Oscar History

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Interview: Vera & Dagmara in "Higher Ground"

You may expect, when sitting down to discuss a serious and deeply felt indie with two award-winning actresses that the air would be heavy with purpose or self-reflection. The film in question is the provocative HIGHER GROUND, a drama about a born-again woman named Corrine (Vera Farmiga) struggling with her faith in a tight knit religious community. But the initial conversation proves more sartorial than spiritual.

Dagmara & Vera on the day of this interview

Vera Farmiga, who has walked her share of red carpets (especially two years back with that well deserved Oscar nomination for Up in the Air) has forgotten the shoes she intended to bring for the next stop on the publicity circuit. Dagmara Dominczyk, her friend and co-star, is immediately sympathetic. Dagmara, you see, has just been shopping. Since she's arrived to the interview first, her contagious sense of humor is already familiar.

"Between the dressing room and my house it changed from 'Awesome!' to 'what was I thinking?'," Dagmara confesses, laughing, about the dress she's just purchased. 

Higher Ground, Deepest Chemistry

The actresses have such an easy warm rapport -- they quite literally finish two of each other's sentences and speak in unison twice during our time together -- that their mesmerizing chemistry onscreen as two Jesus-loving housewives with a physically intimate and spiritually edifying friendship is suddenly right there all palpable in three dimensions. Not the kind you have to wear glasses to see.

Dagmara & Vera in HIGHER GROUND (2011) © Sony Pictures Classics

"Chemistry is a funny thing. It's either there or it's not. And if it's not it's a bitch ...but it is possible." Vera says with Dagmara instantly agreeing that it was just there for them; they can't even remember how they met. "I personally think it's incredibly difficult to not have chemistry with Dagmara." Vera adds with a smile, and explains the very obvious: the moment one meets Dagmara one feels close to her.

"My first girl crush!" Dagmara interjects about Vera. "I've never had a girl crush before. I'm just putting it out there!"


The actresses had both been with the labor of love project for some time. Vera was attached as an actress for three years when one of the screenwriters Tim Metcalfe was set to direct. They massaged the script and tried to get financing. Dagmara played Annika (Corrine's best friend) in an early table read when both actresses were pregnant. When she got the call a year later she couldn't believe it was happening.

Dagmara, Taissa Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, and Vera at the premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival

"I got a call from my agent." Dagmara recalls reenacting two separate conversations. "'Vera's doing it and she'd love for you to play her best friend in it.' 'WHAT? She hasn't seen me in a year!' and I said 'I can't. Stop!'. It was the most amazing wonderful experience; no auditions! I remember that first day we shot the car scene and I was so nervous as I'd taken a long break from acting, three years. I looked at Vera and I said 'I'm so fucking nervous'. She says 'You're amazing. Shut up.' And I'll never forget that. After that I was in her hands."

"You should have seen her on set," Dagmara says eyes wide, when I mention how beautifully patient some of the film's best scenes were. They really allow you to experience the performances, no rushing. "We could go off the page. Her most important thing was having the actors tell the story. She was so generous. I don't know if there were fights about it -- we had time constraints and money constraints -- but on set it was an actor's dream. Even down to the person who had a line. It was amazing to watch genuine care for other actors."

"In turn they actually had no creature comforts," Vera says, interrupting the love-fest. "No trailers. No shelter from the scorching sun. I was just trying to keep them happy."

"You mean to tell me you had a tiny budget in an actressy drama about religion?" I ask facetiously.

"Surprise! Surprise!" Vera responds, laughing. "We had a major loan from God we have to repay, just FYI." 

We discuss acting with the praise flying back and forth between the stars and my head ping ponging back and forth with it. (Try sitting between two beautiful talkative women. Dizzying!) I remind Vera of her praise for Michael Fassbender's work in Hunger and commend her great taste in actors relaying that I'd seen Dagmara on stage previously and was thrilled and surprised to see her get such a good part onscreen after so many years away.  

"Part of that 'good taste' is also that it makes you a better performer," Vera says. "You want someone by your side that will cajole you to give your best performance. When I experience story as an audience member, I'm drawn to actors whoa re very powerful in silences, who speak volumes with expressions." 

Dagmara and I agree that describes Vera herself. The star actress and first time director is flattered but deflects the praise turning it into practical self-preservation and advice. "If it's your first time directing, my advice is surround yourself by people who think you're great," She laughs, remembering this type of cheerleading on set. "That encouragement makes you think it's possible and that you're capable of achieving great things."

Early Breakthroughs: Vera in DOWN TO THE BONE (2004) and Dagmara in THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO (2002)

Lofty Goals, Big Careers

The actresses become more serious and soul searching when we move from their rapport and on set experiences to the movie's themes and their own careers. 

"I'm always impressed by people that God is immediate to their lives. No matter what their spiritual tenets are or what faith they're from -- it could be sweat lodges! I'm really impressed with people who make a concerted effort to find what holiness means to them and operate from that." the actress says before praising Carolyn Brigg's memoirs which Higher Ground was adapted from, making it quite an unusual film. "Films about faith. There's two distinct kinds: preach to the choir and poke fun at the choir. Her story seemed like something the embraces both sides of the pew. Concepts of god are feuding... why not participate in storytelling for the sake of positive tolerance?" 

Vera is also spiritually minded when it comes to her career and opportunities. 

"We draw things to ourselves and things are drawn to us. I believe in energies like that. Things come my way. I take most of the things that come my way, surprisingly enough, considering that we're talking about choice." she says before explaining that there's already a natural winnowing process with these magnetic forces bringing us opportunities.

"Sometimes when I don't necessarily want to take a job but I have to because I'm a provider for my family ... the challenge is to find something within that material that, you know, you can find something in these roles. Certainly your job description is to flesh them out and work hard to dimensionalize them."

"There's so little rhyme and reason in building a career. I don't understand actors who map it all out." Dagmara offers.

"Like, an Oscar in 2015?"

"Right! There's no finish line. There's so much that's not up to you." And Dagmara proves an amusing and self-deprecating realist about her own career choices recounting her own avoidance of the LA rat race after her first major success (The Count of Monte Christo, 2004) and her decision to have children while her husband's (Patrick Wilson) career was taking off. But she admits she had those universal movie star career dreams coming from an immigrant family "You have those dreams but it [the dream] was lazy in me. I was always like "Ooh, that boy's cute. I'm just not going to that audition..." She says both actresses breaking into laughter. "That's who I was!" 

The actresses tease each other about making a movie set on the Polish/Ukranian border where they can speak in their family's native tongues. They should! One look at what they're both capable of in Higher Ground makes you want them to reteam again onscreen immediately.

"We have the great privilege of our occupations being vocations. And sometimes it's more vocation and sometimes more occupation." Vera says, serious again. With Higher Ground, both actresses are clearly experiencing the vocation part again. 

"It feeds my soul" Dagmara says, warming to the memory of working with other fine actors. Given this compelling opportunity she's had to show Hollywood what she can do again, more roles of this quality should surface. For Vera, already regarded as a major screen actress, the movie could mark a whole new chapter where she plays to both sides of the camera.

"It's a trek, a continuing trek." Vera concludes about living life as a professional actor. "The thing is to maintain openness to it all and receptivity."

Have you seen Higher Ground yet? When's the last time a best friend relationship onscreen rang true with thrilling chemistry for you?

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Reader Comments (7)

"You mean to tell me you had a tiny budget in an actressy drama about religion?"

I love you for being such a fun and thoughtful interviewer.

And even though I won't see Higher Ground till my equally eager friend is freed up, it makes me so happy just to know there is a movie in theaters directed by such a thoughtful actress, and that takes relations between people and their faith so seriously, and that takes relationships between women seriously. (Which includes, I'm guessing, being slightly funny about them.) It's like there's a unicorn being held at the Landmark. I can't wait to visit it! Bravo to everyone who got this made and released.

September 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

right? it's a miracle that it exists, speaking of religion.

and your guess is correct.

i have more fun quotes from Dagmara (very chatty) so i'll share them soon in another context.

September 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

You're so lucky to do what you do, Nathaniel. I am very, very eager to see this film.

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterzig

Your interviews are always at least a little playfull in addition to being very interesting. One of your talents!

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

Very excited to check this movie out. I'm a ... lapsed religious person (?) I guess who still deals with where I draw my own line on spirituality so I can't wait to see this.

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRJ

RJ -- i know this feeling well which is one of hte reasons i enjoyed the movie. It's a topic that's just never addressed in movies which is odd because it's such a common topic in life... and as someone who grew up in a religious environment, it's something that's hard to shake at your core even if you extricate yourself from it completely on the surface.

September 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I want more quote from Dagmara! She's so amazing!

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNinaS
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