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TV Goodness Q&A: Bates Motel’s Vera Farmiga and EP Kerry Ehrin Discuss Season Two [INTERVIEW] 

Photo Credit: A&E
Photo Credit: A&E

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

We enjoy every moment of this dark and twisty show. While we’re constantly wondering when Norman will go “Psycho,” we’re also enjoying the exploration of his relationship with his mother.  TV Goodness participated in a press call with series star Vera Farmiga and co-EP Kerry Ehrin. They discussed whether or not Norma’s fate in the movie influences the show, learning more about Norma’s background, and where the story is going in season two and beyond.

On whether or not Psycho influences the show.

Kerry Ehrin: “I think that from the very beginning Carlton [Cuse] and I wanted to honor the movie, but not be beholden to it. So I think at this point the world of Bates Motel has definitely become its own organic world. So while we’re still conscious of the film, and obviously there’s certain tent poles let’s say that the film suggests, it kind of has become its own beast at this point.”

On whether Norma’s fate in the movie influences the show.

Kerry: “Well Carlton Cuse and I have always seen this as a strange love story between this mother and a son. And I don’t mean incest love. But it’s intense and it has to go in a certain direction. The relationship you see in the film, she’s very much portrayed as one type of person. You don’t ever get to know her workings, of how it got there. It’s a big surprise when you find out in the film. But when you get the luxury of taking that mess and putting it under a microscope and examining it and wondering how it got there, what the permutations were…. She’s portrayed as a very abusive, harsh kind of ugly parent. Everyone gets mad at their parents sometimes. I mean everyone – every teenager in the world said I hate you and they don’t hate them. The parent is such a complex thing to a kid. It’s the love story of those two people and how they get to that place and what it means and what that looks like. It’s going to be amazing.”

On setting this series in the modern day. 

Vera Farmiga: “I’d be lying if I didn’t have some reservation when initially presented with the offer. I thought there [are] so many things that can go wrong. We’re borrowing these characterizations or these plots points from like from the most successful horror film ever. That’s why that is a tall order. I think what assured me was Freddie’s audition tape. Any skepticism, any trepidation, [any] fear I had – the risk really vanished when I saw his audition tape because it wowed me. I saw it. At the heart of the story is this relationship between mother and son. I think for me it’s not like I was playing some iconic role. But I didn’t feel any sort of pressure. Everything that we knew about Norma Bates was through the fractured psyche of Anthony Perkins Norman. So for me there was just the idea of that exploration between that very intimate uniqueness of that. I think it’s so original. To me it’s one of the most original characters I have ever encountered. A lot of that has to do with Kerry and Carlton’s writing of contradiction. That was so vital. When you encounter such [a] deeper level of virtuosity in the creation of a female character, you just don’t question it. You thank the writers for thinking of you and you claim it. And actually the purest in me was a little skeptical. But that cynicism just had to do with, ‘What is everybody else going to think’ Once I could just stop caring about what everybody else was going to think and find my own passion for the story. I’m a mom. I’m a mom of two toddlers. The story for me resonates. It’s unnervingly relatable. 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.”

On knowing the storyline beforehand. S1 vs. S2.

Vera: “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. I couldn’t act because I remember Carlton asking me,  ‘Do you want some more clues?’ and I wanted to take it an episode at a time and not get ahead of myself. But in hindsight… for me it was impossible to dig as deep initially with the root of this 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. I just reveled in the opportunity of a second season. Television is a much slower process to discovering that background history, the personality, the psychology, the characters goals and there was so many unknowns. The cast is so much closer. There’s an intimacy. There’s a level of sportsmanship now that we can throw harder jabs at each other. It’s the deeper level of trust. It’s been established between us and Kerry and Carlton and between the actors. 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 more answers at the start, which I was provided. So I think you’re in for a better second season.”

On Norma’s mothering tips.

Vera: “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, [her] disarming honesty. These are amazing qualities that she possesses. The flip side of Norma Bates is that her hardware is working, her software is a bit faulty. She doesn’t wrap Norman in bubble wrap all the time. This is a story, after all, about family dysfunction. I have to work so hard to get an audience to identify with her – and to defend her and to admire her. For me the name of the game is to present to you a woman who lives every day in the trenches of maternity and also in the trenches of her own stubbornness and denial. So maybe those negative qualities influence me to be a better parent I guess. The two demons, which is denial and stubbornness for Norma I suppose sort of keep me in check.”

On Kerry’s compassion for Norma.

Kerry: “I think Norma is the mother of all mothers. I mean to me it’s like she’s in an extreme situation. But every mother I’ve ever known, they just have this passion for making everything okay for their kid. For stuffing the sh*t [that] doesn’t work out under the rug and stomping on it. And just constantly moving forward and making life as pretty and beautiful and fun for their kids as they can. It’s like we can’t help it. It’s like what mothers do. And it’s something so beautiful. That’s what Norma means to me. I mean that’s why I think she’s beautiful. It’s like she’s screwed up and dysfunctional. Her own limitations that have been sort of later on her by her life, her early life that was none of her own doing. Within that she’s absolutely just valiantly doing the best that she f*cking can. And you have to love that. That’s to me as being a mother.”

On Norma’s candor. 

Vera: “Frankness, forthrightness, yes. With Norma there’s this wonderful pendulum swing of dishonesty and then disarming honesty with her.”

Kerry: “I think there’s times when it’s useful, when candor is useful. I mean obviously we can’t all go around being totally honest with everybody because there would be plenty of fistfights a day. [There are] times when you just have to cut through the bullsh*t. I think that’s what Norma has this great instinct for doing, which is really funny considering how much of her own internal psyche is so discarded. That she can’t just lash out sometimes with the truth in the middle of that world of chaos inside of her is kind of poetic. I mean it’s kind of beautiful.”

On being attracted to darker roles.

Vera: “Oh my God. It’s like my own beautiful internal logic about why I choose to participate. Or I think actually the projects choose us. But why there’s this magnetism oftentimes with dark subject matters, I don’t know. It’s like quantum physics really. To be honest with you, I find it dark stories uplifting. I think it’s during the darkest moments of our lives that we see the light. There’s a lot of darkness in Bates Motel. But again, there’s a lot of joy. I choose to look at it through the lens of positivity. I think our story is a story about dysfunction. It’s dark. But it’s a story about commitment and love and family and resilience and loyalty. I think maybe the most successful projects in my career have been psychological thrillers and horrors and sort of twisted, dark and offbeat. But I love infusing it with lightness.”

On a love interest for Norma this season despite her being so wrapped up in Norman.

Vera: “Yes, I mean obviously she’s proved from first season that she’s totally over-anxious. She’s too involved. I mean this is a woman who’s been abused by her father, abused by her brother, discarded by demanding, unneeded by her older son. She clings to the one man that has been her protector, her confidant, her consolation, the light in her life. It is Norman and she’s totally too involved. She’s unable to cut the cord. The issues of women survivors of childhood sexual abuse, it’s really complex. It impedes ability to trust especially if, like Norma, these demons are with them. These poisonous feelings that she has are embedded so deep in her psyche. She’s never uprooted them. She has this vault, this sort of burial chamber where she squashes all that sadness and stress and torment. She’s totally preoccupied with Norman. Imagine it for yourself. The faintheartedness, the doom, when you discover or when you suspect that there’s something not quite right neurologically with your child. It’s not a job for the fainthearted. So every ounce of energy is her struggle with raising Norman, this atypical child and doing it as a single parent. She’s got her own painful history also to contend with.”

On learning more of Norma’s background.

Vera: “She’s got pretty significant stressors that A, affect her parenting capacities and also affect every other relationship that she can take on. I feel like she’s kind of driving the bus from the backseat. I don’t know how to explain it. She has an incredible sense of denial. I mean she shoves everything inside this vault. And she just takes on this fresh and fabulous outlook on life. For her, I think the hotel success, like achieving success – which she equates to happiness, which is the one thing she’s always struggled with achieving. That involves going out into the community and meeting people. And the word is out in the street. I mean 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 involves being more involved in the community and she develops friendships outside of her relationship with Norman.”

Kerry: “Norma has a longing for normalcy, [for] a mate. Whether or not she actually knows how to relate to that person or connect with them, what to do with them, she has a deep longing for it. Even though she doesn’t exactly know what it is. She believes she has room for love in her life. I guess she’s not acknowledging her tie to Norman. She has hopes that she will meet someone and she will fall in love, that she will have a wonderful life. There is a very interesting person that shows up this season.”

On preparing for emotional scenes.

Vera: “It’s such an elusive sport. Some days things that I think are going to work don’t. 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. Simply remind myself to react. It’s not about acting. It’s reacting and being. Sometimes you don’t quite feel it. I mean I have so much to draw upon within my imagination, just putting myself in the ‘what if’ position of with my own children. It’s like you do whatever it takes and sometimes that process is quite weird and wacky. I’m so tired that often times it’s just submitting to that weariness. That’s sort of just inspires me. Usually it’s just a matter of opening my mouth. Mostly I just rely on my scene partners. I mean Max Thieriot this season, Freddie too. This second season just be prepared to see some astonishing work from all of them. There are times where I just forget to say my lines because I’m so enthralled with [Max’s] performance. I’m watching him, I’m just in awe. So it’s just trying to be present with them and finding the right research. There’s so much online. You just type in ‘parenting a psychopath’ and there’s so much that comes up. So much inspiration that will give me so much compassion for the struggle of a mom trying to find [love] her child through mental illness or whatever that child is suffering from. There so many testimonials online that are really inspiring to me.”

On rehearsing for extreme scenes.

Vera: “There’s two kinds. Any extreme emotion I don’t like rehearsing. Like laughter is even harder to do than a scream for me. I’m a screamer by nature. I probably did a lot of screaming therapy as a child. I don’t practice it. But I never quite know how it’s going to come out. It never quite comes out the same way twice. It’s like taking a jump off the high dive in the pool. [You’ve] just got to go for it, drop your lower mandible and let it rip. Somebody put together some of my freak out moments, this collage of Norma freak outs. I didn’t even realize that I scream as much as is evident in this tribute.”

Kerry: “Well the freak outs are so deep too. It’s like there’s so much under them and in them. They’re so amazing.”

Vera: “Yes it is. It’s beautiful. It’s what’s unspoken. Sometimes you just don’t have the words and I’ve learned to love these moments. Sometimes we cannot verbalize the pain, the anxiety, the fear, the guilt that is within us. I actually love those moments. What I cherish with this kind of writing is those [moments] when we don’t have the words.”

Kerry: “Watching Vera on the set is one of the most entertaining things I’ve ever done in my life because you really have no idea where it’s coming from. I like go up to her all the time afterwards. I’m like, ‘What were you thinking about during that?’ because it is fascinating to watch. It’s like she’s channeling. It’s like she’s inside herself and outside herself at the same time. She has such a radar about when it’s real. So I just wanted to add to that. It was very interesting for me to hear about what her process was because I’m always fascinated by it.”

On new characters this season.

Kerry: “This season is a lot of fun. Last season was about all of these things that got in the way of Norma and Norman and achieving what they came to White Pine Bay for, achieving this dream. The season is very much about putting them in a position where they might actually get it, they might actually get what they want. The things that start to screw it up are more inside them. I don’t want to tell you too much, but it very much is a journey of following them deconstruct things that are good in a really entertaining way.”

Vera: “There’s a couple of new characters that ignite and awaken new personality traits and new responses and different ways of reacting.”

On how the arrival of Norma’s brother will change the family dynamics this season. 

Kerry: “He’s a very volatile, emotional memory for Norma. She really has no idea what to do with all of that. It’s been basically just shoved into the vault. Then this guy shows up and he’s outside of the vault. How do you handle that? Obviously it’s super complicated because of Norman’s great protectiveness of his mother and his tendencies that even he doesn’t know. So it’s like it’s complicated and intense and interesting.”

On Norma and Dylan’s relationship. 

Vera: “Oh God. I have such a hard time talking hot points because I always spill the beans because I get too excited. I’m biting my tongue right now. I love that relationship. I’m glad we really get to explore it even more intimately. It’s evolving.”

Kerry: “It is the story of a lost son, just like Norma has her longing for normalcy and everything. He has longing for a family that he’s never had and he never has been inside of. He and Norma have a fascinating relationship this year. So many different orientations to it. It’s really amazing.”

On the most difficult part of playing Norma.

Vera: “To me it’s very simple. It’s just being earnest in my emotion. The writing is so demanding. They really want you to cause shock waves. It’s just keeping yourself honest. Performing the role requires an enormous amount of endurance and perspiration. I think honestly it has nothing to do with like my time on set because it’s all on the written page. All I’d have to do is take it off my scene partners. They’re just, they’re that stellar.”

On the possibility of Vera directing an episode of the show.

Vera: “I think contractually I have that option. Carlton asked me last year. [I] still feel like I’m still grasping the tone. I feel like I’m more fortified second season then I felt the first season. Kerry and Carlton so skillfully balance these multiple tones to create this strange tonality of drama, melodrama, mystery, horror, psychological thriller, dark comedy, screwball comedy, [and] oddball comedy altogether. I just finished watching the 10th episode of a second season. This is the tallest order I had as far as demands of the character emotionally, physically, spiritually. It’s epic, this role. I rely a lot on my directors. I love being directed for this role. I mean I cherish each one we have. What’s wonderful is that we have Tucker Gates who is consistent, but we also have a new director. It’s been such a treat to be directed by John Coles. I cherish direction. I rely on it and I want to be maneuvered out of comfort zones. I’m not ready [to direct] yet. I’m not ready. Ask me in another season.”

On the set design.

Vera: “I think every detail of that architecture is taken from the plans of the original house. Every single mullion on the windows, the trim package on the house, everything. And I mean that’s the authenticity. But it’s also the environment. You know what I mean? The only downside is they built it on an old burial ground in a transfer station. So it adds this kind of ambient strangeness in the air.”

Kerry:Mark Freeborn did an amazing job of designing the interior of the house in a way that it fits with the original, but it is contemporary. It pulls in this whole other aspect of Norma, which was not an easy job when you look at the interior of the house in the movie. That was just genius on his part.”

Vera: “It is. In the Hitchcock film what played an integral part in [this] anxiety induced thriller was that fashion actually. Each costume was so meticulously planned to enhance the plot and make the girl in question, whoever that was, look achingly shaken. [It’s] the same thing with Monique Prudhomme, the costume designer. It makes up for me as an actress for playing a character that goes from like failure to failure. At least she looks good. I don’t know another woman who gets to dress the way that I do on television, in this like incredibly chic, beautiful, feminine and playful way which is such a contradiction to the internal life of the character. It is just the sum of its parts. In addition to Mark, Monique’s costume design is standing out there on the porch wearing one of her fabulous summer dresses, which you get to see this year because – it’s such a treat. It immediately puts you in a time and place.”

On Vera’s Emmy nomination.

Vera: “It was a really wonderful surprise. I don’t know what to say about that. It feels really, really good to have the support of your peers and to have that acknowledgment. The writers have the hardest part. They start off with a blank paper. But for all the blood, sweat and tears that I shed, Kerry is also sitting there by her computer. She’s screaming and crying too when she does this. She’s unloading as well.”

Kerry: “They’re exhausting, these scripts. They are. They’re exhausting to write. They’re exhausting to perform.”

Vera: “Without their writing, I’m nothing, so it was a victory for all of us.”

On Vera’s favorite part of season 1.

Vera: “I don’t know. It’s like choosing your babies. It’s like Sophie’s choice. It’s really hard to pick a scene because I really love the aftermath of the rape scene. That was really challenging to play. To find that this mixture of dark comedy and lugging the body down the staircase, that was my least favorite scene because- I photographed these bruises from that scene. It was really the most physically challenging thing I had ever done. It was so hard-core, but I really loved the comedy that ensued, like the dark comedy. To me that was real representative of what the show is. The whole scene when Norma and Norman are struggling with the body and trying to put him in the shower. That energy really encapsulated what it is. All my scenes with Norman, I can’t. I can’t choose a favorite. I look forward to every single scene with him. I also like cherish my scenes with Nestor Carbonell. That’s a really fun relationship that gets explored.”

Kerry: “There was a scene that I just have like a huge fondness for from the first season, which was you and Norman in the car. It was at the top of “The Truth” where you have just found out about Shelby. You’re trying to just get over Shelby’s house and kick his ass and Norman jumps in the car while you’re trying to drive it out.”

Vera: “That was so much fun.”

Kerry: “I love that scene.”

Vera: “That was so much fun. How could I forget that? Totally. They let me do all my stunt driving. And Freddie is such a good sport. We were making donuts around the Bates Motel sign when half his body is hanging out the window. We’re struggling to gain control of the car. It’s pure shenanigans. I can’t believe they allowed us to do the stunt. We had lots of sh*ts and giggles over that one, yes.”

On the purpose of Norma telling Norman about her brother right before the dance. 

Kerry: “We felt like there could be a number of different reasons. I mean the one thing with a character like Norma is you don’t always have to have a logical linear connection to the impulse. So in her mind that wanted to come out of her right then.”

Vera: “Totally, I agree with that. It’s like the impulse is what this lady goes by and that impulse was a dam burst of veracity. It was just a moment. It’s also because there was this impending sense of doom because her life’s been threatened, her children’s lives have been threatened. I love what you said about impulse.”

Kerry: “It’s like you get to look at her and go, well did she do that because she feels like she might die and she doesn’t want to die with a secret from the person she’s closest to in the world? Is it just that he is going to a dance? It’s like who knows with her.”

Vera: “It’s both. Yes.”

Kerry: “It’s kind of coming from all these places. It’s just like blowing up inside of her. It has to come out of her mouth.”

Vera: “Yes. I love that murkiness. I love it. There’s nothing black and white. It’s all this murky gray matter that…”

Kerry: “That’s bubbling.”

On leaving the door open for a third season.

Kerry: “There’s so much great story to go. This is such an exciting show to work on because there’s something about the relationship with Norma and Norman that just keeps on giving. And from a writer’s point of view, it’s just delightful.”

Edited for space and content.

Season two of Bates Motel premieres tonight at 9/8c on A&E.

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