At the South by Southwest Film Festival, we had more than eight minutes to sit down with Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga, one of the stars of Duncan Jones’ Source Code.
The talented, cat-eyed Farmiga plays Colleen Goodwin, the military officer who welcomes Jake Gyllenhaal’s Captain Colter Stevens back to reality after he’s plunged continuously into the finite, 8-minute world of the source code. Farmiga discussed with us how she became involved with the project, the process of shaping the role with Duncan and Jake, and the difficulty of acting with only a camera lens, as well as brief forays into the philosophy and science of Source Code.
Have you seen the film all the way through?
Vera Farmiga: Yeah, I saw it yesterday. I also saw it in my living room. I just had do some satellite interviews. It helps to see the film before you talk about it. The process of it and seeing the finished product are two entirely different things for most films.
Especially with a film like this. Did you do a lot of research for it?
Farmiga: Look, earlier in my career I played uniform women and there’s always the politics of gender within that profession as a uniformed officer and who your boss is, what your job is. The dynamic is certainly something to consider though. I’ve talked to many uniformed officers, female officers. So, that is something that’s in the back of your head. I don’t think it was so much considering that as what her task at hand is, which is to save a whole lot of people. I think all of us could connect very easily with that idea and that urgency and the need. You turn on the television and don’t you wish you had a program like this so you could give fair warning or to evacuate, whatever the disaster may be. Hindsight is always 20/20. I think, who amongst us can’t connect with that?
This wasn’t a real research kind of a role it was really just using your imagination and working within the confines of the role which was pretty limited. As far as the kinds of roles that I’m normally drawn to are pretty much the antithesis of this character. But arc is always important to me and I found the challenge of that arc within these limitations of these 8 minute increments. I found that to be compelling, how quickly she changes. And the moral dilemma within that, treating culture as a science project first, and then getting to know her personally within these 8 minute increments and then having that impact the way she does her job.
So that’s really what I focused on most, all the sort of psycho-spiritual energy between the two and how best to convey it when the actor is not in your presence. So I did not work with Jake [Gyllenhaal] at all, except for in rehearsal. It’s important in rehearsal to hash out some stuff. We sat opposite the table in rehearsal so we had that time spent. He was there a couple days reading lines off camera, but other than that it was a script supervisor and me staring into the barrel of the lens, which is extremely difficult to do for an actor that spends most of their time ignoring it. I’ve only been asked once to do that. There was this one moment in Manchurian Candidate. I think as a device he used an audience connection. I thought it was one of those difficult things for me to do. To know that, oh God, your face is gonna be distorted in really outrageous ways the ways. The way your face tends to do when you look into your iChat camera. Thinking about the character in these ways, how best to convey the emotional life of the character and the mental life with very little movement and the confines of the space.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the part originally written for a man?
Farmiga: I don’t know. It doesn’t surprise me. But that’s interesting I’ll ask Ben [Ripley] about that. How interesting, I wonder if it was.
How did you become involved with the film?
Farmiga: I’m a tremendous fan. It really stems from that. I saw Moon at least eight times. Sam [Rockwell]’s a good friend of mine. He’s an actor that is just too much under the radar. He’s gotten a lot of attention. I’ve worked with him. I’m so fond of him. I just dug his performance. I thought really highly of Duncan as a story teller. I thought he’s a unique voice, a new vision for a genre that I don’t really connect with that’s really plot driven. He shines a spotlight on the characters and really operates from that angle. He makes you use your noodle when you watch a film. It’s not only stimulating so many visceral ways, this film in particular, but you really got to think. It’s mind bending and boggling. It took me several reads of the script, even on set it would still… It’s interesting how articulate he is prior to shooting on the visuals. You walk into preproduction studio and every space on the wall is filled with visuals, which helps you create the character psyche.
It came to me because I was a fan of Duncan’s, of Moon. I love puzzles. I’ve loved putting puzzles together since I was a kid. I think every piece is important. The role itself isn’t something I would probably be drawn to, normally. But I really love any film, honestly, that leaves you with a healthy perspective on life. I’m a mom with two kids. I have a 4-month-old, a two-year-old and an amazing husband. So it’s a good reminder to cherish the now and cherish everything that you hold dear in life. I love the note that it ended on, in addition to all the levels that the script works on. I just wanted to be a part of that puzzle.
When you and Jake were rehearsing, was there anything that changed from the script that came out of those rehearsals?
Farmiga: Sure, sure. Oh, what can I tell you precisely… I think there was a big change in the scene where she reveals… I think each character has some sort of revelation of a life beyond what you see on screen. A family life beyond that. I think the scene in which Colter asked me if I’ve ever been married before. I think it explored more a history. Where that ended up being, that scene in particular, the first time their really personal with each other. I think that morphed and changed. I’m not even sure from what.
I have this strange brain that compartmentalizes every job experience. I truly, literally, forget. I don’t care how great the experience was, I just forget. I have to take copious notes to see what I was thinking at the time. I know it was something to do with that scene and getting that right, making it brief. These are 8 minute increments. It is plot driven. You’ve got to keep that train running so to speak. There’s no time to wallow. There’s an urgency, there’s a tempo, there’s a staccato, to the piece on a whole that you have to honor. I know that scene as an actress I wanted to luxuriate, I wanted more depth and more exploration of my character. But we ended up paring it down to the essential what would convey that she has issues. It’s trusting. I just directed my first film and editing was probably the most surprising thing about it. You don’t have to beat audiences over the head. You can trust that they’re savvy enough to pick up details. You don’t have to spoon feed them every information. So that was something that I learned from the new experience of directing.
You and Jake only have about two minutes before you push him back into the source code, how did you keep your energy up to be so simple but be so exact while you were doing that?
Farmiga: I do have tendency to embellish and luxuriate. To me what’s most important, and this is where I had to be efficient and this is where Duncan was very useful as a director, cracking that whip saying “urgency, urgency, urgency, keep in mind there are hundreds of lives are about to be lost.” And he really kept reminding me of that. Because I think the tendency as an actress, what compels me about a character is not what the written lines are, what happens between the lines and what the character is not saying. To me I always tend to luxuriate that way because I think that’s what flushes out a role for an audience. There’s great opportunity there as an actress. I think it’s Duncan being the metronome. In a role like this you almost want to do more, you tend to want to… You know I only have a certain amount of time and he’s like “no” deflating that accordingly, every time it opens up.
As horrific as the source code is, the actual reality of the machine and the hardware, it did work. Sort of. So if you found out there was something like a source code going on right now, would you support it and why? Or would you be against it?
Farmiga: You know, I think there’s a little box you check off on your license that probably should be honored. If you don’t want your body used post mortem in this very scenario, as useful as it can be a tool. Some of us our soldiers, some of us our not. We all want peace. But some of us our soldiers, some of us don’t have the heart and the mind. Some of us don’t even have the faith and force. So yeah, I think we all should really consider that box. But that’s the moral dilemma and that’s the consideration for my character. She gets to know Jake’s character and feel for him. And know him personally and love him in that sense and care for him. Her job becomes harder and harder to execute. Whereas Rutledge is a man of science, with good intentions, but it still can come across as ruthless. Which it is. You have an original idea, someone has already thought of it. So if this film exists then maybe this program can exist. I don’t know. I didn’t take physics. I was able to skirt that one and take a really good art class instead in high school. I think there should be outright volunteers if that is a valid scenario.
[This one question contains spoilers.] So there is the alternate universe aspect of this and, briefly, you’re playing a second version of your character. Did you think about giving that second version of your character different motivations or different emotions?
Farmiga: Yeah, I didn’t get that far. I didn’t get that far because it blows my mind. [laughs] I think it’s very scary, another me. I don’t know if it’s the same, it depends. I have no idea how to even begin to think about it. It’s too challenging for my small brain. I don’t know. No, I don’t think it was so important to be so precise in that frame of thinking to convey that last final moment of bewilderment. But, you know, anything’s possible. The way you think about it is, “How would I have done things different? How can I approach things different?” Often times in my own life I wish I had a couple chances at reacting to things.
Did you guys talk at all about the muli-verse? Or any of the science behind it all?
Farmiga: Yeah, Duncan has that kind of a brain. I like listening to it. But I’m very much me, and in the now. I guess you have to be a philosopher by nature in that respect. It’s too mind boggling for me.
What was the most difficult part about filming Source Code?
Farmiga: The most difficult thing is having a scene where there’s legitimately two characters, but not being in the presence of each other. Shooting is difficult and acting with those physical limitations, that’s the hard part. But you know, expository dialogue is maddening for an actor. It really is. It’s boring. All it is in information. It’s very difficult to infuse character in it and nuance. And there’s a whole lot of it, for me. So finding my way through that was a challenge. Conveying that in an interesting way was challenging.
You mentioned that because you had to stare at the camera while you were shooting those scenes. Was there an iChat where you got to see your own image?
Farmiga: There was only a camera, like a barrel camera. That was right in front. Not only that camera, that’s Jake’s perspective. Then you have the audience perspective and there’s usually two cameras from either side at different lenses, preserving the audience perception of me. So we’re going between these two different experiences, Jake’s character and the audience’s perspective. So in a couple days we had speaker systems, Jake showed up and did his lines. But you see in the last moments of the film what I’m actually seeing to be able to communicate. That’s an entirely different… again, I don’t want to reveal too much. I wish I could see if there’s a pupil dilation thing that happens, or if it actually works. There’s a couple times when I thought, “Ugh, let me try staring at my reflection” so it feels like there someone there. Because you can see your little self in the thing. I don’t know if it brings your, then I stop, because I think I’m gonna come across cross-eyed. So I stopped after a while.
Did it ever get any easier?
Farmiga: Yeah, yeah, once you accept it. Everything is easier after day one. The first time your really in your uniform and you feel that starch and the polyester, it takes a good 24 hours to get through the first day. Then everything comes easier, for me at least. I just have to get through the first day. Then there’s more of an ease to it. But yeah, embracing that. What’s interesting too is that Duncan gave us the luxury, because it was just one space, we had the luxury of chronology and be able to shoot the scenes in sequence. Even my discomfort, the actor’s discomfort with it, also translated to my discomfort with him and getting to know this guy who’s a part of this mission.
After being sort of bottled up in this movie, would you want to trade places with Jake and do the running around?
Farmiga: I feel like I usually get that role, especially in independent cinema. This is a studio film and I find that studio films I don’t often get the role, but in independent films I do. I do more independent film, than I do studios. I do get the opportunity a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot. Just with smaller paychecks.
How as the screening last night and your feelings with the audience Q&A?
Farmiga: Yeah, they seemed to be really embracing and energized by it. They were really receptive audience. I LOVE watching films. Most of the films I do are supported by independent film festivals. That’s usually the launching pad for the kind of films that I do. I just love their eager festival goers, they’re also the harshes critics. These are the kind of people that see a lot of movies. Since they really love film and you also see a lot of it, I love experience that. They’re passionate audiences. Particularly a film like this is meant to be seen on a large screen, not on your own personal device. I don’t often go to see these kinds, you know action, thrillers, I normally don’t see these kinds of films. So it was really exciting for me to experience the way films should be, with congregation of people. People vibe off each other’s emotions, someone giggles, that gives you permission to laugh.
Have you been to South by Southwest before?
Farmiga: No it’s my first time. It’s usually Sundance or Toronto, but this is my first time here. I think Up In the Air came, but they didn’t invite me. [laughs]
I’m not sure what it’s called technically, but the thing you say to Jake’s character to bring him back, I don’t know what the technical term is…
Farmiga: “Beleaguered castle, acknowledge transmission.”
Do any of those things have significant meaning or hidden meaning?
Farmiga: Ask Duncan, I know Duncan will know the answer to that. I can’t remember what it is. Good question. I don’t think it’s just a random, I think there is a significance, it might be a Ben question.
How many times did you have to say it?
Farmiga: Several times. Every time you see me. I think I start off each scene with that rant. Calling him into the mantra. It’s his mantra, it’s what clicks him into my reality.
If you could give a small tid bit of advice to actors, what would that be?
Farmiga: If you’re frustrated with not working, then create your own opportunity. I think it’s so easy these days with cameras becoming cheaper and cheaper each year, and everything’s turning digital. Camera phones. I think short films are as important as features. If you’re frustrated, just do it. That’s how I directed Higher Ground, this was after the Oscars last year. Granted, I found out I was 2 weeks pregnant three days before the Oscars, so that put me out of the loop for certain things. Great material always comes my way, but still, given the economy, it’s really few and far between to read those gems. It’s pretty cutthroat for actresses that are vying for those roles. So my manager gave me that advice. He was like, “What are you waiting for? Stop asking for permission.” Just create your own opportunity. Where there a will there’s a way. But you’ve got to have a story to tell, or an idea. If you want to work badly enough, there’s always people you can collaborate with to at least keep your craft sharp, to keep your mind.