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February 12, 2014

Motel Confidential: Vera Farmiga

Bates Motel star Vera Farmiga revels in the role that, she says, arrived when she appealed to the universe.

Mark Morrison
  • Vera Farmiga
  • Vera Farmiga
  • Vera Farmiga
  • Vera Farmiga
  • Vera Farmiga

“I’m a little loopy,” Vera Farmiga is saying.

“My husband fed me curry for lunch, which always makes me feel weird. It’s got to be a reaction to cayenne or something — there’s this odd little buzzing in my ears and in my head….”

In light of her current television role, it’s hard to imagine this ash-blonde beauty falling prey to any of life’s little upsets.

She’s wrapped her second season on A&E’s Bates Motel, the modern-day prequel to Psycho in which she plays Norma Bates, the embodiment of maternal madness.

At once strong and fragile, protective and seductive, controlling and out of control, Norma has been tested and taunted by life. A survivor of incest and rape, she is wholly devoted to her teenage son, Norman (the angel-faced Freddie Highmore). Yet she lives with the increasing fear that he may be a psychotic killer. 

Season 2 — which debuts in March — arrives with promise, for the network and its star. In its premiere last March, Bates Motel drew 4.6 million total viewers, becoming the network’s most-watched original drama series debut among the key eighteen-to-forty-nine and twenty-five-to-fifty-four demos.

And as the story opened, the Bateses, mother and son, were moving  — after the mysterious death of Norma’s husband — to White Pine, Oregon, where Norma has bought a motel with the dream of starting over and enjoying life.

Easier said than done. For one thing, the town has its own share of dark secrets, à la Twin Peaks.

For another, there’s that little problem with Norman. Though Norma may hope against hope that her suspicions about her son are wrong — or that she can save him from himself — we all know from the 1960 Hitchcock movie classic that things are not destined to work out well for the Bates family.

Yet, in an inventive twist on the Psycho story — in which Norma is seen merely as a corpse and an adult Norman (famously played by Anthony Perkins) eventually assumes her domineering personality — Bates Motel fleshes out the mother-son relationship in a way that is as compelling as it is complex.

This fresh take on a classic got its start three years ago, when A&E was more focused on crime procedurals and had produced only five original scripted series — The Cleaner, The Glades, The Beast, Breakout Kings and Longmire.

Tana Jamieson, the network’s senior vice-president of drama series, sat down with an agent and asked him to name the best scripts he’d read that had never been produced. One was a two-hour spec script by Anthony Cipriano about Bates Motel. 

“I thought there was something really fascinating there, though it was darker than what we do at A&E,” Jamieson recalls. “But we saw it as a game changer. If we really wanted to get out of the closed-end crime procedurals, then we had to make a statement. And this was a statement.”

The network approached Universal Television, owner of the Psycho franchise, and got a positive reaction from executive vice-president Bela Bejaria. “We thought the title was recognizable and provocative,” says Bejaria, who had worked with A&E on The Cleaner in a previous position at CBS Television Studios.

But the idea of examining Norma and Norman Bates was the real draw. “We thought the characters were captivating on their own.”

To develop the series, they approached Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), now both executive producers of Bates Motel (with Tucker Gates, Mark M. Wolper, Roy Lee and John Middleton). To secure Cuse’s commitment, A&E told him that they’d skip a pilot and go straight to series.

“We had never done that before,” Jamieson says. But the risk paid off when they read the first script. “It was a page turner,” she says.

Cuse had Farmiga in mind from the start. “I always think of actors when I write,” he says. “Kerry and I were talking about who this person could be, and Vera popped into my brain as a prototype — Kerry thought it was great. We never really thought we’d get her, but she became the inspirational model for Norma Bates.”

Their idea was to use the Psycho franchise to tell an original story, setting the prequel in the present instead of the past.

“We wanted to get out from under the shadow of the movie and there was no way to do that if we’d made it period,” Cuse explains. “The movie would have loomed so large, and we would have been so bound to the mythology. The whole thing would have felt like an exercise or some slavish imitation.”

While the setting differs slightly (Psycho was set in California), Bates Motel, like its inspiration, allows for the portrayal of rich, yet deeply flawed characters. And viewers are able to make a smooth transition within the opening scenes, while the storytellers — and their star — bring Norma to life.

“Even though Norma doesn’t exist in Psycho as a living person,” Cuse says, “Norman imagines her as this horrible, shrewish person who has berated him into being crazy. Our core idea was, What if our Norma Bates is exactly the opposite?

"She loves her son to death, though he has a flaw in his DNA that is insurmountable. What if, in her desire to love and protect him, she ironically catalyzes that thing in him that she can’t fix?

“To make our show work,” he goes on, “we needed an actor who had to be warm and sympathetic, who is capable of being a little nutty, but she had to be beautiful, sexy, smart….”

“The role is a real high-wire act,” Ehrin adds. “Norma has to be dysfunctional and needy and at the same time not be whiny or a victim.”

“And she has to be likeable, even if she is doing bad or dysfunctional things,” Cuse continues. “The demands for the part were very high, so you just start thinking who could pull that off. In both our minds, there was no one better than Vera.”

Farmiga has proved her range on the big screen, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar winner, The Departed, in which she holds her own amid a testosterone-heavy ensemble that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg and Jack Nicholson.

And in Jason Reitman’s 2009 dramedy, Up in the Air, she so completely charms the audience — and George Clooney — that no one sees the movie’s climactic reveal coming. The role earned her Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA nominations.

So, after writing three episodes of Bates, Cuse and Ehrin sent them to the actress with a personal note.

Though she wasn’t looking for a series, Farmiga admits the timing was right. She had married musician Renn Hawkey in 2008, and, when not traveling for work, they were raising two young children in upstate New York.

“Funnily enough, there was actually this moment of despair where I realized my [then] three-year-old and one-year-old had lived in twenty different locations in a year,” Farmiga recalls. “The baby didn’t even have her own crib because we were so uprooted.

"And I literally called out to the universe that I wanted a job in Vancouver that was consistent and stimulating. Vancouver is where I met Renn [on the series Touching Evil] and I have incredibly romantic associations here.

Sure enough, she says, the offer for Bates came 3 days later.

Her reaction? “In all honesty, I was very wary of [a prequel],” she says. “Psycho is a work of cinematic art, one of Hitchcock’s best films. I felt there were so many things that could go wrong. But all of that fled starting from page 1, when Norma Bates was presented as a really intrepid female character.

“I was fascinated with her. She’s absolutely ridden with contradiction, and that pendulum swing is very exciting for an actor,” she continues.

“They gave me this concept of Norma being this loving, nurturing Madonna who yet has this ostrich-like, stick-your-head-in-the-sand way of dealing with things. Audiences have perceived and judged her through the Anthony Perkins Norman and his damaged psyche. The challenge to make her sympathetic was going to be a roll-up-your-sleeves job — and I was eager for that.”

But she was working in somewhat of a vacuum. Ever since Robert Bloch created Norma in his 1959 suspense novel, Psycho, she has been considered one of the worst mothers in literary history.

“Norma comes with this stigma of villainy,” Farmiga says. “And there was nothing concrete for me to go on, character-wise, because she’s a corpse in the film — she’s the most famous female corpse in cinema history!”

So the first thing the actress did was Google “mothers of psychopaths.” She also researched the parents of serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Kenneth Bianchi.

“It’s just anguish to read the testimonies of these parents confronting the evil in their children,” she says.

But the research gave her immediate sympathy for her character. “I believe that Norma is predominantly good, but she’s at her wits’ end raising a neurologically dysfunctional child. When you come to that scary realization that your child may have some gross disturbance, one of the 1st coping mechanisms is denial.

 “She thinks if she acts normal, she’ll be treated normally by the world. So, in turn, she doesn’t get Norman the help he requires. It’s really hard to accept initially that the child you know and you’ve loved, who still looks the same, is irrevocably lost.”

Developing compassion for a character is nothing new for Farmiga. And she comes by it naturally.

The second of 7 siblings (the youngest is actress Taissa Farmiga, 19, of FX’s American Horror Story), she grew up in a traditional Ukranian community in Essex County, New Jersey.  Her grandparents insisted the family speak Ukrainian at home, so English didn’t become her primary language till she was school age. 

“I went to Ukrainian Girl Scouts, which is called Plast, and Ukrainian Catholic school. I did Ukrainian folk dancing. My piano teacher was Ukrainian,” she says. “I used to think and dream in Ukrainian. My exposure to the English language mostly came from preschool, Saturday-morning cartoons and television — Little Rascals, Little House on the Prairie, Gilligan’s Island.”

Her cloistered childhood “instilled in me a pride in heritage,” Farmiga says. “The stories are quite vivid of what my grandparents had to go through for me to live the kind of life I’m living — the sacrifices, the pandemonium, the bedlam of war, the mayhem of poverty, immigrating, assimilating.”

Farmiga attended Syracuse University and made her Broadway debut in 1996 as an understudy in the play Taking Sides. The next year, she costarred with Heath Ledger in the short-lived Fox series, Roar, which was shot in Australia. Small film roles followed as well as lead roles on 2 short-lived TV crime dramas — UC: Undercover on NBC and Touching Evil on USA.

But with Down to the Bone, a gritty film directed by Debra Granik (who would go on to direct Jennifer Lawrence in her breakthrough movie, Winter’s Bone), Farmiga nabbed what she calls “my first significant role.” For playing Irene, a mother struggling with addiction, she was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

Bates Motel has brought Farmiga into the Emmy competition: last July she was nominated as outstanding lead actress in a drama series. And it’s the 1st series for which she has been number 1 on the call sheet.  She has grown especially close to number 2, Freddie Highmore, who often spends the night at her suburban Vancouver home. 

“I’m lucky to be able to spend time with her and the family — all of them have adopted me into their lives,” says the young Brit, calling from Cambridge, where he is completing his university studies.

“I sleep over if it gets too late to go back downtown, where I stay. What I’m always amazed at is how she manages to be such a full-time mom. And at the same time, she’s always incredibly professional and so well prepared on set.”

Having wrapped season 2 of Bates Motel before Thanksgiving, Highmore returned to England while Farmiga and her family remained in Vancouver. But, he says, they exchange messages daily and Skype at least once a week.

Though he was not aware of his costar before Bates — and only watched Up in the Air on his first flight to Vancouver — working with Farmiga, he says, is inspiring.

“Every take is completely natural. Obviously the preparation is all there, but then she has the confidence to disregard it and let whatever happens happen. And that seeming effortlessness comes across on screen.

"When she switches from one emotion to the opposite, it never seems unnatural or forced. So being in a scene with her, you’re always kept on your toes and alive to the fact that new things can come at any moment.”

Nestor Carbonell, the Lost veteran who plays enigmatic Sheriff Alex Romero on Bates, agrees.

“I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of amazing talent,” he says, “and she’s as good as it gets. There’s something different and nuanced in every take.

"She’ll bring an angle to a scene you may not have anticipated. She’ll incorporate some object into the moment. Or I’ll see her knees buckle and all of a sudden — whoa! — I’ll have to catch her. And I’m like, I didn’t see that coming. It’s those gems that you just have to be alive for. Because you don’t know what’s coming and when. And I don’t think she necessarily does, either.”

For her part, Farmiga says she’s never before explored a TV role that’s lasted beyond 13 episodes. “This going from season to season is really new for me. I’m not entirely comfortable with the process — I sometimes feel ill-equipped. Because there’s information you just don’t have. So it’s impossible to dig deep initially. There are so many unknowns.”

That said, she loves having the luxury to develop her character over time. Yet the role is so intense that she’s grateful a season doesn’t last beyond a 10-episode arc.

“Creating all these emotionally difficult moments is exhausting,” she says. “This is the most anxiety-ridden role that I’ve ever taken on.”

Curiously, the actress also scored last year in the horror genre with The Conjuring, starring alongside Patrick Wilson in one of 2013’s biggest feature hits.

The ghost tale is based on the case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life paranormal investigators who faced the demonic presence in The Amityville Horror. “I have never been so scared in my life as when I was researching Lorraine Warren,” she says.

So, with that and Bates Motel, is she Hollywood’s newest scream queen? Farmiga laughs at the notion.

“I see them as spiritual thrillers,” she says. “One is dealing with the human heart and one is dealing with the soul. And both of my characters are mother warriors.”

While the new season of Bates Motel offers some light amid the dark — the motel is running smoothly now, and Norma feels more accepted by the locals — Farmiga has found the perfect outlet for her anxiety: boxing.

“What was imperative this season was physically shaking off that residue of work,” she says. “So I’m studying Muay Thai boxing, which I studied as a 20-year-old. That’s a good therapeutic outlet for me.” 

For, as anyone who works with her knows, Farmiga prefers to create drama on camera, not off. “Vera has her priorities straight,” Cuse says. “She’s a role model, not just as an actor but as a person.”

But about that acting…. “The hallmark of any great show,” he muses, “is, Can you imagine anyone else in the role? I could never imagine anybody but James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. I could never imagine anybody but Dennis Franz as Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue.

"And I could never imagine anybody but Vera as Norma Bates. I don’t think there’s a soul on this earth who could do the part better than she does.”

Story originally published in Emmy magazine issue no. 1-2014, available for purchase here in print and digital.

 

 

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