Farmiga’s own childhood was different, to be sure. Born in 1973 as the second of seven kids, she grew up sheltered within a tight-knit Ukrainian-American community in Irvington, New Jersey, and spoke no English until she entered public school at the age of six. “My parents both spoke Ukrainian at home, and I went to a Ukrainian Catholic preschool,” she says. “And my after-school activities all revolved around Ukrainian folk dancing. It was important at the time, but once I started school and swimming and making friends, it wasn’t something I continued.”
Years later, sidelined from high school soccer finals, she tried out for the drama department’s production of a vampire drama and won the lead female role. Bitten by the acting bug, she then studied at Syracuse University’s performing-arts college and hit New York’s floorboards before landing her first recurring TV role, on Fox’s Roar, a 1997 Xena: Warrior Princess knockoff that lasted one season and starred a young Heath Ledger as an orphaned Celtic prince.
Over the next seven years, Farmiga took small parts in telefilms and feature films, occasionally appearing alongside major stars, including Robert De Niro, Richard Gere, and Christopher Walken. Though she worked constantly and was certainly noticed, she never made it onto any casting agent’s must-see list. Then, she landed the starring role in a $250,000 independent feature that turned her life around.
Down to the Bone is a harrowing film you won’t see on network television. It barely made it into a couple of theaters for a weeklong Academy Awards–qualifying run. But the story of a small-town grocery clerk and mother struggling with her painful drug addiction is one of those small indie surprises that makes a powerful impression on everyone who sees it; it even won the 2004 Sundance Film Festival’s Dramatic-Directing Award for first-time filmmaker Debra Granik and a Special Jury Prize for Farmiga’s performance.
“Vera had always been one of those mystery actresses lurking in the shadows that we wanted to see in a larger role,” says Granik, who has remained a close friend to the star and even shot the video for Farmiga’s second wedding last year. “At Sundance, people would ask me, ‘Where has this actress been all these years?’ But let me tell you, she busted her [butt] to make it.”
Shot on digital video in Ulster County near the famous town of Woodstock, New York -- a stone’s throw from Farmiga’s own home -- Down to the Bone features several of Farmiga’s real-life friends and neighbors from the area. Though she lived in New York’s East Village until 1999, she then moved upstate, where she still lives, close to her aunt and uncle’s farm and an old resort complex at which she once participated in folk-dancing workshops.
“I have romantic associations with this part of the world,” she swoons. “It’s like the Carpathian Mountains up here.”
When Farmiga is not working on a soundstage, she’s a real homebody and can often be found cultivating roses and perennials. “My state of mind is closely associated with the status of my flower beds; when my garden needs weeding, so does my head,” she says. She also enjoys household chores -- “I painted 300 feet of fencing today,” she proudly e-mailed me shortly after our ¬interview -- and spending quality time with those four goats; her newborn son, Fynn; and her husband, Renn Hawkey.
Hawkey, who occasionally goes by the kooky stage name Dr. Nner, is a keyboardist for the on-again, off-again band known as Deadsy, which was formed in 1996 by Elijah Blue, the son of Cher and Gregg Allman. A musical mash of 1970s glam, 1980s hard rock, and 1990s goth, Deadsy is currently on hiatus, leaving Hawkey to pursue other careers as a woodworker and a goat herder, building furniture pieces and producing ¬organic goat cheese.