Vera Farmiga makes being frightened frightening to watch. Viewers of James Wan’s horror smash The Conjuring, in which she and Patrick Wilson enjoyed the hit of their careers as real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, have this woman’s expressive screams and facial movements to thank for half their nightmares.

Even in person, Wilson is wary of sitting too close. When we speak, Farmiga hasn’t yet seen their follow-up, The Conjuring 2, with a public audience, only at a private screening where her on-screen husband kept his distance. “Patrick chose to sit about six seats away from me,” Farmiga says, “because he knows me by now – he knows I would have jumped in his lap right the way through, even though I know the story.”

The Conjuring 2, also directed by Wan, moves beyond the first film’s American hauntings to resurrect the famous case of the Enfield Poltergeist, which freaked out two young sisters in suburban London in the late 1970s.

After a spate of unexplained disturbances, including bite-marks on one girl’s neck and chairs sliding about with a life of their own, the Warrens flew to England to document these goings-on.

Naturally, the film takes the facts of the case as just a springboard for those churning, state-of-the-art scare tactics in which Wan (Saw, Insidious) has always specialised.

“There’s a whole process that happens after we wrap,” Farmiga explains. “That’s really where [James] makes his mark as a filmmaker. It’s to do with tempo, orchestration, sound mixing, editing. There’s a rumble that he includes – oh God, I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s a full-bore rumble, a frequency, a growl that he inserts in these moments. You feel it in your seat. It moves your bowels!”

Farmiga, born the second child of seven to Ukrainian parents in New Jersey, didn’t start speaking English until she was 6 years old, at kindergarten. Now 42, she’s a well-established and critically adored leading lady, though it took a lot of steady graft to progress from her Broadway acting debut in 1996 to the film role that made her an Oscar-nominated cover star, as the frequent flyer who gave George Clooney’s corporate downsizer a taste of his own medicine in Up in the Air (2009).

For a long while, Farmiga had a reputation for sending out her own self-taped auditions for roles she didn’t wind up getting. You suspect she doesn’t love being reminded of these, but she still manages to laugh them off good-humouredly.

“That was a time in my career when my resumé was more… minimal,” she recalls. “It’s been a while since I’ve had to audition for anything. I always felt I wasn’t necessarily at my best at a casting director’s office, anyway. Also I have a particular face, depending on how you light it, and what angle you approach it from. I always wanted to take control myself.”

One such tape, at least, had the desired effect – on the strength of it, Martin Scorsese invited Vera to do a reading with Leonardo DiCaprio, to see what qualities she might bring to the part of the police shrink in The Departed (2006). It was an underwritten role that could have gone for nothing; her restless search for nuance made it sing.

Lately, Farmiga has notched up a series of unexpected credits in horror. She’s coming off the fourth season of the TV drama series Bates Motel, in which she acts up a riveting storm as the mother of the big screen’s most notorious serial killer, Norman Bates.

After a major event at the fourth season’s climax, she can’t elaborate on what’s to come, except that there’s one final year left. “The writers are scheming as we speak. I know they enjoy writing for me, and there are going to be many variations on the Norma thing, because Norman’s psyche is quite fractured at this point. It’s going to be a playground for me.”

I also mention a double-bill of demon-child thrillers Farmiga shot a few years back – 2007’s Joshua, co-starring Sam Rockwell, and 2009’s Orphan, with Peter Sarsgaard. She demurs on strictly classifying those as horror, though.

“I consider those family dramas I did, with thrilling aspects… But horror films have always been grounded in stories about family, haven’t they? What it means to be a family, through thick and thin. Joshua is about a couple trying to get through post-partum depression. In Orphan they’re trying to recover from a stillbirth. And this story, too, is really rooted in this particular marriage. It’s ultimately a love story – that’s how Patrick and I approached it.”

There’s one feature to date which Farmiga has directed herself – a 2011 indie called Higher Ground, of which she’s justly proud. Her own character, Corinne Walker, is drawn to a radical New Testament church after her baby daughter survives a near-drowning.

Corinne is then stricken by chronic crises of faith which the film leaves bravely open-ended: it’s one of the most unhysterical, sincere, and questioning takes on religious belief in recent American film. Farmiga, who is herself a non-denominational Christian, sees Corrine and Lorraine Warren as virtual opposites, the latter “very concrete in her concept of God”. And she thinks “a certain measure of openness” is probably necessary to get the most out of The Conjuring.

Wanting that role in Higher Ground dictated directing it, rather than the other way around. Farmiga says she “headlocked” her younger sister Taissa – now a full-time actress too, star of two seasons of American Horror Story – into debuting as Corinne’s younger self. (There’s 21 years between the pair, whose sloping eyes and wispily unnerving beauty could easily get them mistaken as mother and daughter.)

Alas, though, the film’s critical traction – it was the best-reviewed of that year in Sundance – didn’t translate into many audiences getting to see it. “I don’t know exactly how it missed the zeitgeist,” Vera reflects. “It should have gone across denominations, across faiths. But it’s very tricky to market that, because people have very extreme ideas about faith. You have to market it either way, you know.”

Now that she’s gone behind the camera herself, Farmiga has things to say about the difficulties confronting female directors in Hollywood. “You have to fight for that opportunity, you’re not given it,” she argues. “And that’s where we’re becoming ballsier. You create your opportunities – Higher Ground was an example of that. It is happening more, yes – in all aspects of production. Pay cheques as well. We’re only just learning how to operate, really. And to seize the day.”

The Conjuring 2 is on release now

The Telegraph