Sick of sequels, prequels, and fromage-y franchises? Well, along comes Higher Ground—director/star Vera Farmiga‘s adaptation of Carolyn S. Briggs’s 2002 memoir, This Dark World—which restores moviegoers’ belief in 13 well-spent dollars, As God is my witness.
The arthouse drama follows the evolution of Corinne (based on Briggs), a soul-searching evangelical Christian who struggles to rectify her doubts, while alternately tangling with her hubby and born-again dogma. Farmiga—who was Oscar-nominated for 2009’s Up in the Air—turns in a carefully crafted and complex piece of work that avoids unholy pitfalls. And she didn’t even want to direct it at first!
Our interdenominational chat the other day went like so:
Me: Congrats on a quality film, Vera. So this is your directorial debut?
Farmiga: Aside from the goofball horror film I made with my in-laws on the island. But in some ways that did prepare me for a film about spirituality. [Laughs.]
Me: I’m impressed that you didn’t really bash religion in this movie. I would have.
Farmiga: I have difficulty dismissing other people’s passions. I find films about faith to be geared to people on either side of that pew. It’s either the kind of film to convert or the kind to unconvert. And I wasn’t making that kind of film. It’s a story about a woman asking questions.
Me: [Spoiler alert!] But doesn’t Corinne find her answer? Why doesn’t she just walk away after the hideous showdown with her husband?
Farmiga: She also does not behave correctly in that car scene. She basically castrates him. The film is not just about what an arduous journey it is to define God for yourself. It’s about how do you continue having faith in marriage. They came together as a poetess and a musician wanting to write lyrics and music, which is divine. It started as a soulful connection, and as they began a love affair with God, they lost sight of each other. One became very rigid in his concept of God, with not much room for her to embrace the gray area of her faith. Why doesn’t she walk away? It’s a testament to how much value she puts in her relationship and her family. You have the choice to walk away and break down, or you can let that break you open.
Me: I see you haven’t thought this through at all. [Laughs.] Are there other faith films that you have faith in?
Farmiga: The Apostle is one of my top-five films. I love fully dimensionalized portraits of spirituality, whether it’s Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, or sweat lodges. The way that we all yearn to understand ourselves through our concept of God—that yearning is holiness to me. Especially in this weird time of holy wars, we have to understand each other’s concepts of God and respect them.
Me: Thanks for including so many New York theater types in your film [Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy, etc.]. Was casting your sister Taissa as the young you a no-brainer?
Farmiga: Yes. Her face is the stuff of paintings. There’s the scene where she’s holding the baby girl—who happens to be my son. I had to establish the maternal relationship in 20 seconds, and she’s my son’s favorite aunt.
Me: Your son plays your daughter?
Farmiga: I’ll be hearing about it in 15 or 20 years. [Laughs.]
Me: You’re one of seven Ukrainian-American siblings from Passaic. How did that large family shape your world view?
Farmiga: It gives you an automatic gumption because you’ve got to fend for yourself and be bold, otherwise you won’t get that last piece of bread. You also have to learn certain graces, like patience and tolerance.
Me: Did you ever have a Gypsy moment, where you looked in the mirror and said, “Mama, I’m pretty”?
Farmiga: No. There weren’t many mirrors in the house. And I was too busy to have those moments. My parents kept me busy with Ukrainian folk dancing and piano. At the same time, there was a good measure of competition. I was always measuring myself against others—knowing I wasn’t one of the lead dancers.
Me: Flash-forward to the Oscars: Did you want to kill Mo’Nique?
Farmiga: I only wanted to kill Mo’Nique for not introducing herself to me or not finding the opportunity. We were in the same room many times. I respected her so much for the performance. I was rooting for her. It’s weird that you can spend so much time together on the run and not even meet each other. One of her mottoes was something I applied to Higher Ground. She said at the Golden Globes, “Just be it. Don’t judge it. And leave it on the floor.”
Me: That sounds very Rocky Horror Show.
Farmiga: Which I think Higher Ground has a potential to become! [She laughs and starts crooning a hymn as if it were a sing-along.]
Me: You’re also starring in the movie of A View From the Bridge?
Farmiga: That project fell apart. It’s the climate.
Me: And at one point, you were going to be in the Madonna-directed W.E.?
Farmiga: Yes. Madonna and I had met several times. We wanted to embark on that working relationship, and then I got knocked up! My expanding waistline was not gonna cut it. But it was nice to shoot the shit with Madonna.
Me: She’s on a higher ground. By the way, your big quote on IMDb is about how you’re the anti-Barbie.
Farmiga: Who writes this stuff? I said it at 21. What preschooler has written my bio on IMDb? I totally played with Barbies! I intermingled them with the Strawberry Shortcake doll—a weird, short, smelly piece of plastic.
Me: You are open to all faiths!