Vera Farmiga laughs as she recalls the perils of both starring in and directing a movie while pregnant with her second child. “We filmed the movie during my second trimester. The third trimester was postproduction. There was a lot going on!”
In the moving, remarkably evenhanded Higher Ground (opening Friday), Farmiga, making her directorial debut, stars as a devout Christian woman of the 1970s whose crisis of faith shakes not only her own soul but that of all those who love her. The actress had been developing the fact-based script with screenwriter Tim Metcalf for a long time, but it was hard to find both financing and a director for a film that covers 20 years in the life of a religious American woman. “When Tim suggested I direct, things started happening very quickly. Quicker than I would have liked! Suddenly there was a rush to shoot before I started to show. It was wild but unstoppable.”
Onscreen and in person, too, Farmiga, 38, pulls one in, inviting intimacy. In movies, you can always see her thinking, which is a beautiful, often intense and regrettably rare quality in American actors. So far, people seem to remember her face more than her name — a point of dismay for her agent, no doubt, but surely the mark of an actor who goes deeply into character.
She's best known for being the police psychiatrist girlfriend to Matt Damon in The Departed and George Clooney's frequent-flier hookup in Up in the Air, a role that brought her an Oscar nomination. But it was her wrenching performance as a cocaine-addicted, working-class mother in Winter's Bone director Debra Granik's debut, Down to the Bone (2004), that put the actress on the map. That film appears to have deeply influenced her directorial choices on Higher Ground.
“The tone of it comes from my formative experience of Debra Granik as a storyteller,” Farmiga says. “Of how just she is, and how she doesn't judge her characters or the situations they find themselves in.”
In Higher Ground (based on Carolyn S. Briggs' 2002 memoir, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Lost and Found), Farmiga plays Corinne, who first raises her hand as a little girl at vacation Bible school to accept Christ as her savior. (The teenage version of Corinne is played by Taissa Farmiga, Vera's younger sister.) Corinne isn't truly “born again” until her 20s, when a car accident nearly kills her, along with her rock musician husband (Joshua Leonard) and their baby daughter. Feeling that God had reached down to save them, Corinne and her husband become devout, eventually joining a fundamentalist community — the old-school kind, grounded in everyday faith, not outerworld politics. All is well, seemingly, until Corinne begins to feel doubt, about nearly everything.
There aren't too many in-demand rising stars, much less first-time directors, who'd risk taking on such socially potent themes, but the insular world of Higher Ground seems like a natural fit for Farmiga, who grew up in rural New Jersey, in a tight-knit, church-centric Ukrainian-American community.
She is reluctant to draw parallels. When I press hard on the connection between Corinne and her own upbringing, Farmiga hesitates, pulling her head back, a bit annoyed perhaps. “There's always an emphasis on defining, isn't there?” she says, almost to herself, and then plunges in. “My family is Christian. Ukrainian Catholic. I went to Ukrainian Catholic school and then, from seventh grade, I went to public school. Most of my extracurricular activities were Ukrainian. Ukrainian Girl Scouts. Called 'Plast,' not regular Girl Scouts. Ukrainian folk dancing. And yes, [for me], as it is for Corinne, the importance of community, and finding identity and expressing individuality within the sense of community, was always challenging.
“We went from that very liturgical — I don't want to call it 'rigid' — way of life, to exploring something looser, a more personal faith. Where you didn't have to go through a pastor to have a relationship with God but could have a direct one yourself. My parents were on a journey. There was always a strong emphasis on defining what God meant to you. That is their primary focus still. I feel like I bounce between these two fundamental ideas of faith.”
Farmiga laughs when I ask if her parents have ever experienced doubt, as if she can't imagine such a thing of a mother and father she obviously reveres. “Maybe! Of course. Sure. They're human, right? My dad, I marvel at him. Seeing the fruits of the Spirit manifest in who he is. He's so gentle, peaceful, joyful, selfless. It's something I've marveled at my whole life. And have … coveted, I guess. He's tapping into something that's pretty wild, but nonjudgmental and openhearted. Humble. Those are all things I wanted Higher Ground to be. To say, it's OK to doubt. Doubt is a good thing. Doubt means your mind is at work. It's universal, whether you're a believer or nonbeliever. We can all connect with the idea of not knowing. Of searching. Of yearning. That yearning is holiness.”