Q&A With The Conjuring’s Vera Farmiga

The Emmy nominated actress talks about portraying real-life ghost hunter, Lorraine Warren, and how motherhood can be the noblest role of all.

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It’s been a great week for Vera Farmiga, first an Emmy nomination for Bates Motel on Thursday, and the release of The Conjuring on Friday, a movie that’s expected to win the box office this weekend. Not bad for a woman who early on dreamed of becoming an optometrist.

Farmiga began her career on Broadway in 1996 working as an understudy for the role of Emmi Straube in the Nazi-era drama, Taking Sides. Classic titles like Hamlet, The Tempest and The Glass Menagerie followed before landing her first film part in 1998’s drug-running thriller, Return to Paradise.

2006 Best Film Oscar winner, The Departed placed her opposite both Leonard DiCaprio and Matt Damon working under the direction of Martin Scorsese. And three years later she got to hopscotch around the country as George Clooney’s illicit lover in Up in the Air, earning an Oscar nomination.

In recent years, Farmiga has taken on the role of mom both in real life, after the birth of her son, Fynn, in 2009, and on the big screen in movies like The Orphan, The Conjuring and Bates Motel.

Playing “the mom” is often the role relegated to actresses Hollywood deems past their prime, but the 40-year-old Farmiga has embraced these roles with open arms and has thrived in the doing.

You play legendary ghost hunter, Lorraine Warren in “The Conjuring.” What was it like meeting her?

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I’m playing the thirty-something version of the (now) eighty-something year old Lorraine. For me, in that first meeting it was just about absorbing her essence, seeing the details of her smile, how she smiles, her gaze. Her eyes are so beautiful and I thought in there was the key to how I was going to portray clairvoyance.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I believe my friends and family members who have had strong experiences, terrifying experience. These are practical people that I trust. I do believe them. I don’t need the experiences to confirm any which way if there is a spirit realm beyond ours. I perhaps don’t have a God-given gift or access to a portion of my brain. But I’m grateful for the opportunity to even investigate it.

By my count, this is the fifth time you’ve played a mom since becoming a mother in 2009.

To me, at the heart of those stories is a mother in some sort of peril. I love stories about maternity. I will continue thematically to search out these kinds of roles. I think it’s one of the noblest professions, to be a mother.

Has becoming a mother yourself helped you in these roles?

Exponentially more. I know what it’s like to love a human being more than yourself. ‘Bates Motel’ – my work is so much deeper since becoming a mother.

What drew you to the role of Norma Bates?

I’m just looking for complex portraits of women. This is essentially a story about a woman with her own history, her own demons, a single mother who is struggling to give her neurologically dysfunctional child a life that is enhancing to him. When you have a child with some sort of malfunction, there’s no clear path that a parent can take to make that child healthier or better. Then add on to it her own flood gauge, holding back a lifetime of pain and guilt. That’s complex portraiture. And I think there is valiant noble love that she possesses. And to me that is a fascinating female character.

What was your first reaction when you were sent “Bates Motel”?

I got into this wanting to defend who that woman was. I was sent the first three episodes and she was just such a beautiful portrait of valiant maternity to me. Therein I saw the challenge. She’s just a real head turner. I read it and it read to me as a beautiful love letter between a mother and her son. That’s how I describe the character. That’s how I approach it.

But what was it about playing a character from Hitchcock?

She was more kind of Ibsen and Chekov proportions. I could probably equate her more to those kinds of heroines than Hitchcock. There’s a lot of bounce in this springboard to be inventive because we know nothing about it.

So you looked beyond Psycho for the role.

There’s an Edward Munch painting of Madonna, it’s really warped and it exudes the sacred and the profane. And that’s what I was so drawn to with Norma. She’s a playground for an actor. When they offer you Hedda Gabler you don’t say no. That’s what it was for me. The character’s riddled with contradiction. She’s as strong and tall as an oak, and fragile as a butterfly, and everything in between that I admire in female characters that I come across, which is resilience and passion and intellect and at the same time, she’s an absolute train wreck.

How do you keep getting so many vital characters in an industry that show so little regard for women past a certain age?

I’ve been really blessed they’ve come my way. And if they’re not quite there on the written page, then that’s my job as an actress to bring it and make her pop. And there are projects that I gotta roll up my sleeves to fortify that character, like a prism with more dimension. And then there are roles like Bates, for example. To me, you look at it musically. I’m a pianist, someone gives you “Chopsticks” or someone gives you Chopin to play, with dissonances, and it begins and ends with dissonances.

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