The iconic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock horror-thriller feature film Psycho gave moviegoers a look into the disturbed mind of seemingly mild-mannered motel owner Norman Bates (played by the late Anthony Perkins) and his unnaturally close relationship with his mother Norma. You could say that parent and child eventually became two peas in a proverbial pod, but what drove Norman to such twisted depths? The hit A&E Network TV series Bates Motel tries to answer that question and more. A prequel to Psycho, it tells the story of a teenage Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his mixed-up relationship with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga).
At the end of the show’s first season, Norman had an unexpected encounter with Miss Blair Watson (Keegan Connor Tracy), which did not end well, although the reasons why remain fuzzy to him. In season two, Norman’s mental issues have further manifested themselves, including during a heated exchange between him and Norma’s estranged brother Caleb (Kenny Johnson). In the season finale, The Immutable Truth (airing Monday, May 5th @ 10:00 p.m. EST/PST), the mystery surrounding Miss Watson’s death comes back to haunt Norman. How will he cope, and what lengths will Norma go to in order to protect her son?
Earlier this week, actor Freddie Highmore (who plays Norman Bates) and Bates Motel co-creator/executive producer/writer Carlton Cuse spoke with me along with other journalists about their work on the series and hinted at what is yet to come. The following is an edited version of our Q&A. Enjoy!
Freddie, you got your start at an early age, around the age 7, I believe, and by the age of 12 you were doing films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland. Now as a young man you've taken on the iconic role of Norman Bates, and I was wondering how has your acting style evolved from a child actor into a young man? Was it hard to break free from that kind of cute kid mold to do something a little bit darker like Bates Motel and how have you avoided the pitfalls others have fallen into?
Freddie Highmore: In terms of the last question first, whenever I wasn’t working, I always remained, I guess, relatively distant from the whole film industry. I carried on sort of going to school, and at the moment I'm just a couple of weeks away from doing my final exams at the university. So having always combined acting with my studies and having a home life back here in England has given me, I believe, a nice sense of distance in terms of not falling into the pitfalls that you mentioned.
As far as evolution, I guess as you get older you become more aware of how lucky you've been to have worked on these fantastic sets as well as kind of the subconscious learning process that goes on just by being on a set from a young age and learning from actors. Having never been to acting school myself, I think you become more aware of the things that you learn and certain traits from other actors that you find inspiring and then try to replicate those ways in which they’ve approached certain scripts or material.
With regard to the role of Norman Bates, it certainly is different from previous roles I’ve played, but I never sort of transitioned from a child actor to a young adult, so I don't consider it to be particularly problematic in the sense that I just saw it as a natural thing. As you get older you, hopefully, start to play all types of characters. So again, I wouldn't say that I’m doing anything different now than I did before. It just seemed natural to me.
Prior to Bates Motel, were you both fans of the original Psycho movie? Then for Carlton, how much has that affected how the series compares to the movie, and how has that changed from the beginning?
Carlton Cuse: Oh yes, I was a huge fan of the movie. I think it's kind of in the pantheon of nearly perfect movies, so I was actually afraid about making a TV show that would sort fall too heavily in the shadow of that. When Kerry Ehrin, my (creative) partner on the show, and I first began working on it, the first and most important decision we made was to do this as a contemporary sequel, which I think put it in a different place than the movie.
I think if we had done it as a period show it would always be kind of in the oppressive shadow of this amazing master work that Alfred Hitchcock made. What we really wanted to do was take these two major characters (Norman and Norma Bates), bring them to life, place them in a different time and give them their own existences, much like (playwright) Tom Stoppard did with Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern.
One of the things that's been really rewarding as we’ve gone into a second season is that viewers are really beginning to see that Bates Motel is its own thing. Yes, it was inspired by the Hitchcock movie and has taken some elements from the original Psycho, but our goal is to tell a wholly new story.
FH: I think I saw Psycho for the first time when I was 14 and then saw it a couple more times before finally starting work on season one Bates Motel. However, I haven’t returned to it since. As Carlton said, he was slightly nervous about taking this on, but both he and Kerry have done a great job of making us all feel free to bring our own ideas to the table and not feel tied at all to this original material, which I think has been really key to the success of the show.
Whilst there are, I guess, certain aspects of Anthony Perkins classic performance that viewers have seen or in some cases think we’ve tried to replicate, there was never a sense of mimicking him. It was more sort of seeing him in the original film as an inspiration and then going from there.
Carlton, you and Freddie have both have touched on the series being its own entity and I think it absolutely has emerged as that. However, given that we all do know the source material, how wedded to that are you in terms of we know where these characters, or at least Norman and Norma, end up. We've become so invested in them in the series that we don't want them to end up where they do in the 1960 film. Is that possible or do they need to end up there ultimately?
CC: I'm very happy to hear you say that because I think tragedy is a great storytelling form. It worked extremely well for Shakespeare as well as for Jim Cameron’s Titanic. In that movie you kind of hope that Leonardo Dicaprio’s and Kate Winslet’s characters don't meet their inevitable fates. I think the dramatic tension between sort of your expectations as to what's going to happen to these characters and what's actually occurring now on their journey is the essence of what we are trying to accomplish as writers.
In Bates Motel, I don’t feel anyone could do a better job of executing that than Freddie and Vera. Yes, we do foresee some bad things ahead for Norman and Norma, but I think it would rob the audience of the enjoyment of their respective journeys to be too specific about how we're going to play that out.
Avoiding any spoilers, how do you think this season’s finale compares to the first season finale?
FH: I think the whole season two arc has been fantastic for Norman and there is always the sort of time that you need in terms of establishing a character and seeing him or her as they are before they start their journey.Towards the end of this season we certainly start to see a manipulative side to Norman that makes you question your allegiance to or support and backing of him.
That has been great fun as an actor to play because you play against the sense of what people think Norman should be like. With this growing realization of who he is as well as who he might become and what he's capable of comes a sense of power for him. What I think is great about this season’s finale is to what extent my character would selfishly decide to use that power. So by end of the episode and the season, we have to question whether or not we are still with him.
Norman and Norma are usually so close, but the secret that she's been keeping about his blackouts is really driving a wedge between them. Will their relationship continue down the strained path or is there reconciliation in the near future?
CC: You know, Norma and Norman's relationship is at the very heart of the show and I don't think that will ever change. What I feel makes Bates Motel wonderful is this incredible dynamic that exists between these two characters as portrayed by these two actors. That's the very heart and center of the show, but the nature of that relationship will evolve over time and what's really interesting is that Norman is going from being sort of a boy to being a man. That’s part of his journey over the course of the show. As he becomes more of a man, that has cumulative consequences in terms of how he and his mother relate to each other. So Kerry and I certainly don't see that relationship as being static, but we definitely see it as always being very close and very intense.
Calton, is Michael Vartan’s character of George, is he too good to be true? Is there something lurking in his backstory that has yet to come out?
CC: I think part of the story arc this season has really been about seeing just how close to the sun Norma can fly. She's always had this vision of moving to this idyllic small town, being in with the right people and having the right relationships. George sort of personifies a kind of acceptance and admission into the society of this town. In the season finale there will be a payoff and we’ll definitely see where that leads and where it leaves Norma.
Freddie, I really enjoyed the relationship this season with your character and Paloma Kwiatkowski’s character of Cody Brennen. Could you talk a little bit about what you enjoyed most perhaps about that relationship and also working with Paloma on the show?
FH: Paloma is fantastic and has such a different synergy that I think she brought to the show. She was great to work with, had loads of energy and always comes to set incredibly well-prepared. The relationship between our two characters serves to revitalize Norman in many ways and also for the audience helps to kind keep things constantly changing in Norman's world outside of the home. For now, Cody has left the world of White Pine Bay, but not without going incredibly noticed and leaving her mark upon Norman.
Carlton, the second season has been absolutely amazing; just when you think it couldn't get any better it does, and you guys have done a great job. What were perhaps some of the biggest writing as well as production challenges you guys faced going into season two.
CC: From a writing standpoint it was kind of fun to figure out how we could most effectively expand our knowledge of the world in which these characters inhabited, both interpersonally and also externally with the community at large. We really wanted to sort of show the characters in White Pine Bay and get to know more about that community, too, and in doing so deepen the audience's connection with Norma, Norman and Dylan (Norma’s other son and Norman’s brother, played by Max Thieriot) throughout the season.
I mean, we’re making a show that is extensively about a serial killer, but the goal from a writing standpoint was to make viewers care deeply about Norman and Norma. We wanted them to like them and root for them as well.
So you have these two story elements that are kind of in opposition. What we didn't want was the audience looking in at Norman from the outside. Our goal always in the writing is to have the audience be really deeply connected on an emotional level to Norma and Norman and be right there with them as they go on this fun but also perilous journey. That's what we work really hard at as writers.
Carlton, we now know that it was a stroke of genius casting Freddie as Norman Bates; I can't imagine anyone else playing Norman. When you began to develop the idea for Bates Motel, did you have him in mind? What was it about Freddie that you knew would make for this ongoing and incredible performance?
CC: I have to give a great deal of credit to our casting director, April Webster, who is really a genus at what she does. Very early on, she put me and Kerry on a Skype call with Freddie and we were immediately charmed and captivated. Of course, we along with the network and studio did our due diligence and saw a number of other actors. However, it was kind of one of those things where we were just spoiled right at the gate.
Once we had talked to Freddie and looked at his body of work, it was just so clear that he was the guy and no one else even came close. So this is one of those things that I think is always so interesting about television. Whatever your intentions are and however good a script is that you write, there's this alchemy that has to take place. So we were lucky enough to find Freddie and get him to do the show. I can't imagine the show working or existing or being half as good as without him. It's one of those things that just happened. It was to our great fortune and I'll take it.