The new A&E drama series Bates Motel gives viewers an intimate portrayal of how Norman Bates’ (Freddie Highmore) psyche unravels through his teenage years. This contemporary prequel to the genre-defining film Psycho reveals the dark, twisted backstory and shows first-hand just how deep the relationship with his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), truly goes, as she helps forge the most famous serial killer of them all. The show also stars Max Thieriot, Nicola Peltz, Olivia Cooke, Nestor Carbonell and Mike Vogel.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, show star Freddie Highmore talked about why he was intrigued by the show and the character, why it’s alright to identify with Norman Bates, who this version of Norman is when the story picks up, working with co-star Vera Farmiga, what it was like to see the sets for the house and the Bates Motel, how throwing a brother (Thieriot) into the mix affects things, and just how dark things will get with the show. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
FREDDIE HIGHMORE: I was very intrigued. He’s such an iconic character. To be able to play him, I’m very lucky. But, it wasn’t just the character. It was also the people involved with it. I spoke to Carlton [Cuse] and Kerry [Ehrin] beforehand, and Vera [Farmiga] is brilliant. Also, the knowledge that A&E are so committed to it and are putting so much behind it, by not having to go through a pilot episode and trying it out, but instead saying they would do 10, from the start. Everyone seemed to have so much confidence in it and willingness to back it, that it just made me think that it would be a fantastic thing to do. I hope it will appeal to quite a wide audience, as well. There is the level of psychological thriller with intense moments, and Norman is becoming a killer, but at the same time, he’s in high school and he’s just like anyone else.
Were you nervous about taking on Norman Bates, or do you worry about identifying too much with a character like that?
HIGHMORE: It’s alright to identify with Norman. It’s that dramatic irony that people will always have the knowledge that he’s going to end up killing people. Whether or not Norman knows that himself, from the start, is a different thing. He doesn’t know what he’s going to be in 20 years time. He doesn’t know that Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh in Psycho) will be driving into the motel. So, it’s nice to set up darker moments where you can see a shift, even in the pilot. Norman might not realize it, but there’s something else there that’s not quite right. But at the same time, he’s a nice guy. As the TV show develops, you almost want him to be good, especially when he’s apart from his mother. When he’s with the girls or at high school, he has this different life that he’s never really experienced before, and he becomes conflicted and torn between his mother and these other girls that he’s attracted to. That’s the moment where you think that he could be someone else. He has this opportunity not to be a killer, but we all know that he’s going to end up having to do people in.
Who is this Norman Bates, when the series picks up?
HIGHMORE: Right from the start, Norman and his mother are starting with this new, fresh life, and there’s a lot of mystery behind it. I don’t think we completely understand their past. It’s revealed within the first 10 episodes, but from the start, there are a lot of questions that are unanswered, mainly about his dad’s death. Norman is willing to give it a fresh start and he goes along with whatever his mom says. That bond will be stretched between the two of them, but he’s so connected to her and loves his mom so much that he’s willing to give the fresh start that she wants a try.
HIGHMORE: It’s amazing! We got on brilliantly. She’s my new best friend. We spend so much time together that, of course, if we hadn’t got on well, it would have been a problem. And as an actress, it’s effortless, watching her work. I’m sure it’s not, but everything seems so natural. She has tiny little ticks and throw-away things, and she plays against emotion incredibly well. A lot of this show is about that. You don’t have to say, “I love you so much,” which some people do say sometimes. But, a lot of what’s nice about the show is the stuff that’s unsaid, as opposed to the stuff that’s said, and what the subtext is to what they are saying. There are so many undertones, as opposed to just the obvious. There’s also that slightly manipulative side to their relationship, from both of them.
Just seeing the house or the motel evokes an emotional response. What was it like to see those sets? Was it a bit surreal?
HIGHMORE: Yeah, it’s slightly odd. It makes you laugh when you’re there and there’s the house. The house that we’re using doesn’t actually have the roof on the top, so that’s all put in with CGI later. You have the motel and the steps of the house, but there’s no roof. It’s just a flat top. I think having the house adds a timeless quality to Norma and Norman’s relationship because it is based in the house. They’re living in this beautiful place, but there’s darker stuff underneath it. And then, they have the house where their relationship is very different, in the same way that the house is very different from the contemporary surroundings. Their relationship is odd and weirdly intimate, and the house has this history that people know.
HIGHMORE: The nice thing about Max Thieriot’s character, Dylan, is that it’s a different window into their life and it gives another aspect of criticism towards the way that Norma and Norman interact. By having him come into the house with them, it breaks up that bond, in some ways, and allows the audience a point of view from which to critique it that’s more stable than one or the other of them. In that way, I think it works really well. I haven’t actually asked Carlton [Cuse] where the idea came from, but Max and I discussed Ed Gein, the original psycho that the book was based on, and he had a brother, so maybe he came from there. But, it’s a nice idea. It serves well to open your eyes more to what’s going on, in the house.
Do they get along, or is it more of an adversarial relationship?
HIGHMORE: Dylan is slightly critical of their relationship and sees it how I guess most of the audience will see it, and he’s straight about that. No, they don’t get on so well, at the start. But, 10 episodes is awhile to develop their relationship. Dylan and Norman will go on to understand things about each other that will change their opinion slightly. There’s a bond that will develop between them, at some point.
What sort of relationship does Norman have with both Bradley (Nicola Peltz) and Emma (Olivia Cooke)?
HIGHMORE: Bradley is the girl that he’s really attracted to, from the start. That’s his main love interest and the person that he’s after. His relationship with Emma is almost the inverse of that. He doesn’t see her in the same intimate way that she sees him. It’s a whole new world of discovery for Norman to like this girl, but it’s cut by his mom and by circumstance, and he never manages to break out. When you think he does, there’s always something else and he doesn’t quite get there. He’s always ultimately unsatisfied.
Just how dark will things get with this show, and just how much freedom do you have to push boundaries?
HIGHMORE: It’s funny, there are all these rules about what you’re allowed to have on television and what you’re not. I guess the pilot is as dark or as violent as the show will be, at least for the start. There are some very hard-hitting moments, but that’s not there the whole time. There’s never anything gratuitous. It’s justified. Norman won’t just do something for the hell of it. It’s not the case that you’ll be seeing deaths every episode and people just being killed. It’s a more long-term vision of seeing him develop. You get to know characters, and then they might have to be let go.
Bates Motel airs on Monday nights on A&E.