The Woman Who Takes Clooney To Task

vera2 The Woman Who Takes Clooney To Task“Think of me as you with a vagina,” Vera Farmiga’s character Alex says to George Clooney’s Ryan at one point in Up in the Air, the new film from Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking), opening in theaters Dec. 4. “It’s a killer line,” Ms. Farmiga said recently, drumming her fingers absently in a conference room overlooking the lights of Times Square. “That’s the line I had to stand in front of a mirror and rehearse over and over again.” The 36-year-old actress was in the midst of the whirlwind press tour that accompanies films poised to enter the awards-season fray, and with good reason: Up in the Air is a poignant, complicated and unpredictable movie, with crisp and witty dialogue and terrific performances. But mostly, Ms. Farmiga said (looking amused), as she makes her press rounds, people just want to know what it’s like to work with George Clooney. (Let’s solve that mystery now: it is unsurprisingly “great”.)

In the film, Mr. Clooney’s Ryan Bingham works for a company that “lends me out to cowards that don’t have the courage to sack their own employees.” He’s on the road 322 days of the year, flies 350,000 miles (the moon, he points out, is a mere 250,000 miles away) and enjoys a happy existence of isolation, proselytizing the merits of traveling light, literally and figuratively. Enter Alex, a woman who shares his sentiments when it comes to mile-high living and freedom from attachments. She is his match, and not since 1998’s Out of Sight has Mr. Clooney sparked and sparkled so successfully onscreen with a co-star.

In person, Ms. Farmiga is startlingly lovely, with intensely blue eyes and long and angular facial features reminiscent of a Modigliani. Yet she tends to look different in nearly every role: a grieving mother with an adopted child from hell in Orphan; a high-ranking Nazi officer’s wife in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; the object of affection caught between Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed; a prostitute in Breaking and Entering; a mom with an intense cocaine addiction in Down to the Bone (for which she won accolades at Sundance and from critics). Early this year, she gave birth to her son, Fynn (with husband Renn Hawkey); had her first costume fitting for Up in the Air two weeks later; and started to film a month and a half after that.

“I had these giant porn boobs,” she said. “These big boobs with purpose! It was difficult, the lack of sleep, the weariness … just getting to know this brand-new body. Normally it would have been easier to click into Alex’s confidence and sexuality, but I was so tired. But at the same time being a new mother and experiencing that gift and empowerment of birth, of actually producing a human, it’s a feeling of power that is evident when I watch my performance.” She paused. “Of course you can’t help but notice you are 10 to 12 pounds heavier, and you know the scenes when the milk had been coming through and you’re just finding interesting positions to hide the wet spots. That’s the stuff I’m looking at.”

Mr. Reitman wrote the part of Alex with Ms. Farmiga in mind. But he was understandably worried when she showed up to their first meeting five months pregnant. “I was skeptical,” the 32-year-old director said via phone. “I was the one telling her, ‘I don’t know if you can do this.’ And she kept being like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I can.’ She was so overwhelmingly confident … and the closer we got, she just kept reiterating how confident she was. She’s a gamer. And we got to set and she of course killed it.”

For a movie ostensibly about one man (and written and directed by one), it is quite preoccupied with women. “Here’s a guy having an existential crisis, who thinks he knows what the rules are, and everyone in life that sort of takes him by the collar is a female,” said Ms. Farmiga. “His siblings, his co-worker, to the romance that clobbers him, they’re all women.”

One of the other strong female influences in the film is the young co-worker assigned to tag along with Ryan, a 23-year-old named Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick. While the early buzz on the film is that it’s assured a slot come Oscar time, those who tend to speculate about such things have wondered if Ms. Farmiga will end up competing with her young co-star in the Best Supporting Actress category. “It’s weird when this comes up,” Ms. Farmiga said. “Because the truth of it is, I think Anna deserves it! It’s refreshing—you look at her generation and who their role models are, and she’s such an intelligent, self-possessed woman. … I’m just so pleased that she’s getting the attention she deserves.” The fingertips drummed more intently. “I … I … look,” she said, eyes somehow becoming even more blue. “I’m pretty established, I feel blessed in my career and steadily I’m meandering through it. I want the world for Anna, I really do.”

Said Mr. Reitman, “All this talk about the Oscars … this is months away. The good news is that the conversation means they did a good job. When it comes down to it, there’ll be a part of them that wants to win, and part of them that’s just honored to be sitting at that table if it happens.” He laughed. “Having been a nominee knowing I had no chance of winning”—Mr. Reitman and Juno were both in contention with the directors and films of No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton—“I knew exactly why I was there and I was thrilled. It is a joy to lose an Oscar, let me tell you.”  

There’s room and then some for strong female roles, Ms. Farmiga said. “There are a lot of talented actresses and there need to be more. I think the temperature of the climate, what’s happening in the economy and how it is affecting our business—so much money is spent on these multimillion dollar explosive CGI fiascoes where there is very little story line. There’s just no money for that sort of thing anymore. I think we’re getting down to the basics of storytelling and asking questions and hopefully that will affect roles for women and what kind of stories are being told and truth-telling and using this forum of filmmaking as a more proactive, more socially conscious way … that we can start making sense of this mess of a world we’re living in.”

Ms Farmiga sighed. She seemed ready to ditch her tailored suit, makeup and heels and return to the upstate New York farm she lives on with her husband and son and goats. Because of the Toronto Film Festival and most recent hectic schedule, they are behind on the goats’ shearing. “The Angora ones, they matt, and it becomes painful,” she said. FYI: She not only carves, cleans and spins the wool herself, she also knits from it—she said that she usually produces one sweater for her husband per season. Perhaps she and Mr. Clooney can collaborate on a second film: The Woman Who Stares at Goats?

svilkomerson@observer.com