“Bates Motel” was one of the best surprises of the most recent TV season and much of that was due to Vera Farmiga’s captivating performance as fiercely protective single mother Norma Bates.
The series serves as a sort of prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho,” in which Norma’s son Norman is infamously revealed as a cross-dressing murderer. But in A&E’s show, he’s just a lost teenager (beautifully played by Freddie Highmore) trying to fit in.
Farmiga earned a well-deserved Emmy nomination for her performance and “Bates Motel” will return to A&E in 2014 for Season 2, which promises to reveal more about Norma (who revealed she was sexually abused by her brother as a child) and Norman (who was last seen leaving the home of a murdered teacher, though his responsibility in the crime remains an open question).
Farmiga recently fielded questions about the series, Emmy attention and Season 2 in a roundtable discussion at Comic-Con, the highlights follow.
Congratulations on the Emmy nomination! Were you surprised?
Vera Farmiga: I don’t know. You know, I don’t watch television. I’ve never seen a single episode of Claire [Danes’] show. I know Robin Wright personally, because we worked on [the 2006 movie] “Breaking and Entering.” [pause] Over the last couple of months the press had been instigating a lot of wonderful things, there was a lot of buzz and you start believing the buzz and thinking ‘Maybe it’s possible.’
I had been filming ‘The Judge’ with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall all summer so I didn’t campaign. The studio did on my behalf which I’m really grateful for. You know how it works, it’s political. All of a sudden I see Kerry Washington on every cover of every magazine and I think ‘Eh, forget it. It’s not gonna happen.’
My husband was rooting for me especially. He’s the one who gets to see me after a 16-17 hour day come home and still try to be present for my own children and keep Norma Bates out of the equation. He woke up and watched it on Emmys.com. Right before the category [was announced] he took a tremendous chance and pulled the down comforter off [the bed] and handed me a cup of coffee and said ‘Look!’ Sure enough, the category came up and I think my name was third. It’s the most powerful form of encouragement, it’s incredible.
Do you bring Norma home with you when you’re working?
I’m not that kind of actor. I do get exhausted, of course you do. It’s a rigorous role and it’s emotional. I’m pretty winded at the end of the day. In that way [it comes home] but not in terms of mental health.
Does being a mother to two young children yourself impact how you play the role?
I see how my sensibilities and decisions shape my children. I don’t know if my theories are going to be correct until 20 years from now. The compassion I have for Norma though — [being a mom] has deepened my work.
You’re one of Norma’s biggest defenders, is that because of your experiences as a mother or would you feel that way about any character you play?
I’m not making a farce here. I need to root for her. I need to present a case for [the audience] because that’s what’s so wonderful about being a viewer, to root for these characters even though you know their demise. Also, in my research, Jeffrey Dahmer’s father wrote a book about the anguish a parent feels in confronting the evil in their children. There are so many testimonials online.
The first thing I did in research is type in ‘mothers of psychopaths.’ Not only the violence but every kind of neurological dysfunction I’ve researched. You can not utter those words, ‘My child has a mental illness,’ without your spirit just collapsing and imploding. On top of this, Norma’s a single mother and she comes with her own dysfunction. Her own instability and a lifetime of pain, anger, guilt, regret. Her way is zipping it up, sandpacking that dam. That’s why you get these little fissures here and there and all of a sudden…
What can we expect from Norma and Norman’s relationship in Season 2?
She can not let him grow into independence or autonomy because he’s neurologically dysfunctioning. She just can’t. I think Season 1 was denial, ‘No, he’s fine! [The violence] is a one time thing.’ I think finally she’s registering he needs help and she wants to fix him. Hopefully Season 2 will be about finding those therapeutic venues.
Will Norma ever be able to find the help she herself needs?
Given her ultimate demise I don’t think she can ever gain complete self-awareness and whole-ism. I would like for her to get really close. Maybe she does. Ultimately you know how she ends up, so we gotta get her there.
We’ve heard Norma’s brother [played by Kenny Johnson of “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy”] will be introduced in Season 2. Do you know yet how that will play into Norma and Norman’s dynamic?
I haven’t read that [script] yet. I’m curious myself as to how they’ll approach that. I have a lot of question marks about this. I’ve had a lot of ideas for Carlton but it’s that relationship that really beguiles me.
Do you talk to [creators and showrunners] Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin about story ideas and are they receptive?
I text him all the time. My husband does too. My husband has the best ideas. They’ve utilized pretty much all of them and if they don’t do it this season they’ll wait a season or two. I love that collaboration. It takes a good four or five episodes for everybody to feel comfortable but then it becomes this living, breathing thing. The writers start writing for the actors’ fortes and the actors get confident in themselves and their characters, and I think it becomes a real collaborative thing, if everyone’s open to it. Certainly Carlton and Kerry are.