She’s already been nominated for an Academy Award, and now she’s up for an Emmy for her turn as Norma Bates in A&E’s ‘Psycho’ drama ‘Bates Motel.’ The beloved Farmiga talks to Anna Klassen.
How do you breathe life into a character whom audiences identify as nothing more than a corpse sitting in a basement?
Ask Vera Farmiga, the star of A&E’s Psycho prequel, Bates Motel[. The actress plays Norma Bates, who became a Hollywood horror icon in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic. But in Psycho, Norma is never seen—alive, that is—though she’s often heard inside the head of her deranged serial killer son, Norman.
Praised by many, Farmiga’s performance in Season 1 earned her an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama. “It’s the most powerful form of encouragement,” she tells The Daily Beast. “I know that the category is cutthroat and there are a lot of deserving women. It’s so darn special.”
Says series producer Kerry Ehrin of the nomination: “It is very deserved. She blows your hair back on a daily basis.” And Carlton Cuse (Lost) echoes his producer-partner, saying: “I’m glad she did get the nomination because if she didn’t I would literally be holed up on the floor someplace in depression.”
If you’ve seen a single episode of Farmiga as the modern-day Psycho’s mom, you know what all the fuss is about. Equal parts compassionate and neurotic, Farmiga plays Norma with an intense level of adrenaline. She murders rapists and hides their bodies, finds a dead man she used to sleep with in her bed, deals with the surprisingly never-ending list of Norman’s female admirers, and defends her son to the bitter end, her end—all the while looking smoking hot in a pair of 1950s pumps and an apron.
“It’s so rare to encounter in female characters this level of complexity,” says Farmiga, who compares Norma to her son’s Legos: “He wants the imperial shuttle with the double rotating doors. Norma Bates is the imperial shuttle.” But according to producer Cuse, it’s just as rare to find an actress like Farmiga to take on the powerhouse role. “Vera was someone we always wanted for the show, but in television you don’t always get lucky and get your first choice, especially when your first choice is an Academy Award-nominated actress,” he says. “She just killed the part.”
Like Norma, Farmiga is a mother who uses her real-life circumstances to fuel her performance. “In the [Psycho] house, if you look around, there are photos of my own children. There’s photos of my daughter Gytta and my son Fynn,” she says, a wide smile forming on her lips. “It’s such an emotional role. We do take after take. It’s such a rapid pace that sometimes it just takes a glance at a certain photo and it puts me in this real place of compassion.”
Compassionate, however, is a word few would use to describe Norma Bates. Playing a character historically blamed for her son’s illness, Farmiga feels a distinct need to shift viewers’ perceptions of Norma. “She comes with a lot of projections onto who she may have been, and assumptions, but really she’s just a pile of bones,” she says. “I’ve been appointed by Kerry [Ehrin] and Carlton [Cuse] in her defense to present to the jury and the audience a completely different notion of who she is.”
With Vera’s emotion-packed, high-anxiety performance, we just might buy it.
Nestor Carbonell (Lost), who has jokingly described his character on Bates Motel as “an ageless sheriff with guyliner,” went out of his way to sing Farmiga’s praises at the show’s Comic-Con panel in July. “She rarely goes into her trailer and is one of the most giving actors I’ve ever worked with.”
“I really hope doing however many seasons we do it, the audience will grow to adore her, respect her, and root for her, even though she reaches her demise.”
Freddie Highmore, who plays the emotionally distraught teenage Norman and who shoots nearly every scene with his on-screen mother, offers similar praise. “She’s great, isn’t she?” he says. “She’s brilliant. I’m very lucky to have worked with her. I’m so lucky to be able to act opposite of her almost every single day. She constantly brings new ideas and keeps you on your toes. She’s always alive on set.”
But fans of the 1960 original—that is, practically everyone who has or hasn’t seen the film—knows that one day, Norma must meet her end. Farmiga is aware of the conflict. All good things, even genre-defying performances, must come to an end. “I really hope doing however many seasons we do it, the audience will grow to adore her, respect her, and root for her, even though she reaches her demise,” she says. “This character is a real roll-up-your-sleeves job. I really, genuinely approach the character with the utmost integrity.”
Bates Motel won’t return for its second season until 2014, but Farmiga already has us anticipating what’s to come:
“I just finished Episode 3, and the complete unexpected has come my way. I wish I could share it with you. I can only tell you that I am terrified. The actor’s challenge for me to do what I need to do is something I did not anticipate. It’s a zoo. It’s a real zoo.”
With James Wan’s The Conjuring sweeping (and spooking) all before it at the US box office and UK filmgoers getting a serious frightening from this Friday, Empire’s curiosity has been piqued. What makes a $20m film recoup its budget in less than a weekend and go onto make nearly $100m in less than a fortnight? Is it a talented director with a track record in low-budget, high-concept filmmaking? Good old-fashioned storytelling? A seasoned cast selling the scares? Then we realised: it’s witchcraft! So we went along to the film’s press junket in San Francisco to burn everyone involved.
“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.
LOS ANGELES—“There were some weird things that happened on the set,” Vera Farmiga revealed to us while recounting the shoot of “The Conjuring,” director James Wan’s horror-thriller. “One girl in particular experienced the very thing that physically happens to the Carolyn (played by Lili Taylor) character in the film.”
Added Vera during this interview at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco: “Fire alarms would go off. And these weird things would happen to me. It was always a claw scenario. Check this out. I texted this photo to Patrick the day after. That’s my thigh (she showed us a photo on her mobile phone of three red scratches on her skin). It happened the day after we started filming. I don’t know what happened… unless I had a mosquito bite and I scratched it with three fingers.”
She continued: “I had this same conversation with James. We had a creative conversation about Lorraine (her character) and the approach to the character. I had done some research. After our conversation, we opened up a computer screen on which appeared three slashes. Then they disappeared—a little odd thing.”
Vera’s character is based on Lorraine Warren, a real-life clairvoyant and paranormal investigator who, with her late demonologist husband, Ed (played by Patrick Wilson), worked on the case of Carolyn and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston), who claimed their Rhode Island home was haunted. Set in the 1970s, “The Conjuring,” praised by The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis as “a fantastically effective haunted-house movie,” is directed, without the aid of CGI (computer-generated imagery), by James. The film opened to strong box office numbers last weekend.
James, who was born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, is one of the few filmmakers of Asian descent actively working in Hollywood. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology alumnus’ previous credits include “Saw” and “Insidious.” He will direct “Fast & Furious 7,” which is in preproduction.
We asked Vera, Patrick (who was also directed by James in “Insidious” and the coming “Insidious: Chapter 2”), Ron and Lili about their director, who’s fast making an impact in Tinseltown.
What’s interesting in the stars’ answers is how they all likened James to a masterful musical conductor.
I love James’ attitude. I don’t think I would have ended up doing the project if James ended up being some sort of a creepy, dark dude. But he’s got lightness and effervescence, and a real playfulness, a childlike quality that made this experience wonderful.
The research was creepiest for me and the most harrowing. James is a real maestro. He’s very successful because he really treats it (filming) musically, like he’s some lunatic conductor. It has to do with tempo, and not being afraid of silences. He has really mastered pacing and tempo, and does not relying on gimmicks and CGI to do those scares.
Writer-producer Carlton Cuse and the cast of the hit A&E show stop by our lounge to talk about their geeky childhood obsessions and the festival experience. “I was a spectacle collector, like glasses, and I wanted to be an ophthalmologist,” says Vera Farmiga. “The problem was that I had ace vision.”