They're ba-a-ack. Though, thanks to "Psycho," we know how it eventually ends for Norman and Norma Bates, getting there certainly proved to be fun with the first season of A&E's Bates family backstory drama, "Bates Motel," which just premiered its second season on March 3.
Star Vera Farmiga, who earned a lead-actress Emmy nomination for Season 1, says trying to make viewers forget about the movie, and to see Norma as a more fully realized character than she was in the film, continues to be a challenge for the new season.
"For me to get sympathy for Norma is, sometimes with some viewers, a task of herculean proportions," she says. "They come with such reticence and such presuppositions stemming from the original 'Psycho.' That visual of her, just a bag of bones in the basement, just automatically engenders this feeling that she was a bad mother. That she was a wicked, wicked mother of supervillain proportions."
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TV Norma certainly had her wicked moments in Season 1, but we also learned she's a single mom dealing with a son who, she's being forced to recognize, has some serious issues, and who has already committed at least one serious crime. She also has an incredibly traumatic childhood of her own to deal with, and in Season 2, Farmiga tells Yahoo TV, the Bates family will continue to deal with their traumas, while also trying to reach out and embed themselves more into their new hometown.
Farmiga also talked to Yahoo TV about the research she's done regarding real-life serial killers and their parents (and how it's shaped her portrayal of Norma).
By the end of the first season, we definitely have a clear idea of how the grown up version of Norman came to be, what shaped him. Where do we go from here? In Season 2, is it more about exploring the characters further or do we focus more on the town, finding out more about the town?
It's super character driven. What you can expect is just, whereas everything was so secretive in Season 1, there is going to be this dam burst of truth in Season 2. Yet, Norma is always trying to control the flow of truth and to divert the majority of it. [Laughing.] Every character will go outside the family, and there will be more exploration within the community and befriending people in the community. It's equal measures plot and huge character exploration, but outside the nucleus as you know it to be, with Norman, Dylan, and Norma. They're all going to meet people that influence and teach them about themselves. You're going to see all of them broaden their repertoire of friends and potentially lovers.
As you said, people have this image of Norma Bates from the "Psycho" movie. But it isn't based on a lot of material actually about her, but rather assumptions about her because of the person Norman is. Now we're finally getting a full picture of who she is, and how that led Norman to become who he is and eventually becomes.
This is the challenging thing about taking something that's übersuccessful like "Psycho" and tethering ourselves to it. Borrowing these characterizations, borrowing the ultimate tragic plot point and saying, "OK, now our task is to engender sympathy for both characters and wooing you along the way to fall in love with this mother/son, this duo, and root for them and hope that they don't get to this macabre place."
I don't want to present a story that is just a dark dead end. What drew me to the series was something that is so relatable, that every parent, child, mother, father, sister, brother can relate to. It's a story about dysfunction and what it means to be family and to have family commitment and love and certainty and the beauty that is family. This is that brilliant examination of resilience and the confusion and loyalty and the differences we have trying to grow up. This concept of the thickness of blood and how familial love is. I'm constantly trying to see her in light of how she's being a hero, which is interesting to do with a role like this.
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You've done a lot of your own research about children with problems like Norman's, and the parents of these kids. How has that worked into how you approach playing Norma?
From what I've read, there's always, and it can be a second, it can take years, but there's always a time when parents are forced to acknowledge the darkest truth, that their child may be "off," or a monster of some sort. When these symptoms of illness begin to appear, the first thing parents do, there is always a denial. And you can't help. The first thing that happens is the parents get paralyzed by feelings of fear. It's not a petty fear. It's a heavy duty fear and dismay and terror to contemplate that your child may be off. Initially, most parents, like I said, it could be a period of, not denial, but wishing that it's not true.
The way Norma copes initially is by believing that, OK, Norman imagines this stuff, and the membrane between his imagination and reality is porous. She has this way of thinking, this ostrich head-in-the-sand way of thinking, where, if she just acts normal, things will be normal. She just squashes everything down in this vault, where she keeps all the stresses, the anxiety, the guilt, the great terror, the great torment of her life. She squashes this down, and she doesn't address it, pretends it never happened. It's the way she copes. It's the way she perseveres.
I keep saying one of the most amazing aspects of this character is the way she dresses, because it's so achingly chic, and I get to wear these amazing clothes. On the outside, she's got this amazing charm and this charming way of dressing and presenting herself, meticulously chic, like a '50s housewife almost. This crafted outward perfection belies this complex traumatic life underneath. It's the same way she initially deals with Norman. "If I just act normal, then he will be normal." This tight hold she has on him is her form of holding therapy, like hug therapy. She can love him out of this condition.
Craig Ferguson (jokingly) asks if Farmiga is an unhinged woman:
As an actress, do you need to like, or sympathize with, the character you're playing?
It's interesting, because I have to view Norma as a protagonist, as a heroine. It's really challenging because she's a pretty passive character. It's just like the antithesis of the word "protagonist." She's pretty passive in the very aspect of her own emotional well being and spiritual health. She's a fibber. She's in major denial. She's a downright liar. It's a coping mechanism. This is someone who runs away from problems. She puts on blinders. She ignores problems. She hopes they'll just go away.
She ignores her intuition ... I've read a lot about parents struggling with these horizontal and vertical challenges of their kids. Parents frequently ignore their intuition, because you don't want to believe that your child is different. You don't want to believe that your child is struggling with some sort of neurodysfunction. There's always that initial period of denial. And then there comes the grieving period and then comes the choice to roll up your sleeves and work with it. It's not easy, and what to me does qualify [Norma] as a hero is that whatever twisted or warped solutions she comes up with, I personally really believe that all these tactics stem from a really holy place, a really holy maternal heart. She doesn't always deal correctly. All of us mothers, our love for our children rules us in good ways and in bad ways. We don't always do the right thing, but it's always with their best interest in mind. And with Norma, I think what really comes into play with her is her own traumatic childhood.
You mentioned not wanting the story to be a dark dead end. There is something, despite the situations the Bateses keep finding themselves in, persistently hopeful about the family. Even Norma's initial idea of "I'm just going to buy this old hotel and run it, even though I know nothing about it."
She just wants to assimilate, and she wants to fit in. She wants to be happy, and she wants her child to have a successful life and have a life that's enhancing to him. Her extremely painful past has tweaked her to be incredibly emotionally needy ... but there's that resilience, that hardiness, that buoyancy [in her]. I love her passion and her positivity. I think there's not going to be a story without it. I think her natural character, despite all of the abuse, besides whatever is festering inside her, this is a woman who possesses a natural [resiliency], or maybe it's something that she's honed, in order to cope. She has this very ready wit and lively charm. Those moments of disarming honesty. Yeah, she lies a lot, but then she's a woman who has these bouts of extreme truth telling when it all of a sudden bubbles up.
And there's actually a lot of humor in the show, too.
It's important to find the balance and that reprieve that a giggle ... it's a release of tension. Also, dysfunction is funny. Emotionally unbalanced people are funny. They're pretty extreme in reactions. The show does balance multiple tones, where you have this dark psychological thriller, horror, even melodrama, but it's balanced with oddball, screwball, sometimes dark comedy. Dysfunctional people are funny.
Plus, Norma has some great one liners. "Chill your own a--" from Season 1. Was that the most fun thing you said as Norma that season?
[Laughing.] I can't take credit for that. To me, and my suspicion, it's quintessential [executive producer and writer] Kerry Ehrin, but I don't know. [Executive producer] Carlton Cuse also talks like this. Carlton busts out these funny ... the two of them together have all these great quips. They're incredible writers. It's such a gift that they give to us on a daily basis. Especially these monologues that they tend to give Norma, where it just feels like arpeggios. They go on and on and on.
For me, it's kind of stressful, because I think they recognize their own great writing, and they somehow tend to show up to set when they've written these amazing monologues, and they want to see them executed. And they have every right to, but for me it's like Mom and Dad show up on set. I get incredibly nervous for the delivery of it. I know Carlton and Kerry are sitting there chomping at the bit, so eager to see their writing executed, but it's a nightmare for me. I let them know. I told them "I hate when you show up to set." I love it and I hate it.
"Bates Motel" airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on A&E.