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Vera Farmiga, Carlton Cuse, and Kerry Ehrin Discuss Bates Motel Season 3 [INTERVIEW] 

Photo Credit: James Dittiger/A&E Network
Photo Credit: James Dittiger/A&E Network

[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]

Bates Motel rolls out season three tonight, and we had the chance to chat with series star Vera Farmiga and co-creators Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin on a press call Friday about creating a balance in tone as the material gets increasingly uncomfortable and the challenges of crafting an origin story that’s grounded in a mother’s love for her son.

Farmiga was recovering from the season finale, which took both a physical and emotional toll on her this year. “It’s a mental role that is frankly so not healthy for me, with all due respect to everyone. But it’s formidable. It’s torturous to us all to hit the notes that are required emotionally and to do it earnestly,” she reveals. “And Kerry really keeps us on point like that. But it just requires…the tenacity of ten tornadoes and I only had about 9-1/2 in me. I didn’t get to finish that last day on set.”

“You’re going to see a more unraveled Norma this year. [There’s] mammoth stress in dealing with Norman’s mental state…It has a whopping physical and emotional toll on Norma the way it would on any parent of a ‘special needs’ child. I think following the events of last season, Norma is more aware, she’s more circumspect, she’s more attentive to Norman’s fragility. I think you’re going to see her playing her cards really close to her chest in the beginning of the season. [She’s] at a point where [she’s] protective of him as ever and determined to help him as best as she can. But she doesn’t always know how. And I think she’s going to start reaching out to others. And…that relationship evolves as they allow more people in their lives.”

Dylan is the voice of reason in the season premiere, and Farmiga says that will continue this season. “I think [Norma] is relying on Dylan in a way that she’d never expected to. And that relationship really deepens,” she says.” And they both share the same concern. They both want to help Norman. So I think she is relying on him…for a male perspective on how to care for Norman. And that’s going to trigger somebody something in Norman.”

Farmiga says that she and Freddie Highmore are always aware of the foregone conclusion of their characters and that feeds their work together. “It’s a great acting challenge for me and for Freddie…as [Norma and Norman] sort of head towards what seemingly is going to be their inevitable Hades. These emotional scenes also come at such high frequency and duration that sometimes I honestly am just sort of running out of ideas,” she explains. “It’s really interesting the closeness and the best friendship and the respect and the trust between Freddie and myself. It’s really intense work.”

“Freddie has become really particularly adept at sort of instigating me and knowing my soft spots emotionally and treading like a bulldozer over them. It’s hard. And sometimes…it’s just nutty. I literally get angry at [Kerry] for writing this bat sh-t craziness… Sometimes I just don’t know where [the performance is] going to come from. And you find a way to transfer it into the scene. Sometimes it’s just the panic of not knowing where to drill that wellspring of emotion, to quench the scene. Sometimes that’s enough to set me off. But it comes down to what Freddie and I have together as colleagues and as team players.”

“[There’s] so much trust that we can get pretty wily with each other,” she admits. “And certainly that goes for the entire cast and with every year. We just draw nearer and dearer to each other and can push each other’s limits. And we push each other’s for better, for more, for deeper.”

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

Ehrin says the writing is equally complex. “Carlton and I like to change up the storytelling a lot…You are telling a very intimate story of two people over a very specific and somewhat small period of time. So it does require a lot of thought about how is this going to be different,” she points out. “And I think what personally is so fascinating is that it is a psychological thriller. [If] you’re in a bad marriage let’s say for like two years, every single day is going to be specific and different and fascinating. And it’s going to feed into what happens the next day. So I think the joy of it is getting under that and playing with it and exploring it so that it’s constantly growing and moving forward…in ways that surprise us because Carlton and I like to be surprised.”

They all agree that there is light amid the darkness. “[There is] so much joy and burlesque and absurdity and dark forest and buffoonery and above all love. There’s so much love there. And that’s what makes this show so special that there’s so much darkness and yet so much humor watching these characters navigate in some ludicrously improbable situations. But that’s what makes it for me so exhilarating,” says Farmiga. “It’s acute, it’s intense, it’s agonizing most of the time but it’s balanced so beautifully. There’s a lot of joy and beauty and friendship and love.”

“Ostensibly the label of the show would be that it’s about a guy who’s growing up to become a serial killer, but we strive really, really hard to…make it feel human and real and part of that is humor,” explains Cruse. “I think that…the humor and heart of our show is what distinguishes it from other shows in the genre. It’s the story about a mother and who desperately loves her son and is trying to prevent him from becoming this guy that’s he inevitably going to become.”

“In the writing, we always have approached it that it is a mother-son relationship and that on the deepest level, it’s a loving relationship. There are things that are happening inside of Norman that he’s not fully in control of and he doesn’t understand that he never separated from his mother emotionally at the right age,” says Ehrin. “So he’s way too invested in her …while he’s going through sexual maturing. But Norma is a mom. She’s always innocent. She sees him as her son, as you do. [My] sons are turning into teenagers and I still look at them [and] see them as 7-year-olds. [It’s] really hard to ever see your kids any other way. And I think that the heart of that innocence is at the base of it.”

“What makes it so delicious for an audience to construe or misconstrue as the case may be, is that [the basic story] is so hopeless and so grim. It’s so dark to witness your child succumbing to darkness,” says Farmiga. “And I think the only way that Norma knows how to keep her child from teetering over this miserable dark edge is to love him…physically, emotionally. [The] bottom line purpose and aim is to keep her Norman safe and sound and to help him navigate the world and to protect him…promote normal psychological growth. She is trying to do that in the best way she knows how. And I always come from that–through that earnestness…always through that lens. It’s really unsettling bonding but it is so heartfelt.”

All three said the collaboration between script and cast drive the continued quality of the show. “[I] think the pianist is only as good as the composition [and] they just keep writing these pages that roll off the fricking Richter scale,” says Farmiga. “It’s just incredibly surprising to me and amazing where they can take [my] character. We haven’t even talked about Kenny Johnson as Caleb or Nestor Carbonell as Romero. When I tell you all these…actors just kill it, kill it this year and they…play such dissonant, discordant roles but they find the harmony in it. I can’t tell you. [They’re] just incredibly nuanced actors.”

“It’s incredible…to do a show with these two amazing actors. And so to me the key is pretty simple. Kerry and I work…closely on the stories and then [Kerry] does magical things as a writer really bringing these characters to life,” explains Cruse. “And then those words pass into the hands of Freddie and Vera and the rest of our cast. And they…infuse the show with a whole other level of energy [that is] really remarkable.”

“As a showrunner, sometimes you imagine something in your head when you conceive a story. And in a way, it’s kind of the idealized version and Bates Motel is one of those rare and absolutely beautiful experiences when…watching cuts…it feels like what’s coming back is better than what I imagined in my head. I’m blessed to be working with…an incredibly special writer and Vera and some other incredible performers. And that’s what makes the show so magical.”

We couldn’t agree more! Bates Motel premieres season three tonight at 9/8c on A&E. You can catch our preview here.

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