Emmy Watch: Vera Farmiga on playing a 'Psycho' mother for 'Bates Motel'

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Image Credit: A&E

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.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @EWTimStack.

Read more:
Emmy Watch: Freddie Highmore talks ‘Bates Motel’
Emmy Watch: Michael Cudlitz on ‘Southland’
Emmy Watch: Sigourney Weaver on ‘Political Animals’


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