"A Film of One’s Own"
By LYNN HIRSCHBERG
NY TIMES MAGAZINE
September 3, 2006
When the actress Vera Farmiga reads an interesting script for a movie or hears about a role that sounds intriguing, she puts herself on video as the character she would like to play. No one asks her to do this, but often rather than audition in person, she makes these short movies: small but fully realized character studies. She will don wigs, wear carefully considered makeup, design costumes, perfect an accent — whatever she feels is required to embody the character. After the transformation is complete, she stands against a stark white wall in her small colonial house in rural Ulster County, N.Y., and her boyfriend, Renn Hawkey, will film a scene or two as he reads the lines opposite hers. The videos afford Farmiga a pure environment in which to shape an artistic vision, a comfortable space outside the highly competitive world of Hollywood and the terms of its auditions. On the videos, every part is hers.
“That’s how I got the Scorsese film,” Farmiga told me on a warm Sunday last month that happened to be her 33rd birthday. She was referring to her role in “The Departed,” a new cops-and-robbers drama directed by Martin Scorsese and starring, among others, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson. Farmiga plays a police psychiatrist romantically linked to two of the men. “Until I put a character to voice, I don’t know if it can come out the way I feel it,” she said. “On video, the character can find its way out.”
Farmiga (pronounced far-MEE-guh) sat on an oversize brown leather sofa in her living room. She was searching through a pile of audition videos she has made over the last few years. Even in orange flip-flops, a baggy striped T-shirt and rolled-up khaki cargo pants, she has the knowing, melancholy, vaguely pious air of a Russian icon in an illuminated manuscript. Her pale skin is almost translucent, and her large watery blue eyes are searching and empathetic.
“This is it,” she said, pulling out the disc of her self-produced screen test for “The Departed.” “And here is the Minghella tape,” she added, grabbing her video audition for “Breaking and Entering,” a new film by the Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella, in which Farmiga has a supporting role as a Romanian prostitute. The simultaneous release of these two movies, scheduled for this fall, represents what Farmiga called “the promising crescendo of sudden attention. Or tension. I’m never sure which it is.”
She said this with a hint of skepticism. Farmiga has ambitious artistic goals, but after working consistently for nearly a decade, most notably in independent films, where the parts are more varied than they are in movies made by the major studios, she understands how few complex, nuanced and original leading roles are available to women in Hollywood films. Indeed, since the time she started acting, in the 1990’s, the studios have become noticeably more stingy in the opportunities they present for actresses.
As recently as the 80’s, women were often the sole stars of mainstream studio movies like “Terms of Endearment,” “Moonstruck” and “Out of Africa.” For years before, from Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” to Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn in countless roles to Jane Fonda in “Klute” or Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall,” actresses carried films to box-office success. But today, women in mainstream films more often populate the margins as girlfriends, mothers and wives, often with stereotypical personalities. Meryl Streep’s challenging role as a Polish holocaust survivor in “Sophie’s Choice” in 1982, to pick perhaps the most famous example, is an increasingly distant memory.
For the most part at the studios, there are now two genres available to women in leading roles: romantic comedies (which made Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon into huge box-office stars) and women-in-peril films (think of Jodie Foster in the mega-hits “Flightplan” and “Panic Room”). Occasionally, women can be cast in starring roles as action heroes, as with Angelina Jolie in “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” And it’s true that Oscars can be won by playing dramatic real-life characters: Witherspoon won the Academy Award for Best Actress this year for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line,” and Nicole Kidman won in 2003 for her incarnation of Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.” But it says something about the changes in the industry that when Sissy Spacek won the Best Actress Oscar in 1981 for portraying the musician Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” she was the lead in the film, while Witherspoon was playing a secondary character in “Walk the Line.”
Much of the growing reluctance to feature actresses derives from the changing economics of the business: women are no longer big box-office draws, especially in dramas. Twenty years ago, movie budgets were smaller, there were fewer independent productions and the major studios did not aim as specifically as they do now to entertain a vast global audience that prefers action and broad comedy to dialogue and drama. “Studios are now pressured to make films that appeal to the masses,” Tracy Brennan, one of Farmiga’s agents, told me. “And although special effects and explosions are great, you can’t carve out a career the way that Meryl Streep did in those kinds of films.”
In 2005, there was not a single female-driven drama that was a financial blockbuster — not “North Country,” starring the Oscar winner Charlize Theron; not “Proof,” starring another Oscar winner, Gwyneth Paltrow; not “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Even romantic comedies, long a showcase for actresses, are being replaced by male-driven comedies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Wedding Crashers.” The only film among the top-10 highest-grossing movies of 2005 to prominently feature an actress was “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (unless you count “The Chronicles of Narnia,” in which Tilda Swinton plays the White Witch, or “King Kong,” which stars a large, digitally animated gorilla alongside Naomi Watts).
“Dramas, in general, are the most troubled genre,” Nina Jacobson, who was until recently the president of the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group, told me. In an age of home entertainment, she explained, dramas have trouble generating box-office revenue. “Audiences want to laugh with other people, be scared with other people and watch a spectacle with other people,” she said. “These types of movies get them out to the theater. But they don’t feel they have to see a drama with other people. They can rent it later and enjoy it from the comfort of their couch. And women tend to star in dramas. Very few actresses — Julia Roberts in ‘Erin Brockovich’ was one — can attract an audience to a drama.”
Even when a female-oriented film does succeed financially, as with “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, the studio typically credits the box-office bonanza to the male actor. “He’s had lots of flops,” one agent said of Nicholson. “But no one cares. But if an actress has one flop, her stock is immediately down.”
One place actresses are still the dominant force is on the newsstand. Female stars may not sell tickets, but they do sell magazines. The tabloids — US Weekly, The National Enquirer, In Touch, even Vanity Fair — have invented their own movielike narratives for stars like Jennifer Aniston, Nicole Kidman and Lindsay Lohan. But this type of exposure may be making the possibility of serious leading roles only more remote. Because of their tabloid fame, it is increasingly difficult for these actresses to be seen by audiences as characters who are much more than versions of themselves. That may be why “The Break-Up” has been the only big-screen success for Aniston: the plot of the movie, which also starred her real-life boyfriend, Vince Vaughn, neatly mirrored her tabloid storyline.
“Celebrity is the enemy of stardom,” said Jacobson, who cast Lohan in “Freaky Friday” at Disney and then watched in dismay as parents shunned Lohan in another Disney release, “Herbie Fully Loaded,” as her party-girl reputation was celebrated in the tabloids. “Lindsay is so talented, but celebrity takes a lot of promising talent out of the mix,” Jacobson continued. “The public knows which stars pursue celebrity to feed their own ego and narcissism. These days, it’s hard to stay on course to be the next Meryl Streep. It’s easier to show up on the red carpet in a borrowed dress.”
Throughout her career, Streep has played nearly every sort of role, from comedic to dramatic, but she has never appeared in a special-effects-loaded action film. She has been nominated for a record 13 Academy Awards and has won twice, for “Sophie’s Choice” and for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” in which she portrayed a woman who abandons her young son and husband. “Today both of those movies would be rejected by the studios and made by an independent,” Jacobson said. Streep has also retained an air of mystery. She is well known as an actress, not a personality. (It’s indicative of her attitude toward publicity that she politely declined to comment for this article.) Her lack of tabloid celebrity, along with her astonishing talent and range, has allowed her to consistently invent characters that defy easy categorization. As recently as this summer, she took a cliché — Miranda Priestley, the imperious boss in “The Devil Wears Prada” — and transformed the character by playing her as a silky, canny and unique individual.
“Meryl Streep is always specific and precise in her interpretations,” Anthony Minghella told me. “And I find that those sorts of women are now virtually nonexistent in studio films. Even talented actresses are given nothing to play, and they don’t all have Meryl Streep’s inventiveness when the material is lacking.” Minghella says he worries about the prospects for an actress with the ambitions of Farmiga. “Increasingly, audiences are uncomfortable with any subject that is not aspirational,” he said, “and the studios acquiesce rather than provide an alternative that might inspire a new audience. It’s too easy and potentially dangerous a label to hang on her, but Vera is of the quality of Meryl Streep. Her characters have the same sense of depth and commitment. The question is, Is it even possible to have a career like Meryl Streep’s now?”
At her house, Farmiga took the audition video for “The Departed” out of its plastic case and slid the disc into her laptop computer. Her image came on the screen. In the video, Farmiga’s hair was honey blond and shoulder length, and she looked rather giddy and girlish. The scene was flirty romantic, a sparks-flying exchange in an elevator with Damon’s character. “We really had to come up with something for this character,” Farmiga said to me. “I did my best, but there was really nothing to play here. I wanted to make this movie because I wanted to work with Marty.” Back on the screen, Farmiga was doing another scene. As the character, she mimed a kiss. “That’s what hooked Marty,” she said.
Originally, Scorsese wanted to cast a known actress, either Kate Winslet or Hilary Swank, in the part. Even though he tends to focus on men in his films, Scorsese has begun or enhanced the careers of nearly every actress who has appeared in his movies. From the young Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver” to Ellen Burstyn, who won an Oscar for her performance in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” to Sandra Bernhard in “The King of Comedy,” Scorsese’s selection of actresses has been varied and surprising. “On this picture, we decided to go with someone new,” Scorsese told me recently on the phone from the editing room where he was finishing “The Departed.” His casting director showed him a scene from a film called “Down to the Bone,” in which Farmiga plays a working-class mother of two who is a drug addict. “The picture was dark — you couldn’t even see the image,” Scorsese recalled. “I thought: Is this a trick question? Where’s the actor? So I watched the whole movie. And I thought, She is very interesting.”
“Down to the Bone” is Farmiga’s best work. A sensation at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, the film is based on footage of an actual recovering drug user. The director, Debra Granik, researched her subject for nearly five years and then cast Farmiga in the part. Unlike most movies about addiction, “Down to the Bone” does not romanticize its subject. Irene, Farmiga’s character, lives in a small, working-class town in upstate New York. Her attempts at rehab routinely fail, and she has the vulnerability and fear of a person who is always about to stumble. Farmiga’s performance is extraordinarily complex; her depiction of the small, minute-by-minute agonies of her character’s life is haunting. “There are some times when I think acting can be a noble profession,” Farmiga told me. “And when those rare roles come along, like ‘Down to the Bone,’ you have the opportunity to be of service.”
Farmiga, of course, is only one of the gifted American actresses who choose to work in the world of independent films. Laura Linney had her breakthrough in 2000 in “You Can Count On Me,” and although she has acted consistently since, her most recent role in a studio film was in “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” a mediocre horror movie. Robin Wright Penn could have simply capitalized on her beauty — she was, after all, the ethereal princess in “The Princess Bride” — but the roles the studios offered were not appealing or challenging, so she has largely opted to do more imaginative work in small films, like last year’s “Sorry, Haters,” that are produced outside the studio system. Actresses as varied as Jennifer Jason Leigh, Maria Bello, Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter (to name just a few) are in much the same predicament as Farmiga: if playing a range of well-conceived parts is your goal, the studio options are severely limited.
In honor of her performance in “Down to the Bone,” Farmiga won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress in 2005. It was not only a statement about her talent but also a reminder of how few established actresses were offered great roles last year. “Down to the Bone” has become Farmiga’s calling card. Her manager, Jon Rubenstein, used the film to help her land some powerful new agents, Tracy Brennan and Kevin Huvane of the Creative Artists Agency. (Huvane, the managing director and a partner at C.A.A., represents nearly every major actress in Hollywood, including Meryl Streep.) “The studios say that women’s careers die at 40,” a figure in the industry who works closely with Huvane told me. “But Kevin has always maintained that you don’t get anything accomplished if you believe that. But even Kevin knows that women have fewer opportunities than men. And movies like ‘Down to the Bone,’ which no one saw, will only take you so far.”
After Scorsese saw Farmiga in “Down to the Bone,” he watched her audition video and then had her read with DiCaprio. He was sold. But despite his enthusiasm, the executives at Warner Brothers were not persuaded. Though “The Departed” was otherwise stocked with big box-office male stars, Warner Brothers was eager for a female name like Hilary Swank, who had just won her second Best Actress Oscar for her role as a female boxer in “Million Dollar Baby.” (That part, incidentally, was one that Rubenstein wanted for Farmiga.) “Marty had to fight for me,” Farmiga recalled as she put her audition video for “The Departed” back in its case. “And so did C.A.A. I had to do a ‘pretty pitch’ for the studio. They had seen ‘Down to the Bone,’ and they wanted to make sure I was attractive enough to play the part in ‘The Departed.’ I was told to make sure to wear the appropriate makeup. And a skirt. I mean, how old am I?”
Eventually, Warner Brothers agreed to Scorsese’s choice. But despite Farmiga’s elation at landing a potentially career-making role, she says she felt that the part was underwritten. “There was no real personality to the character,” Farmiga told me. After the film was finished, Scorsese agreed to deepen the character, reshooting and adding scenes. “It got better after that,” Farmiga said. “But the character is still more of a device than anything else.”
While Farmiga was being cast in “The Departed,” Anthony Minghella happened to see her in “Touching Evil,” a short-lived television show from 2004 that was playing in syndication at 3 a.m. in England, where he lives. “I was up late working,” he told me recently on the phone from London, “and this show was on, and I had to watch the whole thing because this policewoman really caught my attention. That was Vera. Then I saw ‘Down to the Bone,’ and the contrast between this scrubbed-up policewoman and this destroyed drug addict was so striking. I had to meet her. I realized that she could have played all the women in my film.”
“Breaking and Entering,” Minghella’s latest, is a drama about two women, each with troubled children, whose lives intersect through a character played by Jude Law. Because of scheduling conflicts, Farmiga could not be considered for the two leads (those parts went to Juliette Binoche and Robin Wright Penn), but she saw something compelling in a smaller role in the script, that of a Romanian prostitute. “I put the character on video for Anthony,” she said as she slid the disc of that audition into her computer. On the screen, Farmiga was wearing smudged makeup and a half-open trench coat. Her hair was styled in tumbling curls, and her lips were blurry with red lipstick. She performed the scene with a thick accent. Minghella was so struck by Farmiga’s interpretation of the character, he said, that he changed only her costume for the film.
Farmiga ejected the disc. “I wish I could show you another video that has worked,” she said. “But even with the videos, I lost all the other parts.” She looked through the pile. There was an audition for “Grindhouse,” Quentin Tarantino’s latest project, for which she would have played a dancer. “I think Rosario Dawson got that one,” she said. And an audition for a movie called “Savages,” a family drama. On that video, she was wearing a jean jacket and smoking a cigarette. “Oh, God — I’m awful in this,” Farmiga exclaimed. “Thank God I didn’t get it.”
She rummaged through the pile again. “Oh, this one I really wanted,” she said, and put the disc in her computer. On the screen, Farmiga appeared in a scruffy beard and mustache, her hair done in a rock-star shag. She was auditioning for a film about Bob Dylan by the director Todd Haynes in which several different characters, men and women, will depict aspects of Dylan’s life. “This is what Cate Blanchett will win an Oscar for,” Farmiga said, staring at herself onscreen. “I lost this part to her.” She paused. “Next time,” she said. “It could be different next time.”
“You have to really want a part to come to St. Petersburg to shoot a film in winter,” Farmiga told me in April. She was talking on the set of “In Tranzit,” an independent film, partly financed with Russian money, which takes place just after World War II. Farmiga had the starring role: a doctor who is overseeing a Russian prison camp that is housing German prisoners of war. Most of the seven-week shoot took place in an abandoned glue factory in St. Petersburg. On the day that I arrived, a freezing, gray, 17-degree day, Farmiga, dressed in period garb — a heavy military coat over a white doctor’s smock — was filming a scene in an upstairs room of a bombed-out building that had filthy broken windows and trash-strewn hallways. The conditions on the set were terrible: Farmiga’s tiny trailer, which doubled as her dressing room, had no heat or running water for the first few weeks, when the temperature was regularly 20 below. With only a few days left in the shoot, garbage had accumulated all over the set, and several feral dogs were roaming around the glue factory in search of scraps.
“Because of the severity of this place, it’s easy to get into character,” joked the director Tom Roberts, who has made critically acclaimed documentaries about war-torn countries and suicide bombers. This was his first dramatic feature. He stared at a monitor while Farmiga ran through a scene for the second time. “I have nothing to say,” Roberts said enthusiastically. “It was perfect.”
Farmiga, who was wearing a wig of red curls, looked fragile in the oversize army gear. She asked if she could do one more take. In the scene, Farmiga’s character finds out that her shell-shocked husband has reported her to the authorities, labeling her a traitor and endangering her life. Farmiga could play the scene several ways: loud and angry or perhaps aggrieved and nearly speechless. She wanted to try a mix of both. “We never do more than three takes,” she said later. “And we usually do two. I’ve never worked this fast. We will sometimes shoot nine scenes in a day, and I’m in every one. They are trying to save money by speeding things along, but it’s like running a marathon in flip-flops. You may get to the finish line, but it won’t be pretty.”
Roberts agreed to another take, and Farmiga shot the scene again. She opted for a quiet, almost forlorn response to her husband’s betrayal. The challenge of the part was apparent: to portray a character who has divided loyalties, great compassion and a Russian accent. In most scripts set in this period, Farmiga’s character would be a man. “Bingo!” Farmiga said later. “I finally got the guy’s role!” She then paused. “It’s terrifying to be the lead. There’s a moment of excitement, and then pure terror.”
Farmiga wanted the challenge of playing the lead role, but she also took the part as a kind of homage to her grandmother, who was a nurse at a Ukrainian transit camp after the war. “She hardened her heart,” Farmiga recalled as we sat in her rickety trailer, which swayed from side to side like a sailboat. “But she had so much love for us.” The oldest girl in a family of seven children, Farmiga grew up in Irvington, N.J., a blue-collar town not far from Newark. She spoke only Ukrainian until she went to kindergarten. Farmiga’s father is a computer-systems analyst, and her mother is a former schoolteacher. “They rarely had time for movies,” Farmiga said as she changed out of her military uniform into jeans, which she wore under her dress for warmth. “It never occurred to me to be an actress. But then, in my late teens, I was benched in soccer, and my best friend convinced me to try out for the school play. I had had my heart broken, and the play was a melodrama called ‘The Vampire,’ and it was a great emotional outlet.”
She took off her wig, exposing her short blond hair. Suddenly, she looked 10 years younger. “I was raised by Catholic parents, with a profound awareness and reverence for God,” she said. “And ingrained in me is the idea of service with a glad heart with the talent you were given. We all have the ability to serve God and each other with our talents. I choose roles with that objective. I really think that’s why I act. I’ve never sought out parts where you float around in beautiful dresses and have no character.” Even when Anthony Minghella recommended Farmiga (“I speak about her to everyone,” he said. “I think she can do anything”) to the producers of the new James Bond film, “Casino Royale,” she needed to find an emotional connection to the character of the Bond girl to justify flying to London to audition for the part. “The character was Bond’s first love,” Farmiga said. “He never really got over her, and those emotions started to interest me. And to be honest, the whole process of auditioning for that role was fascinating, like visiting some other acting stratosphere. I flew to London. They took me to a dressing room and gave me the same kind of fake breasts that Angelina Jolie wore in the first ‘Tomb Raider’ film.” Farmiga cupped her hand and mimed putting on the Lara Croft chest. “It was kind of fun in the end,” she said, laughing. “But I also knew I wouldn’t get the part.”
Like Streep, who insisted on auctioning off all her designer costumes from “The Devil Wears Prada” for charity, Farmiga is wary of the red-carpet dress-up component of show business. Hollywood has always been the land of dreams, of gorgeous people in stunning clothes. But in the eras of Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and even Cher, Oscar gowns were not an opportunity for product placement. The red carpet has become another marketplace, and most of the top actresses today (Nicole Kidman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julianne Moore and others) sign lucrative advertising contracts with fashion or cosmetics companies. To a point, this kind of fame does help when courting the studios; studio executives are interested in brand recognition, as long as the brand is not too tawdry or disruptive. But even Kidman, with her Oscar, global name recognition and photo in nearly every issue of US Weekly, could not lure audiences to “The Stepford Wives” or “Bewitched,” two recent expensive studio flops. As an actress, Kidman was more interesting when she was less of a style icon. In a movie like “To Die For,” in 1995, she dissolved into the character of a ruthlessly aspiring TV personality. Now she has become too famous as Nicole Kidman to disappear fully into any other persona.
Farmiga has never been attracted to fame for fame’s sake. At Syracuse University, she majored in theater and after graduation in 1995 immediately found an agent. In 1996, she landed a starring role in the TV show “Roar,” opposite Heath Ledger. “It was trying to be ‘Braveheart’ but it ended up as a Xena-Hercules kind of thing in the Celtic islands, which we doubled in Australia,” she said. “We did 13 episodes, and it paid off my college tuition.” For most of her career, Farmiga has shuttled between independent films and episodic dramatic television. “I’ve always been lucky in that none of the TV shows were popular,” she continued. “I’ve never gone beyond 13 episodes. I did TV because independent films pay very little and I needed to live. But I’ve never wanted to be locked into a series, even when the part was interesting. I became an actor to play all sorts of different roles in films. I left my agents because they were focusing on television.”
This was a defining decision. Television is far more open to women in lead roles than studio movies are. For instance, although Meryl Streep has never done a TV series, she has found intriguing parts on the small screen, most recently her Emmy Award-winning performance in “Angels in America” on HBO. Women make up the most consistent part of the television audience, which prompts network and cable executives to create all kinds of female-driven fare. Serious actresses, from Edie Falco on “The Sopranos” to Felicity Huffman on “Desperate Housewives” to Mary-Louise Parker on “Weeds,” have found more meaningful roles in TV than in studio films.
Farmiga made the transition to film with the help of her video auditions. At the suggestion of her manager, she put together her first video in 1999 and landed the pivotal role of a Czech women who witnesses two murders in a film called “15 Minutes,” starring Robert DeNiro. The videos have helped again and again. Soon after signing with C.A.A., Farmiga was asked to make a video in which she played her agent Tracy Brennan, who has a distinctive mane of hair and an idiosyncratic, rat-a-tat-tat vocal style. The tape was shown at the agency’s annual retreat, and everyone in the agency immediately became aware of Farmiga’s talents. (“I’ve never laughed so hard,” Brennan said. “She does me better than I do myself.”) The response to the Brennan tape led other C.A.A. agents to recommend Farmiga for roles.
Last year, Farmiga was cast in “Running Scared,” a studio film released by New Line Cinema and directed by Wayne Kramer. She played the wife of a gangster on the run. Farmiga liked Kramer’s work; his previous film, “The Cooler,” was a gritty independent movie that garnered Alec Baldwin an Oscar nomination. But her experience with “Running Scared” ended up serving as a reminder of the potential perils of working with the studios. New Line decided to promote the film with a highly unusual Web site. In one scene shot for the movie, Farmiga and Paul Walker, who plays her character’s husband, have sex on top of a washing machine. For the promotional site, the studio created an animated version of the scene so that anyone visiting the site (anyone 17 or older, that is) could manipulate Farmiga’s cartoon image, as if in some pornographic video game, until she reached orgasm.
“Now you know why I prefer independent films,” Farmiga told me ruefully when I asked about the incident. Though she didn’t comment on it at the time, she now says that “it can be impossible to preserve a noble image in this industry. I gave them a very respectful portrait. It was reduced to pornography for the sake of marketing. And I thought it was shameful.”
In the last six months, Farmiga has made one independent film after another. She said she would like to make a studio film, but while she was in St. Petersburg, the compelling scripts sent to her by her agent and manager were all going to Rachel Weisz, the actress who won an Oscar in March for her performance in “The Constant Gardener.” In Farmiga’s cozy room at the Angleterre Hotel near the Hermitage, there was a pile of at least 20 scripts next to her couch. Sometimes on Sundays, her one day off, she would get into bed, defrost under her down comforter, drink borscht ordered from room service and try to find her next role.
“There are only four or five studio projects that I like,” she said as we left the trailer. “And two of them Rachel Weisz is doing.” One non-Weisz part intrigued her. It was in a script called “Pride and Glory” about an Irish-American clan of cops; Farmiga would play a woman stricken with cancer. Earlier that same day, she refused a cookie because she said she felt that a woman undergoing chemotherapy would be noticeably concave. Farmiga didn’t have the part yet, but she was already dieting. “I want to shave my head,” she said as we sloshed through icy puddles on the way to her car. Mentally, imaginatively, she was somewhere else, probably in America, maybe in a hospital gown, with a terminal disease. “Bald caps never look right,” she continued. “There are imperfections in the scalp that they don’t capture. And you want the imperfections. Without those, there’s no character.”
Two months later, in mid-June, Farmiga was on the set of “Joshua,” an independently produced psychological thriller about a young, successful urban family with an evil 9-year-old child. “The woman I play is going through postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter,” Farmiga explained. She was costumed in a loose skirt, billowing postpregnancy top and a padded bra to simulate the appearance of a nursing mother. She was sitting on a piano bench in the oak-paneled dining room of her character’s house, a large Victorian situated on the water at Fort Totten, a former Army base in Bayside, Queens. This was doubling for an apartment in Manhattan. “I found this character fascinating,” Farmiga said. “What would it be like to think your own child was going to kill you?”
Farmiga also wanted to work with the actor Sam Rockwell, who was playing her character’s husband. The two actors had an easy rapport, which contrasted with the stiffness of Jacob Kogan, the 11-year-old child playing Joshua. He is the true star of the movie — the other roles, despite being played by much more accomplished actors, are all reacting to his. This is typical: in Hollywood, especially in studio films, there are more varied and complex roles available to children than there are to women. As a genre, kidcentric movies are a necessary component of any major studio’s yearly production agenda. Dakota Fanning, who is 12, is more likely to be offered the starring role in a drama than most older actresses are.
In the last few years, former child actors like Lindsay Lohan and Scarlett Johansson have emerged as the new generation of female stars. Unlike the women of Meryl Streep’s generation, they did not attend drama school. Their training has been on the job in Hollywood films, and even when they are talented, they do not have much life experience or sense of craft. They are programmed for stardom rather than for acting.
Farmiga is almost in a different business than someone like Lohan. The scripts that she’s reading, the parts that she wants, exist in a separate, distinct (and very small) region of Hollywood. In the last few weeks, she has been excited about seven scripts, which is more than she usually likes. She wasn’t even considered for one of those roles, the part of a British nurse in the new David Cronenberg movie, “Eastern Promises,” which went to Naomi Watts.
There are other possibilities: her representatives arranged a meeting with Terry George, the director of “Hotel Rwanda,” for his next project, “Reservation Road.” Based on the John Burnham Schwartz novel, the drama is about two men who are on opposite sides of a hit-and-run accident in which one man’s son is killed. “I got a request the other day to put myself on tape,” she said as the cameras were set up for the next scene. “Another film that Rachel Weisz had planned to do. She had the great, main part, but there’s another part for me. It’s about two couples that consider adultery. The competition on that film is tough.”
Farmiga did not get the role of the cancer patient in “Pride and Glory” — it went to an English actress named Jennifer Ehle. Usually, Farmiga is not competing with other American actresses for parts. In other English-speaking countries, even young actresses like Keira Knightley and Abbie Cornish (who is the newest sensation from Australia) aim for meatier roles. Foreign-born actresses of Farmiga’s generation, like Cate Blanchett (who is Australian) and Rachel Weisz (who is English), strive for a Streep-like career. Like Farmiga, they long to lose themselves in demanding roles. But in America, celebrity has trumped art for most young actresses. “It’s Hollywood’s fault,” the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who has consistently created intriguing and layered female characters for his films, told me. “In other countries, we encourage diversity, and we want to tell stories about all kinds of women. In the last decade, you can count the number of Hollywood dramas that have revolved around women. The studios have forgotten that women are fascinating. They are more than just mannequins.”
After “Joshua,” Farmiga has agreed to film another independent movie called “Never Forever.” “In that, I play a woman who is married to a Korean man,” she explained. “They can’t have a baby. She is the most demure character I’ve ever played. She wants to please her husband, and she meets a Korean immigrant and hires him to impregnate her.” Farmiga paused. A crew member needed to touch up her makeup before the next scene. “ ‘Never Forever’ is really a story about self-awareness through desire,” she said. “But it has this ‘Belle de Jour’ quality. The couple fall in love through sex.”
None of Farmiga’s last four movies, two of which were made by first-time feature directors, have distribution deals in place. “Never Forever” and “Quid Pro Quo,” in which she plays an able-bodied woman who wishes to be disabled, are distinctly uncommercial. With independent films, the hope is that they will be screened on the festival circuit and then purchased by a studio for a theatrical release. Nothing about this process is certain — many independent films are never seen in theaters. And even when independent films are bought by a distributor, the theatrical run can be short and small. No matter how many awards it won, “Down to the Bone” played for only a few weeks in one theater in Manhattan. “The career path that Vera has chosen is challenging,” her agent Tracy Brennan, said. “You often won’t make an incredible living. You probably won’t become internationally famous. But you will do fascinating work that will, if you’re lucky, stand the test of time.”
Ultimately, Farmiga may be more comfortable in smaller films. She says she realizes that Hollywood is a numbers game: the more box-office hits, the more awards, the greater the chance that any part will be yours. “But the idea of fame does make me anxious,” she told me. “I think the worst thing that can happen to a good actor is fame. The limelight is a tricky place, because you can’t believe what’s going on around you. You stop observing. You stop perceiving. You stop extending yourself, and you become isolated. Our duty as actors is to remain compassionate and curious. Fame complicates all that.” Farmiga smiled. “But maybe I could have an independent-film sort of fame. I could be known to those who would want to see those kind of films. If you like darkness and complication, I’m your girl.”
In the grassy land that surrounds Farmiga’s house in upstate New York sits a pile of ashes. “This is where I burn the scripts,” she said as she circled the scarred earth with her two pet goats. “I stack up all those crass female characters, all those utterly ordinary women, all those hundreds and hundreds of parts that have no substance or meaning and turn them into a blazing pyre.” She kicked some charred pages that had somehow escaped the flames. “It’s really cathartic,” she said. “It’s my revenge on Hollywood insensitivity and greed. The ashes go to the compost. At least the scripts can finally help the world in some way.”
Farmiga does not usually sound this angry, but her frustration is understandable and even a little comforting. “I was ready to leave acting altogether after ‘Joshua,”’ she said as she returned the goats to their large pen. “I was ready to become a shepherdess. After five weeks of psychotic postpartum depression and with that child about to kill me, I was a wreck.” Farmiga walked up a small hill to the back door of her house. “But I recovered,” she continued, as she collapsed onto a sofa in her living room. “I think I want to quit acting after every movie. Each time I have to decide whether or not I want to go back to the struggle of seducing people into believing that I am an entirely different individual. It’s especially challenging when Hollywood would like me to be the same bland character over and over again.” She pointed to a pile of scripts on the coffee table. “Those need to be burned,” she said.
Minghella says that after “Breaking and Entering” and the Scorsese movie, Farmiga may help to usher in a new wave of femalecentric films. “I think if you build it, audiences will come,” he said. “Unfortunately, Hollywood is too interested in stories about power and strength. Women’s lives are more complicated: they have to manage private and public lives in a way that men don’t. I, for one, am tired of seeing movies about men damaging each other. I would rather see, and make, films about women.”
Perhaps Farmiga will carve out a career on the outskirts of Hollywood. Catherine Keener, for instance, offers a model: she began in independent films and has never based her career on her looks or any particular public persona. Last year, Keener played Harper Lee in “Capote” (an independent) and an F.B.I. agent opposite Sean Penn in “The Interpreter” (a studio blockbuster). She inhabited both characters seamlessly.
And Keener is not the only actress doing interesting work. In the next few months, the prestige season of the movie business, there are a few strong female performances. Helen Mirren is compelling as Queen Elizabeth in “The Queen”; Annette Bening is theatrical and loopy in “Running With Scissors”; and an Asian actress named Rinko Kikuchi is heart-breaking as a deaf-mute in “Babel.” And the breakthrough female performance of the year belongs to Penélope Cruz. When cast in Hollywood films, Cruz has been relegated to the role of the beauty. But in “Volver,” Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, he imagines her differently: Cruz is still sexy, but she’s also independent, maternal, mercurial, determined. “No one in Hollywood has ever asked me to be anything other than attractive,” Cruz told me at the Cannes Film Festival, where the women of “Volver” shared the Best Actress prize. “They have no idea what women can do. They don’t give them the chance.”
Farmiga has not seen “Volver,” but she told me that she is still searching for that sort of opportunity. “I really don’t feel a need to be famous,” she repeated. “But I do feel a need to make a difference, to shed light on human emotion through acting. It sounds strange, but I don’t recognize myself in the women in most films. And I should be up there somewhere. We all should.”
Lynn Hirschberg, editor at large for the magazine, writes regularly about Hollywood and film.