Playing a mom facing empty nest syndrome in the romantic comedy “At Middleton,” Vera Farmiga didn’t have to look too far from inspiration.
“My kid just turned five a few days ago and he’s going to kindergarten next year, so I’ve already experienced letting him loose to preschool,” says the actress. “I’ve already experienced letting him go.
“He’s such a sociable guy. He’s the guy you want to meet the first day of preschool. ‘Hi, my name is Fynn Hawkey. Do you want to play with me?’ He doesn’t even look back to say goodbye. I see him going off and I wonder if I’ve girded him with the wisdom to spend the day away from me.”
In case her own experiences as a mom to a pair of youngsters, aged 3 and 5, weren’t enough to draw upon, Farmiga also found herself co-starring in the movie opposite her 21-years-younger sister Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story,” “Bling Ring”), who plays her daughter in the film.
“I kind of confuse her name with my daughter’s name a lot, so I do consider her a surrogate daughter to me, and I think I’ve been maternal to her in a surrogate way,” says Vera who lives on a goat farm in the Catskills. “So what you’re seeing in the movie is relevant to who we are.
“Also, Taissa was turning 18 at the time we shot this film, and I could see my mom going through it all as well. I could see Taissa exiling [our] mom to trailer life and not wanting her to come to set. So life was imitating art during shooting this. It was effortless.”
Written and directed by Adam Rogers, “At Middleton” focuses on two parents who meet each other while touring a prospective college campus with their respective 18-year-olds.
The free-spirited Edith (Vera Farmiga) is at Middleton College with her uptight daughter Audrey (Taissa Farmiga), while the meticulous George (Andy Garcia) is attending with his easy-going son Conrad (Spencer LoFranco). It doesn’t take long for opposites to attract.
Farmiga, who’s coming off a turn in the surprise hit “The Conjuring,” calls making the movie one of the best experiences of her career. She enjoyed Rogers, her fellow cast members, and a screenplay that depicted two over-40 adults falling in love.
“I think honestly we’re starved for adult romances that are fortified with the vitamins and minerals of spiritual reflection and life,” she says. “It’s like it’s a vintage concept. There’s sort of a dearth of stories about adults falling in love.
“I grew up watching Meg Ryan romances in the ‘80s. Those were love stories about adults investigating what it means to love and live. … I can’t remember the last time [I saw a good romantic comedy] before Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy [in the “Before Sunrise” trilogy.] Now, I mostly rent films from the ‘70s.”
Making a romantic comedy – one of her first – allowed the actress, who’s married to musician-turned-carpenter Renn Hawkey, to reflect on her own romantic life.
“What I’ve discovered about [romance] is that you can’t just wait for it to happen; you have to chase after it with a club,” she says. “You have to revitalize it for yourself on a daily basis. … It’s a choice to have a romantic life. In that way, love becomes a decision.
“That’s what was so vital to me about this movie. From the outside, it’s a very lighthearted romantic comedy, but at the heart of it are these heavy-duty concepts, like, ‘Is love a decision? Or an errand? Do you choose who you love?’
“At Middleton” isn’t Farmiga’s only upcoming project. In March, she’ll return to her Emmy-nominated role as Norma Bates in “Bates Motel,” A&E’s “Psycho” prequel co-starring Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates. The second season begins airing in March.
So, what’s up for the latest batch of episodes?
“All of the characters get more fully immersed in the community,” notes Farmiga. “The season starts off with [the Bates Motel enjoying] a certain amount of success. … Norma’s gotten everything she wanted to achieve with this hotel. It’s a bang-up business, but it all goes terribly awry when a certain guest shows up.”
It’s hard to think of characters as diametrically opposed as the goofy Edith and the manipulative Norma, but Farmiga sees common ground between the women.
“It’s invigorating going from one to the other,” she says. “But there’s many childlike aspects to Norma as well, and I cherish those because it is a dark show and there are some really strong, torturous emotions that we convey.
“With Edith, to me, I [was looking for inspiration] to the women I watched growing up, like Lucile Ball and Carol Burnett. It was a chance for me to just let it rip.”
Unlike many actresses, Farmiga had a childhood far removed from the movie business. She grew up in rural Irvington and Flemington, N.J., the daughter of two Ukrainian immigrants. One of seven children, Vera didn’t begin learning to speak English until she went to school.
After toying with becoming a music therapist and an ophthalmologist, Farmiga wound up majoring in drama at Syracuse University. She worked steadily as an actor but didn’t enjoy her breakthrough role until her astonishing turn as a blue-collar mother and drug addict in “Down to the Bone,” which was written and directed by “Winter’s Bone” helmer Debra Granik.
In 2006, she snagged the female lead opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon in “The Departed.” Farmiga seemed to be on the fast-track to stardom, but she preferred more offbeat assignments in indies like “Quid Pro Quo,” “Never Forever,” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”
Another milestone for Farmiga was netting the role of a married businesswoman who breaks the heart of George Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air.” She earned an Oscar nomination and followed it up by directing the underrated “Higher Ground” and giving birth to her two youngsters.
“At the moment, [I’m] having my own parenting and identity crisis being the mom of a 5 and 5-year-old, where the most important role for me is of mother and wife. … But I think I’m a better mom because I have this wonderful outlet and I’m a better artist because I have the great… knowledge of what it means to love children.”
Some days, the strain of being a working mom leaves Farmiga mulling over alternative career paths.
“I feel like at this point if I just fully commit to managing Taissa’s career and taking 20 percent, I could make a fine living,” the actress says with a laugh. “I’m so proud of her. She takes my breath away.”