Vera Farmiga starred in the best picture of 2006 -- "The Departed" -- and broke George Clooney's heart in "Up in the Air," but most strangers fail to recognize her.
They typically say, "You look familiar. Did we go to college together?"
She replies, "Oh, you might have seen me in a film."
When they ask, "Oh, what film?" she has a range to choose from, including "Up in the Air" for which she earned an Oscar nomination (and sported a blond bob) or "The Departed" opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon or, now, "Source Code" in which she appears with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan.
She and Ms. Monaghan share no scenes, and she and Mr. Gyllenhaal converse but never in a conventional way.
Ms. Farmiga is Colleen Goodwin, an Air Force captain and source code coach for Mr. Gyllenhaal's character, Capt. Colter Stevens. She is guiding him through a parallel reality in an effort to identify a bomber who blew up a Chicago commuter train and plans a larger, more devastating explosion.
Ms. Monaghan is a passenger on that train who becomes key to Colter's mission, which comes in repeated eight-minute bursts.
"Source Code" defies breezy description and asked how she might summarize it, Ms. Farmiga turns philosophical: "It's about a man who is lost in time and space and is trying to figure out who he is. It is very much, to me, a spiritual story almost, about a man trapped in limbo."
She recently made her directing debut with "Higher Ground," in which she played a woman embracing, questioning and eventually abandoning her faith. The trade publication Variety called it startlingly bold, satirical yet sensitive.
Asked if she's drawn to material with spiritual undertones, she says, "I think I am but I think good films are spiritual, so a good film will be thought provoking, will move you in your spirit and your being. It will challenge your ideas about life."
A copy of the script for Ms. Farmiga had arrived with a DVD of director Duncan Jones' first feature, "Moon," starring Sam Rockwell as identical but distinctly different astronauts.
"I popped it in, I watched it seven more times over the course of the week and then had a conversation with Duncan over the phone. I just loved these intricate puzzles that he builds and I wanted to be a piece of the puzzle and we talked about the possibility of Goodwin. Who she is on the written page and who she could be in the interpretation of it."
She suggests Goodwin is probably lonely, married to her job and has had to work hard to be in a position of authority and to be taken seriously.
Mr. Gyllenhaal's character is in a "pod" who sees Goodwin's face on a computer screen and hears her controlled-but-urgent pleas for help in locating the train bomb and bomber.
Ms. Farmiga and Mr. Gyllenhaal rehearsed for a week and then, for two days, he came to the set and read his lines off camera, a task eventually handed off to a script supervisor. "I was flying solo, I was dancing by myself," she says, and while tricky, it was appropriate for the character.
Colter Stevens lives and dies by eight-minute source codes and while the movie hasn't changed how Ms. Farmiga views time, other events have.
"I do after giving birth. It's all passing too quickly is how I feel about it. I didn't need the film to remind me of that. I think it's more just becoming a mother and not having time for myself anymore and cherishing the time that I do have," said Ms. Farmiga, married and the mother of children ages 2 years old and 4 months.
"Just turning on the television will remind you that our time on this planet is just such a brief allotment and we better make the most of it. And we better live it fully every second because it's ephemeral."
The nature of "Source Code" meant the cast had to wear the same wardrobe, hair and makeup styles every day and, in some cases, report to the same set. Continuity was key although, in a rare luxury, the movie was shot in chronological order.
"It was tricky, honestly, because we repeated the same eight minutes over and over again. That was one of the things that drew me to this movie, I guess the challenge as an actor," Ms. Monaghan said, also by phone.
"This could be a really interesting acting exercise, trying to nuance each eight minutes using the same dialogue and trying to incorporate pieces of the puzzle with each eight minutes, keeping it the same but different so the first eight minutes were a real challenge for everybody.
"There's a lot of choreography that takes place on the commuter train. Therefore, we had to figure out the timing," she said, because whatever was in the first "source code" had to be in subsequent ones.
The train was actually a set, built on a large gimbal on a soundstage in Montreal.
"It was always moving during the scenes, there were slow, medium and fast speeds. It was always interesting at the end of the day, getting off the train and lying down in bed, even at night, am I still moving?"
The movie shifted to Chicago for the final two days of production to capture aerial and exterior shots, including one at a park with a dramatic public sculpture.
Ms. Monaghan starred in another race-against-time thriller called "Eagle Eye" with Shia LaBeouf and was a bride-to-be in "Made of Honor" and a sweet nurse and fiance of Tom Cruise's character in "Mission: Impossible III."
She had been blown away by "Moon" and eager to hear Mr. Jones' take on "Source Code."
"It is thought provoking, it's provocative, it leaves you wondering, what exactly it is meant to mean," Ms. Monaghan said of the sci-fi story.
"And I guess everybody has a different take on it. ... I've seen this movie a couple of times with people and have then debated it over dinner. That's really refreshing. You kind of feel like you get your money's worth."
The secret operation allows Mr. Gyllenhaal to exist (for eight minutes) as school teacher Sean Fentress, a train regular who sits across from Ms. Monaghan's character, Christina.
"If you had eight minutes left in your life or you had eight minutes to take back in your life, what would you do differently? What would you say? Who would you pick up the phone and call?" she asks, echoing questions posed in the script.
A call conveying love to a parent is one of the most powerful moments in the film, prompting the former Iowa farm girl to say, "It really felt like it could have been any one of us on the phone with our parents.
"Listen, I have a great relationship with my parents. I love them dearly. I'm entirely grateful for everything they've done for me but, my God, I should probably get them on the phone and tell them that more. So I think people really appreciate it."
The movie, written by Ben Ripley ("Species III"), also traffics in ethically and morally questionable actions. "Is it right to sacrifice one life to save thousands? People really have differing opinions on that."
As with Ms. Farmiga, Ms. Monaghan had to supplement what was written on paper about her character.
"I really felt that this was a woman who was not living her life to the fullest and really was in a mundane pattern. She takes the 8:20 train from Northbrook into Chicago every single day to a job that she hates and then she takes it home to a relationship that's really unfulfilling."
One day, though, she strikes up a conversation with the passenger across from her and he gives her some sound guidance. As the movie opens, she tells that man, "I took your advice. It was very good advice."
And the source code and action are off and running.