Two iconic cinematic monsters came to television this year, and while NBC's Hannibal made psychoanalysis an overt element of its story, A&E's Bates Motel required the audience to play armchair psychologist and engage in an incredibly timely conversation about what turns kids into killers. That question proved incredibly attractive to Bates Motel star Vera Farmiga, who was also tasked with altering public opinion of Norma Bates, the woman largely held responsible for Norman's murderous mentality.
The result was, at once, a fascinating depiction of psychological dysfunction and a powerful story about familial dedication. Throughout the tension-filled first season, Farmiga delivered a complex, confounding and colorful performance that is poised to place her in Emmy's very competitive Best Actress in a Drama category.
ETonline talked with the Oscar-nominee about the appeal of building a character on television, get her take on Norma's unique relationship with Norman and find out what she's hoping to explore further in season two!
ETonline: What initially attracted you to Bates Motel?
Vera Farmiga: My role in life is now as a wife and mother to two toddlers, so if there's a job that takes me away from them, I want people to see it [laughs]. I've done a lot of independent films that just don't have the audience viewership. I thought this show has mucho social relevance. I think there's a real currency to the piece. It struck me in a very important way; it's part of the national conversation about teen distress and mental health and illness. How do we raise morally sound children? Does it start with us as parents? Are parents in part responsible if their children become sociopaths? That's the debate. I see how my every move influences who my children become and if you Google "Parents of Sociopaths," the testimonials are abundant. The parental anguish in confronting the evil in one's child is heart-rending. I found that story very important.
ETonline: Obviously there's no correct answer to that question, but as of right now, what's your take on the nature versus nurture debate as it extends to Norman specifically?
Farmiga: I was reading about Columbine the other day because I was watching Tilda Swinton [in We Need To Talk About Kevin], such a harrowing movie. And that research led me to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. I found it so interesting that Eric left a farewell video for his parents, and in it he quoted Hamlet -- "Good wombs have born bad sons." Joyce Dahmer has that infamous quote about still blaming the mothers [because] it's very easy to do. It's been interesting navigating how much she's to blame and how much is physiological. And, in either case, what do you do for your child because there's no clear path a parent can take in order to make a neurologically dysfunctional child healthier. That's where my compassion for her sits.
ETonline: Norma is often victimized by society, but the show and your performance allow Norma consider herself a victim. Was that an important aspect for you?
Farmiga: Yes it was. Her resilience is really important to me, and I saw that from the start. I look at these characterizations I take on as role models. Yes, they can be flawed but I want to learn from them and Norma is very admirable in her tendency to cope with stress and adversity. Some people would be knocked down by all that, but she comes back stronger than ever ... I mean, ultimately we know she doesn't, but I want you to fall in love with this lady along the way and really root for her. I want you to not want her [son to kill her].
ETonline: What was your biggest challenge in bringing Norma to life?
Farmiga: For me, what was so compelling and such a great challenge was being hired to be this attorney for Norma Bates -- she's got the odds stacked against her. She's been stamped as a bad mama for years. Yes, she's very flawed, but I think that's what makes a multi-faceted person and I'm hungry for those fascinating complex portraits of women.
ETonline: Do you enjoy the responsibility that comes from re-shaping the public consciousness about this woman?
Farmiga: I love that responsibility. It's an extraordinary character study of a troubled woman who will do anything for her troubled son. I truly do admire her. She's stubborn, she has a tenacious love for her child and will go to extreme lengths to give him the life she imagines. As much as audiences may be creeped out by these characterizations given the tragic ending we know is their ultimate fate, I sincerely choose to look at the piece in a very wholesome light. It's about how strong the bond of family is, and how you can be so close to your child that you don't often see clearly.
ETonline: The sexual relationship between Norma and Norman is something that's talked about a lot. What's your take?
Farmiga: Freddie [Highmore, who plays Norman] and I always go head-to-head on this because he thinks Norman's desires for Norma to hold him, to kiss him, to stroke him are just wrong. But for me, as an actress, I think those come from such a pure place. It's quite deliberate too. I treat those scenes as a form of holding therapy. It's part of Norma's very purposeful cure. This is a kid who needs physical touch and as much affection as she can give. And I love how it's interpreted by the audience who projects their own weirdness onto the relationship. It really perturbs people.
ETonline: I also found Norma's relationship with Dylan, her step-son, to be equally fascinating given how she often uses him against Norman. How much of her manipulation do you see as intentional and how much of it is just inherent in who this woman is?
Farmiga: I don't know how much self-awareness there is with Norma, but I think it's a bit of both. I think she's pathologically overprotective and it stems from her neediness and the fact she didn't feel protected as a child. So, subconsciously, that tyranny is part of her method. As for [the manipulation of Deputy Shelby or Sheriff Romero, I think she's quite wily and will go to any end to protect her family ... and herself.
ETonline: There was a rare moment of honesty about midway through the season where, in the midst of a breakdown, Norma shouted, "Everybody always gets away with everything." How important was that admission to your take on her?
Farmiga: That was a really weak moment for Norma. There's a real charm to her, or at least I find her charming. Who she is for me is someone that, as we started to discover in the last episode, has a huge floodgate holding back a whole lifetime of pain and regret and guilt. There's a lot of darkness and scandal and if Norma allows her facade to fall, there will be a huge tidal wave of grief and hopelessness will ensue. So she's kind of sand-packing the dam.
ETonline: So we shouldn't expect more scenes with the therapist next year?
Farmiga: [laughs] I don't know, but I personally love that relationship and am begging for more!
ETonline: What I loved about those scenes is that she almost seems drawn to him in spite of herself.
Farmiga: Yeah. She's stuck in the conflict of, as a mother, wanting to understand what happened to Norman, why he killed his father and realizing that there's some anxiety dominated emotional conflict inside him that makes him react so strongly. But she's also caught between wanting to know and ignoring it in hopes that's all a momentary glitch and will go away. Norma has had these insurmountable barriers towards receiving love since she was a child, so I think that past has shaped her to be emotionally needy and crafty and wily and cunning and calculating and devious at times. She's had to persevere through a lot. Happiness and contentment are two words she's only found in the dictionary. And that's what she wants: just to be happy. Although that's not going to happen without any therapy [laughs].
ETonline: What are your hopes for Norma and Bates Motel in season two?
Farmiga: If I were coming to White Pine, I would not seek out the Bates Motel unless it was renovated because you know the clientele is going to be really seedy [laughs]. So she's gotta figure out a way to make money, right? Personally, I'd love to see her encounter an authentic and pure love. I'd like to have her treated well for once. I'd also like her to seek out some sort of therapy -- whether it's dance therapy or something else inventive [laughs]. What's really delicious to me, and something that I think became more apparent in the latter episodes as her neuroses increased, is that Norma's desperation became funnier. There was a tonal shift that made her exasperation more charming and endearing, so I'd like to continue striking those lighthearted and quirkier tones. I know there' dark and scandalous aspects to the show, but I love that balance of loony and lighthearted and quirk. I'd like to see more of that. It's interesting because we do have to move Norman towards a darker direction more and more as the series goes on, but I love striking those tender maternal moments in there. I'd also like to learn more about Norma. I'd like to see more family members, so hopefully next season we'll be able to explore more of Norma's dark secrets through that. This family tree has a lot of sticky sap [laughs]