…but 21-year-old Freddie Highmore has the Psycho stare, he tells Gerard Gilbert, as he takes on one of the screen’s best-known roles
So now we know – Peter Pan grew up to be Norman Bates. In terms of Freddie Highmore’s career he did at least. The 21-year-old British actor who shot to international stardom at the age of 12 opposite Johnny Depp in the JM Barrie biopic Finding Neverland (and later took the title role in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) now embarks on his adult career playing the twitchy, mother-obsessed motel-keeper first witnessed in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Pyscho. It’s quite a jump.
In the new US cable television prequel, Bates Motel, Norman is a 17-year-old high school student popular with the girls, his mother, Norma, is still alive and – oh yes – it’s set in the present. Throw in Chinese sex-traffickers, marijuana farmers and a town full of sinister oddballs and you have got something strange indeed – Breaking Bad meets Dexter with a –dollop of Gossip Girl, perhaps, or another twist on Twin Peaks.
“I’ve never seen Twin Peaks so I can’t comment,” says Highmore when we meet. “But people have said there’s this ‘Twin Peaksness’ to the dodgy town in the show.” The drama’s co-creator (and formerly the head writer on Lost), Carlton Cuse, has been more explicit. “We pretty much ripped off Twin Peaks,” he told American journalists. “They only did 30 episodes… I thought we’d do the 70 that are missing.”
Bates Motel comes close on the heels of another TV prequel about a popular fictional killer, NBC’s Hannibal. It also follows three Psycho sequels (all of them with Anthony Perkins), Gus Van Sant’s shot- for-shot 1998 re-make of Hitchcock’s original, this time starring Vince Vaughn as Norman, and a failed TV pilot, also called Bates Motel. This new re-incarnation has intrigued critics and viewers however, and has been re-commissioned for a second season.
Highmore gives a cleverly understated portrayal. “There was never any attempt to mimic Anthony Perkins’s performance but you take things from his quirks and traits and try and use them,” he says. The young actor also gives an uncannily good Norman Bates stare. “Lots of people have mentioned that stare to me… I guess you come up with ideas and practise. There’s a danger of doing too much too soon though. It’s tempting when you have a story about Norman and his mother to have him dressing up in her clothes in the first episode, but it’s more delicious to see that take place subtly and over time.”
And on the subject of Mrs Bates, Vera Farmiga is terrific as the smother-mother with the seeming potential for incest. Highmore isn’t so sure about that. “Norman and Norma… they may look at each other, but there’s nothing that’s explicitly wrong with it,” he says. “Yet people are ‘Oh, it’s very dodgy their relationship’. But the show is more suggestive than conclusive in that way, and Vera maintains that she thinks it’s an innocent relationship – just a mum trying to do the best for her kid.”
Farmiga, who was Oscar-nominated for her role in the 2009 George Clooney film Up in the Air, might have been being slightly disingenuous. She certainly gets many of the best lines, aided by the audience’s fore-knowledge of Psycho. There’s a deliciously cruel scene in the second episode, for example, when Norman invites a female classmate home to study, and Norma, learning that the girl has cystic fibrosis (as does series writer Bill Balas), bluntly asks her about her life expectancy. When she replies “27″, the look of relief on Farmiga’s face is deepest black comedy.
Highmore’s own mother is the talent agent Sue Latimer, whose clients include Daniel Radcliffe. “He’s a few years older than me but our families have known each other for ages,” says Highmore. “Dan and I used to play together on the beach.” And with his father, the former Howard’s Way actor Edward Highmore, also in the profession, it’s easy to see how Highmore has kept grounded.
He is three years into a four-year languages degree at Cambridge, studying Spanish and Arabic, and managed to film Bates Motel in the four months when he wasn’t living in Madrid as part of his course. He says he still hasn’t decided whether to make a career out of acting – using his Arabic in the services of MI5 being another option. “Being a spy, that’s what people always think about when they hear you’re learning Arabic.”
The series was filmed in Vancouver, although the famous motel itself apparently remains incomplete. “The house is actually chopped off,” he says. “You only get the first two floors, with the rest added by CGI later.” Highmore first saw Hitchock’s version when he was 13. “Is that too young? The funny thing about Psycho is there’s nothing explicit. I think at the time the most shocking thing is they showed a flushing toilet” (cascading loos had never been shown in mainstream films or television before Pyscho).
Anthony Perkins, one of the most promising actors of his generation (he was Oscar-nominated in only his second film, Friendly Persuasion), never really saw his career properly recover from playing the cross-dressing lady-slayer who lives happily with his dead mum. He spent most of the 1960s in Europe – most notably as Josef K in Orson Welles’s 1962 adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial – before semi-rehabilitation in the more permissive Hollywood of the 1970s. It seems highly unlikely anything similar will befall Highmore – we’re used to our anti-heroes now and anyway, his version is more ambiguous. “Hopefully people will disagree whether Norman is nice and somebody we should be rooting for, or not,” he says. “I think there’s this weird sense of hope that Norman won’t go down the path that we know he must.
“The good thing about Bates Motel is that I’ll be around until the end. I think all of the other actors will probably be wondering when they’re going to die, asking ‘when’s he going to do me in?’ Even Norma isn’t looking so good … she’d better watch out.”
On September 17th, 2013, Bates Motel: Season One arrives on Blu-ray and DVD.
From the producers of “Lost” and “Friday Night Lights” comes the “moody, twisty, creepy and gloriously insane” (Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times) “Bates Motel”: Season One. This re-imagining of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s beloved masterpieces weaves a web of deception, murder, and unexpected twists in a small town where nothing is what it seems.
“Bates Motel”: Season One also stars Nestor Carbonell (Lost), Max Thieriot (House at the End of the Street), Mike Vogel (Cloverfield), Nicola Peltz (The Last Airbender) and Olivia Cooke (Blackout). Filled with gruesome horrors, nail-biting suspense, and an eerie visual landscape ideal for Blu-ray™ Hi-Def, experience all 10 episodes back-to-back and uninterrupted of the hit series critics say is “impossible to look away” (Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times). The Blu-ray™ and DVD also include a set of collector cards featuring artwork from the show (“Jiao’s Sketchbook”) for a limited time only.
“Bates Motel” was A&E’s most-watched original drama series debut in the network’s history. Be sure to watch more drama unfold with season two on A&E in 2014.
Blu-ray and DVD bonus features include deleted scenes and a the featurette Paley Center Panel Discussion with the Cast and Creative Team.
I have added a scan from the new issue of TV Guide. Thanks to my friend Claudia for donating it!
“Bates Motel” was one of the best surprises of the most recent TV season and much of that was due to Vera Farmiga’s captivating performance as fiercely protective single mother Norma Bates.
The series serves as a sort of prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho,” in which Norma’s son Norman is infamously revealed as a cross-dressing murderer. But in A&E’s show, he’s just a lost teenager (beautifully played by Freddie Highmore) trying to fit in.
Farmiga earned a well-deserved Emmy nomination for her performance and “Bates Motel” will return to A&E in 2014 for Season 2, which promises to reveal more about Norma (who revealed she was sexually abused by her brother as a child) and Norman (who was last seen leaving the home of a murdered teacher, though his responsibility in the crime remains an open question).
Farmiga recently fielded questions about the series, Emmy attention and Season 2 in a roundtable discussion at Comic-Con, the highlights follow.
Congratulations on the Emmy nomination! Were you surprised?
Vera Farmiga: I don’t know. You know, I don’t watch television. I’ve never seen a single episode of Claire [Danes'] show. I know Robin Wright personally, because we worked on [the 2006 movie] “Breaking and Entering.” [pause] Over the last couple of months the press had been instigating a lot of wonderful things, there was a lot of buzz and you start believing the buzz and thinking ‘Maybe it’s possible.’
I had been filming ‘The Judge’ with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall all summer so I didn’t campaign. The studio did on my behalf which I’m really grateful for. You know how it works, it’s political. All of a sudden I see Kerry Washington on every cover of every magazine and I think ‘Eh, forget it. It’s not gonna happen.’
My husband was rooting for me especially. He’s the one who gets to see me after a 16-17 hour day come home and still try to be present for my own children and keep Norma Bates out of the equation. He woke up and watched it on Emmys.com. Right before the category [was announced] he took a tremendous chance and pulled the down comforter off [the bed] and handed me a cup of coffee and said ‘Look!’ Sure enough, the category came up and I think my name was third. It’s the most powerful form of encouragement, it’s incredible.
Do you bring Norma home with you when you’re working?
I’m not that kind of actor. I do get exhausted, of course you do. It’s a rigorous role and it’s emotional. I’m pretty winded at the end of the day. In that way [it comes home] but not in terms of mental health.
Does being a mother to two young children yourself impact how you play the role?
I see how my sensibilities and decisions shape my children. I don’t know if my theories are going to be correct until 20 years from now. The compassion I have for Norma though — [being a mom] has deepened my work.
You’re one of Norma’s biggest defenders, is that because of your experiences as a mother or would you feel that way about any character you play?
I’m not making a farce here. I need to root for her. I need to present a case for [the audience] because that’s what’s so wonderful about being a viewer, to root for these characters even though you know their demise. Also, in my research, Jeffrey Dahmer’s father wrote a book about the anguish a parent feels in confronting the evil in their children. There are so many testimonials online.
The first thing I did in research is type in ‘mothers of psychopaths.’ Not only the violence but every kind of neurological dysfunction I’ve researched. You can not utter those words, ‘My child has a mental illness,’ without your spirit just collapsing and imploding. On top of this, Norma’s a single mother and she comes with her own dysfunction. Her own instability and a lifetime of pain, anger, guilt, regret. Her way is zipping it up, sandpacking that dam. That’s why you get these little fissures here and there and all of a sudden…
What can we expect from Norma and Norman’s relationship in Season 2?
She can not let him grow into independence or autonomy because he’s neurologically dysfunctioning. She just can’t. I think Season 1 was denial, ‘No, he’s fine! [The violence] is a one time thing.’ I think finally she’s registering he needs help and she wants to fix him. Hopefully Season 2 will be about finding those therapeutic venues.
Will Norma ever be able to find the help she herself needs?
Given her ultimate demise I don’t think she can ever gain complete self-awareness and whole-ism. I would like for her to get really close. Maybe she does. Ultimately you know how she ends up, so we gotta get her there.
We’ve heard Norma’s brother [played by Kenny Johnson of "The Shield" and "Sons of Anarchy"] will be introduced in Season 2. Do you know yet how that will play into Norma and Norman’s dynamic?
I haven’t read that [script] yet. I’m curious myself as to how they’ll approach that. I have a lot of question marks about this. I’ve had a lot of ideas for Carlton but it’s that relationship that really beguiles me.
Do you talk to [creators and showrunners] Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin about story ideas and are they receptive?
I text him all the time. My husband does too. My husband has the best ideas. They’ve utilized pretty much all of them and if they don’t do it this season they’ll wait a season or two. I love that collaboration. It takes a good four or five episodes for everybody to feel comfortable but then it becomes this living, breathing thing. The writers start writing for the actors’ fortes and the actors get confident in themselves and their characters, and I think it becomes a real collaborative thing, if everyone’s open to it. Certainly Carlton and Kerry are.
I added a scan from the new issue of TV Guide. Thanks to my friend Claudia for donating it!
Writer-producer Carlton Cuse and the cast of the hit A&E show stop by our lounge to talk about their geeky childhood obsessions and the festival experience. “I was a spectacle collector, like glasses, and I wanted to be an ophthalmologist,” says Vera Farmiga. “The problem was that I had ace vision.”
Michael Vartan will be filling a key Bates Motel vacancy when the A&E thriller returns for its second season.