Motel Confidential: Vera Farmiga
Bates Motel star Vera Farmiga revels in the role that, she says, arrived when she appealed to the universe.
“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 two — debuting March 3 — 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 three days later...
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