Vera Farmiga isn’t the only one who’s been up in the air lately. Her 10-month-old son, Finn, just clocked his 21st flight. He was just 10 days old when the actress flew out to Los Angeles for her first costume fitting for Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, in which she plays Alex, a sexually turbo-charged businesswomen who, in the fullest sense of the term, travels a lot. “A month and a half later we started to shoot,” says Farmiga. “So Finn grew up being passed around on a set. He’s very socialized, and he has a filthy carbon footprint.”
Getting into the right frame of mind to play George Clooney’s love interest, loosely defined (“Think of me as yourself, with a vagina,” says Alex), was a challenge for any new parent, let alone one strapped into a double pair of fat-concealing Spanks. (She peeled those off on the set when Reitman remarked that she appeared not to be breathing.) “I always wanted to be a mother, and I’m in heaven,” Farmiga says, proudly showing off a photo of her round-cheeked baby on her cell phone. “Under more normal circumstances I would have had an easier time clicking into Alex’s self-possession, her elegance, her coolness, her sensuality, her confidence. It was more difficult with the lack of sleep that you experience in the first stages of maternity, and having to pump every chance, stopping George in the middle of his close-ups to excuse myself so that the P.A. could get it fresh off the tap and have it messengered over to the hotel. At the same time, I have never felt more womanly or more empowered.”
That Alex is a post-feminist piece of work whose life choices should spark lively debate about what counts as female empowerment doesn’t faze Farmiga. She laughs when I suggest that Alex, whose minor role in the Walter Kirn source novel for Up in the Air was greatly bumped up in Reitman’s script, struck me as the product of a male imagination. “It’s not my duty to love her,” she says firmly. “It’s my duty to defend that character and why she is the way she is. What struck me about her is that integrity of self, having her needs and desires accommodated on all levels. That self-respect was the key to unlock the character, and it was splendid to play.”
And it shows, splendidly, in Farmiga’s drily ironic, held-in take on a woman who’s coolly in charge of the unorthodox lifestyle she’s actively chosen rather than fallen into. Alex serves as a mirror to Clooney’s character, a compulsively untethered corporate cog who’s made an art out of flying around the country firing people.
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Dolled up in a peach dress and high-heeled sandals for a full day of interviews, the delicate-featured, gorgeous actress is far warmer and more engaged than Alex. You get the impression that she’d be equally self-possessed in whatever old clothes she may wear around the Upstate New York farm she shares with her second husband, Renn Hawkey, and a herd of angora goats. Farmiga is extremely articulate and puckish with language. It’s not often you hear an up-and-coming Hollywood actress rhapsodize about her son riding goats: “The ratio of him to the goat, which is the stature of a Great Dane, is akin to an adult on a horse.” Of Clooney she says, “He’s a very warm, holy presence and you just want to snuggle up to him as a collaborator.”
I’ve seen this balance of intelligence and equipoise, this candor and focus and can-do embrace of opportunity, in the likes of Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep. Farmiga cites her admiration of 1970s Faye Dunaway and Streep, but she’s downright lavish in her praise of Dianne Wiest, “every inch of whose exquisite face had a capacity to convey emotion in a way that moved me so.” Up in the Air is Farmiga’s first major role in a big movie, but she’s been on the radar in and out of Hollywood for a while, notably as a drug-addicted young mother in the small vérité drama Down to the Bone (for which she won a Spirit Award), and as a doctor in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. She played a fraying young mother in the horror-comedy Joshua, and as an existentially minded Russian hooker (“Ah, the prostitute philosopher, one of my favorite roles!”) she brought much-needed levity to the late Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering.
Farmiga is a versatile, ambitious talent who’s clearly headed for the A-list. Yet there’s something self-directed and fetchingly offbeat about her, and not just because, as one of seven children of immigrant parents, she spent her teens touring Eastern European opera houses with a Ukrainian folk-dancing troupe. In her spare time, whenever that might be, Farmiga has co-written a script with her husband (“It’s a comedy about grief, who knows if it’s any good, but we find it funny”) and she’s adapting, with its author Carolyn Briggs, the memoir This Dark World, about Briggs’ crisis of faith with her born-again Christian upbringing in the 1960s and ’70s. “It’s a very personal story for me,” says Farmiga, who will say only that she grew up in a Catholic family. She may or may not star in the film herself, but plans to direct “in a very Down to the Bone way, very cinema vérité, very low-budget.”
When Farmiga says she’s in this business for “the enlightenment, not for the achievement or the glamour,” you actually believe her, just as you believe that she’s open to anything. That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to see her any time soon as a transsexual or a serial killer or any of those showstopping turns so beloved of heat-seeking actresses in search of an Oscar. “I’m not highbrow about genre, I love comedy and would certainly like to explore lighter fare,” says Farmiga, who’s currently in rehearsals for Henry’s Crime, a zanier romantic comedy with Keanu Reeves and James Caan. “I love to be surprised. I love to be blessed by the reading of a script. Because if it touches me, it’s sure to touch other people. That’s the only criterion, to be part of a project that keeps me awake, and supple, and taking risks.”