Bates Motel star Freddie Highmore talks about his passion for writing and the beautiful, tortured psyche of Norman Bates
There are two things of which I’m completely certain. First, A&E’s Bates Motel finished its fourth season with its most daring, most brilliant, and most astonishingly acted sequence of episodes to date. Second, its star – the young and obscenely talented Freddie Highmore – is the nicest person with whom I have ever spoken.
Frequent readers of AwardsDaily TV are no doubt aware of my enthusiasm for Bates Motel and its creative team / family. This critically acclaimed drama, much like other acclaimed dramas such as The Americans, has been unjustly ignored by the Television Academy since receiving an early nomination for Vera Farmiga way back in season one. But my enthusiasm for the series pales in comparison to that of its creators and stars, particularly Norman Bates himself – Freddie Highmore.
Unencumbered by the need to maintain hip detachment from the material, Freddie Highmore is infectiously enthusiastic about Bates Motel and his place in that world. Refusing to stand by as an actor for hire, Highmore has joined the talented ranks of the writing team in the series’ fourth season with “Unfaithful,” the episode that kicks off an emotionally turbulent end to the season.
That writing talent, coupled with his sensitive and committed portrayal of Norman Bates, cements Freddie Highmore as more than just a well adjusted child star. It gives him the rarified status as a bonafied creative force both in front of and behind the camera. Should the Television Academy fail to recognize this great talent this season, then it is to their immense discredit. Highmore deserves serious consideration for Best Actor as he, alongside his ingenious writer’s room, brought Norman Bates to the infamous act made classic by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Oh yeah, and did I mention that Freddie Highmore is literally the nicest person I’ve ever “met?”
AwardsDaily TV: First off, Freddie Highmore, I want to congratulate you on the season and your outstanding performance. I can’t imagine the emotional commitment it took to get through this season.
Freddie Highmore: Oh well thank you. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it, but [laughs] I’ve stayed sane! People seem to assume that I must have gone completely crazy myself, but no. All is well. I survived too.
ADTV: Given that you obviously knew what was coming at the end of season four and how traumatic it would be for your character, how did you mentally prepare for the season?
FH: Well, there was no particularly special preparation as such. In a way, it never quite seemed real that Norma was dead until it actually went on air and people started asking questions about it. There’s a sense that “Oh, it’s not actually happened yet.” And like Norman, perhaps deludedly, you want to maintain hope in the show… you want to side with Norman and you maintain this deluded belief that he does that she’s going to come back. And you want them to be there together… Perhaps that sense of optimism Norman maintained had, to some extent, infected everyone with this misguided sense of belief that what was going to happen actually wasn’t going to be the case.
ADTV: Yeah, I actually lobbied quite a bit for Kerry [Ehrin, writer/producer] to flip the script so that Norma didn’t have to die. I knew somebody had to die. I didn’t care who it was. I just didn’t want it to be Norma.
FH: And of course what an amazing performance [Vera Farmiga’s] given as Norma! Obviously her role on the show will continue to be ever-present with the evolution into something else. I just think that’s what this season has been looking back on… Time to celebrate the amazing life of Norma Bates. I’ve just been so lucky to work with her throughout it all.
ADTV: So, given the ending was predefined by Psycho coupled with the highly collaborative environment of Bates Motel, did you have any influence with the writing team about how to steer Norman down this path?
FH: Oh yes, I was fortunate this year that Kerry and Carlton let me be a part of the writing team, and so I was in the writing room sort of before we started shooting. I ended up writing eighth episode of the season. So, in that way, I did have a direct involvement with the way things progressed. This year, from Norman’s point of view, there was a focus on trying to maintain his likability while at the same time we see him mature into a more Macheiavellian personality – someone who understands emotion on such a deep level but he’s capable of manipulating people in order to get his own way.And I think this season too has just shown heartbreakingly how strong the bond between Norma and Norman is and the depth of his love for her. The ultimate act that he does, in his deluded mind, is an act of love, and he’s doing what he thinks is best for them to be able to live happily ever after together. It’s not out of jealousy for Romero [Nestor Carbonell] or out of wanting to sort of plant a seed down and say, “Look, I’m the man of the house. I’ve returned.” It definitely comes from this innate understanding really that Norma and Norman have to be together. The tragedy of the whole piece is that they need each other more than anyone else, and he feels that trying to take them both out together is their best chance of moving on together into the dreamy world of Hawaii. [Laughs]
ADTV: Yes, the elusive vision of Hawaii… Earlier, you mention writing the episode “Unfaithful.” How was that process for you and is that something you’d want to do more of?
FH: Yes! I loved it. It was a brilliant experience. I would like to do more writing as a sort of gateway into writing other things and of being involved in projects from the very beginning through to the very end – that sort of being a part of the broader process rather than just being a smaller part of it. And I think that’s where the desire came from. Working on Bates, you sort of go away between seasons, and I was left with this feeling that I wanted to be a part of it in between seasons as opposed to giving so much for five months and then buggering off back to Britain. It was that desire to not feel as pithy in the process of Bates Motel and just looking forward for the opportunity to develop my own things would be brilliant.
ADTV: One of the things that I was most thankful about at the end of the season was that Norman didn’t violently kill Norma. Tell me how it was to film the scene where you’re singing her to sleep just before the gas comes on and then in the next episode you’re glueing her eyes open because she won’t come back to you. That’s such a massive dichotomy…
FH: Yes, we shot chronologically episode by episode, so that last episode was a mad seven or eight days. I guess that goodbye scene in a way it was one of the happier scenes that ultimately Norman and Norma have had together, and I think Norman himself loses himself in that moment and feels content and feels complete. He’s made his decision, and that has come on before when he’s seen how heartbroken she is when he has that moment of self-awareness in the mirror with the robe. I think now it’s the aftermath of that, and they’re truly at one together and at peace. What I love about Kerry and Carlton’s vision… Is this whole idea that Norman thinks she’s going to come back to him and that it’s part of this master plan, particularly when he’s railing at her at the funeral… It’s that dark humor of Bates Motel that’s so engaging and so important to the tone so that it doesn’t descend into horror after horror.
And, as you say, that dark humor behind the eyes being glued open, and at the same time there’s this innocence and genuineness that Norman believes that will somehow get her back and bring her back to him. Ultimately, he’s right! [Laughs] Ultimately, she does return. I think with – particularly the last few episodes – you have to play it straight. Norman is at his most genuine in the last two episodes of the season when he’s sort of being completely honest and the audience is on his side and knows what he’s genuinely thinking. He’s not trying to trick the audience – he’s letting them inside his genuine thoughts and processes. That’s what’s so key moving forward – to understanding what Norman is really thinking when he’s deceiving people and when he’s not as opposed to having him deceive the audience, if that makes sense.
ADTV: Yes, it does completely. As I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of your performance as Norman. How do you make that unique against the public persona of what [Psycho star] Anthony Perkins was able to do with the same character?
FH: I guess I’ve never thought to mimic Anthony Perkins’s iconic performance. It’s always served as a source of inspiration as of course the film has for everyone, but we’ve never felt 100 percent tied to it. It was more the mythology of Psycho we were working with as opposed to a true prequel. So, that helped everyone feel free to create their own version of events. Of course, I didn’t want to completely relinquish what Anthony Perkins did, but, at the same time, I wanted to make it something different while putting it into the contemporary setting that Bates Motel has.
ADTV: Where do you take your career now that you’ve played one of our culture’s most notorious serial killers?
FH: [Laughs] Well, we’ve got one more season which will be an incredibly exciting season. It’s almost a whole new show again where we’re setting up these rules and new relationship between Norman and Norma. That will be incredibly exciting. I guess other than Bates it would be nice to do a comedy. [Laughs] Do something different, but I’ve never felt tied to a particular genre or character. I’ve always wanted to try new things and not get stuck in a particular rut if I’m lucky.
ADTV: I recently spoke with Kerry [Ehrin], and I have to say the excitement in your voice about season five mimics hers so I cannot wait to see what you guys have in store for us.
FH: [Laughs] It’ll be good fun!
Freddie Highmore will return to Bates Motel when it airs the final season in 2017.