Vera Farmiga is one of those actresses who can make even the strangest things look as natural as brushing your teeth in the morning. She’s currently delivering some one of the best performances on TV as the pathologically oedipal Norma Bates, and with The Conjuring, Farmiga digs in deep as the psychic at the heart of the real life ghostbusting duo Ed and Lorraine Warren. In the upcoming sequel, which sees Farmiga reunited with co-star Patrick Wilson and director James Wan, Farmiga is once again picking up the mantle of one of the world’s most famous mediums, and all the paranormal baggage you open the door to the supernatural. You know, if you believe in that sort of thing, and Farmiga does and she’s got the creepy stories to go with it.
Back in October, I visited the set of The Conjuring 2 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California where I joined a few other journalists to chat with Farmiga about reuniting with Wan and Wilson for the sequel, her friendship with the real Lorrain Warren, and the eerie otherworldly experience after the first Conjuring that convinced her to keep that door tightly closed. Check it all out in the interview below, and click here to read the on-set interview with Patrick Wilson and here to check out 13 things I learned on the set.
Question: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re filming today?
VERA FARMIGA: Okay, today is — this is a scene in which the poltergeist is really manifesting itself physically in this child. This is the first time Ed and Lorraine see a physical manifestation where she is physically affected. It traps her behind — without revealing too much. But you’re going to see it, so, it physically traps her behind a door. We try to extricate her from there. It’s more psychological for Maddie [Madison Wolfe] who plays Janet [Hodgson].
FARMIGA: Isn’t she fantastic? And so clinical about the way she goes. I don’t know what it is, but she really is scientific. She’s so heartfelt. In the scene with her, she blows you away. Emotionally, she goes so deep and so quick, in and out of it. She can map it out. I snoop on their conversations and I hear her literally breaking it down in a very clinical way. And then, cameras roll and she’s so present. I don’t know if it’s just that age where you’re so open, you’re so imaginative. You’re not calloused. It’s hormonal. I don’t know. She has such amazing access to her emotions. It’s pretty astounding to watch.
What’s it like stepping back into Lorraine’s shoes? Does it feel like time has passed or is it like, ‘Oh, wow, here I am, felt like yesterday.’
FARMIGA: It feels like yesterday. I’m very close with Patrick [Wilson] and James [Wan]. So just partnering up with Patrick is really like stepping into your old comfy pair of shoes. He’s a good friend. He’s a very, very good friend. His wife is one of my best friends. So that closeness, I think, lends itself to that familiarity. And we have a blast doing it. It’s dark. Exploring negative mysticism is not fun. [Laughs] It’s arduous, it’s emotionally taxing. But, in between takes, and you’ll see, we’re so silly. It doesn’t feel that long. I guess it was three years ago, and in turn we’ve both been very busy, so it’s not like we’re pining to get there. But when it comes, it’s very familiar. We’re very close with Lorraine [Warren], she’s a good friend of mine. We went to go visit her this summer. I suppose that closeness to her also helps me with the role. She’s a phone call away. I know her well, by now. So it’s certainly…it feels like a switch I can flip on.
Is it complicated playing someone you’re friends with like that?
FARMIGA: I don’t think so, no. I think what’s challenging for me is [laughs], she’s in her late 80s now, I’m talking to a very latter version of her. So my tendency is to want to embody all that eccentricity of her age and wisdom, but everything has changed. I’m playing a 40 year old and she’s in her 80s. Those are things that affect your speech and your breath, and your gait, the way you move through space. The hardest thing for me is to really disassociate the two and rewind the time to see what the younger woman was like. I think that’s the most challenging for me, but otherwise, no, I find it very helpful to be close to her.
Where do you fall on the scale of belief in supernatural occurrences?
FARMIGA: Oh, man. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I believe in negative mysticism and positive mysticism. I have forged my own spiritual narrative in terms of what I believe. I don’t necessarily important for me to sort of give you a dissertation because it’s hard to talk to about my concept of god without spending hours deciphering that for you. But yeah, sure. I mean, I think what’s important for me to buy it hook, line and sinker because I’m portraying Lorraine and she believes it. And I honor that, and just because I have not had — I’ve had the experience of a teacup flying off a shelf in a house rental in Massachusetts. I’ve had strange happenings. I’ve had sort of physical manifestations after the first Conjuring. Not enough to spook me, because the people in my life who have had very valid experiences with negative mysticism, one tip that is unanimous is a choice for you whether you accept it or not. You have a choice in terms of repelling it. I like to think I have that armor now. I was very persuaded — I was really challenged by the first one. It was harder for me, especially in pre-production, all the research that went into it, it was very difficult for me psychologically. I was very spooked and at all times would look over the kids to make sure they weren’t levitating. Living in fear. My life was drenched in fear and that’s very different this time around too. Which is a lot more pleasurable. I know how to turn it on for the camera and really just repel any negative thought, any fear, anything that from this perspective and certainly, Lorraine’s Roman Catholic perspective. And I find that translates, it’s funny that no matter what denomination, no matter what faith you are, whether you’re Jewish or you’re a Shaman or whatever Christian faith you come from, some cultures call it soothsaying, some call it clairvoyance, the Christians call it having the voice of a prophet, everyone has got a name for it, but there’s a consistency. When you ask people and compare different stories about negative and positive mysticism, people’s experience with the unknown.
So you’ve learned a lot from doing The Conjuring?
FARMIGA: I have and I haven’t. It’s really tricky because once you start investigating it you can’t help but — the first book I was reading, the one I was given by a demonologist, the first thing it says is, “Just opening the door, the inquiry into this darkness that you’re about to read is already conjuring it up, making you susceptible.” It’s very tricky to navigate. I feel that my skin is a little thicker. That’s not to say this house rental I’m renting right now [laughs], it was a heck of a lot easier to have my kids and husband this time around. I have to learn my lines in my trailer, during daylight. I don’t take it home with me.
You mentioned before that after the first Conjuring that you had an experience. Was that just the fear that you were feeling or was it an actual experience?
FARMIGA: It’s on my cell phone. If you catch me later, I’ll have my cell phone and I can show it to you. I’ve told this story before. The strangest occurrence for me was the day, I had a creative conversation with James Wan on The Conjuring. I had just been researching Lorraine, I wasn’t familiar with her. Before the phone call, I was on the computer. I had closed it. We had our conversation. I was just smitten with James, and I said, “If Patrick Wilson is in, because I knew at the time that he had also been offered — then I’m in.” I just wanted to be sure that Patrick was going to be my partner. We agreed and we said goodbye, and then I opened the computer screen and there were three digital claw marks from the right diagonal to the lower left. And I wish I had my phone — maybe Sarah can send for my cell phone so I can show them. The day that I finished The Conjuring, I came back to upstate New York to my house and I had woken up to three claw mark bruises across my side. I can’t remember the question but you know. But I acknowledged it. When I woke up with that, I knew I had a choice to give into the fear. It’s mental gymnastics, you just gird up and you don’t accept it. There’s evidence there but I was adamant about not feeling fear. It’s emotional armor. You figure it out. You figure out how to build it around yourself. Even though it was clear evidence of some strangeness that’s occurred. My husband did not do that to me, I did not scratch some mosquito bite. I’ll show you.
Was it painful?
FARMIGA: Not necessarily. It wasn’t incredibly painful, it might have felt like a bruise. You’ll see it, the rendering on my thigh, three distinct marks that look like claw marks, that long nails or fingertips, long fingertips, could make. But it didn’t hurt, no. I texted it to James. I can’t even remember his response.
To kind of bridge it back to the sequel, in the first film, Lorraine carries a lot of weight, everything she’s seen carries a large effect on her. I’m interested to see what we’re seeing her deal with this time.
FARMIGA: Sure. I think the audience is very curious about what exactly she saw the last time. And we’re going to explore that. We’re going to see her psychic abilities challenged this time around. Which will be incredibly disconcerting for this dynamic duo because they rely on her. It’s all about what she senses and what she picks up on. So that will be something that they’re challenged by.
How does working on Lorraine differ from Norma Bates?
FARMIGA: [Laughs] Um, I don’t know. The process for me is not all that different. I work on them both in the same way. To me they are just radically, beautifully honed and etched, sharply rendered female characters. There’s so much more of Norma, of course. Lorraine doesn’t have the spotlight as much but her presence is huge in the film. I think Norma has much more of a staccato rhythm and Lorraine is just something softer and more secure. Until she’s not. Which is very much like Norma. I feel like a kid dipping into her costume box. I love this hair and the costumes and the shoes…immediate just make it — I love their relationships. You just find the love, immediately. The key is to find the love between mine and Patrick’s character, that reliance. And for Norma, it’s that unconditional love between her and Norman. [Assistant brings her phone]
Oh, here we go. Fuck! Sorry. Again, even just showing you gives it…power. I’m contradicting myself right now with what I’m about to do.
We appreciate that.
FARMIGA: Yeah, you’re going to be the first one I call tonight in the middle of the night! [laughs]
Well, it happens, you know.
FARMIGA: No, it’s not going to happen. Here’s what it looked like when it did.
Oh my gosh, that’s real — claws. Wow, that’s like not even subtle.
FARMIGA: No, no. It’s not.
That is so weird. Do they match the scratch marks on your screen?
FARMIGA: No, they were longer. The digital claw marks were different. It’s weird.
You don’t remember any dreams?
FARMIGA: No, nothing. It was a very peaceful sleep. That’s what I do remember. The project had been done, it was home sweet home. There was no strangeness around that. It’s just so random. I don’t remember anything.
But it did scare you?
FARMIGA: Again, at that point, I registered it. I registered how expletive odd it was. [Pause] I texted Patrick, I texted James and I prayed about it. [Laughs] And that was it.
One of the things that I’ve noticed in the last few years is the level of talent that has gone into horror. And you’re a big part of that.
FARMIGA: Thank you, thank you.
Have you always been a fan of genre or is this something you’ve developed because of that?
FARMIGA: I, look, I grew up not being allowed — I had to sneak over to Missy Berner’s house to watch any horror. It was not allowed in my very Ukrainian Catholic home. And I just remember feeling so much and it staying with me. It was my first investigation into finding what god might mean for me, feeling that fear and the dread. So in that respect, it was very formative. And growing up in the ‘80s was all Stephen King and Kathy Bates. I loved Kathy Bates across the board. I just thought she was a slammin’ actress. I would watch her emote and make me feel so, so much and bring so much gravitas to the genre. I loved thrillers growing up. And then I watched a lot of Polanski. I like psychological thrillers. It wasn’t per se Nightmare on Elm Street or the Jason pics, it was more like, I don’t know, The Tenant or Rosemary’s Baby. The Shining, of. How many times did my best friend, my cousin and I watch that as much as we could? And of course we snuck it. We just snuck it.
One of the things we are interested in is you guys touching on the Amityville story which obviously has its own cinematic legacy. How is this movie approaching it and what is it like as Lorraine?
FARMIGA: Both cases, Amityville and this is the most notorious case of haunting in England, huge headlines they’ve had. Extremely well documented, both cases. I don’t feel a pressure. I can only bring to it what I know to be true, my experience of Lorraine. And she is so heartfelt, she is so full of grace, so compassionate as a human being. I love her, I find her to be very beautiful and I’m touched by that. If that comes with any pressure or scrutiny, I can only apply myself.
Does she have fear?
FARMIGA: Yes. She will tell you, she will tell you she has fear. I wish she was here. [Immitates Lorraine’s accent] “Boy do I have fear, let me tell ya, hon.” Yeah, she does. She’s haunted by what she’s seen in her life. It’s seared into her psyche. She misses Ed so much. He passed maybe a decade ago now. She misses her best friend. She doesn’t live alone, she can’t, there’s a priest that lives with her. They have mass every day in the house.
You mentioned she’s a phone call away, do you find that you call her a lot?
FARMIGA: No, no I don’t. Actually, I don’t. Patrick and I went to go see her, a year or two went by before we established contact. She’s very busy, I guess we’re both just very busy. When we get together, we eat a bunch of meatballs and talk about the perennials she’s planted, it’s a very natural friendship. I just want to be near her and pick up her intonations and her vocal qualities. And just be with her. I saw her in June, this past June I went to sit with her. I email with her son-in-law quite a bit and he gives me a lot of updates. As far I know, she still answers the calls. Her phone is still listed and she’s still picking up the calls and soothing people throughout the night.