interview

How Do You Reclaim the Mother From Psycho?

Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates.

The A&E show Bates Motel ends its five-season run tonight, bringing us back to where it all began: with Norman Bates as a mild-mannered psycho and his mother, formerly known only as “mother,” as a stuffed corpse. In the imaginations of Kerry Ehrin (the show’s co-creator, along with Carlton Cuse) and star Vera Farmiga, Norman’s mother and evil alter-id, came to life as Norma, a flesh-and-blood woman with a traumatic past and a complicated emotional life. Ehrin and Farmiga collaborated closely to ground the character in reality — far away from either idealized motherhood or Norman’s sick projections of her — by rooting the character in her own lived experiences.

The Cut spoke to Ehrin and Farmiga about what they’ll miss when they check out of Bates.

When did you first see Psycho, and what kind of impression did it make?
Kerry Ehrin: I think I saw it at my boyfriend’s in college. I’m not a horror person in general but what I love about Psycho is that it’s so much more about suspense and psychology.

Vera Farmiga: I remember thinking that what was so special about it was that it was a story about a psychopath who was very charming. I think that was most impactful for me.

What were your first impressions of “mother?”
VF: I automatically assumed she was a negative influence on Norman’s life, because all we see of her is through his fractured psyche. There’s an assumption that she’s evil.

KE: When my partner on this project, Carlton Cuse, and I started working on it, it was very important to think about who the mother was. I had to remind many, many people involved with the project that [the story] is told through the lens of a crazy guy. We don’t know anything about her! Maybe he was really mad at his mom!

Was part of the appeal of doing it that you had a chance to reclaim her?
KE: It’s interesting in a world that has historically been defined by men, even on the page, to say, Okay, this woman was blamed for everything that was wrong with this guy. Let’s take a look at that. Let’s take a look at who she was as a whole person. The other thing that really drew me into it was my relationship to my own children and my relationship with my mother. I absolutely adored my mother and would have done anything for her. She was my rock in a kind of chaotic childhood sometimes, and I also completely understood, especially because my children were little and I would have done anything to make them stay, not grow up.

VF: The north star of the story that we were going to tell was that it was a love story between a mother and son, and about that umbilical cord unraveling and eventually potentially severing.

What attracted you to the part?
VF: It was so apparent that as female characterizations go, this was a head-turner – everything I wanted to see and to explore. Norma was error-prone, she was fallible, but I found her so adorable. In three pages, I could see her assertiveness, her strength, her bravery, her sass, but most of all, for me, that indomitable will to persevere. Kerry had presented me with three episodes and I could tell by page three that this was Medea meets Lucille Ball.

Were you reclaiming the trope of the “bad mother” in some way?
KE:
I wanted to kick the “bad mother” across the football field. I wanted to defend the mother and to defend being a woman in this world. I wanted to portray the vulnerability and the strength as much as possible.

And yet Norma is emotional, impulsive, inconsistent, erratic …
KE: I call that normal. There’s no mother I know that doesn’t cry regularly, that doesn’t lose her shit regularly, that doesn’t sometimes hate what she’s doing and at other times realize that it’s the most miraculous thing in the world to have children … I think anything short of that is not real.

VF: Well, you know that Norma isn’t just crazy because she’s crazy. It’s important to realize and understand that Norma’s anger is caused by real and inescapable problems in her life. It’s not just misplaced anger. She comes with deep psychological trauma given her past and her childhood. I think Norma has always been looking for salvation. Every season we’d get a deeper understanding, and every season we saw old traumas emerging, new traumas inflicted. But what I loved so much about the writing and the trajectory was that there was always a transcendence, and an emergence, and an awareness of the new self.

What was the best part of playing Norma?
VF: For me, she was always a lesson in unconditional love. And getting to explore heights of righteousness that this woman possessed, and at the same time the depths of depravity of manipulation and tantrums.

KE: The freakouts — I feel people should do that more often. I think we hold so much in and I think if it were more acceptable to just lose it once in a while, I think it’s like a forging that happens during that. You release it from your body and you get stronger and you refocus. There was always growth in Norma. She was always changing. She grew and got stronger and stronger. And does she really freak out that much? Would you say that about a guy?

VF: Right before this came my way I was listening to someone — an acting coach or teacher — talking about how difficult it is for female actors to get in touch with anger without hysteria entering into the equation … That would always resonate, and I would think her anger is her god-given super-weapon.

The burden of “likability” is always put on female characters.
KE: In the early scripts that was a concern — would she be likable, to the extent that people would be on the ride with her? But then you get Vera fucking Farmiga. Vera could play the worst villain in the world and you’d like her. We were home-free at that point.

VF: I had to like her. I had to have compassion with her. She wanted out of this maze of this cruel life she’d experienced. It’s a really terrifying notion, this idea of confronting darkness in your child. There was so much to me that was lovable about her. There was much sass and humor. There’s a whole lot of goofball that balanced the darkness.

KE: Vera has such joy of life, and that’s a very seductive trait in a human being.

Vera wasn’t just intense, she was also hilarious. What role did Norma play?
KE: Sometimes people who are out-of-control emotionally — it’s just funny because it’s absurd, and then you step out of your own body and you think, This is crazy, what is happening in my own living room right now? That so framed my sensibility from such an early age, as well as the love of finding beauty in moments when there’s unhappiness going around.

What part of working on the show with Kerry has been unique?
VF: I think for me that is the biggest highlight, to work so closely for so many years with a female writer. That was unique and different for me and look at the results. Kerry knows how to meld the gorgeous pain of mortals with the ridiculous.

Where do you go from here?
KE: It’s weird being a creative person. It’s like — there’s a fairy tale called The Red Shoes. It’s about a woman who puts on these red shoes and couldn’t stop dancing. And at first it’s the greatest thing in the world — she realizes she can do anything — and then she realizes she can never stop, and she bleeds to death out of her feet. You can’t help it.

VF: I’m still heartbroken. The demise of Bates is a breakup. She’s been my lover for five years. I’m still in the recovery phase.

How Do You Reclaim the Mother From Psycho?