The actress scored an Oscar nod for ''Up in the Air,'' and now she's delivering more award-worthy work as the mother of a teenage Norman Bates on A&E's ''Psycho'' prequel series.

By Tim Stack
Updated April 26, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • TV Show
  • A&E

Psycho‘s Norman Bates famously had mommy issues — and now we know why, thanks to Vera Farmiga’s full-bodied performance as mama Norma to a teenage Norman (Finding Neverland‘s Freddie Highmore) on A&E’s prequel series Bates Motel. The drama — created by Lost‘s Carlton Cuse and Friday Night Lights‘ Kerry Ehrin — introduces the mother-son duo in modern times in a creepy Oregon town, running the titular business while covering up a murder.

Farmiga portrays Ms. Bates as both a formidable heroine and an unstable mess; her Norma clings to her son like a manic-depressive lioness. ”She’s the most comprehensive spice rack of maternal love and angst,” says the 39-year-old actress. ”From the first episode, what was so exhilarating was that feeling of a trapeze artist swinging this way and that way on all these contradictions. She’s impulsive but she’s measured. She’s controlling and she’s out of control. She’s heartbreaking yet conniving.”

Cuse wrote Norma with Farmiga in mind. ”It had to be someone who was old enough to be a mother for a 17-year-old but who also was sexy, smart, charming, engaging, dangerous, funny, crazy,” he explains. ”I just locked into Vera.” The New Jersey-born actress — best known for 2006’s The Departed and her Academy Award-nominated role in 2009’s Up in the Air — knew she couldn’t pass up the series. ”Quite honestly, I wasn’t feeling challenged in a long time in this capacity,” she says. ”So, man, I jumped at the opportunity.”

The Bates experience has made Farmiga incredibly protective of the character — she balks when people call Norma ”scary,” which is often. ”It ignites in me such a righteous irascibility, like I’m coming in defense of my own child,” says Farmiga, who has two kids — son Fynn, 4, and daughter Gytta, 2 — with her husband, musician Renn Hawkey. ”There’s other adjectives that ruffle my feathers: sad or cruel, twisted or terrible. I just don’t see her in that kind of cartoonish parental supervillainy.” Farmiga’s performance on Bates — which has already been picked up for a second season — avoids Mommie Dearest caricature and makes Norma almost sympathetic. Still, she does admit that the borderline-incestuous bond between Norma and Norman can get a little too close: ”Freud would have had a field day.”

As should Emmy voters. ”It’s sheer flattery. And it’s encouragement,” says the actress when asked how she feels about a possible nomination. ”I know that it’s stiff competition in television these days, and there’s a lot of great actors doing great work who deserve acknowledgment. I’m pretty sober about the whole thing. But bottom line, that buzz feels great.”

Episode Recaps

Bates Motel

  • TV Show
  • 5
  • TV-MA
  • In Season
  • A&E