Veering Toward Stardom

You may recognize Vera Farmiga from Up in the Air, or The Departed, but the Irvington-native honed her considerable acting skills on high school stages around NJ.

Matt Sayles/AP.

Honey blond, redhead, or brunette, on-screen chameleon Vera Farmiga has the ability to disappear into a multiplicity of film characters. In her short Hollywood career, audiences have seen Farmiga as a police psychiatrist in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, the disillusioned wife of a concentration-camp commandant in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and a working-class mom with a ravaging drug problem in Down to the Bone.

Her latest triumph: the libidinous businesswoman whose high-flying romance with George Clooney’s character steams up the screen in Up in the Air, a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress.

It is obvious Farmiga flings herself full-force into each role. “I can’t feel lukewarm about a character,” says the 36-year-old Irvington native. “I either despise her, admire her, or want to understand her. If there’s any sort of pattern, these women are experiencing a tremendous awakening or awareness about themselves.”

Farmiga grew up in a sheltered Ukrainian enclave centered around St. John’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Newark. Parents Mikhail and Luba Farmiga doggedly preserved their cultural heritage for Vera and her six siblings. For young Vera, English remained a foreign language until kindergarten.

“My culture is very rich in the arts,” says Farmiga. “Singing and dance were so much a part of my childhood. I was in a traveling professional dance troupe called Syzokryli, and I was very serious about the piano. So I was always performing.”

When she was 12, the family moved to Hunterdon County, where Vera’s parents and younger siblings still reside. Farmiga appeared in school plays at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, then went on to Syracuse University’s School of Visual and Performing Arts.

Farmiga received her degree in 1991 and made her Broadway debut in 1996 as an understudy in the play Taking Sides. The following year, she landed a role as the female lead in Fox-TV’s adventure series Roar—sharing screen time with another star in the making, the late Heath Ledger. Her big screen debut came in 1998, with the drama Return to Paradise. In the ensuing years the roles kept coming, and she earned a best actress award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 for her performance in Down to the Bone.

Although she is much in demand in Hollywood, Farmiga makes her home on the East Coast. A new mom, she and her husband, musician Renn Hawkey, live on a farm in Ulster County, New York, with their baby son, Fynn, and a quartet of goats. “My whole dining room has become a wool factory,” she says. “I produce the fiber and I spin the wool. I made the bedding for the baby, and my husband gets two sweaters a year.”
As for future projects, Farmiga is shooting a romantic comedy opposite Keanu Reeves titled Henry’s Crime and has been signed to costar with Jake Gyllenhaal in an upcoming sci fi thriller from hot young British filmmaker Duncan Jones.

How does Farmiga manage to remain grounded as she bounces among such diverse characters? “I’m blessed with a pretty sound constitution and I don’t intimidate easily,” says Jersey’s newest marquee name. “Plus I don’t feel a need to be famous, but I do feel a need to shed light on human emotion.”

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