An interview with Vera Farmiga, who talks about working with George Clooney on "Up in the Air." She says: "It's difficult not to have chemistry with that man."

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You’ve seen Vera Farmiga before, but she probably wasn’t smiling.

The versatile blue-eyed actress, who stars opposite George Clooney in “Up in the Air” (opening today at the Regal Meridian), generally appears on screen in stark, dramatic roles: a recovering drug addict in “Down to the Bone,” a conflicted psychologist in “The Departed,” the mother of a disturbed child in “Joshua” and “Orphan,” a prostitute in “Breaking and Entering,” a Nazi’s wife in “The Boy in Striped Pajamas.”

At the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall for the “Up in the Air” premiere, Farmiga smiled deliciously while pondering her role as a wisecracking businesswoman who swaps frequent-flier banter (and more) with Clooney. “I was shocked when the script came my way,” she said. “If I’m not screaming or vomiting or crying, then it doesn’t usually show up on my doorstep.”

As it turned out, Farmiga had been waiting for years to work with director Jason Reitman; she’d met with him about a role in his debut film “Thank You for Smoking,” but things didn’t pan out. Four years later, she’s delighted to finally collaborate with Reitman, and to speak his “whippersnapper dialogue.”

“He’s an amazing writer,” she said. “There’s very little that you have to do except say the words. It’s outlandish, the things [the characters] say to each other. It’s rhythmic, and if you key into the rhythm of it, much like iambic pentameter in Shakespeare, it’s wordplay. And that’s what makes their tête-à-tête so enjoyable to watch. What’s so sexy about the relationship is that it’s a true ping-pong match.”

And Clooney? Another smile. “It’s difficult not to have chemistry with that man,” she said.

Preparation for the role, she said, was simple: “My life has been full of romance, and I am a modern nomad, so I understood her character perfectly.” More difficult was “getting past all the estrogen of new maternity.” Farmiga had given birth to her first child two months before shooting — and two weeks before her first costume fitting.

“This character is so confident and sexy, there’s an ease to her,” Farmiga said. “I had a tremendous lack of sleep, as new mothers do, I would wake up five or six times a night to feed my son, and then I had to zip it up and be fresh-faced for work. It was tough.” Her co-star, she said, helped her through it. “George — the No. 1 thing about him is his sense of humor.”

A native of New Jersey, Farmiga has been working in film, stage and television since her graduation from Syracuse University in 1995. “I’ve been up-and-coming for 15 years now!” she laughed. Since her breakthrough roles in “Down to the Bone” (which won her a special prize at Sundance and Spirit Award nomination) and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” she’s been receiving a steady stream of scripts to choose from. For her next project, she thinks she’d like to continue in the lighter vein of her “Up in the Air” role: “I’d love to do something more shticky, more Carol Burnett-esque.”

But she’s also happy to relax in her rural New York home, “luxuriating in maternity” and spending time with her husband and son. “Offers come all the time, but I’m pretty particular. I really have to be wowed by a character I encounter in a script, or a storyline. I really do need to feel inspiration, otherwise I’m just happy planting perennials and making goat cheese.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com