The first season of BATES MOTEL introduced viewers to the double-layered world of Norman (Freddie Highmore) and Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga). On the surface it looked normal, but just below the surface was a layer of uncertainty and insanity. The mother-son duo, to the casual eye, were all normal and just fine. But as we got to know them better, they were not quite as normal as they appeared. Something was off. Their perspective warped by their life experiences and perhaps a few genetic proclivities as well. Fighting the non-normal impulses, Norma was the more self-aware of the two; but with each episode viewers fell under the self-delusional spell of Normal and Norman. Seeing the world through their eyes heightened the prevailing sense of fear, paranoia and irrational belief of love when perhaps none was truly there.
A spasm of reality crept in in the Season 1 finale with the murder of Ms. Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy), leaving both Norman and Norma to wonder if Norman was capable of killing again, albeit in a fugue state so that he could not remember it.
In a recent press conference call, star Vera Farmiga and executive producer Kerry Ehrin talked about Norma’s painful journey of self-discovery and self-realization in Season 2 of BATES MOTEL:
What is going on with Norma in Season 2? Any new love interests on the horizon?
VERA: Obviously Norma’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 and 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, and that is Norman. And she’s totally too involved. She’s unable to cut the cord. But with women survivors of childhood sexual abuse, it’s really complex. It impedes their ability to trust especially those like Norma who has these demons with them. These poisonous feelings that she has are embedded so deep in her psyche and she’s never uprooted them. She just 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. It has such dark moments. At the heart of it, 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. Every ounce of energy really is her struggle with raising this atypical child, and doing it as a single parent. She’s got her own painful history also to contend with. So she’s got this like this rampart that she’s built. It’s like the walls of Constantinople. It’s a lifetime of defensive walls that she has built. I think what’s happening is she’s built this brick by brick and it’s not like the ramparts are so fortified anymore. Then somebody comes in. The reason for moving out to White Pine Bay was to put as much real estate as possible between her and her past. All of this has developed sort of a really complicated psychological issues, like depression that she squashes, and low self-esteem and fear and guilt. All that trauma which she hasn’t dealt with, it is like the way she liked drives — oh man all these stressors — she’s got pretty significant stressors that affect her parenting capacities and also affect every other relationship that that she can take on. I feel like she’s kind of driving the bus from the backseat. I think also on the flip side of it is it is a coping mechanism. She has an incredible sense of denial. She, herself, may look at it as creative visualization. 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, is the one thing she’s always struggled with achieving. She just throws herself into sort of the success of the hotel’s success and that involves going out into the community and meeting people. She’s also trying to repair last season’s word 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 sort of change that, and that involves being more involved in the community. So she develops friendships outside of her relationship with Norman.
KERRY: Norma has a longing for normalcy, and normalcy to some people means you have a mate. Whether or not she actually knows how to relate to that person or connect with them or what to do with them, Norma has a deep longing for it, even though she doesn’t exactly know what it is. So she believes she has room for love in her life, and because she’s not aware of – or 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. So there is a very interesting person that shows up this season.
Is this a new character that we haven’t seen before?
KERRY: Yes, it is. This season is a lot of fun. While last season was sort of about all of these things that got in the way of Norma and Norman and achieving what they came to White Pine Bay for and achieving this dream, this season is very much about putting them in a position where they might actually get it. They might actually get what they want, and the things that start to screw it up are more inside them. So it is very much a journey of following them deconstruct things that are good, in a really entertaining way.
Vera, when you first took on the role, were you worried how it would work setting it in the modern day?
VERA: I’d be lying if I didn’t have like some reservation about it when I initially was presented with the offer. I thought there is so many things that can go wrong, where we are being tethered. 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. At the same time, what assured me was I saw Freddie’s audition tape, and any skepticism, any trepidation, and fear I had really vanished when I saw his audition tape — because it wowed me when I saw it. Then it became simply a story, and at the heart of the story is this relationship between mother and son. I just thought with his performance that it had a new life. I feel like none of that mattered. . . .Also I think, for me, it’s not like I was playing some iconic role. I think more so for Freddie. But I didn’t feel any sort of pressure of 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 sort of very intimate and the uniqueness of that. First of all, the role itself was on the written page. I think it’s so original. To me, it’s one of the most original characters I have ever encountered, and a lot of that has to do with Kerry and Carlton [Cuse’s] writing of contradiction. I think because that was so vital, it’s like when you encounter such sort of deeper level of virtuosity in the creation of a female character, you just don’t question it. You just like thank your lucky stars. You thank the writers for thinking of you, and you claim it. Te purest in me was a little skeptical. But that cynicism just had to do with like, “Oh, what is everybody else going to think?” And once I could just stop caring about what everybody else was going to think and find my own passion for the story — and I’m a mom, I’m a mom of two toddlers — the story for me resonates. So 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. So that was my passion. . . And I was absolutely sure after seeing Freddie’s audition tape that it was a sure-fire bet.
Is there anything you do to prepare before your emotional scenes?
VERA: It’s such an elusive sport. Some days, things that I think are going to work don’t, and the bottom-line is I’m so close with Freddie, so there’s a lot there. There’s a lot of instigation. Oftentimes the best thing is just to trust him and react. Simply remind myself to react. It’s not about acting. It’s reacting. . . 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. Like we work at such a rapid pace. Sometimes we shoot eight scenes a day plus more. You’ve got to be prepared. . . It’s challenging, especially with this like interpret role. It’s super challenging. But mostly I just rely on my scene partners. I mean Max Thieriot this season, and Freddie too. This second season just be prepared to see some astonishing work from all of them. There are times where Max literally in a scene where I just forget to say my lines because I’m so enthralled with his performance just watching him. It’s like 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 like type in typing 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 that a limited capacity 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.
How will the arrival of Norma’s brother change the family dynamics this season?
KERRY: Obviously he’s a very volatile emotional memory for Norma that she really has no idea what to do with all of that. It’s not like it’s ever been talked through or worked on. It’s been basically just shoved into the vault, and then this guy shows up and he’s outside of the vault. It’s like, how do you handle that? So obviously it’s super complicated because of Norman and Norman’s great protectiveness of his mother and his tendencies that even he doesn’t know he has. So it’s like, super complicated and intense and interesting.
Will we see Norma grow any closer to Dylan (Max Thieriot) or any change in their relationship? It is such an interesting counterpart to Norma’s relationship with Norman.
VERA: Oh God. I have such a hard time talking hot points because I always spilled the beans on stuff because I get to excited, and I’m biting my tongue right now. I love that relationship and I’m glad and second season we really get to explore it even more intimately. It’s evolving.
KERRY: It is the story of a lost son and those kids that, just like Norma, has her longing for normalcy and everything. That [Dylan] does long for a family that he’s never had and he never has been inside of, and he very much is dealing with that this year. He and Norma have a fascinating relationship this year. So many different orientations to it. It’s really amazing.
Norma is obviously such an iconic role. But obviously in the original film you don’t really gets to meet her. You sort of see her through Norman’s eyes. But you do find out what exactly happens to her in the end. Does that affect knowing that at least one potential outcome for her, does that affect the way that you act and write the character?
KERRY: 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. 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 and you don’t ever get to know that in her workings of how it got there. . . I mean it’s great. It’s a big surprise when you find out in the film. But when you get the luxury of taking that mess and like putting it under a microscope and examining it and wondering how it got there and what the permutations were, and was there anything in at that wasn’t just ugliness because in the film she’s portrayed as a very abusive, harsh kind of ugly parent, and it’s like, “Okay, well everyone gets mad at their parents sometimes.” I mean every teenager in the world said, “I hate you.” And they don’t hate them. It’s like the parent is such a complex thing to a kid. So it really was just 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. And it’s going to be amazing.
What’s the most difficult part about 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. So it’s just mustering that earnesty and keeping yourself honest. That is really hard and most challenging. Having to perform the role at this pitch requires an enormous amount of endurance and perspiration. I think honestly it has nothing to do with like my time on set because the material is just all on the written page. All I’d have to do is take it off my scene partners. They’re that stellar. So for me, it’s going home and forgetting about it all and being present for my own children. It’s a job. It’s an on-and-off switch that I’m super passionate about. But for me actually the biggest challenge while I’m doing it is to just turning off the switch and just throwing it all away and not worrying about how am I going to prepare for tomorrow’s scenes. . . . It’s just like balancing that is probably the hardest thing.
Is there going to be like a certain quality or personality trait of Norma that will be brought more to the forefront in upcoming episodes?
VERA: Yes. There’s a couple of new characters I think that ignite and awaken sort of new personality traits and new responses and different ways of reacting. So as the new characters show up I think where you get to see like different sides of Norma.
Do you think that the world could use a little more of Norma’s sort of blatant honesty and lack of any kind of filter?
VERA: Frankness, forthrightness, honesty, yes. The way that creeps up — it’s like with Norma there is a wonderful pendulum swing of dishonesty and then a disarming honesty with her. It’s either this way or that way and did nothing in between.
KERRY: I think there’s times when it’s useful, when candor is useful. I mean obviously we can’t all like go around being totally honest with everybody because there would be plenty of fistfights a day. But there are times when you just have to cut through the bullshit, and 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 kind of 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.
How much of the TV series is based on the original movie or is it kind of its own entity?
KERRY: I think that from the very beginning Carlton and I wanted to honor the movie, but not be beholden into 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, it kind of has become its own beast at this point.
Vera, do you know a lot of the storyline ahead of time? Or do you prefer to be surprised when it comes out?
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 for the first season I did feel a little disabled because I remember Carlton asking me, “Do you want some more clues?” And I wanted to sort of take it an episode at a time and not get ahead of myself. So, for me, in hindsight in the experience of season one, I felt okay, especially having sort of a big bomb 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 like huge voluptuous shrub that I just had to trust in this kind of a shallow root system. . . . So 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. Now 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 that has been established. 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. I think for the second season I did ask for more clues and I wanted to have the trajectory of 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?
VERA: First of all, 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 also got a really disarming honesty. These are amazing qualities that she possesses. The flip side of Norma Bates is that not all her hardware is working. Her software is a bit faulty. She doesn’t wrap Norman in bubble-wrap all the time. So I look at that. I think what I do learn from her is — I mean this is a story after all about family dysfunction — and what 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 those negative qualities influence me to be a better parent to avoid two demons, which is: denial and stubbornness. So Norma I suppose is sort of keeping me in check.
KERRY: I think Norma is the mother of all mothers. I mean, to me, it’s like she’s in an extreme situation. Every mother I’ve ever known, they just have this passion for making everything okay for their kid. For like stuffing the shit it 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. 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, and her own limitations that have been sort of put on later on her by her life. Her early life that was none of her own doing. And within that she’s absolutely just valiantly doing the best that she fucking can. You have to love that. And that, to me, is being a mother.
What attracts you to these scary parts, like Martha in “The Conjuring” or the BATES MOTEL and AMERICAN HORROR STORY?
VERA: It’s like my own beautiful internal logic about why I choose to participate. I think actually the projects choose us. But why? There’s this magnetism oftentimes with dark subject matters is like quantum physics really. . . To be honest with you, I find dark stories uplifting. It’s like during the darkest moments of our lives that we see the light and there’s a lot of darkness in BATES MOTEL. But, again, there’s a lot of joy. . . . I always look at things and 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 look at Taissa in AMERICAN HORROR STORY and I’m biased, like I’m like I’m practically her mother and she’s just like this bright supernova that shines even brighter in the dark. . . If you look at the close to 50 films that I’ve done, it’s only like five of them that are actually like certified horror stories. Everything else is — I don’t know. Like I just did MIDDLETON, which is where she and I play screwball mother and daughter in a romantic comedy. So I just think that may be the most successful projects in my career have been psychological thrillers and horrors and sort of twisted, dark and offbeat. Maybe it’s because our childhoods were so straight and narrow and full of light and love and goodness; maybe that’s why we veer towards them more. The object is to send light into the darkness of our character. That’s how I always look at it. So I am attracted to the sordid and the wacky, the unorthodox; but I love infusing it with lightness.
Did you leave the door open for a third season at the end of this one?
KERRY: Yes, enthusiastically yes. It’s like 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 it Norma and Norman that just keeps on giving, and from a writer’s point of view, it’s just delightful. So, yes, for sure.
To see how successful Norma is in carving out a real life and discovering love in Season 2 of BATES MOTEL, be sure to tune in for the premiere on Monday, March 3rd at 9:00 p.m. on A&E.