In a year of firsts, Taissa Farmiga makes her stage debut, expanding her horizons beyond the small screen, where she’s racked up credits as a fledging indie film princess. (In a Valley of Violence, her first Western revenge film hits cinemas in September while her first gig as a voiceover actor, the direct-to-video animated superhero film Justice League vs. Teen Titans, will be released at the end of March).
Known to audiences for her roles on American Horror Story: Murder House and American Horror Story: Coven, after wrapping episodes for another show—Wicked City, a short-lived true crime TV drama—the 21-year-old actress visited her Readington, NJ, home to renew her license and meet her newborn nephew. Available with three days of downtime, her manager advised her to take meetings in New York City, and she traveled in a rainstorm to meet with Scott Elliott, artistic director of The New Group.
Unbeknownst to the actress, Elliott was at the helm of a new project, an Off-Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child at the 191-seat The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center.
“I had a great conversation with him [for] about an hour and a half. We just talked about everything—from life to acting to theatre and me wanting to jump into it, [but] not knowing what I should do… I asked him that and he said, ‘Well, you can do my play’,” Farmiga says, laughing. “Later that night, my manager called me and said Scott loved you and would absolutely love it if you could do his play. I just thought he was joking.”
Six months later, the young ingénue was dressed in hair and makeup, taking still-shot photography for advertisements and reading the script in front of the entire creative team at The New Group and a sea of sponsors.
“After we read the play was finally when I was like, ‘Oh, I think I could do this’,” Farmiga says.
When Farmiga is not studying Ed Harris—whom she and fellow castmate Paul Sparks call “a master-class in [method] acting”—she checks in with Amy Madigan, with whom she shares a dressing room, discussing the play and extracting pearls of wisdom. Backstage, she also spends time with her onstage boyfriend Nat Wolff, who plays long-lost prodigal son Vince in this production. (They previously met through other auditions and callbacks and eventually befriended one another at a Chinese restaurant after midnight in L.A.)
“I have to say, I’ve got to work with some great young male scene actors,” Farmiga says. “Nat is just as great! When I found out he was cast I was excited. I had a buddy; I wasn’t the only freshman walking into the cafeteria and not knowing where to sit.”
Rich Sommer, whose tenure as womanizing media buyer Harry Crane on the iconic AMC drama series Mad Men ended last year, returns to the New York stage since last appearing Off-Broadway in a 2013 production of The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin at Roundabout Theatre Company. A consummate performer known for playing complex characters in darker comedies, Sommer, 38, says that working on the production alongside Farmiga and exploring the play’s viciousness has been “fun.”
“It is not a particularly fun scene, and I feel somewhat comfortable speaking for Taissa in saying that it is probably not as fun for her as well,” says Sommer.
Farmiga is no stranger to playing richly drawn, polygonal darker characters placed in taxing circumstances, and as Shelly, the bohemian girlfriend of Vince (Wolff) and ray of sunshine in the otherwise bleak farmland dystopia of Buried Child, Farmiga participates in the most cringe-inducing moment of play when Bradley (played in this revival by Sommer) jams his hand in the character’s mouth, an act of violation that can be triggering for some.
“I said this before to people: When you do a stage kiss or even stage sex, you can simulate it pretty easy; a kiss can be closed mouth and look passionate, stage sex can be just moving around under the sheets and nothing has to happen,” Sommer clarifies. “This is a penetration, this is an actual penetration, and there is no way to fake it, really. Bradley rapes Shelly; he’s a man struggling for his importance. In the moments leading up to that, he’s talking about how Tilden was an All-American and how Dodge was a big deal, too, and women like that. ‘I’m going to show you who’s important. I’m important.’”
He continues: “That moment itself, I try to make it as comfortable as I can for Taissa. I wash my hands, a lot, and don’t touch anything with that hand other than my coat when I take it off and her fur coat when I take it,” he says. “Other than that, I touch nothing else. I make sure I brush my teeth, floss and use mouthwash because I am right inside of her space. I want to make it as ‘pleasurable’ an experience I can and for a woman like Taissa, who is doing her first play. She’s taking on quite a challenge, and I have to commend her for that; she never shied away from it in rehearsals, not once, so I think that is something to be recognized.”
To put it simply, Farmiga, much like her Academy Award-nominated sibling Vera Farmiga, is quite fearless, and the play requires such an actress. Shepard’s magnum opus follows the once affluent, now-disempowered patriarch Dodge (Ed Harris) who is bullied by his wife (Amy Madigan) and his two equally emasculated sons who have endured personal tragedies at the expense of the family during the economic collapse of agrarian America. The play is more relevant than ever before these days, given the crippling woes blue-collar citizens are still reeling from in wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
“There’s all this sort of evidence in the script that he’s kind of like reverted into this child-like [persona],” said Sparks, 44, who plays the role of the emotionally handicapped Tilden, a character he says was once like Dodge’s former self before suffering the loss of a child.
“I have a daughter—she’s young, she’s a toddler—and when we were rehearsing this, I remember going home and saying holy sh*t! I’m, like, holding this baby. This whole play is about this baby that has been buried, that’s what this whole play is about,” said Sparks, who rose to prominence after starring in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and House of Cards on Netflix and now returns Off-Broadway after a seven-year absence. “I think when it hit me it was unsettling, there is something very insidious about this play and in many ways, I am at the best and worst time in my life to be dealing with that because I have two kids and I think about those little hands.”
Despite her lack of stage experience, Farmiga seems to be processing the difficult subject matter of the offbeat play with flying colors, describing the cast as brilliant and relishing her “luck” at being tapped to take on the role of the mystery-solving Shelley.
“There has been a lot of ups and downs, there’s been positives, and there’s been negatives; more towards the beginning, the first two weeks of rehearsals were hard,” Farmiga clarifies. “I didn’t know I didn’t have to be perfectionist. I thought it was the same as film or TV where I do most of my work at home, then I come in prepared and you know, ‘This is what I have.’ And it’s the exact opposite in theatre, you don’t do the work at home, you just learn your lines, you come there and everything you have in your head, you bring to the table in front of the group.”