were lucky. All four of us would share one queen-size mattress and our parents would take the other one. I used to look forward to throwing a quarter into the Bed-Shaker. [Notices the interviewer doing his best to mask his confusion.] Were you around for that? It was a little metallic box where you’d feed quarters and it would make the whole bed vibrate! Why did they stop putting those on beds? That’s what I would look forward to. And hot tubs were very rare in my life, so it was a treat when we got to jump in the Day’s Inn hot tub for too long in the heat of August. We were pretty much cooking inside that water.
My husband and I travel a lot with our own kids, often throwing them on our back. I don’t think I’ve spent a single night away, now that I’m considering it. My husband and I have never both left them with someone else for a single night. But I’m overdue for a road trip with my parents. Our last trip was Hawaii.
Does it still count as a road trip if you’re flying?
We flew there, but then we drove around the island! I remember swatting at my brother — and I’m 20 years older than he is, so I’m like a surrogate mom — to change his tone of voice when talking to Mom, and a big white owl that must’ve had a wingspan of eight feet crashed right into our windshield.
Big twist there at the end. But my sister and I are only three years apart — what’s the dynamic like when you’ve got 20 years on your sibling?
Taissa’s the youngest, 21 years younger than me, but we’re close as two sisters can be. For a long time, I was a maternal influence in her life, and then that fell apart in a healthy way. She grew right up, and we’re just sisters now.
This film is very steeped in the particulars of family, and you seem to have remained very close with yours. Do you see that as a result of an insular upbringing?
I don’t know if it was all that insular. Well — I guess so, yeah, in the Ukrainian community, you’re immersed in the heritage, a respect for it, and an understanding of it. Especially through the arts, a lot of that is channeled through music and folk dance. This was the first language I learned. Every holiday and holy day, my gigantic family would get together, and a couple people would play guitars while I would sit by the piano and sing, trying to find new harmonies in the same old repertory songs. And dance was a major method of learning, a way of passing down stories from history.
Is that something you’ve taught your own youngsters?
We had Heritage Week at my daughter’s school recently, and I came in with a massive pot of borscht to talk about being Ukrainian. It’s crazy, kids who would never eat the individual ingredients that make up some of these dishes will eat it when it’s presented in this fun circumstance. They call it Magic Carpet Ride Day, you get to taste a little bit from all over the world.
It’s a decidedly dark time for immigrant populations in the United States right now. Do xenophobic sentiments and all that weigh on your mind at all?
I’ve been doing Bates Motel for a while, so I live in Canada. Which is, for the moment, a pretty good place to be living. My children are 7 and 9, and they’re not entirely familiar with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but they know the Canadian national anthem. We’re working on that. They know about 75 percent, because we’ve been in Vancouver for the past five years. It’s an interesting perspective, looking down from the north. It doesn’t necessarily change your way of thinking about things; my son was profoundly agitated after the election, hearing all the caustic discourse, all the vehemence in every direction. We’ve had to be mindful about what media gets into the house, what we listen to on the radio, what’s happening on the TV. The influence that the president has on my child — the way he operates, the words he uses — it’s all a bad example for a kid.
One last thing: My mother was born and raised on the south shore of Massachusetts, and wanted me to inform you that she takes issue with your accent in The Departed.
She can’t fully blame me! I think I’ve got a good ear for accents, I had a dialogue coach and everything, and it ended up being [director] Marty [Scorsese] and the studio that toned down the accent! It was more pronounced, more precise, and they wanted “influences” of it, not necessarily like she was a born-and-raised gal. That was either the director or maybe a producer’s call.
This interview has been edited and condensed.