Vera Farmiga has a complex relationship with her on-screen son Norman in Bates Motel
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho we met the infamous Norman Bates, oppressed son, psychopath and serial killer. In 2013, the television prequel, Bates Motel, constructed around Bates’ early life, and in particular his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), a woman hitherto met as a skeleton in the attic, but now in the full bloom of her life.
That relationship – a mother’s obsessive love for her son, and a son’s love/hate relationship with his mother – forms the psychological spine of Bates Motel.
Farmiga describes it as a swinging pendulum, stretching from an almost uncomfortable affection, to a powerful sense of betrayal.
“Norman is at that very precarious stage of adolescence where he’s figuring out what it is to become a man,” Farmiga says. “And he’s being raised by a single mother. There’s a draw to his mother, but a simultaneous [push away]. And I think what you’re going to be seeing is quite a bit of that.
“You’re going to see the most extreme closeness and tenderness, to the point of such uncomfortable closeness between them, and then, sort of, the opposite pendulum swing of complete almost alienation and betrayal.
“But I think [also] they’re just trying to find their footing.”
Our conversation touches on a range of emotions, and Farmiga uses words like “inevitable” and “demise”. To some extent, history is written for both Norma and Norman; the events of Hitchcock’s original film serve as a sort of epilogue to Bates Motel. Though Farmiga does not feel hemmed in by the fate demanded by the larger historical work.
“I don’t get trapped in that … my only mission is to have you guys, the audience, whoever is receiving our story, to really root for them both,” Farmiga says. “The task at hand for me really is to present to you a mother in all her righteousness and her manipulation.”
And to that end, Farmiga believes Norma is a committed mother, even if the fine print of the story suggests otherwise. “Everything that she thinks she is doing, is saying, [is] I’m doing the best that I can to make my son better, to fix him. And, you know, she comes from the heart in what she thinks is the right thing to do.
“She’s this, you know, mother lion.”
Bates Motel also makes rather ambitious observations about the modern world; Farmiga sees it as a work which explores the struggle of parents with their children, where responsibility sits, and how children are fashioned into adults.
“What is so vital about our story I think, especially now in the age of Dylan Klebold [who, with Eric Harris, killed 13 people and injured 24 others, in the Columbine High School massacre], is that we, as parents, are really struggling with our children,” Farmiga says.
“They’re growing up in such a violent world, and such a dark place. And I think this is a show that really considers your responsibility as a parent and, in that examination of parent/children relationships, how we, in fact, are responsible, somewhat.
“There’s biochemistry, there’s a neat personality, but then there’s, you know, how do we sculpt them, how do we mould them, do we hurt them, do we help them, how do we make our kids better, how do we prepare them, how do we hone them, how do we love them into the best possible version of themselves.”
The show’s second season also saw the arrival of Caleb Calhoun, played by Kenny Johnson. Calhoun, who is Norma’s estranged older brother, was part of her violent upbringing, a context which exposed a different aspect of Norma’s personality.
Johnson, Farmiga says, is a “one in a million”. “I think it’s very tricky to do what is demanded of him in this role. He can make you feel such great empathy for the character. I think this is what’s so masterful about [Bates Motel] is that we tread these really murky lines where you teeter over a little bit in this area, and it’s just profane.
“The balancing act is quite tricky, tonally, to achieve, because you want to hate Caleb, you want to judge him, and yet he’s quite loveable in this. It’s really odd, but fascinating to watch.”