Asked to describe the night they met, Farmiga says that after she noticed Hawkey’s “beet-stained lips, eyeliner, and lofty blond hair,” he had her at hello, à la Jerry ¬Maguire. Adds the actress, “He reeked of the finest Indonesian sandalwood and had a Gene Wilder–esque mischievous gaze.”

Hawkey would eventually help Farmiga vie for roles, directing elaborate homemade audition videos in which she’d portray the character in full makeup. “It’s almost a way of working it out for myself before I actually do the role -- a way to experiment, a little dress rehearsal,” she says.

She got her next big break thanks to Scorsese, who had previously considered her for 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead but instead gave the part to star Patricia Arquette, then Nicolas Cage’s wife. Bowled over by Farmiga’s performance in Down to the Bone, the director wanted her for The Departed, a double-crossing cops-and-robbers saga in which she’d play a police psychiatrist who develops relationships with the two lead characters, roles held by DiCaprio and Damon. (The studio agreed to hire Farmiga, a relative unknown, Scorsese says, after being placated by all the A-listers he had already lined up.)

On the film, Farmiga learned about the rare intersection where art meets religion. “It was a very holy set, much like entering a church -- a very sacred space,” she says. “Marty likes his sets to be very quiet.”

Nevertheless, she continued to speak up for her character’s realism and sense of humanity. Farmiga felt her lines were that of a stereotypical girlfriend and tried to deepen the character. “In these types of pictures, as in Goodfellas, the men are in the forefront of the action,” Scorsese admits. “Female roles are somewhat difficult to incorporate. Someone like Vera is very rare -- she could pull from her own experiences to write and improvise and develop her character to the point where the woman in the film is represented as fully as possible.”

After the release of The Departed, Farmiga met with Rod Lurie, a writer/director known for featuring strong women in his projects. Lurie gave her the coveted part of an outed CIA agent in his film Nothing but the Truth, which was loosely based on the real-life saga of Valerie Plame Wilson. Throughout the filming, he admired Farmiga’s sense of play and enthusiasm.

“Vera would sometimes yammer away in Ukrainian,” he says, recalling how she dropped her native tongue into an ¬improvised bit during a scene with her CIA boss. “She’d pace around on the set because she’s very eager, almost impatient, to get the cameras rolling. She really wants to act, and she’s ready. When a scene would start, it’d be like opening a furnace door and feeling this flame roaring out.”

Bad luck befell again, however, and the distributor filed for Chapter 11 weeks before the movie’s premiere. Though it played in a couple of film festivals, Nothing but the Truth had just a weeklong Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles theaters and then went straight to DVD, leaving Farmiga’s glowing reviews to gather dust. (The New York Times said she “fills out her size 0 with macho swagger,” while Rolling Stone raved that she “goes so deep into her character, you can feel her nerve endings.”)