PASADENA, Calif. — Before she had her two children, actress Vera Farmiga used to knit her husband a sweater every year. It was not the artist in her that compelled her to do it, it was the peasant.
Farmiga's parents are from Ukraine, and she grew up folk dancing, playing the piano and being steeped in the enchanting tales her paternal grandfather would spin.
"I just remember him holding me, my best friend, my cousin who's a year younger than me, and just telling us stories about princesses and kind of living vicariously through these other girls' experiences of life," she says. "Stories are important, not only for entertainment but as a social platform. And I guess there's a pride in me, being a storyteller, a sincere joy."
She's telling a whopper now.
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On Monday, Farmiga stars as Norman Bates' mother, Norma, in Bates Motel, a 10-part series on A&E that serves as a contemporary prequel to the classic film Psycho. Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) plays the teenage Norman.
Here she reveals a very different woman from the one we had imagined from the withered apparition glanced in the film. Farmiga plays a loving but determined mother who buys a decaying motel in the hopes of starting a new life after her husband's untimely death.
Farmiga, 39, whose children are 2 and 4, is a fiercely devoted mother, too. "Right now my focus is my children, and it's just stimulating them and shaping them, molding and shaping them to be the best little people that they can," she says.
"For weekends now it's not about my needs but my children's needs. My children's needs are my needs."
She says it's difficult combining a demanding career and child rearing. But her husband, film producer and former musician Renn Hawkey, shares the responsibilities.
"My husband steps in, and he's daddy day-care if we end up with no help," she says. "He knows if I can't do it, then he's the second best. We switch off. If I'm not working then I am there."
She occasionally contemplates quitting, she says.
"Because it really depletes me, and I want as much energy as I can to love my family to the best of my ability," she says. "And when I'm not up Saturday morning at 6 a.m. with them, it's a bummer because I've been working till 3 a.m. the night before. But I'm not complaining. It's a really joyful career. And it comes with many perks and an amazing quality of life. But I try not to be that (negative) person. I try to be grateful for it and stay positive."
Farmiga has had a successful career. She was nominated in 2010 for best supporting actress for Up in the Air, playing opposite George Clooney, and was acclaimed in her featured role in Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2007).
But she says she is not obsessed about her next job.
"I'm a provider for my family, so in that respect, sure," she says. "But I also think there's a handful of other things that I'm interested in that if I ever got bored or complacent, I would look elsewhere. That's just my nature. I've always been a kind of roll-up-your-sleeve and let's-be-passionate about what you do."
One of Farmiga's passions is raising angora goats, producing wool, and designing and knitting sweaters. She's also fascinated with landscape architecture and is an accomplished cook.
She downplays her early struggles, saying, "I had representation immediately right after college, so I don't feel like I went through (doubts). Yes, early in my career when I was auditioning there were a lot of close calls."
She worked as a secretary for Smith-Barney financial managers when she was trying to get established.
"I was living very humbly and lived discreetly enough to afford (it)," she says. "I suppose it's my peasantry. I don't need much. I could always farm my own vegetables in little canisters."
Premieres at 10 p.m. March 18 on A&E