Q&A: 'Higher Ground' star/director Vera Farmiga on the spiritual aspect of orgies

RedEye movie critic

Boy, if I had a dollar for every celebrity interview that discussed the size of God’s penis.
Actually, that’s a first—but “Higher Ground” star/director Vera Farmiga had more to say about genitalia. The actress is probably best known as the woman who cozied up to both Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in “The Departed” and, in a role that netted her an Oscar nomination, broke George Clooney’s heart in “Up in the Air.”
Heartbreaker, yes, but Farmiga’s not just another pretty face. Her directorial debut, “Higher Ground,” focuses on a character rarely found on the big screen: A woman (Farmiga) evaluating her faith while different people and experiences cause her devotion to Christianity to shift throughout her life.
During the 38-year-old New Jersey-native, upstate New York resident’s first visit to Chicago, she chatted at the Peninsula Hotel about the spiritual side of orgies, the dangers of fundamentalism and, yes, what God might be packing downstairs.
How much of a joke is it, played by the universe, that “Higher Ground” opens the same day as “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy”?
[Laughs.] Is it? Oh, wonderful. That’s a cornucopia [laughs] of films to go see. That’s a great variety, “Orgy” and “Higher Ground.” Some may say it’s the same kind of film. [Laughs.]
In what way?
Passion. [Laughs.] My character’s in search of passion and intimacy. Authenticity. What is “Orgy” about?
I guess just a good old-fashioned orgy, among friends who want to close out the summer that way.
Perhaps that’s the way they’re searching for spirituality. [Laughs.]
You’ve said that being asked questions by your children, you’ve never been surer of not knowing the answers. “Higher Ground” tackles many questions without answers. Why does that turn some people off, and inspire others to not just have faith but think they know the answers?
Is it a personality thing perhaps? [Laughs.] Maybe it has something to do with our inherent minds and personalities. That’s a really tough question. You can only come from a very personal perspective because I covet it. There are certain people who have such assurance, and you see the manifestation, you see them tapping into something holy. [Laughs.] It’s impossible not to covet it. And then you’ve got the fringe people that are just wackos and are so self-righteous and are so close-minded and not open-hearted at all. Everything that is sort of the antithesis of what their religions preach. It’s all so relative. It’s a case-by-case scenario. [Laughs.]
It’s fascinating to have something where some say there’s no answer and others say they know what it is.
It’s a fundamentalist and a relativist pendulum, and I’m trying to make a film that embraces that very large sway in the middle.
I love the film’s note of, “Look how weird a penis looks; how could a God come up with this?” That seems to be the lynchpin of the argument.
[Laughs.] Genitalia in general. Not just the penis. [Laughs.] Yeah, quirky creator, whoever that God may be.
A lot of people may say, “That looks crazy, so there can’t be a God.”
And does God have genitals?
I hadn’t thought about that.
If we’re made in his image, does he (or she) or doesn’t he? I prefer not to think of God’s [genitalia]. [Laughs.] … Or is it like mega-genitalia?
Like something massive?
Most people who believe strongly would say, “Of course. He’s God.”
[Laughs.] Hung like a racehorse! With all due respect.
You mentioned that mixing spirituality and humor in the film would be a tall, delicate order. Why did you feel that way?
Because I didn’t want to make fun of the characters and their journeys. That’s not inherent to my personality. Sarcasm has been a learned trait [laughs] in my life experience and not something that’s indigenous to my personality. I don’t have a caustic sense of humor. What I find funny, that humor comes from a much gentler place.
Regarding faith and religion, why do some people force their beliefs on others?
The reason anybody forces their beliefs on anybody: conviction. Maybe it’s made such a profound difference in their life. It’s a revelation to them and they want people to experience it as such. I find it very difficult to … if it’s coming from a well-intentioned place and it’s coming from a place of self-transcendence and self-betterment and self-awareness, I find the passionate beliefs of others, no matter what religion it is, I find it really difficult to cast them off as being silly or lunatic if it’s coming from a good place. Unless its fundamentalism at its worst, which has nothing to do with love but hate.
The movie covers material usually not delved into in such a thought-provoking way. I didn’t ask questions like this to Selena Gomez when interviewing her about “Monte Carlo.”
[Laughs.] I so want you to interview the cast of “Orgy” with these exact same questions, skewed to embrace the concepts of their film … I think good films are spiritual. I don’t know if “Orgy” constitutes a good film; I’d have to see it to do that.
How aware were you of wanting to kick ass simultaneously in the acting and directing department? Philip Seymour Hoffman comes to mind as a great actor who recently struggled as a director (“Jack Goes Boating”).
Those are able who think they are able. And that’s where it starts. There was a lot of fear. And I tried to wriggle out of it many times where I felt … I only have my experience on set and having heavyweight champions of American cinema rub off on me in amazing ways. And their influences on me. I didn’t study this. I don’t have the technical savvy. But I know what I like. And I know what touches me. I am a photographer by hobby, and so I didn’t fret translating this story into visuals. It just was a lot on my shoulders. It’s good training ground. I’m not only thinking about my character. I’m thinking about all the character’s journeys and pushing plot, where in this case there isn’t one. [Laughs.] It’s a portrait. It’s like a piece of art that is to be interpreted and misinterpreted or experienced according as a reflection to who you are and what your life experience is. And that’s the way I approached this story as portraiture. Duvall did it with aplomb; Scorsese’s done it; Polanski did it [and] Cassavetes. I’m not putting myself in their league; these are my inspirations.
You’ve worked with George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio, two people who have been seen historically as the icons of bachelorhood in Hollywood. If a woman was torn between them, how would she choose?
And they were both willing? [Laughs.] I don’t think either would allow the other … that’s an implausible scenario. That’s a totally implausible scenario. I don’t think you can be caught between those two guys. It’s either/or. It’s a whole lotta guy [laughs], I think, to take up your energy. Let me understand the question better.
She’s encountered both of them--
Who’s she? A woman.
Woman X.
Woman X. So it depends on the woman, babe.
Well this could be in real life or on screen. How would she settle the situation?
It depends on her personality. It depends on her needs. I don’t even pretend to know either of them. I did a couple of scenes with them; it looks like I got intimate with them. They’re both remarkable guys, they’re elusive, notorious bachelors and I think that’s what gets women in such tizzies.
Seems like a great premise for a movie full of conflict and sex appeal.
Either way, I think they would be incredibly lucky gals. They’re good guys.
You have a movie coming up called “Goats.” What is that?
It’s based on a book by Mark Poirier, and David Duchovny plays Goat Man, and he’s a guy who takes my son. I play a very new age spiritualist mom whose created a really Bohemian lifestyle. One that’s totally unregulated for her child. And it’s his life going on goat treks and smoking pot with Goat Man and Goat Man’s two goats. He’s the groundskeeper for my household. It’s a coming-of-age story of this 14-year-old boy going between this very unregulated lifestyle at home and his very rigid lifestyle at boarding school.
I hope you won’t fault me for not knowing what a Goat Man is. As in Goat Boy from “Saturday Night Live”?
[Laughs.] It’s probably in fact very similar. That’s a Duchovny question. But he’s a guy who loves goats. Herds goats.
But he’s not half-goat.
No, he’s not half-goat. He’s not like a centurion goat.
You said Goat Man!
He’s not half goat, half man. He’s entirely human. [Laughs.] With a penchant for goats.
I read you’ve been obsessed with goats since you were a child.
[Laughs.] I’m not obsessed. Ruminants are a perfectly normal thing to possess when you live in upstate New York. It’s just moving scenery. It’s kind of like the equivalent of Great Danes. It’s the way you keep your grass mowed. It’s the way you keep your weed-whacking to a minimum.
If she had unlimited time in Chicago: “I’d go to the beach. Just walk around, look at people, look at what Chicagoans are like … Everything seems really perfect here. You’ve got rooftop gardens, everybody seems happy in the city. You can just tell from the [faces] of the constituents. People seem happy. I don’t know; maybe I’m just projecting. I’m happy to be here.”
About using a “stunt butt” in “Up in the Air”: “The honest to God truth is I have a huge bone to pick with Jason Reitman over that because I actually did my nudity, and it took enormous courage to do that two months after giving birth. And I thought I looked good. And it’s the same butt I have now; it’s the same butt that’s been featured in many other films … I did do my own nudity; the thing is it was filmed. Whether he chose to put that take in or not, it unfortunately puts him in a stinking position. Because given an actress who has a perfectly beautiful and voluptuous [laughs] tushy and you choose to go with the imposter, what does that say about you as a filmmaker? … I almost got fired from that job for gaining 10 pounds. You gotta give him the benefit of the doubt because I only gave them one take. After seeing her do it. And I actually didn’t like the way she tied the tie. I thought it was really forced and weird. I would have probably done something a little less overt. Yes, it was playful but I would have experimented with that. I know I looked good and I attempted it once. It’s very tricky. I know that she did several runs of it. When you’re laying in that position, there’s lots of other things that are being shown that perhaps you don’t want. And you gotta give him that. But I did do my own, in my head I did it, and that’s not what was chosen. That’s frustrating.”
People’s reactions to her dumping George Clooney on screen: “Women either cheer [laughs] or I get a big thumbs-down. They cheer because I think anybody with the gumption to candidly be themselves and act upon their own needs selfishly without apologies is pretty impressive. At the same time, some of the women also say, ‘How could you do that to your family?’ It’s like, we don’t know the circumstances of this woman. There’s a whole other film there. Just because you see her fantasy life and her alone time, you don’t know what’s going on in that family, you don’t know what’s going on in her headspace.”
If someone claimed the world would be better without religion: “I’d say that’s a really general, weird remark. I’m not sure what you mean by that. I would say please explain. [Laughs.] It’s so rash. It’s so black and white. It’s a fundamentalist … it’s the same fundamentalism. There’s a lot of wisdom in all religions and I think it’s as rash … it’s a rash notion. It’s not supple at all. It’s not openness, it’s not receptivity.  I understand the angle that statement is coming from. We’re all sick of holy wars and bloodshed because religion is supposed to give us life and a better life and is supposed to bring out our best self. When it results in mass destruction and hatred and anxiety, it’s the antithesis I think of what religion was designed to do. It’s a very different thing, religion and faith. Religion is man-made, it’s man-regulated. And faith, you can define God as you wish. But I think they’re two different things.”

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