When I enter the hotel room where she’s doing her chatting, Vera Farmiga is sitting at a table, her hand casually rubbing the round mound of baby at her midsection.
She’s due in January; it’s her first baby, she says, and she knows it’s going to be a boy. And yes, she has chosen a name, but isn’t letting that cat out of the bag. She winces for a second, then smiles.
“At the moment, he’s tap-dancing on my cervix,” she offers.
She’ll be seen later this year in “Nothing But the Truth,” Rod Lurie’s take on the Valerie Plame story of a reporter protecting a source after outing a CIA agent. But she’s here to talk about “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” opening Friday.
In Mark Herman’s film, she plays the mother of the central character, an 8-year-old boy named Bruno. They are living in World War II Berlin when her husband (played by David Thewlis) receives a prestigious military assignment. The family is relocated to the Polish countryside, where Father takes his new job – as commandant of a Nazi death camp.
The film is Bruno’s story – about his childlike response to his surroundings and his befriending a young Jewish prisoner at the nearby camp – but Farmiga’s character bears the emotional brunt of her son’s adventurousness. The movie doubtless will stir anguished discussions about whether you should have empathy – or sympathy – for a mother whose child is put in jeopardy, when that mother is a Nazi.
“I find it intriguing. This film is about lies parents tell their children to cover their own sins. And lies people tell themselves,” says Farmiga, 35, who grew up in a Ukrainian enclave in New Jersey (and didn’t speak English until she was 6).
“That’s what’s so confusing about the film – and I felt great confusion reading the script. It attracted me as much as it repulsed me. Because these people aren’t monsters; they’re humans. The film illustrates man’s capacity for hatred and for being inhuman. It shows how cruel humans can be, and how generous and open-hearted.”
How does she expect audiences to react to her character?
“I don’t expect any sympathy from the audiences,” she says. “When I take roles, I look at it like being a court-appointed lawyer going before the grand jury of the audience. But I’m not defending this character. There were some messed-up ideals for women of that time. So I don’t know if I could ask anybody to sympathize with her.
“She starts off as subordinate to her husband, an accomplice to his ideals, his ambition, his needs, his dreams. She has a very narrow perspective and scope. She’s only concerned with what is immediately affecting her and her children and their place in society.”
Which, Farmiga discovered as she researched the role, was not unusual for women in similar positions.
“In my research, there was something I don’t understand as a woman, which is how she could be content with the essential elements of the Nazi ideals,” Farmiga says. “The Nazis had a pathological attitude toward women. They didn’t want women penetrating their world or meddling in their business. They kept the death camps secret but, as a wife, I can’t imagine not intuiting or probing into it. Rudolf Hess’ wife claimed she didn’t know for two years. She overheard on several occasions that Jews were being killed but she chose not to believe it. When she challenged her husband, he convinced her that his hands were not bloody and she chose to believe him. But I don’t get it.
“Women were as much perpetrators as victims. With my character, even once she finds out, she withdraws and allows herself to fall into depression. But she doesn’t flee, or take her children away. She gradually loses respect for her husband but she does too little too late. Of course, if she did anything radical, she’d have been imprisoned.”
Farmiga has been acting professionally for a dozen years, earning a reputation as an emotionally unsparing actress as capable of raw emotions (in a film like “Down to the Bone”) as wonderfully dry comedy (as a prostitute in Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering”). Her choice of roles probably won’t change, she says, with the arrival of her son.
“I’ve always chosen responsibly,” she says. “For me, the key is looking for major roles in which a woman experiences some form of great awakening or gains some great awareness. That’s what I’m drawn to.
“It’s so hard not to feel that you’ve contributed to the mess with the material that comes your way. We do have a profession that can be a megaphone for social awareness and change. This was an opportunity to do something like that.”
For her, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a mirror of our own times. Our stewardship of the planet and its resources – well, as she notes, our record is less than stellar.
“We made such a mess of the world,” she says. “In our own country, we have followed orders blindly from the top. What do we do as a national community and as individuals? It’s a little mirror you hold up to yourself. The film forces you to think about those things.
“Our children reveal the flaws in our adult world. The first point of any research is to look in the mirror. How am I similar and different from my character – how are we alike? It’s a tough question to ask yourself, to examine your own passivity, heedlessness, apathy.”