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Vera Farmiga talks season 2 of 'Bates Motel'

Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore return for Season 2 of  "Bates Motel."
Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore return for Season 2 of "Bates Motel."

"Bates Motel," inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's genre-defining film, "Psycho," premieres its second season tonight on A&E. Starring Vera Farmiga and Freddy Highmore, "Bates Motel" is is a modern-day exploration of the formative years of Norman Bates, his relationship with his mother, Norma, and the world they inhabit.

Picking up from last season, Norman is fixating on Miss Watson's death while Norma's mysterious past starts to haunt the family with the introduction of her brother. Meanwhile, Norman’s brother Dylan, (Max Thieriot), gets more entrenched in the familial drug war that fuels White Pine Bay and finds himself right in the middle of the danger as Bradley (Nicola Peltz), who remains on the hunt to uncover her father’s killer, is driven to precarious extremes.

In this interview to promote the season premiere, Vera Farmiga talks about why she keeps signing on for these dark roles, what playing Norma has taught her about being a mother to her own children, how she prepares for the role, and more.

Do you know like a lot of the story line ahead of time? Or do you prefer to be surprised when it comes out?

I'm still figuring what it is that is part of my process. I've never had the luxury of a second season. I've done three series before. And they all never had the opportunity to go beyond 13 episodes in the first season. So I know first season I did feel a little disabled. Not that I couldn't act because I remember [being asked]: Do you want some more clues? And I wanted to take it an episode at a time and not get ahead of myself.

In hindsight, especially having sort of a big bomb land in the last episode, for me it was impossible to dig as deep initially with the root of this new character. I felt like Norman Bates was this huge voluptuous shrub that I just had to trust in this kind of a shallow root system.

It's interesting developing a character over TV time. But that's my own fault because at the same time I wanted to pace myself with the information that was coming at me. But I think second season I did ask for more clues. I wanted to have the trajectory of the second season. I wanted to have more answers at the start, which I was provided. So I think you're in for a better second season.

What kind of mothering tips have you learned from Norma?

I admire her tenacious love for her child. She goes to extreme lengths to give her child the life that she imagines for him, and that is really valiant to me. I admire her generous heart. She's really disarmingly honest. Those are amazing qualities that she possesses. The flip side of Norma Bates is that her software is a bit faulty. She doesn't wrap Norman in bubble wrap, all the time. After all, this is a story about family dysfunction. I have to work so hard to get an audience to identify with her, to defend her, and to admire her. For me, the name of the game is to present a woman who lives every day in the trenches of maternity, and in the trenches of her own stubbornness and denial. Those negative qualities influence me to be a better parent. Norma's two demons are denial and stubbornness, and that keeps me in check.

What is attracting you to these like scarier parts. These roles like Martha in the "Conjuring" or the Bates Motel, and "American Horror Story"?

Oh my God, you know, it's like my own beautiful internal logic about why I choose to participate. Or, I think, actually the projects choose us. But why like there's this magnetism oftentimes with dark subject matters is like, I don't know. It's like quantum physics really. I think like were called upon like some thermal - I'd like to think of this. Like called upon like some simple thermal sources that like.

And actually to be honest with you, I do find dark stories uplifting. I think it's like during the darkest moments of our lives that we see the light, right?

There's a lot of darkness in "Bates Motel," but again, there's a lot of joy. And the thing for me, I choose to look at it through the lens of positivity. I think our story is, yes it's a story about dysfunction. It's dark. But it's a story about commitment and love and family and resilience and loyalty.

Norma seems to be completely wrapped up with Norman, is there any possibility of a love interest for her in the new season?

She's proven, from the first season, that she's totally over anxious. She's too involved. This is a woman who's been abused by her father and abused by her brother, and then discarded and unneeded by her older son. She clings to the one man that has been her protector, her confidant, her consolation and the light in her life, and that is Norman. She's totally too involved, and she's unable to cut the cord. With survivors of childhood sexual abuse, it's really complex. It impedes the ability to trust. These poisonous feelings that she has are embedded so deep in her psyche, and she's never uprooted them. She just has this vault, like a burial chamber, where she squashes all that sadness and stress and torment. She's totally preoccupied with Norman because she has discovered and suspects that there's something not quite right, neurologically, with her child. It's not a job for the faint-hearted. Every ounce of energy is about trying to struggle with raising this atypical child, and doing it as a single parent. She's also got her own painful history to contend with. She's got this rampart that she's built. It's like the walls of Constantinople. It's a lifetime of defensive walls that she has.

Will we learn more about her background this season?

Yes. She's built this brick by brick, and the ramparts are not so fortified anymore. Somebody comes in, and then she has this reason for moving out to White Pine Bay, to put as much real estate as possible between her and her past, and these people that have been a part of this. It's all developed really complicated psychological issues, like depression, that she squashes, along with low self-esteem, fear and guilt. There's all that trauma that she hasn't dealt with. She's got pretty significant stressors that affect her parenting capacities, as well as every other relationship that she can take on. I feel like she's driving the bus from the backseat. It's also a coping mechanism. She has an incredible sense of denial. She looks at it as creative visualization. She shoves everything inside this vault, and she just takes on this fresh and fabulous outlook on life. Achieving success with the hotel, she equates to happiness, which is the one thing she's always struggled with achieving. She just throws herself into the hotel's success, and that involves going out into the community and meeting people. The word is out in the street. There's already a negative association with her and what's happened at that hotel. So, her mission at the start of Season 2 is to change that. That consists of being more involved in the community, and she develops friendships outside of her relationship with Norman.

Is there anything you do to prepare before your emotional scenes? Do you have any specific rituals?

It's such an elusive sport. Some days, things that I think are going to work don't. The bottom line is that I'm so close with Freddie [Highmore], so there's a lot there. There's a lot of instigation. The best thing is just to trust him and react. I simply remind myself to react. It's not about acting. It's reacting. That is always the bottom line. And sometimes you don't quite feel it. I have so much to draw upon within my imagination, just putting myself in the, “What if?,” position with my own children. I don't know. Sometimes music helps. If I feel that it's bogus, I'll literally just call myself out on camera and say that it's dishonest. You do whatever it takes.

Sometimes that process is quite weird and wacky. It depends on what the scene calls for and what the moment calls for. It's tough, too. It's like balancing my own maternity, and the demands of that, with playing this cocktail of madness and maternity that is Norma Bates. I'm so tired that oftentimes it's just submitting to that weariness. That inspires me. Usually, it's just a matter of opening my mouth. We work at such a rapid pace. Sometimes we shoot eight scenes a day, or more. You've got to be prepared. And I'm a full-time mom, too. I've never felt as prepared, as before maternity.

It's challenging, especially with this role. But mostly, I just rely on my scene partners. Be prepared to see some astonishing work from all of the actors this season. I try to do the right research. There's so much online. If you type in parenting a psychopath, there's so much that comes up that will give me so much compassion for the struggle of a mom, loving her child through mental illness, or whatever it is that that child is suffering from. There so many testimonials online that are really inspiring to me.

Vera, a few years ago, you directed the film Higher Ground. Would you like to do some more directing, like maybe an episodes of Bates Motel?

I think I have that option, contractually. Carlton asked me last year. But, I feel like I'm still grasping the tone. I feel like I'm more fortified in the second season then I felt in the first season. Kerry and Carlton so skillfully balance these like multiple tones to create this like strange tonality of drama, melodrama, mystery, horror, psychological thriller, dark comedy, screwball comedy and oddball comedy, all together. This is the tallest order I've had, as far as the demands of the character, emotionally, physically and spiritually. This role is epic. I rely on my directors, a lot. I love being directed for this role. I cherish each director that we have. I want to be maneuvered out of my comfort zones. I don't have the time to prepare. Not yet. I'm not ready yet. Ask me in another season.

When you first took on the role, were you worried before Season 1 how it would work setting it in the modern day? And why is it you think it does work so well?

I'd be lying if I didn't have like some reservation about it when initially I was presented with the offer. I thought there is so many things that can go wrong. And where we are being tethered, you know, we're borrowing these characterizations, or these plots points from like from the most successful horror film ever. And that's why that is a tall order. I think what assured me was I saw Freddie's audition tape. And any skepticism, any trepidation, and any fear I had … I mean the risk really vanished when I saw his audition tape because it wowed me. And then it became to me simply a story, which at the heart of the story was this relationship between mother and son. I just thought with his performance it had a new life.

And, you know, I'm a mom of two toddlers. The story for me resonates. It's unnervingly relatable. It's like my inspiration for the role's development is always point-blank myself. I see the way my strength and my weaknesses shape my babies, and that's what the story is about.

"Bates Motel" premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on A&E.

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