There’s no greater bond than that of a mother and her child, and there’s no time that old saying is creepier than when applied to Norma and Norman Bates, the oedipally intimate mother-son duo at the heart of A&E’s Bates Motel. The series follows Freddie Highmore‘s young Norman Bates on his journey from a disturbed, but lovable teenager to the calculating, murderous motel manager originated in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho. In both iterations, it’s Norman’s overly devoted relationship to his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga), and his resulting psychological manifestation of her, that spurs him to violent action.
But if the on-screen antics of the Psycho-inspired duo are compelling, there’s an equally interesting — if less scandalous — behind-the-scenes process in bringing that dynamic to life. In order to create “Mother Norma”, as she’s called on set, Farmiga and Highmore have to work together to build a character that is both of them and neither of them. She is Norma through Norman’s twisted eyes, an amalgam of the two, and both actors have to play her in harmony.
Back in February, I visited the Vancouver Set of Bates Motel with a small group of journalists where we spoke to the Farmiga and Highmore about the collaborative process of bringing Mother Norma to life.
“That’s been a particular joy of this season — working with Vera in creating this Mother character,” said Highmore, who called the Season 3 finale sequence, which saw Norman’s relationship with Bradley turn deadly when he became fully possessed by the Mother Norma persona “the greatest tease of what is to come.” He continued, “We see that Mother Norma physically kill — seeing it from Norman’s perspective, I guess — and there are lots more scenes like that this season where both Vera and I sort of interchange in playing the role of Mother during one particular scene.”
The process of playing those scenes can be quite technical, and deeply collaborative. “I think it’s one part him and one part me,” said Farmiga. “I think it’s a lot of parts willingness, in terms of talking about chemistry.” Nestor Carbonell, who plays Norma’s would-be paramour, Sheriff Romero, revealed that Farmiga will sometimes tape record the lines for Highmore in advance. Highmore explained his back-and-forth process with Farmiga more in depth, “Often, I watch one take that she does and she will sort of come back to the monitors and [see] the scene that I am doing. There’s this great sort of fun sense that I have never done before of collaborating closely with someone else to create this one singular character.”
However, that collaboration extends beyond just Farmiga and Highmore to the other cast and crew members participating in the scene. Farmiga explained, “It’s not just the actors. There’s a secret circle that happens that is a camera operator and focus puller and dolly grip. Those three guys are always in our faces and in our energy. You feed not just on the two people in the scene; there’s a room full of people that you are vibing off of and that give you ideas too.” Meanwhile, Max Theriot, who plays Norman’s older brother Dylan — the first character to ever witness one of Norman’s full Mother Norma fugues — recalled the experience of shooting that scene. “I love doing scenes like that in general, whether I’m the one who gets to do it or somebody else is. It’s such an interesting thing to play these different bits. We also know Vera and Norma so well at this point to know what some of her little quirks are and things that she does.”
Theriot also explained how the cast interactions can help shape the character outside of what Farmiga and Highmore discover together, “He and I sat there on the scene and said, ‘What if I do this? What if I do this?’ Obviously, he came with this whole idea, but…one of the things that I threw in was when he pulls out the blackberries– Vera and Norma always say, ‘I baked a beautiful pie.’ Beautiful this, beautiful that. I said, ‘You have to call the blackberries beautiful.'”
You can expect to see ever-more of Mother as the series continues down the path towards its inevitable finale. As Norman’s condition worsens, as we know it will, Mother Norma has to become an ever-larger presence in his life, and one that grows ever-further from the true Norma. ‘There’s a Machiavellian side to Norman that we will see developing this year which is all about sort of self-preservation,” said Highmore. “That side of him is very much brought out with the development of this Mother character who appears to him more and more, this imaginary version of her, and she will do sort of whatever it takes to make sure that Norman will be around forever.”
Bates Motel airs Monday nights on A&E.