Farmiga also reveals the project that solidified her passion for acting.
I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with Taissa Farmiga quite a bit over the years for interviews, but a Collider Ladies Night conversation is different. Farmiga’s had a one-of-a-kind journey in this industry and during our 40-minute chat, we covered as much of it as possible leading up to her latest project, the HBO series, The Gilded Age.
From Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, The Gilded Age kicks off in the United States in 1882, a time that involved a significant conflict between old money and new ways of amassing enormous fortunes. In the Upper East Side of New York City, the former group includes the Van Rhijn household, led by Christine Baranski’s Agnes van Rhijn. Agnes holds tight to the past and keeps an eye out for newcomers who don’t belong, like her new neighbors the Russells.
That’s where we meet Farmiga’s character, Gladys Russell. She’s the teenage daughter of George (Morgan Spector) and Bertha (Carrie Coon). At this point, Gladys should have made her society debut, but Bertha refuses to let Gladys out of lockdown until she can fill her massive ballroom for the occasion. Trouble is, given that the Russells are new to the area, Bertha is finding it rather difficult to earn a place in the local elite social circle.
During our Collider Ladies Night chat, we went back to the beginning for Farmiga. Even though it’s quite clear she’s oozing with raw talent, Farmiga initially had minimal interest in acting. Even when her sister, Vera Farmiga, encouraged her to join the cast of her directorial debut, High Ground, she agreed to do so more for the experience, not necessarily for a passion for acting.
“For me I have such an interesting start with it because I don’t think the ‘aha moment’ of I need this in my life came until I was already working a bit. My older sister Vera’s obviously an actress and she directed her first film, this indie film called Higher Ground 10, 11 years ago, and it was my first job when I was 15, and it was to play the younger version of her character. I think I filmed the movie [in] eight days. She asked me to be in it and it was more just because I looked like her and she asked me to. I couldn’t say no. I was like, ‘Okay, this is a cool experience,’ and then after that I went back to my normal life.”
“Normal life” didn’t last much longer after that. Higher Ground made its way to the Sundance Film Festival and the industry took notice of Farmiga’s work. But even then, it’d take a little more time for Farmiga to come to the realization that she didn’t just enjoy acting, it was something she needed and she was determined to pour everything she had into her craft.
“I think it was the first time I worked with an acting coach, and it was for In the Valley of Violence. I was a little nervous because the character was a little bit bigger than anything I’ve done. In the Valley of Violence is done by Ti West who’s a great horror director, but it was kind of like a weird hipster Western movie, and it was the first time where I got to see how someone — not just going on natural instincts. You break down the scene, you break down the emotions and to me, the emotions started feeling like a mathematical equation. It was like, ‘Oh, if you had this and you’re feeling this and you add a little bit of this person’s response,’ you know? It kind of felt like an equation to me and I loved that. And it was after working with the coach and really building up my skills to do this job because, sure, you have natural instincts, but if you don’t work at it, if you don’t practice and if you don’t learn how to properly start approaching a scene, you can only run for so long. I had the natural part of it, but once I got the book smart part of it, it really just sort of cemented, ‘I’m so f*cking lucky. This is it! This is what I want to do!’ I don’t know what it was. By the end of the job I was like, ‘Oh, I want to hold onto this. I need to do everything I can to work hard and be able to keep moving forward.’”
A little over five years later, that drive and willingness to grow hasn’t changed. In fact, you can see Farmiga’s ability to learn from her experiences on full display in her story about her Gilded Age audition. Originally, Farmiga auditioned for the role of Marion Brook, now played by Louisa Jacobson. But there was absolutely no defeat in that for Farmiga, rather, an ability to recognize when something doesn’t quite click and make the necessary pivot for the better. She explained:
“When I was auditioning for it, I had a hard time. I remember I read once with my husband. I didn’t like the tape … I tried to make the self-tape twice and I wasn’t happy with it. I don’t know why I wasn’t clicking or responding to Marion. I sent in a tape and I was like, ‘I feel fine about it. It is what it is.’ And then casting, the producers they really liked it, but it was like, ‘It’s clearly not right for Marion, but we really, really like you. Will you read this character?’ And I was like, ‘Okay! Why not?’ I was down to try it because, again, perfectionist, I felt like, not that I failed at the other tape, but I was like, I didn’t fully connect. So I was happy to have a second shot with Gladys and that taped in two seconds and I was like, ‘Oh, I know this girl. She’s so many versions of 16, 17-year-old Taissa.’”
You can see Farmiga shining in the role of Gladys on The Gilded Age every Monday on HBO. If you’re looking for even more on Farmiga’s journey from thinking she wanted to be an accountant as a teenager to joining the American Horror Story ensemble and more, check out her episode of Collider Ladies Night at the top of this article or listen to our full 40-minute conversation uncut in podcast form below.