By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Vera Farmiga has established herself as one weird and complicated mother for the past two seasons playing Norma Bates, mother to mentally disturbed Norman (played by Freddie Highmore), in the “Psycho” TV series prequel “Bates Motel.”
Now that the third season of the A&E series is under way, the 41-year-old actress spoke about the most unusual character she’s played to date. Norma creepily fosters a co-dependent relationship with her oddball son (who turns out to be a serial killer in the Alfred Hitchcock classic thriller “Psycho”). She says the stakes are going to be raised this season as Norman’s fragile psyche begins to crack.[private]
Q: How is it playing this character this season, in particular?
Farmiga: I’m sailing with Norma Bates’ ship and then most of the time I’m just sort of dreading the rigging failure. Norma’s emotions just turn on a dime. It feels like you’re sailing 40-knot winds and 30-foot waves.
I have found the way that I cope with it this year is very different than I have had in past seasons. I It’s such acute and intense work that I have to find things that really lighten it up for me. I’ve been learning the guitar in-between scenes with an emphasis on heavy metal. That’s become really important to me. It’s a beautiful coping strategy. We make up songs for each other. I have to release those (songs) on Twitter, eventually.
It’s all fun and shenanigans on set. Then, when we get to work, we get to work. But playing guitar has helped. I find as much as joy as I can in the role and as much joy and lightheartedness off-screen. I play (heavy metal band) Slipknot and practice triplet notes on my guitar.
Q: Has it been interesting playing Norma?
Farmiga: To say the least, yes. (Writer) Kerry (Ehrin) has taken the lead on writing Norma, and she writes Norma for me like I’m some sort of a demigod. But I’m not, man. (She laughs.) I’m just a mere mortal and I’m mortally wounded from what she has me go through.
It’s pretty nutty to see now what we explored with this character this season—like the height of righteousness that (Norma) possesses and the depths of manipulation and depravity, almost, that she is capable of. There are just is so many antics and adventures for me to explore. It’s an outstanding role. I have never been challenged the way I am with this story and this particular character. I’m heavily medicated right now with tremors and spasms and a torn shoulder and neck muscles and the like. I am broken into smithereens.
Q: It’s a physical role?
Farmiga: It’s not even that. It’s like a mental role that is, frankly, so not healthy for me. But it’s formidable. It’s torturous to us to hit the notes that are required emotionally and to do it earnestly. Kerry really keeps us on point like that. But it just requires the tenacity of 10 tornados and I only had about 9-1/2 in me. I didn’t get to finish that last day on set.
Q: Now that Norma is aware of Norman’s blackouts, where he doesn’t remember what he’s done, will she ever let him back out into the regular world again? Or is she going to try to just trap him in the house?
Farmiga: You’re going to see a more unraveled Norma this year. There’s mammoth stress in dealing with Norman’s mental state. It has a whopping physical and emotional toll on Norma the way it would on any parent of a “special needs” child. Following the events of last season, Norma is more aware. She’s more circumspect. She’s more attentive to Norman’s fragility. You’re going to see her playing her cards really close to her chest in the beginning of the season, but she’s got to reach out.
She’s protective of Norman, as ever, and determined to help him as best as she can, but she doesn’t always know how. She’s going to start reaching out to others. That relationship evolves as they allow more people into their lives. You’re going to see how the mother-son bond kind of withstands those pressures.
Q: With the dynamic between your character and Freddie’s character, how do you manage to keep it fresh, inventive and interesting?
Farmiga: It’s an acting challenge for me and for Freddie. As they sort of head towards what seemingly is going to be their inevitable Hades. These emotional scenes also come at such high frequency and duration that sometimes I am honestly just sort of running out of ideas. It’s really interesting—the closeness and the best friendship and the respect and the trust between Freddie and myself. It’s just really intense work. Freddie has become really particularly adept at sort of instigating me and knowing my soft spots emotionally and treading like a bulldozer over them.
Q: Producers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin said they were always playing with the storyline and exploring it so that it’s constantly growing and moving forward in ways that surprise because they like to be surprised. But is that unexpectedness always fun for you?
Farmiga: No. I’m not going to lie. This season, for example, there’s some big dingy-stingy ordeal in store, like we’re going to wade through and drown in some agony. It’s like‑how on earth? But there’s also so much joy, burlesque, absurdity, buffoonery and, above all, love. That’s what makes this show so special. There is so much darkness and yet so much humor watching these characters navigate into some ludicrously improbable situations. That’s what makes it so exhilarating. It’s acute. It’s intense. It’s agonizing most of the time, but it’s balanced so beautifully. There’s a lot of joy, beauty, friendship and love.
Q: Freddie has talked about how he’s become a really big part of your family and how he stayed with you for a while. If, for some reason, that had not happened, do you think you would have still gotten that kind of performance together, if he were just another cast member? Would you still have that kind of dynamic going on or is that kind of essential to how this has all worked out for you?
Farmiga: I can’t really answer a “what if?” It just did. We are who we are to each other. I can’t imagine being any other way. Certainly, he wasn’t spending the night this year; he’s got a girlfriend. So I sort of kept him at bay. The other day I just looked at his spare toothbrush lying in my children’s drawer and I thought, “Ah, should I throw this away or no?” I kind of left it there for next year. He’s got his contact lenses and everything (at my house).
So, yes, we’re just very close. He’s very close with my husband, who is a kind of a surrogate father for him. And he’s a good buddy for my children. He’s an incredible influence on them. We’re just the way we are to each other, and we rely heavily on each other to execute these roles. I can’t imagine it any other way.
Q: What is it about Norma that you relate to?
Farmiga: I’m (also) a mother. I know that my unique challenges as both a daughter and as a mother have given me a freakin’ wealth and myriad of experience to draw on. I have a bonanza of material angst. I just do. I’ve got this (metaphorical baseball) bat and there’s this pinata over my head—a maternal pinata— that I can just swing at with all my own personal experience. It just comes showering down upon me. It’s relatability as a mom. There’s nothing I won’t do to see my children become the absolutely best possible versions of themselves, and I’ll fight to the death for that. That’s what I admire so much about Norma.
Q: How do you think the viewership has changed since the show became available on the download streaming service Netflix?
Farmiga: It’s incredibly hard to calculate. As a personal frustration, I would like (all of the episodes) to be available on Netflix immediately, because I think technology and culture has shifted the way we watch our stories. People want to binge watch. People want to catch up on their own time and in their own convenience and not have to kind of wade through the commercials to do it. So, it’s available now in time for Season 3. So that’s a positive.
Q: Can you sum up this season in just one sentence?
Farmiga: We’re going down a dark rabbit hole and going to leave our audience open-mouthed and panting.
Q: Will Norma have another relationship or does she think all men are evil?
Farmiga: I don’t think she thinks that. She wants desperately to have someone sweep her off her feet and take care of her in the way that she’s never had in her life. She yearns for that. There’s a deep hankering to find a man she can trust.
Certainly, she hasn’t had that experience yet, but I think she’s a hopeless romantic and yearns for it, and there are a couple of good potentials this season. We may or may not be talking capital “R” romantic. I can’t say.
Q: What shows do you binge on?
Farmiga: I don’t, because we’re only now we’re coming out of the eye of the storm—production. So everything’s been on hold.[/private]