It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Vera Farmiga should just be given every mother role in every TV show and movie from now on. Exhibit A: Bates Motel, a not-very-good idea for a TV drama (a Psycho prequel set in modern day) that’s essential viewing because of Farmiga’s brilliantly campy Norma Bates. And exhibit B: the new film At Middleton, which opens in theaters and on-demand today. On paper, it doesn’t look especially good. It’s a rom-com about two middle-aged parents, one of them Andy Garcia, taking a college tour with their teenage kids and falling in love. But the terrible premise is saved by Vera Farmiga, who makes everything she’s in more awesome. She plays Edith, a mom grappling with unresolved emotional issues who’s wildly overprotective of her only child and has terrible luck with men. So… pretty much Norma Bates, only less murder-y.
I called Farmiga to talk about parenting, Chekhov, and weed. And then I somehow convinced her to ruin the upcoming season of Bates Motel with some massive spoilers, assuming you’re amazingly good at Mad Libs.
Eric Spitznagel: Maybe it’s because Bates Motel is still fresh in my mind, but while I was watching At Middleton, I kept waiting for you to start stabbing Andy Garcia with a kitchen knife.
Vera Farmiga: Or my daughter. One of the two. It’s interesting that you mention that, because I think these two stories have some fundamental similarities, in terms of how they explore parenting and identity.
Both Edith and Norma are kinda nuts.
You think Edith is nuts?
Well, she does describe parenting as a “feckless, dingleberry monkey garden.”
[Laughs] There’s that.
But she’s right. As a fellow parent, I completely agree.
It’s a monkey garden?
It is. And feckless. And occasionally it’s dingleberry-esque.
You know, I bet you could look at every single thing I’ve ever done and reduce it to that parenting schematic.
The monkey garden schematic?
No, I mean the fears and anxieties and obsessions wrapped up in being a parent. Think about it. I started with Down to the Bone, which is about a mother struggling with sobriety and raising her kids. You could even see it in The Conjuring. I bet I could make an argument for it.
In a way, [my character] Lorraine is a mother. She sacrifices her own sense of security and emotional welfare and well-being to wage spiritual warfare on behalf of others.
In your personal life, as a mother, are you more like Edith or Norma?
Um. [Long pause.] That’s a tough question. [Another long pause. Laughs.] Look, you’re asking me…
I’m not asking if you’ve killed anyone.
No, no, sure.
Or if you have feelings for Andy Garcia.
I understand what you mean. It’s just difficult. I stand in such staunch defense of Norma Bates, at least based on what I know of her so far. The writers could always do an about-face and change everything. But in her defense, she’s a mother who’s struggling to raise a neural-dysfunctional son, and she’s got her own tortured past to deal with.
That’s not something you relate to?
I’m pretty squeaky clean. No big tragedies in my childhood or adolescence or adulthood. I’ve had a very easygoing, simple life. So I guess in that way, I’m a little more like Edith. I also kind of like the way Edith sees the world.
I can relate to her paranoia as a parent. In the movie, when she’s taking the college tour and she asks how many kids have died on campus, I know that feeling.
I think we all do.
But I’ve literally done that. I have a two-year-old son, and I’ve taken tours of daycare facilities, and I’ve asked them point blank, “How many toddlers have died on your watch?”
You’ve asked that specific question?
I totally have. Is that taking parental paranoia too far?
No, no, I’ve had it. I’ve been there. I have a two-year-old who just turned three, and my four-year-old just turned five. I have the same irrational feelings taking them to pre-school. It’s this charged combination of stress and joy and anxiety and excitement. When they’re away, you’ve got a sudden loss of purpose and this ever-present fear about the kid’s welfare. The departure of our children from our nest is not an easy thing.
It’s absolutely dingleberries. And it gets worse as they get older. I cannot even imagine college. I’m white-knuckling it just letting my son go to kindergarten for eight hours a day.
Believe it or not, this is exactly the sort of topic my editor was hoping we’d talk about.
Yeah. He was like, “Esquire needs to be more like a mommy blog. Ask her a bunch of questions about kids and daycare. Our readers will love it.” [Eds. note: This is not actually true.]
[Laughs] I don’t believe you.
No, no, it’s true. Esquire’s all about mommy issues now. Breastfeeding, vaccinations, playdate etiquette.
Well let’s do it then.
How about nature versus nurture? Do you have an opinion? Just how much can you screw up your kids with shitty parenting?
Oh lord, that’s a big question, isn’t it?
Can you screw them up enough that they grow up to be a serial killer who dresses in drag and keeps your corpse in the basement?
That’s a serious question.
When I was getting ready to play Norma, I spent a lot of time reading blogs by mothers who had children with varying degrees of neural dysfunction, from schizophrenia to all sorts of different issues. And honestly, I don’t think it’s different for anybody. There’s no right way to make sure your child will be emotionally and mentally healthier. It’s just frustrating. Especially for somebody like Norma, who’s already a little nuts, and a big fat liar.
That’s not helping things.
It’s not helping things at all.
Let’s talk a little about your acting method.
There’s a scene in At Middleton where you, or Edith, takes a monster hit from a bong called the White Dragon. I’m guessing it wasn’t real weed.
Oh no. No, no, no. Although we were shooting in the Pacific Northwest, so it was readily available. But no. We didn’t. No, no, no. “She insists a little too vehemently.” [Laughs]
You played a very convincing stoned person. Did that come from your imagination? Or was it like “Oh yeah, I remember college”?
I didn’t have my first hit until long after college. I was very studious and square in college.
When did you finally let your freak flag fly?
I vicariously did it with roles. My personality is just innately even-keeled. I’m not such a huge daredevil. Which is not to say I’m not a passionate woman. I don’t know, maybe it’s my physiological makeup, but I don’t like the feeling of anything in my system, other than a glass of wine now and then. I’ve always been very sensitive about that kind of stuff.
Does it make you sick?
It just disagrees with my constitution. Partying has never been my thing. I’ve been around some wild people. I’ve been in the same room and watched them experiment, and that’s been entertaining. It’s just, when it comes to me… I don’t know, I’m not even sure what I’m talking about anymore. What was the question?
You’re a little stoned right now, aren’t you?
Well, speaking as somebody who has inhaled lots of illegal substances from bongs with pet names like the White Dragon, I can say with authority that you nailed that scene.
Everything about your fictional weed encounter felt genuine and true. If you’ve never smoked, you could’ve fooled me.
I have, I have. I’ve done it three times.
In your entire life?
In my life. And it’s always ended up like a bad Chekhov play. I become tragic. I feel like this dark vacuum that sucks the life out of the room. It just doesn’t agree with my chemistry.
A bad Chekhov play? Meaning a play that’s poorly produced, like by a community theater, or one of Chekhov’s lesser-known crappy plays?
It’s like watching Chekhov when you’re not in that right mood. Chekhov, when it’s done well and you’re ready for it, can actually be quite funny.
But can it be done stoned?
[Laughs] I’ve never tried. Who knows? It depends on the actors, as with anything. It depends on your fellow collaborators. And I guess it depends on which play.
Sure, why not?
I always thought Uncle Vanya could be a stoned masterpiece.
Sure, okay. I’m in. I’ll try anything once.
Here’s another acting question: You have a big crying scene in At Middleton. How do you get to that emotional place? Are you thinking about the script? Or unrelated sad things from your life?
I’m thinking about anything and everything. I’m making stuff up in my head, I’m using sense memory. Sometimes when it doesn’t come and you’ve got no choice because you’re getting paid to do it, you grasp at straws. It’s always easy now with my kids. I just create some “what-ifs” in my head, something horrible that would devastate me as a mother.
Don’t say it.
You know what I’m talking about.
I do, and if you say it, I’m going to start crying, too, and then we’ll have gone into a really dark place that I don’t think we can get back from.
Then we’re two parents getting maudlin about hypothetical bad news.
Nobody needs that.
You know what’s more difficult to do organically? Laughing. It’s actually one of the hardest things to do on camera.
You can’t fake laughter?
I can’t. I can’t conjure up that emotion on cue.
What about when you’re doing a Norma Bates meltdown and you need to scream something like “I killed the crap out of him?!”
That’s tricky. That’s a very tricky tone.
Are you playing it for camp, or playing it real?
It verges on camp, definitely. There’s a certain element of tongue-in-cheek. But you have to play everything with authenticity.
Even the over-the-top stuff?
Especially that. Because that’s where a character slips away if you’re not careful. I’m still working Norma out. With Bates Motel, we have the luxury of a second season. I’ve never had that before. I’ve done TV, but never where you’re given this much time to live with a character, to study the tone and hone it and repair stuff, to go back and watch old episodes and go, “Oh no, that’s a misstep. That’s a victory. I should do more of that, less of that.”
The second season of Bates Motel is coming up soon. March 3, right?
Yeah, I think that’s the right date.
Can you give us a huge, season-ruining spoiler?
You want me to ruin it?
Yeah. Give us something big. What’s going to blow our minds this season?
Okay, um. [Long pause] There’s a lot of passion this season. That’s all I’m going to say.
Will you give us a huge spoiler phrased like a Mad Lib?
A Mad Lib?
Yeah. Just leave a few words blank so we have to guess. Something like “This season, Norma shocks everybody by BLANKing BLANK before he can BLANK.”
[Laughs] Oh, that’s good. I love that. Let me think. Ummm. [Long pause] Hold on, hold on. [Long pause] Can I email it to you?
I want to think this through. Make sure I do it right.
VERA FERMIGA’S HUGE SPOILER OF THE UPCOMING SEASON OF BATES MOTEL, WRITTEN AS A MAD LIBS
“This season there is a lot of thwarted ______ chez Bates. Norma makes some new friends and ultimately _____ them all. Norma and Norman ______ slowly. Norma practices _____ with Norman over and over, and then eventually forbids him to _____. Norma ______s her new girlfriend in public, in a supermarket no less! Norma needs deep _____ from Dylan. By the end of the season she begs him to _____ her. Romero shows his _____ _____. And of course, Norman is busy as ever, playing with his ______ in the basement.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)