The bluntly named Ukrainian East Village Restaurant occupies part of the first floor of the Ukrainian National Home, an almost comically grim building on lower Second Avenue. The specials are listed on a hand-drawn sign on the sidewalk out front: “Stuffed cabbage. Chicken Kiev. Varenyky (Pierogi). Kovbasa. Letcho w/potato pancakes. Halusky.”
This is the food Vera Farmiga, 38, grew up on as a Ukrainian-American kid in Irvington, New Jersey. She ate at this very restaurant, in fact, during visits to New York as a teenage member of a Ukrainian-American folk-dancing troupe called Syzokryli. “We performed at Alice Tully Hall and Ukrainian organizations here and there,” Farmiga says. She returned to this place in the mid-nineties, when she was an Off Broadway actor just out of Syracuse University, living on nearby St. Marks Place.
It’s lunchtime. We go down a hallway that looks and feels like it’s straight out of the Khrushchev-era USSR. We step onto the restaurant’s pine floorboards. Farmiga mentions, without disapproval, that it smells like an old gymnasium.
A man with a mustache looks up from a bowl of hot borscht. A waitress in a black-and-white uniform greets us with not much more than a nod. We take a table in the middle of the room. “According to Marty, Cassavetes used to rehearse here with his troupe,” Farmiga says, offhand. “Marty” is Martin Scorsese, who directed her in The Departed. “Cassavetes” is the late indie demigod John Cassavetes, director of Gloria and A Woman Under the Influence.
Farmiga established herself as a major actor in the 2004 Debra Granik film Down to the Bone, the chronicle of a woman undergoing the mundane horrors of addiction. “That was the first heavy-duty responsibility I was given as an actress,” she says. Three years ago, when she found herself interested in a script called Higher Ground, Farmiga got in touch with Granik, hoping she would direct it. When Granik said no, Farmiga considered taking on the job herself: “My manager was saying, ‘Why are you asking for permission? You’re asking all the time about roles for women!’ ” Last summer, while pregnant with her second child, she was in charge of cast and crew during a no-frills, 28-day shoot not far from her home in Ulster County.
The movie is based on the memoir of Carolyn S. Briggs, who co-wrote the script with Tim Metcalfe. After a religious conversion, Briggs lived happily as a wife, mother, and true-believing member of a small fundamentalist congregation. As the years went by, however, she began to have doubts. Her family life collapsed as she inched away from the church.
Farmiga liked the script partly because its main character was so much richer than the underwritten roles coming her way in commercial screenplays. She’d gotten so disgusted with what was being offered her that she’d started piling them up and burning them on her property. “This was supposed to be just a little experiment in creating better roles for women,” she says. “I just wanted to see if I could give myself a meaty role.” After its Sundance debut, Higher Ground was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.
Two large, sweaty men in sleeveless gray T-shirts sit down at a nearby table. They discuss eel fishing in the Netherlands. They take no special notice of Farmiga, whose performance as an emotionally efficient businesswoman in the 2009 film Up in the Air earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. George Clooney, her co-star, was also nominated.
Farmiga makes her way through five mushroom-and-sauerkraut pierogi. She takes approximately ten minutes per pierogi, as if the film actress inside her were doing battle with her inner Ukrainian-American. “Boy, this is comforting,” she says. “This is medicinal for me, just to smell fried onions.”
Farmiga didn’t speak English until she was 7. She spent her summers at a Ukrainian-American resort and cultural center called Soyuzivka in the Ulster County town of Kerhonkson, New York, not far from New Paltz. That’s where the dance ensemble trained. “That’s why I live in upstate New York,” she says. “That’s where I spent romantic summers dancing ten hours a day and choreographing pieces.” Now she keeps angora goats and collects their wool.
Farmiga checks her handheld device for the latest on her kids, Fynn, 3, and Gytta, 9 months old. “I missed her crawling. She learned to crawl yesterday when I was on The View, telling the ladies what it was like to kiss George Clooney. So I’m having these Medea-Madonna pendulum swings. Fynn’s got poison ivy. Either that or a bad case of mosquito bites. One or the other. Oh, sorry—poison ivy? He’s got chicken pox. I’ve got poison ivy. From foraging for mushrooms after a rain. But he might have chicken pox.”
Fynn appears in Higher Ground, playing the main character’s child. The whole movie is a family affair. Farmiga’s husband, Renn Hawkey, 37, a onetime keyboardist in Deadsy, a band fronted by Cher and Gregg Allman’s son Elijah Blue Allman, is its musical director and one of its producers. Farmiga’s youngest sister, Taissa (who is 21 years younger than Vera, in a family of seven children), plays the protagonist as a teen. And Farmiga’s mother and grandmother appear as extras. Between pierogi four and five, there may have been mention of a sister-in-law.
Farmiga eats every morsel on her plate. Because I have been keeping an eye on my notes, I leave behind half a pierogi when the waitress comes to bus the table.
“You are so not Ukrainian,” Farmiga says. “You would have eaten that last bit. We’re always lookin’ over our shoulder for Stalin. You can see I’m in the clean-plate club.”
Outside, in the soupy afternoon air, a white GMC SUV waits at the curb. Farmiga’s husband is at the wheel. He has a full mustache and beard, dirty blond. The kids are in back, strapped into car seats. The baby shows off a new tooth on her lower gum.
Farmiga climbs in on the passenger side. It’s time for her to head back to Ulster County. Back to the goats and the pile of lousy scripts.