ABOVE: TAISSA FARMIGA AS SHELLY IN SAM SHEPARD’S BURIED CHILD, DIRECTED BY SCOTT ELLIOTT, OFF-BROADWAY AT THE NEW GROUP. PHOTO COURTESY OF MONIQUE CARBONI.
When you walk into the theater to watch the New Group’s production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, Ed Harris is already on stage. He’s sitting on a sofa gazing at a small television set with a grimy quilt on his lap. He’ll scratch himself or sneak a drink from a bottle hidden in the crack between the seat cushion and the armrest, but he for the most part he just stares. The living room around him has seen better days—better decades—and there is an oppressive rain dripping down the porch.
Set in Illinois over the course of 24 hours, Buried Child explores the dark family dynamics of Dodge (Harris), his wife Halie (Harris’ real-life wife Amy Madigan), and their surviving sons Tilden (Paul Sparks) and Bradley (Rich Sommer). In their crumbling farmhouse, the family members seem like specters trapped in a cycle of secrecy. Then, Dodge and Halie’s grandson Vince (Nat Wolff) arrives with his new girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga).
At 21, thanks to her roles in the first two seasons of American Horror Story and recent films like The Final Girls and 6 Years, Taissa Farmiga is already a familiar name. Buried Child, directed by Scott Elliott, marks the New Jersey native’s stage debut.
“When I was younger, I didn’t have any aspirations to be an actress,” Farmiga explains. “A door was opened for me—my older sister [Vera Farmiga] directed her first film [Higher Ground, 2011] and put me in it. I was intrigued by it. I enjoyed it. I liked trying to understand other people’s emotions,” she continues. “I don’t really have a plan. I like reading scripts and if I like the character, if I see something challenging in it, I take it.”
As for the play, which opened last week has already been extended twice, Farmiga describes it as “one of the hardest things” she’s ever done. “All I’ve been thinking about for the past month and a half has been this play. I dream about it, I can’t stop thinking about it, I recite lines all the time. My boyfriend’s kind of pissed at me because all I do is bring up lines from the play,” she says. “I have to remember to give myself a pat on the back sometimes because you don’t realize how the time flies. I was so nervous and so anxious in the beginning and now I’m just excited to get back onstage.”
EMMA BROWN: I didn’t realize that this is your first play.
FARMIGA: This is my first real play. Technically I had one in second grade, but that was a very long time ago. This is my first anything with the theater world.
BROWN: What was your first play in second grade?
FARMIGA: I think it was about George Washington. All I remember is we played Ring Around the Rosie.
BROWN: Did you set out to do a play or did it just come up?
FARMIGA: The play just came up and happened. I was shooting this network TV show in L.A. and I happened to be back in New York for three days. I had to renew my driver’s license and meet my nephew—he was just born. My manager sent me this play to read and was like, “We’d like you to sit down with Scott, the director.” It was a great meeting. We sat down for an hour and a half and just talked about acting and theater and how it was such a foreign world to me. I wanted to discover it, but I didn’t know how I could get my foot in the door. Later that night, my manager called me up and said, “Scott loved you and he wants you to come to do the play.” My mind was blown. I didn’t expect that it would happen like that. But I told them I was excited. I told them I’d work hard and do my best to try to figure it out.
BROWN: Was anyone else attached?
FARMIGA: I met with Scott back in the beginning of October and it was just Ed Harris and Amy [Madigan] that were attached. It’s a pretty great reason to want to be part of it. They’re incredible.
BROWN: Has it been going how you thought it would so far?
FARMIGA: To be honest, I didn’t have any expectations. I really didn’t know what to expect. What I was most nervous about was the repetition of doing it over and over and over again. Does that get stale? How do you keep it fresh? Then I realized it’s always new because you get to keep playing the next moment. It’s not like like in film and TV, where you have to stop and go back and keep redoing the same three pages for two hours. You get to go through the whole 80 pages of the script, which is incredible. You get to keep acting on the feelings you had just moments before. You don’t have to psych yourself up for the scene. You can just go off what you were already feeling.
BROWN: On a two-show day, like Saturdays, are you still thinking about what happened in the matinee when you get to the evening performance?
FARMIGA: We’ve only had one Saturday matinee and then a Saturday night show, and that was last week. The matinee went great. There were a couple things [where] I was like, “I wish I could’ve done this a little different.” Then Amy turned to me and she said, “Well, you get to do it again.” So it’s not really the emotions [that] I bring from the other one, it’s just that moments that didn’t feel 100 percent authentic to me I get to work on the next time. One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn is to let it go. At the end of the show or the end of the rehearsal day to just take a deep breath and say, “Alright, that was it. That was the day.” Whether it was good or bad, that was the day, and you have to let it go. I’m a perfectionist, so it’s hard for me to just accept that that I can’t keep working until it’s perfected. But I’m learning, I’m growing as a human in that way.
BROWN: Is it nicer than film in that sense? It’s ephemeral and you can go back and try again, whereas in film it’s committed to memory, that’s your performance.
FARMIGA: It’s half and half. It’s always fun to get different reactions from Ed or Amy and play off what different actors or actresses are feeling in those moments. [But] on certain days I personally feel like, “Aw man, maybe that one didn’t go as well,” and it’s hard because I know I’ve already done it. I know in rehearsal or in another show I’ve hit that moment. And if it was film or TV, it would’ve been caught on camera and they would’ve cut and moved on and had it recorded.
BROWN: It’s such a dark play, are there certain moments that are particularly difficult—the ones that sometimes you’ve hit and sometimes you haven’t?
FARMIGA: It really changes. It’s not specific moments that I miss every time. It’s just that maybe a moment I had with Amy in the third act doesn’t feel as emotional … I don’t know how to describe it, it just doesn’t feel as authentic, doesn’t feel like I did that moment justice. Sometimes I get caught up on the words they’re saying and I forget to feel, or sometimes I think too much, or sometimes I don’t think enough as the character. Sometimes you just miss a moment, or sometimes you hear something that a character’s saying that you haven’t heard before and you react differently. Being in the moment is the best thing I can do. That’s the direction Scott keeps giving me: Just really listen.
BROWN: I’ve only ever seen Sam Shepard plays, I’ve never read them. Are the stage directions pretty minimal?
FARMIGA: I don’t have much to compare it to because I really didn’t know much about theater. After I signed on, I started reading a lot of Sam Shepard plays just to brush up on my history and do some research. What’s great is that Sam’s been here and he’s been in rehearsals with us. Sometimes you don’t even notice him come in; he’s just sitting there in the theater seats watching you. He also gave Scott a lot of freedom to change it. Scott’s tweaked it. It’s become our play. It’s Buried Child, but it’s our version of it. Sam was super great about changing lines and adding a word or two here or there, whether it adds a comedic beat or clarifies something. It’s just great to be able to have the freedom to change things and make it work for who we are as people and as actors playing those characters. The porch scenes were longer in the original script. All through rehearsal we kept doing it and when we got to tech week and rehearsal on stage, it kept not working. For the beginning of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three, it just wasn’t working—it felt too long, we felt stuck out there on the stage. Then one morning we came in and Scott was like, “Alright, we’re trimming it down. Sam said I could cut stuff, we’re cutting it.” So we just made it work for our show, for our story.
BROWN: There are some ambiguous moments in the play about the history of certain characters and the child in the play’s title. Is that something you discussed?
FARMIGA: We definitely had a lot of discussions the first few days of rehearsal. I think we all knew from the moment we walked into rehearsal that [a certain character] was the father. But we did have a lot of discussions about, “Is the baby even real? Is Vince the baby? Is Vince real?” All of these different weird, supernatural things. “Does he even exist, is he a ghost?” Things like that. Then we cut it all back and went with reality. I think that Scott was pretty clear.
BROWN: How did that line of thinking affect how you interpreted it?
FARMIGA: It was a 10-minute discussion during one of the first rehearsals and I was like, “If Vince doesn’t exist, what’s my reason for being here?” I was having a bit of a panic attack because internally I was like, “How does that affect me? What do I do? I don’t even know what to play.” Then Scott luckily put his foot down. I was like, “Thank you Scott. Thank you for clarifying. I have no idea what I’m doing, this is my first day of rehearsal. Ever.”
BROWN: When we first meet your character, Shelly, she doesn’t come across as very sympathetic.
FARMIGA: That was one of the hardest things for me to come to terms with—Shelly’s kind of selfishness. I learned it’s not selfishness so much as she knows what she wants and she knows what she doesn’t want. It’s a weird situation. She was promised a good time: “We’ll meet the grandparents, everything’s great, we’ll have a good time, spend time with my family.” And then she comes and Vince is acting weird, everyone’s acting weird, it’s not fun for her. You go to someone else’s family’s house and it’s always weird, families are always weird. I think she doesn’t really know what to do. She really cares about Vince, so when he goes off, that’s when she really wants to start investigating: “What’s going on here? You’re going to play games with him, but tell me.” Maybe Dodge and Tilden are just playing a joke—that’s up to Shelly to figure out. So that was part of rehearsal—working on that gist of it. She cares. She wants to figure it out, but when she gets the answers it’s a little bit too much for her to handle.
BROWN: Before you come onstage, do you listen to the play and how the audience is reacting?
FARMIGA: In the dressing room, they have the little speakers so we can hear what they’re saying on stage. Nat and I like to hang out and socialize a little bit and bond a bit before we go on stage. We listen to it, but at this point it’s background noise. We always keep our ears out for some of our favorite lines. Nat and I like to keep saying Dodge’s line, “Separate him from his manhood!” Or when Tilden comes in and he’s like, “I picked it.” Just little things like that set us off, remind us of our friends onstage.
BROWN: Had you met any of the cast before?
FARMIGA: Yeah, Ed and Amy played my parents in the untitled Warren Beatty movie a year and a half ago. I worked with them one day and when I met them the first day of rehearsal here, Amy came up and gave me a big hug: “Great to see you again!” I was like, “Oh, they remembered me!” I felt so happy. I wasn’t going to bring it up—”Hey, we worked together.” I always get so uncomfortable when people do that. I was happy they remembered me. Hopefully I made a good impression.
BROWN: Well, they should remember if you played their daughter.
FARMIGA: Yeah but we were day players. I was only there for two days; they were only there for one day. When you’re doing a million things things that can just slip your mind. It’s easy. Nat, I had met a few times through auditions. I ran into him at a Chinese restaurant once in L.A. at, like, midnight. I had met him thankfully at that point, so it wasn’t just like, “Do I know you or do I just recognize you?”
BROWN: What’s it like with Ed and Amy being married in real life? Does it change anything?
FARMIGA: I think the biggest thing is that it puts a history for the Dodge and Halie relationship. But when they work together, it’s not something I notice. They’re comfortable around each other, which is great, but also they’re work partners.
BROWN: So it’s not like, “When we went on holiday…”
FARMIGA: Once in a while, but usually it’s separately. I’ll be talking to Amy because we share a dressing room and she’ll talk about her daughter. Ed’s funny, Ed’s really enjoying the character, he loves to get into character and be Dodge. Sometimes I’m not sure if he’s Ed or Dodge. He’ll look over to me and give me a little smirk and a wink and I’m like, “Did that come from Dodge or Ed?”
BURIED CHILD IS PLAYING AT THE PERSHING SQUARE SIGNATURE CENTER IN NEW YORK. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE NEW GROUP WEBSITE.