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Vera Farmiga talks family dysfunction and twisted motherly love in 'Bates Motel'

Vera Farmiga
Vera Farmiga
A&E

The A&E TV series “Bates Motel,” inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s genre-defining 1960 film, “Psycho,” is a contemporary exploration of the formative years of “Psycho” killer Norman Bates (played by Freddie Highmore); the relationship with his mother, Norma (played by Vera Farmiga); and the world they inhabit. Viewers will have access to the dark, twisted back story and learn first-hand how Norma helped forge the most famous serial killer of them all. Season 2 of “Bates Motel” premiered on A&E on March 3, 2014. Here is what Farmiga said when she sat down with me and other journalists for a roundtable interview at Comic-Con International 2013 in San Diego.

Vera Farmiga at Comic-Con International 2013 in San Diego
Carla Hay

What can you say about Season 2 of ‘Bates Motel”?

I’m sweating Season 2 for myself. I never imagined my character going into these places. And so I’m really challenged as an actress. What I can tell you is that we know Norma has accepted the fact that there’s a lot of dysfunction with Norman. And I think there comes with Season 2 a real pro-activity of “I’m going to fix him,” in the kind of Norma “roll up your sleeves” way. She’s going to find those therapy venues.

At the end of the first season of “Bates Motel,” we see Norman kill someone. Can you talk about the how it’s a scene that brings out mixed reactions in viewers?

It is, because I think we project what the Anthony Perkins’ [Norman Bates] character in “Psycho.” There are no clues other than what we hear from a psychotic adult Norman Bates. He’s not entirely trustworthy. Would you trust someone in the throes of psychosis? When he mimics Norma’s voice in the “Psycho” movie, he’s projecting. I will fight to the death to portray her with the compassion that is required.

I read countless testimonies. Jeffrey Dahmer’s dad wrote a book on the anguish that a parent feels when that parent comes to terms with the evil in a child. I think we all shape our children with our own sensibilities, our coping mechanisms, the way our emotions [are handled].

We influence the sons and daughters who will become [adults], so there’s a level of, “How did I contribute to this?” The mothers are always blamed. Always. But this was an interesting, relevant social exploration of “How do we raise morally sound children?”

Norma Bates isn’t exactly innocent though …

I think she comes from a very painful history, a very dark back story, which is a lifetime of pain and guilt and just anxiety over her own childhood. And she’s never had anybody take care of her in a way that she is trying to take care of Norman. This is a child with a neurological dysfunction. She can’t allow him, from my character’s perspective, to grow and be independent and have autonomy. She has anxiety-induced neuroses and dysfunction.

What is your approach to playing a character like Norma Bates?

My approach — Freddie [Highmore] disagrees — and I can honestly tell you, I believe the audience projects on to [the Norma Bates character]. I think she’s got a clutch on the umbilical cord, and she’s got him wrapped around it. She doesn’t want to let him go. But I think [Norman] is the only family that she’s got.

Dylan and her are coming to terms with each other, but he’s an example of how her first attempt at maternity is failure. And she has no friends. She has no husband or partner. Her family is, obviously, out of the picture. So she relies on [Norman] heavily. So that neediness absolutely bleeds into the relationship.

I think if you presented it to Norma, she would think it’s the most preposterous idea in the world, that there’s any sensuality. When she touches Norman, it really is as a loving mother, but she’s dealing with him as if he’s 4-and-a-half years old. And he’s not. He’s a teen.

Did you have any time to prepare for your role in “Bates Motel”?

We had no time to prepare. You become close fast. When you’re on set for sometimes 17, 18 hours a day, the nature of what we’re playing is so intimate. Thematically, it’s perverse. I think, as actors, I’m really open to Freddie. He’s so bright.

I rely on his ideas, and I rely on him to maneuver me out of my comfort zones. I love his perception. I really think he’s so bright. I immediately recognized that he’s such a special dude, and so I think it just happened so organically.

It is a chemistry thing. I know the really wacky side of who Freddie Highmore is. And I think sometimes you have an innate chemistry with each other that instigates that. And I think we have that with each other. We giggle through all of this.

Congratulations on the success of your horror movie “The Conjuring.” (Farmiga portrays real-life paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren in the movie.) You said in an Entertainment Weekly interview that you had a really bizarre experience when you were reading “The Conjuring” script on your laptop: A claw mark showed up on your computer and one of your thighs. Can you talk about that and how it affected you?

The thing about “The Conjuring” is, [“The Conjuring” co-star] Patrick Wilson and I had the same approach. There’s some stuff that went down on that set. And at first, we thought, “Oh, we’re going to have some really interesting stories for the press.” After exploring and doing so much research on negative mysticism, I don’t like gloating or conjuring it up, in a way. It just gives it relevance.

There was some weird stuff, yeah. Did I slam my computer screen too hard? Maybe not. After I had my first conversation with [“The Conjuring” director] James Wan, there were three digital hallmarks.

The film ended with a bruise that appeared on my thigh. It’s literally bruise, and it looks like claw marks. The press verified it. How do you explain that? I live in upstate New York. Maybe it was a mosquito bite that I scratched. I don’t know.

So there’s nothing bizarre that’s happened on the set of “Bates Motel”?

No, I can’t think of anything. I can’t think of anything that happened on “Bates Motel.” I suppose you have to be open to it as well. When you’re dealing with that mysticism, you have to be very open to it and willing. I reject it completely. I don’t have to see it in order to be a believer.

[Farmiga then takes out her phone and shows a photo of her thigh with the mysterious claw mark.]

[The real] Lorraine Warren will tell you that it’s a mockery of the Trinity. She kind of comes from a Catholic perspective. She’s a woman who works across states and religions. I should erase that [photo] and not have it in my phone. You know what I mean?

Will Norma and Norman Bates get new love interests in Season 2 of “Bates Motel”?

I think [“Bates Motel” executive producer] Carlton [Cuse] said that for Norma and Norman, there will be new love interests this season. And not with each other!

For more info: "Bates Motel" website