Notch another kill on the board for Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore). In the Season 3 finale, Norman in his alternate fugue-state as “Mother” killed off Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz). So where shall Season 4 find Norman and who is going to figure out that he is clearly losing his grasp on reality and poses a threat to everyone around him?
In trying to get a few clues, we visited the set of BATES MOTEL and during a press interview, star Freddie Highmore talked about what is going on with Norman this season and what it is like for him to portray “Mother” as well as Norman as the show moves forward towards its inevitable conclusion as seen in the film “Psycho.”
Will we get to see a bit more of Norman’s past this next season, like his life before he and Norma (Vera Farmiga) moved to White Pines Bay?
FREDDIE: Yes. It’s not only looking at Norman’s past but it is an attempt to analyze in greater depth what is actually wrong with Norman. I guess that is the first step towards the point, which we know will never arrive, that one with Norman finally recovering and being better, and that first step is understanding exactly what goes on inside his head. So that is a big part of the season — both Norman himself and other people are trying to help him and really trying to get out of whatever condition it is that we may find that he has.
Talking a little bit about walking that line with Norman, because you’re right, we do know that the help that he receives will not help him. Yet the audience wants him to get better. So can you talk a little bit about playing that?
FREDDIE: I think it is great as an actor to have that sense of impending doom because you can play against it and that’s what the writing is so clever as doing as well. You can set Norman up to be the nicest guy possible because in the back of people’s minds as they watch is the sense of, “we know what is really going to happen.” So it is fun to make him as charming and as lovable as far as possible, and so far it is possible, and then eventually the rug will be ripped away from beneath the audience’s feet.
What was something you wanted to be sure to include in the script that you have written for this season?
FREDDIE: There’s a great scene in the script. There’s certainly more “Psycho” references coming this season. I mean there’s in the beginning, in the first episode, we see the bunny that will ultimately appear in “Psycho,” or was in “Psycho” depending at which way you look at the chronology of the whole thing, and that plays its own storyline. There’s certainly something in the episode I wrote as well that is a creation that will appear in “Psycho” later on and something that we will recognize from that.
In writing that episode, how did it maybe change the way you were looking at things because looking at it from an actor and from an writer [perspective] might be two different viewpoints. So did you see that at all?
FREDDIE: Yes, it was great. I’m so lucky and grateful to Kerry [Ehrin] and Carlton [Cuse] for allowing me to write an episode and to spend time in the writer’s room with the other writers too and sort of pitching out ideas for the season and for my particular episode. I guess in a way, because the show is very much character driven as opposed to this mystery of the week or the kill of the week, the way the writers approach BATES MOTEL is somewhat similar to the way that I find as an actor that I sort of approach making that arc of Norman because it is very much getting inside and getting to know that world so well. I guess after four seasons I am sort of fortunate to have that knowledge of what we are doing.
Something that is really interesting in the first few episodes that we have seen is Norman’s shift from a more sympathetic character to someone who is very sinister and someone that we start to be afraid of, like we eventually do in “Psycho.” Can you talk about leaning into that and having Norman be a character to be afraid of?
FREDDIE: Yeah, I think that is particularly true of perhaps the second episode and further down the season. I think there’s a Machiavellian side to Norman that we will see developing this year which is all about sort of self-preservation — making sure that Norman is the one who will survive, as we know he must — and that side of him is very much brought out with the development of this Mother character who appears to him more and more, this imaginary version of her, and she will do sort of whatever it takes to make sure that Norman will be around forever.
For you, what are you doing like acting in a way will hopefully draw out some sort of fear in the audience? Do you just lean into it?
FREDDIE: [Laughs] I guess you just hope that people find you scary. I do think, as you were saying before, that sense of knowing the horror that is to come, almost like a smile and Norman being particularly charming with his mother is worse than an over-wrought emotional scene. That’s what I like in the second episode, this sense of these real characters who aren’t sort of hyperbolized and drawn out to these extremes and caricatures. There’s very much a sense of two people pitting themselves against each other. It’s underplaying those emotions that I think will ultimately make people find Norman most scary as opposed to sort of shouting louder or being bigger.
How did you prepare for playing Norman in the role of “Mother”?
FREDDIE: That’s been a particular joy of this season — is working with Vera in creating this “Mother” character. So at the end of Season 3, the great tease of what is to come a lot more in the fourth season was where we see Bradley being killed and Norman sort of comes around the car and then there is this switch and we see “Mother” Norma, as Vera, take Bradley and sort of bash her into the ground. We see that “Mother” Norma physically kill — seeing it from Norman’s perspective, I guess — and there are lots more scenes like that this season where both Vera and I sort of interchange in playing the role of Mother during one particular scene. So often I watch one take that she does and she will sort of come back to the monitors and what the scene that I am doing and there’s this great sort of fun sense that I have never done before of collaborating closely with someone else to create this one singular character. So that has been great fun.
Norman has never really been the picture of mental health, but he was certainly sweeter and more lovable and now we see him becoming what we ultimately know he is going to become. How much did you sort of have that progress charted out in your mind as you play him?
FREDDIE: I thought you were saying “in your personal life.” Like, “clearly, you yourself have grown up and become evil!” [Laughs] I guess I felt particularly, from the very beginning, knowing exactly where Norman was going — at least in my mind — the writers have various ideas as to “Psycho” is going to be the absolute very end, but if we move past that point and get there, it is not set in stone. But knowing exactly where Norman is going is a pretty rare thing. To know that my character is going to be this and kind of plot out those points season after season and re-watch “Psycho” in between every one so that you make sure that you are making that transition. Obviously, it is there in the writing. But it is not like it was a mystery from the beginning of where your character is going. I think that must be really tricky, like for Nestor [Carbonell] for example, who plays Sheriff Romero and who has always been this slightly mysterious figure and has a great storyline this season, but it is not necessarily something that you would see coming at the beginning of Season 1 and he would not be aware of where it is going to go. So I feel lucky to have been in the know from the beginning.
You say that you watch “Psycho” before every season, do you get something new out of it each time, like a new perspective?
FREDDIE: Yes, and actually this season we went as a team of writers with a couple of people from Universal to see “Psycho” on the big screen. It was the first time I had done that, which was great. Obviously, his performance was so iconic — Anthony Perkins — and it has always been a source of inspiration. But I think at the same time we also felt free to make Norman and the world he inhabits our own and not necessarily feel tied to it.
How manipulative are we going to see Norman become? Because we saw in the first two episodes that he is starting to turn the narrative on his mother and saying, “You’re the one who is insane and I want to help you.” So how much are we going to be seeing the ripple effects of that this season, especially as they are separated?
FREDDIE: I guess there is a moment of realization for Norman pretty soon after the second episode and gains a certain awareness about the truth about certain actions in the past that it becomes less about disbelieving his mother in that way and more about starting to distrust her as opposed to thinking that she is this sort of mad person that he may have imagined, like in the second episode at times. It becomes a much more real — like they start lying to each other and start not being entirely honest on so many levels that it ultimately sort of forces them apart, both physically and emotionally.
Will there be a lot more manipulation of the audience? Like we will see Norma doing something that might have actually been Norman?
FREDDIE: Yes, and I think that sense of perspective is certainly played with this season. Are we watching stuff from Norman’s mind? Is it this sort of narrator of the piece if it were a book? Is it entirely reliable? Hopefully there will be certain moments where people are tricked as to whether or not what we are seeing is taking place in Norman’s mind or in reality.
How does Norman take to the new agreement of sorts between Norma and Romero?
FREDDIE: [Laughs] I guess not so well. I think Norman has always kept a certain distance from Sheriff Romero and that is only expanded in this season.
Can you talk a little bit about tackling the mental health aspect of this season, not only Norman’s struggle with his mental health, but your preparation and the care in which the show and you have taken with it?
FREDDIE: I guess Kerry [Ehrin] in particular has been very methodical and sort of in-depth in her analysis of what Norman’s particular problem could be. That is something that is sort of revealed over the course of the season. There’s been an attempt to suggest what real-life problem Norman could be dealing with in this world of BATES MOTEL. And it’s not conclusive and it’s not this sort of simple solution of: Norman Bates is this. But it goes some way to linking it to a form of reality, a sort of scientific way that the show hasn’t before.
Is there room for romantic-love still in his life, or is it completely off the table?
FREDDIE: I guess with his mother. I think they have the best sort of love between a mother and son. I think that is the real romance of Bates Motel. It always has been Norma and Norman, and I think as the season develops, it’s sort of just the realization dawns that the two of them will always have to be together and have to rely on each other.
How much are Norman’s daddy issues going to come into play this season?
FREDDIE: Not a huge amount. It’s funny you see one scene and it’s like “it’s all about the dad!” But I guess in a way, the digging up of the past serves to explain how — first of all, to understand and gain more sympathy for Norma and what she has struggled through — and also, how and the reasons why Norma and Norman have been and will always have to be so, so close together, and have always needed to rely on each other.
Has what you’ve gone through as Norman, how refreshing is it for you to get to some of the stuff that maybe you wondered about?
FREDDIE: Certainly, Norman’s storyline this season is less about being tied in with a sort of overarching plot, and it’s more this quest for self-discovery and also discovery about who his mother really is and what her priorities are.
Knowing that Season 5 is the last season, how do you see the show escalating to that point beyond Norman’s struggle with his mental health?
FREDDIE: I think the crux of the show, moving towards that inevitable end, has always been the relationship between Norma and Norman. The fact that people leave, people drop off, and this sort of autonomy is going to have to center in on the two of them by the end of Season 5. And so, whether that means people all around that sort of central core, unfortunately, dying or leaving, it sort of moves towards that inevitable conclusion at the end of 5, I would imagine, of it being just the two of them.
You have been working on this other comedy with Kerry [Ehrin]?
FREDDIE: Oh, yeah. That was last year. So we wrote this sort of — well, they commissioned the pilot, and then we never sort of went past that stage.
What was that experience like? Obviously you came back and you wrote this. Do you want to partner with Kerry on something else?
FREDDIE: Obviously Kerry’s a fantastic writer, so I’m very lucky that she’s taken me under her wing. And yeah, I’d love to write more, be that BATES MOTEL or other things, certainly. I mean, I think I’ve always seen myself moving into — kind of until a year or two ago when I was at university — there was always this sense of combining acting with something else, and now it’s that sort of, “Oh, what’s the other thing that I’m going to be doing, or sort of combining acting with?” And whether acting on its own is going to be ultimately sort of self-fulfilling or whether I’ll need– want to do more stuff and be involved in other ways.
What do you think it is about this show that invites you to get involved in a different part of the process?
FREDDIE: I think it’s a very small cast of characters, and so everyone knows the show. Everyone who has been on it since the beginning knows it so intimately. I guess all people on a television show, after a while, I’d imagine most of them talk about a family dynamic and “we’re all each other’s best friends.” But I think that that’s particularly true on BATES MOTEL, because it is such a small core group of people, which I know from the sort of writing perspective makes it tricky, because it always depends on those intricate nuanced things between a small group as opposed to having this massive cast that you can create endless storylines from.
How long does it take you to get back into Norman after several months away between seasons?
FREDDIE: [Laughs] Well, hopefully not too long. I always come out a little bit early and this year, there’s always been a slight sense of this sort of artificial break between seasons that slightly led into wanting to write, because you put so much into something for four or five months of shooting, and then it seems weird to just sort of completely drop it, to move away, and to return a few months later and starting it fresh. What was great this hiatus was the chance to be involved with the writers’ team, and there was this sense of continuing all the way through, into the fourth season. And hopefully that’ll be the same again for the fifth season, so it doesn’t feel, as you say, that you’re stop-starting all of the time, and you feel this sort of permanent presence throughout.
Is there something in the coming season that you’re most excited about the fans seeing?
FREDDIE: Yeah. Relationships. Bunnies. Oh, I don’t know. [Laughs] You’re gonna try and be clever and then I’ll just give it away.
Does Norman sense that his brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) is pulling away?
FREDDIE: In part, but I don’t think that bothers Norman particularly. He’s not — I was gonna say “he’s not crazy” — he’s not completely devoid of emotion and sees for Dylan and Emma, and opposed to resenting them for it, I think throughout the season that is something we see him embrace more and more. This idea that the two of them might be this great couple, as opposed to hating on that dynamic from the beginning. So he’s not without heart, and he doesn’t particularly turn against his brother or resent him for being involved with Emma. They go and play croquet together. That’s in [this episode].
Would you consider Norman this season being his most violent, or does somebody actually help him?
FREDDIE: He’s not particularly violent this season. There is a sense of both him and others wanting to control his behavior. And that’s not to say there won’t be moments which he snaps, but hopefully it always is understandable why he acts the way that he does. I think that’s the key thing in this season as well, is whatever the big plot points are from Norman’s perspective, it is having this sense of being with him on his journey, and understanding the things that he does, from this genuine place of compassion with him, as opposed to him becoming this heartless killer. It’s more like whatever the people that he may end up killing, you sort of understand it, and you can’t necessarily fault him for it entirely.
Is there anything that we haven’t touched upon this season, that you think is really interesting?
FREDDIE: The bunny! The bunny returns. I guess there’s this sense of mystery. I like these little moments that ultimately culminate into creating the world of “Psycho.” There is a sense this season of more of those objects or artifactual places over even people that you know you’re going to meet one day in “Psycho,” and you start to recognize from that world, as the end draws nearer.
Is it foreseeable to see that Norman could pose a real threat towards his brother or even Sheriff Romero, who is getting closer to his family?
FREDDIE: Yeah. I think, in particular, Norman’s attitude towards Sheriff Romero will pit the two of them against each other as the season draws to a close.
To see if indeed Sheriff Romero ends up being the greatest threat to Norman or visa versa, be sure to tune in for the Season 4 premiere of BATES MOTEL on Monday, March 7th at 9:00 p.m. on A&E. (BATES MOTEL airs Monday nights on A&E, followed by the new A&E drama series DAMIEN starting March 7th.)