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For Vera Farmiga, directing ‘Higher Ground’ was a test of faith

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Vera Farmiga knew that she wanted to portray an evangelical Christian.

The actress was so eager to tackle the role of Corinne — the deeply religious woman who slowly loses her grip on her spiritual moorings in the film “Higher Ground” — that she spent three years weighing in on the evolving screenplay, based on Carolyn S. Briggs’s 2002 memoir, “This Dark World.”

But when financing for the project didn’t come through, co-screenwriter Tim Metcalfe proposed something he thought would guarantee budgetary backing: Farmiga could direct the film herself.

Suddenly this versatile performer faced doubts of her own. At that point, she had convincingly played a drug addict (“Down to the Bone”), a police psychiatrist (“The Departed”) and a frequent flier able to lure George Clooney into a relationship (“Up in the Air”) — but she had never directed a movie.

“There was kind of a moment of terror and a moment of adrenaline and a moment of not knowing,” Farmiga says as she slouches comfortably in an armchair at Georgetown’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. “I said, ‘Let me take a weekend to think about it.’ And still, that conviction didn’t come.”

The strength of that conviction would wax and wane — for reasons that will become clear — as the production’s start date inched closer. But ultimately, Farmiga, 38, did essentially what her character in “Higher Ground” does in the film’s opening baptism scene: She plunged in.

That appears to have been the right choice. “Higher Ground,” which has been rolling out in select cities and opens Friday in Washington, has received largely positive reviews, with critics — including those who write for faith-based publications — praising Farmiga for making an honest, reverent film about what it means to be a believer.

Frederica Mathewes-Green writes in “Christianity Today”: “This is a movie that will be touching for anyone who ever asked Jesus into his heart and years later felt, as Corinne confesses, ‘I’m still waiting for him to make himself at home.’ ”

“There’s two types of sermons,” explains Farmiga, who was raised Ukrainian Catholic but describes her personal faith as “self-styled.” “There are sermons that instill dogma. But the better sermons, in my experience, are the ones that promote discussion. That’s the kind of film I was trying to make.”

“She was the right person [to direct] because she understood it. She was sensitive to it,” says Briggs, who redrafted the screenplay with Farmiga after the actress agreed to helm the project. “We had the same goal of, ‘Let’s make Christians, let’s make believers three-dimensional. . . . Let’s flesh them out. Because we both know and love Christians. So let’s do something that people [in Hollywood] don’t do very often.’ ”

The subject matter — specifically, one woman’s desire to forge a relationship with God even as she questions the leaders of her small, Christian community — would be daunting for many veteran directors. The fact that Farmiga ventured into such potentially dicey territory as a first-timer marks another notable career move in what has been an intensely busy three years for her. During that time, she has acted in, by her count, six films, directed one, earned her first Academy Award nomination (for her work in 2009’s “Up in the Air”) and given birth to two children: son Fynn, 2, and daughter Gytta, 10 months.

In fact, it was her second pregnancy — “I found out a couple of nights before the [2010] Oscars that I was down for the count,” Farmiga says — that made her wonder again if she could handle the responsibilities of directing.

In spring 2010, with the much-needed financing in place and her commitment to “Higher Ground” firmly established, the actress was shooting her role in the thriller “Source Code,” busily sorting out “Higher Ground” preproduction issues and fighting off waves of first-trimester nausea. That’s when she developed another case of what she calls “the terrors.”

At one point, she even sent the script to friend and mentor Debra Granik — who directed “Down to the Bone” and “Winter’s Bone” — on the faint, unspoken hope that Granik might opt to take the job herself. Instead Granik encouraged Farmiga to press on.

“And then I had no choice,” Farmiga says, smiling. “Because everything’s been set.”

For all of her talk about gnawing insecurities and near-panic attacks, though, Farmiga projects a sense of self-assurance and calm. Even the sound of her voice — which has a satiny quality that surely comes in handy when soothing her children through boo-boos and bad dreams — conveys a sense of zenlike equilibrium.

Briggs noticed that, too. “I have never seen anybody project so much confidence and authority, yet gently and kindly,” says the author, who spent a week last summer on the “Higher Ground” set.

Farmiga, one of seven children, likes to keep family close when she works. “Higher Ground” was shot a few miles from her home in Ulster County, N.Y. Renn Hawkey, who is Farmiga’s husband, a musician and also one of seven, acted as a producer and music adviser. Farmiga’s 16-year-old sister, Taissa, who shares the actress’s earthbound-yet-ethereal beauty, played the younger version of Corinne. And son Fynn doubled as Corinne’s infant daughter in the film, a gig that required the baby to appear in a scene that involved a bus accident and a near-drowning.

“It’s probably some of the worst parenting I’ve done to try to get that scene,” she says.

Her desire to be a good, present mother is one thing that Farmiga has no doubts about, even though her career often makes that challenging.

“For me to be away from my kids, it has to be a doozy of a project now,” she says. “I mean, I’ve been able to tote them around. They’re in the next hotel room over now.”

“Gytta just learned to crawl,” she adds. “I missed the day she learned to crawl because I was on ‘The View,’ talking about what it’s like to kiss George Clooney.”

And quickly, that tinge of maternal guilt turns into a cackle. As a working mom, Farmiga is well aware that she has been blessed.

“Higher Ground”

opens Friday at the Bethesda Row Cinema

and E Street Cinema.

© The Washington Post Company