SXSW Interview: Vera Farmiga “If you’re frustrated with not working, then create your own opportunity”

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In the new sci-fi thriller, Source Code, Vera Farmiga plays ‘Goodwin’, a mysterious Military Officer who sends Jake Gyllenhaal on a mission to save thousands of lives. Her character spends the majority of time dealing deal with Gyllenhaal, as he attempts to understand what is happening to him.

In the film, Farmiga acts right to the camera as she’s talking to Gyllenhaal and she admits, that “acting with those physical limitations” is hard.

I talked to Vera at SXSW in a roundtable interview about rehearsing with Gyllenhaal, if acting to a camera got any easier and how visuals help her create a character.

This interview is spoiler heavy, so I left a lot out in the transcript. For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

Did you have to do a lot of like research before filming?

Vera Farmiga: This wasn’t a real research kind of a role, it was really just using your imagination and working in the confines of the role which was pretty limited as far as the kinds of roles that I’m normally drawn to, is pretty much the antithesis of this character. But arc is always important to me and I found the challenge of that arc within these limitations, these 8 minute increments, I found that to be compelling.

How quickly she changes and the moral dilemma within that – treating ‘Colter’ [Gyllenhaal’s character’ as science project first - and then getting to know him personally in this 8 minute increments and then having that impact the way she does her job. So that’s really what I focused on most, the pyscho-spiritual energy between the two and how best to convey it when the actor’s not in your presence. I did not work with Jake at all, except for in rehearsals. It’s important in rehearsals to hash out some stuff and we did. We sat opposite the table in rehearsals so with had that time spent, and he was there a couple of days reading lines off camera, but other than that it was the script supervisor and me staring in the barrel of the lens which is extremely difficult to do for an actor who spends most of your time ignoring it.

So, thinking about the character in these ways, how best to convey the emotional life of the character and the mental life with very little movement and the confines of the space.

How did you become involve with the film?

Vera Farmiga: I’m a tremendous fan, it really stems from that, I saw Moon at least 8 times.

You brought up those moments where you and Jake only have like about 2 minutes before you have push it back to the Source Code. How did you keep your energy where you had to be so simple but then to be so exact while you were doing that?

Vera Farmiga: I think I do have a tendency I think to embellish and luxuriate. To me what’s most important, and this is where I had to be efficient and this is where Duncan was very useful as a director; cracking that we’ve been saying, “urgency, urgency, urgency. Keep in mind, you’ve got there hundreds of lives that are about to be lost.” And he really kept reminding me of that because I think it’s a tendency as an actress… I think, what compels me about a character is not what the written lines are but what happens in between the lines, and what the character is not saying. I tend to luxuriate in that way because I think that’s what flushes out a role for an audience. And there’s great opportunity there as an actress so I think, it’s Duncan. It was Duncan just being the metronome. Because in a role like this you almost want to do more, you tend to want to, you only have a certain amount of time, let me make this and he was like, “No.” Deflating that accordion every time it opens up.

Did you guys talk it all about the multi-verse and the science behind the Source Code?

Vera Farmiga: Yeah, but Duncan has that kind of a brain. I like listening to it, but I’m very much me and in the now, and I guess you have to be a philosopher in nature in that respect. It’s too mind boggling for me.

What was the most difficult part about filming Source Code?

Vera Farmiga: The most difficult thing is having a scene where there’s legitimately 2 characters but not being in the presence of each other. Shooting is difficult and acting with those physical limitations is that’s hard. But also, expository dialogue is maddening for an actor. It really is. It’s boring. All it is is information. It’s very difficult to infuse character in it and nuance and there’s a whole lot of it for me. So finding my way through that was a challenge and conveying that in an interesting way, I think that is challenging.

And you mention that because you had to stare right at the camera while you were shooting those scenes. Was there an iChat where you got to see your own image?

Vera Farmiga: There was only a camera, there was only like a barrel camera this big that was right in front. And there were not only that camera, I mean that’s Jake’s perspective. Then you have the audience’s perspective and there’s usually 2 cameras from either side at different lenses perceiving the audience perception of me. So were going between these 2 different experiences of Jake’s character and the audience perspectives. And a couple of days, we had speaker systems and Jake showed up and did his lines. But you see in the last moments of the film what I’m actually seeing to be able to communicate and that’s an entirely different, again not revealing too much. There’s a couple of times like, “let me try staring at my reflection,” so it feels like there’s someone there ‘cause you can see your little self in the thing. And then I stopped to think, “Oh man, I become like I could come across cross-eyed.” So I stop after a while. [laughs]

Did it ever get any easier?

Vera Farmiga: Yeah, yeah, once you accept it. And everything’s easier after day 1. The first time you’re really in your uniform and you feel that starch and the polyester, it’s like it takes a while to just, takes a good 24 hours to get through the first day and then everything comes easier for me at least. I just have to get through the first day and then there’s more of an ease to it. And what was very interesting to is that Duncan gave us the luxury because it was just one space we have the luxury of chronology and to be able to shoot the scenes in sequence. So I could have a, even my discomfort, or the actor’s discomfort with it, also translated to my discomfort was him getting to know this guy who’s a part of this mission, so it may have helped in that respect.

After being bottled up in this movie, would you want to trade places with Jake and maybe do the running around with big explosions?

Vera Farmiga: Well I feel like I usually get that role and especially in independent cinema, I mean this is a studio film, and I find in studio films like I don’t often get that role but in independent films I do. And I do more independent films than I do studios. But I do get that opportunity a lot, a lot, a lot, lot, it’s just with smaller paychecks.

What’s your, if you could give a small tidbit advice to actors, what would that be?

Vera Farmiga: If you’re frustrated with not working, then create your own opportunity. I think it’s so easy these days with cameras that are cheaper and cheaper each year, and everything’s turning digital; camera phones. I think short films are as important as features. And if you’re frustrated just do it. Stop waiting for people to… that’s how I directed Higher Ground. And this was after the Oscars last year, granted I was just about, I mean I found out that I was 2 weeks pregnant 3 days before the Oscars so that put me out of the loop for certain things but still, I just wasn’t, I mean great material always comes my way, but still given the economy, it’s just really few and far between to read those gems. And it’s pretty cut throat for actresses who are vying for those roles. And so, my manager gave me that advice, he said, “What are you waiting for? Stop asking for permission. Just create your own opportunity.” And if there’s a will then there is a way. I mean but you’ve gotta have a story to tell or an idea or if you wanna work badly enough there’s always people that you can collaborate with to at least keep your craft sharp.

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