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Finding stardom's path

Vera Farmiga's career is in high gear after her powerful portrayal of a cocaine addict in 'Down to the Bone.'

November 30, 2005|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

It is the dream of most every film festival entrant that her movie will win awards, get talked about, be picked up by a distributor and catapult everyone involved if not to fame then at least to a level of filmmaking that doesn't rely on credit cards and the use of rolling chairs as dollies.

And sometimes it actually happens.

"Down to the Bone" wowed people at several film festivals last year, including Sundance, where it won the dramatic directing award for Debra Granik and the special jury prize for Vera Farmiga's performance as a working-class woman attempting to recover from cocaine addiction. Although it did not find a distributor immediately, it was screened for enough studio executives and filmmakers to kick Farmiga's career into overdrive.

So now, with Laemmle/Zeller Films' release of "Down to the Bone," Farmiga can be billed as starring in four upcoming feature films, including "The Departed," directed by Martin Scorsese, and "Breaking and Entering," directed by Anthony Minghella.

You could call it Farmiga's Big Year. Just don't say it too loudly around her; she prefers to stay "on message," which, at the moment, is promoting Granik's film.

"The reason that I am working in these roles is because of 'Down to the Bone,' " she says adamantly. "And I am so excited that it's going to be seen by a lay audience. Before now it's been seen only by privileged industry types and devoted festival-goers. And it deserves to be seen by a lay audience."

At 32, Farmiga has had small roles in a variety of films, including last year's remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" and HBO's "Iron Jawed Angels." She has all the characteristics that come standard with a modern female film star; she's thin, pretty with cheekbones to die for and eyes bluer than eyes have a right to be. Not that you will see any of this in "Down to the Bone." As Irene, the grocery store cashier with two young sons, a party-hard husband and a secret cocaine problem, Farmiga peers hollow-eyed at the world through wispy strands of mousy hair, her frame slumped in the perpetual question mark that is her life, before and after recovery.

Shot in upstate New York during the winter, the film is as bleak and unrelenting as a January sky -- Irene's addiction is painful and squalid and her recovery is not much better. This is not Sandra Bullock sucking Tootsie Pops through high-end rehab in "28 Days." This film, based on a documentary by Granik about a married woman who falls into bumpy, angry love during recovery, is so close to the real thing it is, at times, painful to watch.

"This society glamorized addiction everywhere," Farmiga says. "And that is what people appreciate about what Debra's done -- create an uncosmeticized version of addiction."

Having not had any personal experience with drug or alcohol addiction, the actress says, she spent a lot of time with the woman on whom Irene is based, as well as at various rehab centers and 12-step meetings.

"I was surprised that the disease has no signature, no boundaries," she says. "And it was interesting to grasp that relapse, even chronic relapse, can still lead to recovery."

The question of why some people change and some do not was one of the things that drew her to the film despite the fact that she disliked Irene pretty much from Page 1. Irene, she says, "humored me in drab situations. How she dealt with the monotony of upstate New York, which Debra managed to make so vivid and alive."

Farmiga, one of seven children who grew up in a Ukrainian enclave in New Jersey, instantly recognized much of the bleakness that surrounds Irene and came to understand some of what lurked inside the character as well.

"I heard so many stories of anger and shame," she says. "To have your brain hijacked by a substance like that ..." she shakes her head. "It is a miracle to me that people do recover."

Although "Down to the Bone" got her a lot more attention from directors and casting directors, she took several people by surprise when she showed up to auditions looking like she does, as opposed to a downtrodden, barely recovered cokehead. "People were taken aback," she says. "They thought that's what I was really like."

Some of the roles she has subsequently landed are gritty -- in "Breaking and Entering" she plays a Ukrainian prostitute fighting to save her neighborhood from gentrification -- but others are a bit more glamorous. In "The Departed," she plays the tip of a love-triangle involving characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon ("not too shabby," she concedes) and although her character in "Quid Pro Quo" is an amputation "wannabe" -- a whole-bodied woman who thinks she should be legless -- Farmiga insists that the character is "quite glamorous."

Farmiga says she greeted the new turn her career has taken by firing her publicist -- "I wanted to make my own decisions about my career," she says -- and hanging on to her real life, which is living on a farm in New York with a couple of goats and her boyfriend.

"I'm very sober about it," she says, unconsciously echoing the parlance of "Down to the Bone." "I just want to tell good stories. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble?"

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