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'Higher Ground' is Vera Farmiga’s unexpected chance at the helm

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Power couple: Producer Renn Hawkey and director-actress Vera Farmiga, husband and wife, teamed up to make “Higher Ground.” (Getty Images file photo) - POWER COUPLE: PRODUCER RENN HAWKEY AND DIRECTOR-ACTRESS VERA FARMIGA, HUSBAND AND WIFE, TEAMED UP TO MAKE “HIGHER GROUND.” (GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO)
  • Power couple: Producer Renn Hawkey and director-actress Vera Farmiga, husband and wife, teamed up to make “Higher Ground.” (Getty Images file photo)
  • Power couple: Producer Renn Hawkey and director-actress Vera Farmiga, husband and wife, teamed up to make “Higher Ground.” (Getty Images file photo)

Vera Farmiga, the Oscar-nominated star of 2009’s “Up in the Air,” never planned on stepping behind the camera, much less making her directorial debut with “Higher Ground,” in which the Ukrainian-American actress — pregnant with her second child — stars as a Christian fundamentalist questioning her relationship with God.

But when the movie’s producers — including husband Renn Hawkey, who originally intended to direct himself but couldn’t secure the necessary financing — pitched her the idea, she was “overwhelmed” by their confidence in her ability to jump-start a project whose journey to the screen seemed hopelessly stalled.

Farmiga, 38, had been considering a momentary breather to concentrate on family. Yet with her husband’s blessing, and the encouragement of screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs, on whose real-life crisis of faith the movie is based, the actress accepted the challenge, not knowing how the story of a devout woman’s spiritual revolution would be received.

She recalls being surprised how skittish her industry peers became at the mere mention of religion.

But Farmiga, who was raised as part of a nondenominational Christian church, never wavered from her belief that “Ground” should deal honestly and respectfully with her evangelical heroine’s struggle to forge an intimate bond with God.

To that end, she asked her fellow actors (including Joshua Leonard and “Winter’s Bone” star John Hawkes) to embrace the movie’s spiritual fervor and not “to try to rise above it.”

And if Farmiga ever suffered her own crisis of faith, she had a shoulder to weep on.

“I never cry,” she says. “But when you’re pregnant, you have to move stress away from the womb, not invite it in. So when I’d go home to Renn, he had to bear the brunt of my anxieties. And when I cried, it wasn’t sadness so much as it was yearning — to get this right, to honor Carolyn’s story.”

MOVIE REVIEW

Higher Ground

Starring Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard, Dagmara Dominczyk, John Hawkes
Written by Carolyn Briggs, Tim Metcalfe
Directed by Vera Farmiga
Rated R
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes