Vera Farmiga is not an orthodox movie star. I'm reminded of this in her garden in upstate New York when she starts hollering. One minute she's sipping from an ornate blue-and-gold Russian tea set and discussing her new film about faith and doubt. The next, she seems to be shouting in tongues: "Zoshya, Fruzia, Sofika!"
As it turns out, she's summoning not the Spirit but her goats, who apparently speak Ukrainian (one of Farmiga's four languages). Zoshya, Fruzia and Sofika live with Farmiga, her husband and their two children on a 3-acre (1.2 hectare)property that borders a Christmas-tree farm. The goats who have provided Farmiga with enough hair to knit several sweaters for her husband come when called, approaching a nearby fence and giving Farmiga their full attention, quizzical but eager.
Farmiga, 38, gets similarly rapt attention from Hollywood. She has been called her generation's Meryl Streep, perhaps because she can project a brusque or bruised beauty perfect for characters who face down fate sternly or stoically and gives off an earthy yet ethereal sensuality. Farmiga's breakthrough was her prizewinning performance as a working-class mom battling drug addiction in the indie Down to the Bone (2004), which was followed by a turn as a psychiatrist in Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006) and her Oscar-nominated role as the business traveler who pulverizes George Clooney's heart in Up in the Air (2009). Now Farmiga has directed and stars in Higher Ground, about a young wife and mother, Corinne, who joins a well-meaning, sometimes comically restrictive Christian sect in the 1970s and eventually begins to chafe at its constraints.
Movies about religion tend to come in two flavors: those that preach to the choir and those that regard organized religion as a mother ship of dolts, control freaks and predators. Higher Ground charts a third way. "You've got fundamentalism, and you've got relativism," says Farmiga. "I wanted to push both away and try to come at it from a middle ground."
Higher Ground is based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs, but its territory is not unfamiliar to Farmiga. One of seven siblings born to Ukrainian immigrants who settled in New Jersey, Farmiga switched from the Ukrainian Orthodox church to Pentecostalism, along with her family, when she was a girl. "My dad is someone who feels the breath of God on his face," she says. "He's tapping into something that I have yet to tap into and yearn to." Reticent about her own beliefs, she says she leaves healthy room for doubt. "Doubt is the middle position between knowledge and ignorance. It encompasses cynicism but also genuine questioning."
Like many a first film, Higher Ground was largely a do-it-yourself production. It was shot close to Farmiga's house (one scene is set in her garden), and she cast her sister Taissa, 21 years her junior, as the younger Corinne. (Taissa's paycheck: the promise of Vera's 2004 Toyota Tacoma but only if Taissa kicked in some extra babysitting.) Farmiga's husband, another sister, her grandmother and her toddler son also have roles in the movie. Even her baby daughter has a cameo of sorts: Farmiga was five months pregnant when Higher Ground wrapped. (No roles, alas, for Zoshya, Fruzia and Sofika.) It's not just that family labor comes cheap; Farmiga simply preferred to keep her homemade movie close to home. "The Ukrainian community is tight-knit by nature," she says.
And it's safe to say Farmiga is unconventional by nature. But if Hollywood and people of faith can agree on anything, it's that sometimes it's worth betting on the unorthodox.