Careful character consideration

Indie vs. studio dilemma doesn't play into decision

Vera Farmiga found herself receiving raves in “Down to the Bone,” a film that premiered in Sundance in 2004 but didn’t find its way to theaters until late last year. The indie pic, directed by tyro helmer Debra Granik, was so small it barely made a blip at the box office, earning just over $30,000 after a couple of weeks playing in New York and Los Angeles.

Yet Farmiga is as proud of that film — now finding an audience via Netflix — as she is of “The Departed,” the Warner Bros. hit that’s right in the thick of this year’s Oscar race. Directed by Martin Scorsese, that drama has earned more than $109 million.

That figure is the biggest haul, by far, for a pic Farmiga’s been in, and she’s quite appreciative of the plaudits the film has received. But she is by no means more enamored now with studio films and the exposure they can provide.

Like many actresses who balance their resumes with indies and studio fare — Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Charlize Theron and Penelope Cruz, to name just a few — what drives her is not the budget or marketing muscle behind a film but, rather, the director’s dedication and complexity of the characters they portray.

“For me, it’s not so much a question if my next film will be an indie or from a studio. I don’t prefer any certain type of film. I only want to play characters that I can believe in,” says Farmiga, who also co-stars in Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering.” “My passion comes from the character and the point of view of the storyteller.”

For Farmiga, who says she’s “never been disappointed by a first-time director,” those projects where she comes in with more experience than the filmmaker always turn into a learning experience for both.

“It’s important that the director and I share the same tenets,” she explains. “The most exhilarating and fulfilling work I’ve had has been with first-time writers and directors. They hire you to fulfill their vision.”

“In terms of being an actor, I like to work in collaboration with the director,” says Bello, who co-stars with Gyllenhaal in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.” “I don’t see a big difference between (first-timers and vets).”

On the other hand, some experiences with newbies can create bad feelings. Directors just out of film school, or who have done musicvideos or commercials and are the driving creative force of those projects, sometimes allow their strong-mindedness to get in the way of the collaborative process that is filmmaking.

“With those younger directors it wasn’t much fun,” Bello adds. “I don’t feel as creatively inspired. Sometimes, the director can have too much of a vision.”

For Gyllenhaal, who’s in three films this Oscar season — “Sherrybaby,” “World Trade Center” and “Stranger Than Fiction” — each comes with unique circumstances.

As well as starring in “Sherrybaby,” she was involved in getting the film funded and marketed.

“The size of a movie makes a difference to me,” she says.

” ‘Sherrybaby’ was a very different commitment than ‘World Trade Center.’ Not only in terms of the acting, but there was a three-year process that included casting and raising money to get it made. I wasn’t involved that way in ‘World Trade Center.’ In that film, and ‘Stranger,’ I was just an actress.

“I like it both ways. I like it when I can just be an actress, but I also enjoy being actively involved. (The difference) in a studio movie is that I have never been in every single moment of the film, but I have in an indie.”

Bello says she doesn’t think in terms of studio vs. indie when choosing films. “Connecting to it emotionally” is the most vital criterion when deciding what’s next.

For Farmiga and Bello, their perfs in “Down to the Bone” and “The Cooler,” respectively, helped get them cast in their current films.

Stone saw Bello in “The Cooler” as William H. Macy’s girlfriend and cast her as the wife of Sept. 11 survivor John McLoughlin. Similarly, Scorsese watched Farmiga shine in “Bone” and gave her the role in “Departed.”

When choosing roles, Gyllenhaal relies strongly on the counsel of her agent, CAA’s Rick Nicita, and manager, Benderspink’s Courtney Kivowitz. If they don’t think a part is good for her — be it in a tentpole or minuscule-budget feature — they’ll let her know. But if the character is rich and would seem to suit her well, they’ll recommend it, no matter the potential paycheck.

“I’ve been so lucky in that so far I’ve made choices based on what material was the most interesting,” says Gyllenhaal. “And all the movies that I’ve made in the past few months have been interesting to me.”

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