Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to submit nomination ballots, EW.com will feature interviews with some of the actors and actresses whose names we hope to hear when nominations are announced on July 18.
We all know that Psycho’s Norman Bates had mother issues. But now we know why thanks to Vera Farmiga’s full-bodied performance as mama Norma on Bates Motel, A&E’s reboot of the famous Hitchcock thriller. Desperately clinging to her son like a manic depressive lioness, Farmiga portrays both a formidable heroine and an unstable mess.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You have a very successful film career — why take on a TV series?
VERA FARMIGA: I’m not trying out TV, I think my career was born out of TV way back with [Fox’s 1997 series] Roar and my first prominent job, my first big paycheck, or real paycheck rather, the start of my career was Roar. I supposed there are very few things on my don’t list: Don’t eat poisonous mushrooms, don’t do my own taxes, and I guess TV just wasn’t on my don’t list. And culturally, as well, things have shifted. For me then what I gravitate toward is character and challenge and I’m quite honestly wasn’t feeling challenged in a long time in this way, in this capacity. So man, I jumped at the opportunity.
Bates Motel EP Carlton Cuse told me he wrote Norma with you in mind. When you read the script, did it immediately speak to you?
Yes, absolutely, I felt immediately that Oh here’s an incredibly complex character that’s quite challenging. It’s the most flattering notion to receive something that says, “This has been written with you in mind.” And it butters you up immediately. But I just love this character.
I look at characters the way my 4-year-old son Fynn looks at Legos: He doesn’t want the Duplo Legos, for 2-year-olds—they’re janky. He wants that 2,503-piece collector’s item Imperial Shuttle that features the rotating double laser-wing cannons. And for me it’s the same thing: Norma Bates is the Imperial Shuttle. She’s the most comprehensive spice rack of maternal love and angst and I suppose it’s just, it’s all those pieces, those billion pieces, to her that I found challenging and as far as a puzzle and so in the same way I think what I was drawn to above all, what I’m always drawn to because I recognize this in myself, is contradictions. And from the first episode, I think what was so exhilarating was that feeling that pendulum of a trapeze artist swinging this way and that way on all these contradictions. She’s impulsive but she’s measured. She’s controlling and she’s out-of-control. She’s heartbreaking and yet conniving. She’s fragile and tenacious. And it really, that’s what I felt, that exhilaration of being pushed really high on this swing by Carlton and [co-EP] Kerry Ehrin. It was a no-brainer for me.
The show really hinges on the chemistry between you and Freddie Highmore, who plays Norman. Was that immediate?
Carlton allowed me to see his tapes to audition, he put himself on tape and he sent it in and I saw it. There was a buzz that I felt when I saw his [audition]. It was just so layered and nuanced and simple and his eyes did something really crazy and I still continue to see it, it’s like he has the most luminous turquoise eyes that are either black or they’re just as clear as the Caribbean. He has this, I don’t know how he does it, but is so good of an actor he can literally change the color of his eyeballs. He’s got some superhuman skills as an actor in that respect and I just respect him so much and he’s a really great collaborator. He’s an amazing dance partner and at the same time, because it’s an intimate relationship, you have no choice but to adore each other or detest each other. There’s no lukewarm attitude when you spend so much time together. My husband and I both have practically adopted him as our surrogate child. He’s here on the weekends, he eats food from our refrigerators. I look after him on set. He teaches me how to use my personal devices. I would say I’m his surrogate mother and we do have a really deep respect. And it’s a story, yeah, about a mother and son struggling to break that umbilical cord. And I think it’s a story that all of us can relate to.
Carlton was talking about the physicality of the role, of shooting on location and getting slapped around and the rape in the pilot. Was it draining?
Yeah, this is probably the most exhausting role. As far as emotional output, I would say so.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
Personally as an actress, yes, finding the tone. It’s very tricky because it’s a double-edged sword finding the comedy within all this darkness sand yet you need that levity but you don’t want to undermine the gravity of what you’re playing so balancing humor in all this, which we’re striving for, is challenging. It’s a dream job, it’s what every actress, this is the kind of role an actress wants to be handed, wants her shot at, and be careful what you ask for, because it’s hard. It’s hard finding that balance, giving so much and then balancing it with my own responsibility as a mother of a 2- and a 4-year-old because I’m depleted. I’m so depleted. At the same tie, I’m pretty inspired by this gal because, like I said, it’s her positivity, but I learn from her weaknesses. This is a role that makes me feel OK about being an exhausted, envious, ambivalent, and worried mother myself.
Carlton and Kerry said they wrote Norma and Norman kind of like a romantic-comedy couple from the 1940s. What’s your opinion on their relationship?
That is an individual audience member’s determination of how close is too close. I know there’s a deep affection between them and Norma is incredibly tactile with her son and I approached the character with innocence, I think, with purity, with chastity, with virtue. I don’t think the warped sexuality comes from her overtly, perhaps subconsciously because her neediness feeds into it. But yeah man, Freud would have had a field day, sure, deciphering because they’re close and they’re incredibly physical with each other.
How does it feel to have Emmy buzz around your performance?
It’s sheer flattery, it really is. And it’s encouragement. It’s an amazing pat on the back, because I know what the output is. It’s nice to get that pat on the back and confirmation of a job well done because I’m having a blast with it. I hope people are enjoying it because we’re putting a lot into it. You want that confirmation. And I’ve been through it with nominations for Up in the Air and other things and it feels good. But I also know that it’s stiff competition in television these days and there’s a lot of great actors doing a lot of great work that deserves to — there are stand-outs that deserve acknowledgement. I’m pretty sober about the whole thing, But bottom line is, of course that buzz feels great.
Christy Grosz edits Deadline’s awards publication Awardsline.
Vera Farmiga admits she was skeptical when she first heard about Bates Motel, the series that serves as a modern-day prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. But playing a character who was merely an idea in the original source material has proven to be the right role at the right time for her. The Oscar-nominated actress is almost protective in describing Norma as the parent of a mentally ill child, choosing to see the single mother as sympathetic. While the A&E series has been picked up for a second season, Farmiga also will star in July’s The Conjuring, in which she plays a paranormal investigator.
AwardsLine: When Bates Motel came to you, were you looking for a TV project specifically?
Farmiga: I think I was looking for a career tweak. I have so many other interests in life, and no role is more challenging, rewarding and inspiring than my real-life role as a mom and a wife, so I pretty much just look at the most remunerative offers these days. (Laughs.) But seriously, if I’m going to step away for 18 hours a day, there better be some sort of a paycheck or spiritual salary being offered. And Bates Motel surprised me. (The role) made me reflect so deeply on the love I feel for my children. I was craving a deeper level of, I don’t know, virtuosity. The writers presented me with this deeper level of sophistication, the creation of Norma, and I pounced on the opportunity. Also, I was craving all that cable serial television has to offer, which is the risk and the wackiness, the unorthodox.
AwardsLine: Did you have any misgivings about tackling such an iconic film from an iconic director?
Farmiga: The purist in me was really suspicious. I love that film, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t kind of turned off by the interdependence to Psycho. Upon reading it, I think setting it in the present really liberated it from the confines of the original. And after all, my character is a corpse; she’s a notion. The challenge is portraying her as an individual, rather than this caricature of an evil mother looming over Norman’s superego. In many ways, what I’ve been hired to do by (executive producers) Kerry (Ehrin) and Carlton (Cuse) is to be that criminal defense attorney, to dispute her image as that eternal narcissist who created that emotional damage and harmed her child. Instead, I want to represent a woman who has genuine empathy and who has an unlimited capacity for giving her child unconditional love.
AwardsLine: Is it difficult to strike that balance between her being slightly off-kilter and seeming genuinely maternal?
Farmiga: I choose to see her as always being strong, brave, tough, resilient and passionate. Yes, she’s troubled and wrong—and just errant at times—but I only doubt her fundamental morality, like, 1 percent of the time. There are websites that I continually reference for inspiration, and I cannot help but approach this with enormous compassion. There’s no parent that can utter the words “My child has a mental illness” without their spirit completely imploding. There are no clear steps that any parent can take to make their mentally dysfunctional child healthier. But it’s an astounding character setting in that respect.
AwardsLine: Now that the show has been renewed for a second season, where do you see that relationship with Norman going?
Farmiga: Other than downstairs in a root cellar? (Laughs.) It’s the great American tragedy, and we know where that story inevitably leads. And it’s grisly. It’s grim. We know that Norman’s going to become some sort of version of the guy in Psycho, and that Norma’s going to become some sort of version of that skeleton with the updo, but how are we going to get there? For me to answer that question, I’d have to divulge a major plot point. It’s like Chopin. It begins and it ends with dissonances, but in between I want to strike all those beautiful chords that make the story so complex.
AwardsLine: You directed your first feature film, Higher Ground, last year. Do you have plans to direct again?
Farmiga: I was just asked by Carlton if I wanted to direct an episode, and with a 2- and a 4-year-old, I can’t. I just don’t have the time. To be honest, I still am trying to grasp the tone of Bates. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m really enjoying it, but I feel like I’m on some rough seas because the tone of this show switches like the wind. It’s only been 10 episodes, so I am still getting to know my character. As far as directing, I do love it. I just haven’t found that story. I’m only comfortable working in the independent film arena for a very small budget where I have creative control and I can put my stamp on it.
AwardsLine: You’re turning 40 this year. What do you see that meaning for you as an actress?
Farmiga: Do I care that my birthday cake will look like a small forest fire this August? No. If anyone else is concerned, they can go eff themselves. I transitioned out of youth and beauty roles before my career ever began. The kinds of roles I gravitate toward have become more abundant with age and wrinkles. I’m happier than ever; I’m older than ever.
As the smothering mother of the notorious Norman Bates in a modern-set prequel to the Hitchcock classic, the Oscar-nominated actress has warmed to the small screen.
Vera Farmiga remembers vividly how she came to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” for the first time.
Had she known she would someday play Norman Bates’ mother in A&E’s prequel series “Bates Motel,” she might have paid the picture closer attention. At the time, she was too preoccupied with another great director to give that classic Hitchcock thriller the scrutiny she since has.
“Other than maybe the shower scene,” Farmiga admits, “I didn’t see all of ‘Psycho’ till I was on set shooting ‘The Departed.’ Marty Scorsese made me. At first I nodded and considered bluffing him. Then I realized that whenever he refers to an old movie, he’s going to send you a deluxe DVD of it that night. By the end of the shoot, I was almost giving him blank looks about movies I knew by heart, just so he’d send me DVDs of them.”
Farmiga has since received an Oscar nomination for her role as George Clooney’s compartmental lover in “Up in the Air.” Her directing debut, 2011′s spiritual drama “Higher Ground,” drew solid praise. Nevertheless, despite half a dozen upcoming movies in the can, this first-generation Ukrainian American from New Jersey has followed better scripts and larger audiences to television.
“Of course I wish more people had seen some of my films. That’s one reason you do it, to share a character and a story with people. I loved [the little-seen film] ‘Breaking and Entering’ and my character in it…. So I was game to do cable, because so much good film work goes unseen. And the caliber of television today is so high.”
When Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.”) and Kerry Ehrin (“Moonlighting,” “Friday Night Lights”) began discussing with her the uncast part of a contemporary Norma Bates, she had to overcome some initial skepticism about the character. But their pilot script trumped any early reservations about decanting vintage Universal back-catalog wine into smaller episodic bottles.
“[Norma's] really the embodiment of a woman totally consumed by motherhood. As a mother myself, I can understand that feeling. Norma has such a strong maternal instinct, and that powerful an instinct isn’t always easily distinguishable from insanity.”
Farmiga doesn’t sound notably insane on the phone from Vancouver, Canada, where the “Bates Motel” crew has pitched camp. She sounds, in fact, quite cheerful, breaking frequently into the comfortable laugh of an Oscar-nominated mid-career actress with a role she likes and in a series that just got its first renewal notice.
For most of Joseph Stefano’s original “Psycho” script, we know Norma mainly by her voice, so it somehow feels right to speak to Farmiga by phone, not seeing her face. Not many realize that the voice in the film actually belonged to Virginia Gregg, the Marni Nixon of psychotic smother-mothers, a versatile but unsung radio actress who had already appeared in Hitchcock’s “Notorious.”
Farmiga doesn’t feel oppressed by her formidable if unseen predecessor: “I don’t think of Norma as an incredibly famous character. Norman, yes, and Freddie [Highmore, her costar] has to reckon with people’s memories of Anthony Perkins. But Norma, she’s almost a blank slate.”
The series takes place before the events of the 1960 original, yet it’s set in the present. If Cuse and Ehrin can take that liberty with the story, might others lie ahead? Scorsese would surely swallow his gum at the prospect, but Farmiga loves her new character too much to resign herself to reenacting Hitchcock’s ghoulish finale just yet.
“I can’t help hoping that Norma and Norman will find a way to avoid such a tragic ending. I know it’ll probably never happen. I know that. But if the writers went that way, I sure wouldn’t complain.”
How much do you really get to know a college from an official tour? The pervading opinion is not a lot. But in new film Middleton, a campus visit leads two starkly different parents to get to know themselves – and each other – as they wander off from the tour group.
Shot in eastern Washington at Gonzaga University and Washington State University, Middleton had its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival on Friday night. The film, which takes place all in one day at the titular fictional school, stars Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia as the parents who meet on the college tour. Garcia’s George is a prim and proper surgeon and a father of a teenage son who’s not at all interested in Middleton. Farmiga’s Edith, mother of studious and driven Audrey, is irreverent and free-spirited, though chained down by an unfulfilling job and a stagnant relationship with her husband. The two go from butting heads at a strained first meeting to hitting it off as they run wild around campus and share their fears about facing life alone with their spouses when their kids have left for college.
“I loved Edith,” Farmiga told EW after the premiere screening. “I wanted to be Edith. I wanted her to be my mom. I wanted to mother like her. And there was a lot to be learned from this character.”
Garcia was drawn to his character for the way George reminded him of Jacques Tati, director of mid-20th century French films, a favorite of both Garcia and Middleton director/co-writer Adam Rodgers. “To me [George] is like Harold Lloyd and Jaques Tati mixed into one,” Garcia said. “He’s trying to follow the wake of this tornado of a woman that’s powering through this campus, and he’s just sucked up into her energy.”
One of Rodgers’ own college tour experiences inspired the film. As a teenager, touring 15 New England schools with his father felt like a ritual. “On that last [tour], I was so burned out,” the first-time feature director recalled. “I was on the edge of this tour, and I saw this girl near a fountain carrying her shoes, and I found my 16-year-old self just walking towards her. And we played tour hooky and spent the whole day together.” Now as a father of two (one of whom is heading to college this fall), Rodgers considered the compelling question the film answers: “What was going on with my dad when I was wandering around?”
Though the filmmakers had to drop the original title Admissions when a certain Tina Fey movie came along, Rodgers says he found Middleton to ultimately be a better fit. The name for the fictional college comes from Middletown, Conn., the location of Wesleyan University, where Rodgers played tour hooky. But it also nods to middle-of-life rut Edith and George are both stuck in.
Pacing Edith and George’s relationship required a lot of scaling back of the charge between the two characters. Of working with Garcia, Farmiga said there was “a lot of s—- and giggles. We got close fast.”
Both actors shared the screen with family members in Middleton. Playing Edith’s daughter is Farmiga’s 18-year-old sister Taissa Farmiga (who also appears in SIFF’s closing night film, Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring). Building a mother-daughter relationship for their characters didn’t take much of a leap of imagination for the two actresses. “It’s built-in. I’m like her surrogate mom. There’s 21 years between us,” Vera Farmiga explained. “What you see in the film is my love for her.”
Garcia’s 25-year-old daughter Daniella Garcia-Lorido plays Daphne, a Middleton student George and Edith meet when they sneak into the school’s film projection room. After Daphne lets George use her dorm room computer, things take a turn for the dopey when Daphne’s boyfriend pulls out his bong. Soon a stoned George is trying to cheer up an alternatively giggly and teary Edith with some dance moves. The script described the moment as “George dances like an octopus falling out of a tree.” One might think that shooting this scene had to be a new experience for the father-daughter pair, but Garcia joked, “Oh, she’s seen me fall out of a tree as an octopus many times.”
The scene provoked a lot of laughter from the audience on Friday, as did plenty of other comedic moments, including the pieces of trivia from the quintessential annoyingly perky college tour guide (Nicholas Braun). But as George and Edith open up and discover themselves, there were also dramatic moments that got quieter reactions from the crowd. “It was such a treat to listen to the audience listen to the film,” Vera Farmiga said. “They were quite vocal, and in these moments of self-discovery, where these characters make these profound acknowledgements about their lack of eagerness or their complacency or their loneliness, you hear the audience identify with it with sighs and breaths.”
Middleton’s filmmakers will get the chance to observe another audience’s response to the movie at the Maui Film Festival, where it will screen next month. Anchor Bay Entertainment, which also distributed Garcia’s 2009 drama City Island, is aiming for a first-quarter 2014 release.
Vera has been nominated to 2013 Critics’ Choice Awards for her role of Norma Bates in Bates Motel.
BEST ACTRESS IN A DRAMA SERIES
• Claire Danes (Homeland) – Showtime
• Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel) – A&E
• Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) – CBS
• Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) – BBC America
• Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) – AMC
• Keri Russell (The Americans) – FX
Our best hopes for her to win. Congrats lady and good luck! The 2013 Critics’ Choice Awards will take place in Beverly Hills on Monday, June 10th.
On Bates Motel, Vera Farmiga masterfully transforms a would-be harridan into a new kind of protagonist: the sensual hysteric. Ken Tucker on the most naturalistic performance on TV.
“You scare me; I think you might need help,” said Norman Bates to his mother, Norma, on a recent episode of A&E’s shrewdly insinuating Bates Motel.
Given that we know Norman is eventually going to start dressing up like said mother and commence to knifin’ folks once he goes Psycho, this bit of Norman insight into the Norma psyche is both significant and indicative of what could have, should have, gone wrong with a TV quasi-prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller. Bates Motel, as co-created by producers including Lost man Carlton Cuse, did a fine job of casting Freddie Highmore as its adolescent Tony Perkins—he’s got Perkins’ wide-eyed, gulping demeanor down (very) cold—but the character of Norma had to be built from the ground up as the element that grounds the series.
Which is where the performance of Vera Farmiga comes in, with its impressively sly approximation of neurotic spontaneity. It’s a considerable achievement to make it look easy to blow off George Clooney’s charms, as Vera Farmiga did in her movie breakthrough Up in the Air; it’s another to make it look easy to blow up a movie touchstone like Psycho and not come across as either an interloper or a loon. In a role that requires its actress to smother her son’s sanity and libido with mother love and still seem non-icky enough to both run a motel and remain a sympathetic protagonist in a weekly series, Farmiga has probably had weeks where she wishes she’d done something easier, like freeze in Croatia while learning to speak George R.R. Martin in Game of Thrones.
No. 58: Syracuse University alumna Vera Farmiga was nominated for an Academy Award as George Clooney’s romantic interest in “Up in the Air,” but the Ukrainian-American actress has also had memorable roles in “The Departed” and TV’s “Bates Motel.”