After Vera Farmiga was nominated for an Oscar for her performance opposite George Clooney in the 2009 film Up in the Air, the actress was offered the chance of a lifetime -- not just to act in a film, but to direct it as well.
The result is indie drama Higher Ground, due in theaters on Friday. The film is inspired by Carolyn Brigg's memoir This Dark World, in which a young woman enters a community of evangelical Christians, then begins to question her faith.
Ground follows lead character Corinne (Farmiga) over a span of 20 years. Farmiga, 38, made the film a family affair with husband Renn Hawkey a producer and musical director and her sister Taissa, 15 years-old at the time and with no prior acting experience, playing young Corinne.
Higher Ground debuted at 2011's Sundance Film Festival, launching Farmiga's second career as a filmmaker and a budding acting career for Taissa. The 16-year old now stars in upcoming TV series American Horror Story from the creators of Glee.
Reuters sat down with the sisters to talk about their experience of working together on Higher Ground.
Q: Who asked whom to be in the movie?
Taissa: Vera texted me and was like, 'Hey, do you wanna play the younger version of me in a movie I'm directing?' I was a typical 15 year-old. I wasn't up to much, so I said 'Sure.'
Vera: Well, there was a bit of a negotiation...
Taissa: There was. There was a Toyota Tacoma truck.
Vera: I said you'd do some babysitting for me and maybe you'd get the Tacoma. Maybe. But we need to renegotiate. You owe me a pickup truck for the career you're now having!
Q: Vera, you put your sister in some pretty compromising positions on screen: kissing her co-star, getting pregnant...
Vera: (turns to Taissa) You should thank me! (laughter) Look who kissed you! (Boyd Holbrook). He's no toad, man. He's talent on two feet and he's pretty darn handsome. I was watching your back! (laughter)
Q: Were your parents okay with her doing that on camera?
Vera: Actually, I had to present it to mama, because Taissa was 15 and certainly mama needed to approve. She's the one who signs off on things. I altered certain very descriptive words that described Corinne's loss of virginity.
Q: You altered the script for your mom's approval?
Vera: (laughs) Yes. I took some of the graphic descriptions out of it.
Q: Taissa, did you always have ambitions to act?
Taissa: None at all. It kinda just popped up.
Q: Vera, why have your sister in the film? Especially when it's somebody without experience and no burning desire to act?
Vera: It was more important to me that before experience there was genetic similarity. I needed her to look like me. I feel like Taissa even moves like me.
Q: Were there moments when your sister's work ever make your heart soar with pride and make you teary-eyed?
Vera: So many. The first scene we shot in particular when she was crying in the toilet on the night of the honeymoon. (turns to Taissa). I mean, the way you threw yourself into the role starting with that one scene. There's a shorthand that comes with being family and sisters. Certain words can instigate Taissa into an emotional reaction. She's so trusting, so courageous, so bold. She's able to go with me on these rides. (to Taissa) Was I demanding?
Taissa: Mm-hmm (laughs) But you knew what you wanted.
Vera: Yeah, well, I knew what you were capable of. And I knew what the demands of the role were. Whether they came as a surprise to you, or whether you could perceive them beforehand, you were making these discoveries and challenging yourself.
Q: Taissa, was there ever a moment during production where you regretted saying 'yes' to doing the film?
Taissa: I may have had one of those fleeting thoughts...But once we started shooting, no. I had a blast.
Q: When did you decide to pursue acting professionally?
Taissa: I didn't officially say I want to be an actress until after Sundance.
Reuters: Then came auditions for American Horror Story.
Taissa: They wanted me to put myself on tape. I was so scared. I'd never done that before. It was for this Goth girl. So I called Vera up. She put some dark eye shadow on...
Vera: But you could've done that yourself. I have given you many lessons in smoky eye!
Q: There is a 22-year age difference between you two. Is your relationship more like mother/daughter or two sisters?
Vera: It depends on the moment. It depends on the day. I've always felt a responsibility for her.
Taissa: But there are times when you're that cool older sister.