Vera Farmiga and Kerry Ehrin – Checking In To Bates Motel
by Jay S. Jacobs
It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to take on an iconic character and try to make it your own. Therefore, it must have given Vera Farmiga pause when she was offered the role of arguably the most infamous mom in film history, Norma Bates, the bitter and shrill mother of serial killer Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 film Psycho.
Of course – spoiler alert for the three or four people in the world who have never seen or heard aboutPsycho – in the original film, it turned out that Norma was a mummified corpse and a figment of the fevered imagination of her psychotic son.
So it was quite a challenge when A&E went to TV producers Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) and Carlton Cuse (Lost, Nash Bridges) to make a series which could work as a prequel to the film and explore the relationship between a teenaged Norman and his mother. Complicating things even more, the network wanted the series to be updated to modern times.
It would take a special actress to fill in the blanks of Norma Bates, Ehrin and Cuse realized. After all, we had only seen her through the cracked prism of her son. How did she end up to be a corpse in the attic window of the Bates house? What kind of situation could have possibly spun so far out of control to get Norman and his mother to their eventual destinations? What actress could translate the evil obsessions of Norma and also show her human, insecure part? Who could make an audience root for a woman who is helping to mold a serial killer?
Ehrin and Cuse thought the perfect choice would be Vera Farmiga.
Farmiga has been creating a sterling reputation in Hollywood in recent years with a series of high-profile acclaimed supporting roles. She was the only woman in The Departed,Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-winning all-star boy’s club. She was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as George Clooney’s traveling paramour in Up In the Air. Last year she played half of a married ghost-busting couple in the popular thriller The Conjuring.
However, Bates Motel is one of Farmiga’s rare opportunities to carry a project. Together with British former child actor Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) as young Norman, Farmiga has created one of the most fascinating mother-child dynamics in TV history. People took notice, the show became an instant hit and Farmiga was nominated for a 2013 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
However, even beyond the lead characters, the apparently idyllic world of White Pine Bay is full of crime, death and rot. The series has a terrific ensemble that includes Max Theriot and Norma’s estranged older son, Nestor Carbonell as the morally ambiguous local sheriff, Nicola Peltz as the local teen beauty who catches Norman’s eye, Olivia Cook as Norman’s fellow outcast best friend and Mike Vogel as the deputy sheriff with a huge secret.
Season one ended on a cliffhanger, leaving the audience to wonder if Norman was responsible for the violent murder of a pretty young high school teacher (Keegan Connor Tracy). As season two starts on March 2, we find that nothing is as simple as it may seem, and it will take time to solve this crime of passion. In the meantime, Norma and Norman are finally starting to make a success of their new motel, a success which may be ruined by the potential construction of a new highway bypass.
A couple of weeks before the season two premiere of Bates Motel, we were one of several websites who were able to speak with Farmiga and co-creator Ehrin about the series.
This is based on a classic movie. How much do the impressions that you originally got from Psycho affect the way that you make the show now? Or is it its own entity? Do you still go back to that?
Kerry Ehrin: Do you want to go Vera?
Vera Farmiga: No, no. I think it’s a question for you girl.
Kerry Ehrin: Okay, okay. Yes, from the very beginning [co-creator] Carlton [Cuse] and I wanted to honor the movie, but not be beholden into it. I think at this point the world of Bates Motel has definitely become its own organic world. While we’re still conscious of the film, and obviously there’s certain tent poles let’s say (laughs) that the film suggests, it has become its own beast at this point.
Vera, do you know like a lot of the story line ahead of time? Or do you prefer to be surprised when it comes out?
Vera Farmiga: I’m still figuring what it is that is part of my process. I’ve never had the luxury of a second season. I’ve done three series before. They never had the opportunity to go beyond 13 episodes in the first season. I know first season I did feel a little disabled. Not that I couldn’t act. I remember Carlton asking me, “Do you want some more clues?” I wanted to take it an episode at a time and not get ahead of myself. In the experience of season one I felt: Oh, man, okay. In hindsight, especially having sort of a big bomb land in the last episode, for me it was impossible to dig as deep initially with the root of this new character. I felt like Norma Bates was this like huge voluptuous shrub that I just had to trust in this shallow root system. Sometimes I felt like I was like showing up to fix this toilet and my toolbox has been like packed by the wife. (laughs) Do you know what I mean?
That’s why I just reveled in the opportunity of a second season. Television is a much slower process to discovering that background history. The personality, the psychology, the character’s goals. There were so many unknowns. Also, the cast is so much closer. There’s an intimacy. There’s a level of sportsmanship now. We can throw harder jabs at each other. It’s a deeper level of trust and love that has been established between us and Kerry and Carlton. In between the actors. And so I… oh God, what was the initial question, man?
It’s interesting developing a character over TV time. Yes, I mean certainly. But that’s my own fault, because at the same time I wanted to pace myself with the information that was coming at me. Second season I did ask for more clues. I wanted to have the trajectory of second season. I wanted to have more answers at the start, which I was provided with. So I think you’re in for a better second season. (They both laugh)
Vera, what kind of mothering tips have you learned from Norma?
Vera Farmiga: (laughs) First of all, I’ll preface this answer by: if you hear me slurring, I’ve had a wisdom tooth pulled. I am not drunk at like 10:30 am in the morning. (Ehrin laughs hard.) It’s not like a maternal coping mechanism. (laughs) I actually am in pain and a little bit of confusion. But anyway, you know what? (long pause, then sighs) Man, I admire her tenacious love for her child. She goes to extreme lengths to give her child the life that she imagines for him. That is really valiant to me. I admire her generous heart. She has really disarming honesty. These are amazing qualities that she possesses. Yes, there is the flip side of Norma Bates, that her hardware is working, [but] her software is a bit faulty.
She does like wrap Norman in bubble wrap, all the time. (They both laugh.) I look at that. I think what I do learn from her is… I mean this is a story after all about family dysfunction. What I have to work so hard to get an audience to identify with her – and to defend her and to admire her even – is that for me the name of the game is to present to you a woman who lives every day in the trenches of maternity. Also in the trenches of her own stubbornness and denial. So those negative qualities influence me to be a better parent. (laughs again) I guess the two demons, which is denial and stubbornness for Norma, I suppose keep me in check.
Kerry, what compassion do you feel for Norma?
Kerry Ehrin: I think Norma is the mother of all mothers. To me it’s like she’s in an extreme situation. But, every mother I’ve ever known, they just have this passion for making everything okay for their kid. For stuffing the shit that doesn’t work out under the rug and stomping on it. (laughs) Just constantly moving forward and making life as pretty and beautiful and fun for their kids as they can. It’s like we can’t help it. It’s what mothers do. It’s something so beautiful. That’s what Norma means to me. That’s why I think she’s beautiful. She’s screwed up and dysfunctional. Her own limitations that have been layered on her by her early life that was none of her own doing. Within that, she’s absolutely just valiantly doing the best that she fucking can. (laughs again) You have to love that. That’s to me being a mother.
Vera, what is attracting you to these scarier parts? Roles like in Orphan, The Conjuring or Bates Motel. And your sister Taissa is in American Horror Story.
Very Farmiga: Oh my God, it’s like my own beautiful internal logic about why Taissa and I choose to participate. Or I think actually the projects choose us. (laughs) But why like there’s this magnetism oft times with dark subject matters, I don’t know. It’s like quantum physics related. I’d like to think we’re called upon like some simple thermal sources. (laughs again) And, actually, to be honest with you, I find it dark stories uplifting. It’s during the darkest moments of our lives that we see the light, right? There’s a lot of darkness in Bates Motel. But again, there’s a lot of joy. The thing for me is I always look at things and I choose to look at it through the lens of positivity. Our story, yes it’s a story about dysfunction. It’s dark. But it’s a story about commitment and love and family and resilience and loyalty.
I look at Taissa in American Horror Story and I just think… I mean for her, I’m biased. I’m practically her mother. She’s just like this bright supernova that shines even brighter in the dark. If you look at like the now close to 50 films that I’ve done, it’s only like five of them that are actually like certified horror stories. Everything else is… I don’t know.
Like I just did At Middleton, which is where she and I play screwball mother and daughter in a romantic comedy. I think maybe the most successful projects in my career have been psychological thrillers and horrors and sort of twisted, dark and offbeat. Maybe it’s because our childhoods were so straight and narrow and full of light and love and goodness. (laughs) Maybe that’s why we veer toward them more. But the object is you send light into the darkness. Of our character charts. That’s how I always look at it. I am attracted to the sordid and the wacky, the unorthodox. But I love infusing it with lightness.
Vera, I know your character is completely wrapped up in Norman. But is there any possibility of a love interest for you in the new season?
Vera Farmiga: Yes, obviously she’s proved from first season that she’s totally over anxious. She’s too involved. This is a woman who’s been abused by her father, abused by her brother, discarded by men, unneeded by her older son. She clings to the one man that has been her protector, her confidant, her consolation, the light in her life. It is Norman. And she’s totally too involved. She’s unable to cut the cord.
But the thing is, the issues of women survivors of childhood sexual abuse, it’s really complex. It impedes ability to trust, especially if, like Norma, demons are within. These poisonous feelings that she has are embedded so deep in her psyche. She’s never uprooted them. She just has this vault, this burial chamber where she squashes all that sadness and stress and torment.
She’s totally preoccupied with Norman. Imagine it for yourself. It’s such a dark moment, the doom, when you discover or when you suspect that there’s something not quite right neurologically with your child. It’s not a job for the fainthearted. Every ounce of energy really is her struggle with raising Norman, this atypical child. Doing it as a single parent. She’s got her own painful history also to contend with. She’s got this rampart that she’s built. (chuckles) It’s like the walls of Constantinople. It’s a lifetime of defensive walls that she has.