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14
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“Quite frankly,” Vera Farmiga says of Norma Bates, the iconic character she plays in the new, revisionist TV thriller Bates Motel, she didn’t think much about who Norman Bates’ mother was, or what happened to make her the person she became in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film classic Psycho.

Norma Bates was, strictly speaking, not a character in suspense writer Robert Bloch’s original 1959 novel but rather an unseen presence.

Farmiga, with her arts-oriented upbringing and drama background — a stint with the American Conservatory Theatre and New York’s prestigious Barrow Group, followed by roles in the films Return to Paradise, Down to the Bone, The Departed, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Vintner’s Luck and an Academy Award-nominated turn opposite George Clooney in 2009’s Up in the Air — seemed an unlikely choice to play an emotionally abusive mother to a disturbed teenage boy in a TV thriller. But then Bates Motel is no ordinary TV thriller.

Farmiga approaches her roles from a theatrical, artistic vantage point, drawing on her arts-oriented upbringing and her affinity for independent film when considering a part.

She had seen Hitchcock’s Psycho years earlier — “I had done a whole comprehensive Hitchcock about a decade ago,” she says — but Norma Bates didn’t leave much of an impression.

Then she read the first three scripts of Bates Motel, and she saw a different side to the part. The more she immersed herself in the pages, the more she realized this was a role she was meant to play.

Bates Motel, conceived by Lost co-writer and producer Carlton Cuse and Friday Night Lights’ Kerry Ehrin, is a dark and moody, postmodern, updated-to-present-day psychological thriller, more in the vein of David Lynch and Twin Peaks than a typical TV clinker. Motel was filmed earlier this year in Aldergrove, B.C., filling in for moody, small-town middle America. It premieres Monday, March 18, on A&E.

Bates Motel was inspired by rather than adapted from the Hitchcock classic. It’s written as a contemporary examination of Norman Bates’ formative years, his relationship with his mother, and the emotional world they navigate, inside and outside the motel and hilltop house where they’ve lived since Norma Bates’ husband died. Norman is played in the series by 21-year-old UK actor Freddie Highmore, who counts Finding Neverland, The Golden Compass and The Spiderwick Chronicles among his film roles.

“It isn’t even necessarily Hitchcockian,” Farmiga explained in Los Angeles earlier this year, during a break from filming in Vancouver. “Yes, she’s a cool blond that, at the outset, appears very lovely but acts in a very animalistic way when she encounters danger. That’s Norma. For me, though, she was drawn more from Ibsen and Chekhov. She really was. I can equate her more to those kinds of heroines than Hitchcock. I didn’t think of Hitchcock’s Norma Bates and what that would mean to an audience.”

The postdated, modern-day setting and Bates Motel’s different rhythms and emotional beats make it seem unique and distinctive, Farmiga suggested, rather than a conventional remake of a time-honoured classic.

“We have a lot of bounce with this springboard to be inventive,” Farmiga said, “because we know nothing about her.”

Bates Motel takes a page from film noir, Farmiga added, as reflected in the first episode’s title: First You Dream, Then You Die. People have desires and dreams. Occasionally they do bad things in pursuit of those dreams, and there can be terrible consequences as a result.

“I went into this wanting to defend who this woman is,” Farmiga said. “In the early episodes I read, she was, to me, such a beautiful portrait of valiant maternity. I saw the challenge therein. To me, the story is a beautiful love letter between a mother and her son. That’s how I perceive the character. To me, it’s like the Edvard Munch painting of the Madonna. It’s really warped and it kind of exudes the scared and the profane. It’s just psychologically gripping. And that’s what I was drawn to with Norma. She’s a playground for an actress. The character’s riddled with contradiction. She’s as strong and tall as an oak, and as fragile as a butterfly, and everything in between that I admire in female characters I come across — resilience and passion and intellect. And, at the same time, she’s an absolute train wreck.

“Bad things happen to her, but in her perseverance there’s a lot of strength.”

Bates Motel premieres Monday, March 18, on A&E at 10 ET/7 PT.

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