Up in the Air's Vera Farmiga embraces unlikable characters, a shared frequency and old-fashioned romance.
Neither an especially glamorous figure nor an obscurity-minded artiste, Vera Farmiga is one of those actresses who automatically makes any role she takes on more interesting. She’s worked for Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese, but she also isn’t afraid to bring intelligence to more obviously commercial fare like Orphan. In Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, she has a scene-stealing role as George Clooney’s love interest. “It’s something that’s very familiar to me,” Farmiga says of the movie’s subject. To her, the film asks, “Is love a decision? Do you choose to love someone?”
Although Clooney gets his name in boldface—he plays an efficiency expert whose job is to fly around the country to lay off other companies’ employees—he shares the screen with two women: Natalie (Anna Kendrick), the protégée who believes it’s possible to fire people over video conference; and Farmiga’s Alex, the woman he loves on layovers. Farmiga has what she sees as the Katharine Hepburn role—the older, wiser woman with an air of sophistication. “Jason has a very old-fashioned sense of romance,” she told us at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where the film was one of the most buzzed-about titles. “What’s really sexy is what the two characters say to each other.”
It’s not that the banter should be seen as the second coming of Ernst Lubitsch or Howard Hawks. (It isn’t.) But at a time when even the most able comedies come laced with self-seriousness (Funny People), the movie’s airy, nostalgic feel stands out.
“There’s such a rhythm in [Jason’s] writing,” Farmiga says. “It’s the equivalent of iambic pentameter in a Shakespeare play—it’s like you click into that, and all of a sudden, there’s a frequency between everyone. There’s not much you have to do except for show up and react to what’s being served your way.”
If it’s a Shakespearean comedy, it’s a slightly broken one. Adapting from Walter Kirn’s novel, Reitman updates the Capra template with a surprising amount of melancholy. The movie also resembles Reitman’s other comedies, Thank You for Smoking and Juno, in taking on a subject that doesn’t seem funny in any way: layoffs. Just as Thank You for Smoking inspired at least some sympathy for a ruthless member of the tobacco lobby, the odd thing about Up in the Air is that it pushes you to root for someone who fires people for a living.
Farmiga sees identifying with an unlikable character as an important component of humor. “This is what good comedy is and what compelling characters are,” she says. “You root for them because there are flaws in their beauty and there’s beauty in their flaws. I don’t know if you root for them, but you certainly are intrigued by them.”
Farmiga came to prominence during the 2005 awards season for her performance in the little-seen addiction drama Down to the Bone; since then, she’s gone on to plum roles in The Departed, Breaking and Entering and the bad-seed drama Joshua. She also stole the show in last summer’s surprisingly effective Orphan, in which she played a mother who begins to suspect that her newly adopted daughter is not the little miss perfect she pretends to be.
For Farmiga, acting is as much about conveying a look as selling a line. “My favorite moments in [Orphan] were the moments when she doesn’t say anything—when you can see the character think,” she says. “I received flak for taking another [bad-seed movie after Joshua, but] they were two different characters to me…. [Besides,] no one had seen Joshua, except for privileged industry [types] and eager festivalgoers. And you need to make a paycheck once in a while, you know?”
Honesty like that could make Hollywood a lot more interesting.
Up in the Air opens in December.