The Contenders: Vera Farmiga cozies up to ‘Bates Motel’

Vera Farmiga says she was initially skeptical about playing Norma Bates.
Vera Farmiga says she was initially skeptical about playing Norma Bates.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Vera Farmiga remembers vividly how she came to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” for the first time.

Had she known she would someday play Norman Bates’ mother in A&E’s prequel series “Bates Motel,” she might have paid the picture closer attention. At the time, she was too preoccupied with another great director to give that classic Hitchcock thriller the scrutiny she since has.

“Other than maybe the shower scene,” Farmiga admits, “I didn’t see all of ‘Psycho’ till I was on set shooting ‘The Departed.’ Marty Scorsese made me. At first I nodded and considered bluffing him. Then I realized that whenever he refers to an old movie, he’s going to send you a deluxe DVD of it that night. By the end of the shoot, I was almost giving him blank looks about movies I knew by heart, just so he’d send me DVDs of them.”


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Farmiga has since received an Oscar nomination for her role as George Clooney’s compartmental lover in “Up in the Air.” Her directing debut, 2011’s spiritual drama “Higher Ground,” drew solid praise. Nevertheless, despite half a dozen upcoming movies in the can, this first-generation Ukrainian American from New Jersey has followed better scripts and larger audiences to television.

“Of course I wish more people had seen some of my films. That’s one reason you do it, to share a character and a story with people. I loved [the little-seen film] ‘Breaking and Entering’ and my character in it.... So I was game to do cable, because so much good film work goes unseen. And the caliber of television today is so high.”

When Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.”) and Kerry Ehrin (“Moonlighting,” “Friday Night Lights”) began discussing with her the uncast part of a contemporary Norma Bates, she had to overcome some initial skepticism about the character. But their pilot script trumped any early reservations about decanting vintage Universal back-catalog wine into smaller episodic bottles.


“[Norma’s] really the embodiment of a woman totally consumed by motherhood. As a mother myself, I can understand that feeling. Norma has such a strong maternal instinct, and that powerful an instinct isn’t always easily distinguishable from insanity.”

Farmiga doesn’t sound notably insane on the phone from Vancouver, Canada, where the “Bates Motel” crew has pitched camp. She sounds, in fact, quite cheerful, breaking frequently into the comfortable laugh of an Oscar-nominated mid-career actress with a role she likes and in a series that just got its first renewal notice.

For most of Joseph Stefano’s original “Psycho” script, we know Norma mainly by her voice, so it somehow feels right to speak to Farmiga by phone, not seeing her face. Not many realize that the voice in the film actually belonged to Virginia Gregg, the Marni Nixon of psychotic smother-mothers, a versatile but unsung radio actress who had already appeared in Hitchcock’s “Notorious.”

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Farmiga doesn’t feel oppressed by her formidable if unseen predecessor: “I don’t think of Norma as an incredibly famous character. Norman, yes, and Freddie [Highmore, her costar] has to reckon with people’s memories of Anthony Perkins. But Norma, she’s almost a blank slate.”

The series takes place before the events of the 1960 original, yet it’s set in the present. If Cuse and Ehrin can take that liberty with the story, might others lie ahead? Scorsese would surely swallow his gum at the prospect, but Farmiga loves her new character too much to resign herself to reenacting Hitchcock’s ghoulish finale just yet.

“I can’t help hoping that Norma and Norman will find a way to avoid such a tragic ending. I know it’ll probably never happen. I know that. But if the writers went that way, I sure wouldn’t complain.”