“Every year around awards season there’s talk of how many great roles there are for women,” says Vera Farmiga, the director-star of “Higher Ground.” “But there’s really this dearth of roles out there for women.”
“Higher Ground” — based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir “This Dark World,” is about a born-again Christian who questions her faith while attempting to find her own voice. Farmiga believed so strongly in the project that when financing fell through and moving forward meant she would have to step behind the camera for the first time, she made the plunge — this despite being three months pregnant and the growing physical discomfort she endured during the shoot. Casting her son Fynn in a cameo and kid sister Taissa Farmiga as her younger self helped turn the film into a family affair (and also kept the budget down). Plus husband-producer Renn Hawkey provided added moral support.
“I think the answer is for women to be bold and make the projects that have these wonderful, layered roles in them,” says Farmiga, who grew up in a Ukrainian Catholic household.
“Bold” is the key word here, since for many of the industry’s most discerning actresses, landing complex, challenging parts that resonate personally means that passivity is out of the question; and taking ownership of a project is key.
For Kristen Wiig, finding a way to depict the real ups and downs in female friendships was a motivator when she co-wrote “Bridesmaids” with friend Annie Mumolo.
“Annie (Mumolo) had just been to a lot of weddings when we started writing ‘Bridesmaids’ and I think we had both seen how going to weddings or being a bridesmaid can make you feel like everyone is getting it together and moving on when maybe you’re not doing that,” says Wiig. “We were writing about the friendships women have and how they change when those events happen.”
Ellen Barkin was deeply moved by Sam Levinson’s script for “Another Happy Day,” a story that contains multiple powerful female roles for women that exist across different generations. She also knew that since Levinson was a first-time director-writer, her veteran industry cred could help the project get made. It was at that point she decided to don multiple hats as producer and actress, helping persuade Ellen Burstyn, Demi Moore and Kate Bosworth to sign on as well.
“I had to learn a whole new skill set but I felt so accomplished afterwards because you see everything Sam (Levinson) wrote up there on the screen,” says Barkin. “The great part of it was that Sam didn’t understand why it might be a problem to have a story where most of the great roles are for women over 45, because he just wanted to tell the story of these characters.”
Knocking down barriers based on age or appearance also appealed to Laura Dern when she co-created “Enlightened,” an HBO series about a middle-age woman who experiences a spiritual awakening after a painful phase in her life.
Even the posters for the show — which feature an unhinged Dern, with tear streaks of thick, black mascara running down her face — break from the conventional way women’s images are used to sell a project.
“You can see the smile lines in my face,” laughs Dern. “That’s important because this character should be shown as she is, in her 40s, in this state of rage about some of the things that have happened to her, being impossible and trying influence social change.”
Tilda Swinton, who is no stranger to the production process, was pulled into deeper involvement with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” as an executive producer. The story examines the grief of the mother of a teen boy who goes on a killing spree as she wrestles with feelings of responsibility for his actions.
“In the book Lionel Shriver was looking under a corner of society’s linoleum that maybe hadn’t been pried up before: the taboo subject on the non-inevitable maternal instinct,” says Swinton. “I had been all too aware when my own twins were born that I was lucky to love them so much and to be bouncing about in this love.”
For actresses like Swinton and Farmiga, this deeper involvement, and the requisite passion that goes into it, requires sacrifice. But the extra toil adds to the satisfaction.
“When you direct it’s two years out of your life,” says Farmiga, “but if you’re able to do this kind of deeply satisfying work then it’s all worth it.”
Thesps seize career reins | Brains and brawn fuel nouveau action heroines | Longtime collaborators help dress the parts | Startling discoveries