Freddie Highmore and Kerry Ehrin
Closing In On Checkout Time at Bates Motel
by Jay S. Jacobs
Season four of the acclaimed drama Bates Motel has taken some turns for the strange and the dark. This should not surprise us too much – after all the main characters of the show are Norman and Norma Bates, arguably the most dysfunctional son and mother duo in pop culture, their horrific relationship cemented in our minds through a short final segment of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic film Psycho.
However, when writer/producers Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse decided they wanted to reinvent the story of the family with their modern prequel Bates Motel, they were determined not to slavishly follow the lead of the Hitchcock masterpiece. For example, Norma – who we really never got to know in the original – as played by the wonderful Vera Farmiga, turns out to be a much kinder, more loving character than we were led to believe, though she is still deeply flawed.
They were also determined to follow Norman’s mental break from reality over a period of years. When we were first introduced to Norman, as wonderfully played by British former child star Freddie Highmore, although he was obviously touched, hope could be held out that he could be saved. Slowly through the seasons, we have watched Norman’s mental health breaking down. Finally, in season four, Norma was so scared for her son that she had to have him committed to a mental institution.
As the year has creeped forward, Norman has been stewing about his commitment and been showing more and more signs of losing touch with reality – though he has also shown a cunning ability to hide his mental quirks. Norma, on the other hand, seems to have finally found true love with local Sheriff Romero (well played by Nestor Carbonell, check out our interview with him from last week), a situation that disturbs Norman to no end.
This is all coming to a head in the next episode, which was written by Highmore, in which Norman returns home and starts a power struggle with the new man in Norma’s life.
As the fourth season is winding down and situations are getting more and more dire in the world of Norma and Norman Bates, we were one of a group of outlets who were able to chat with Highmore and Kerry Ehrin about his episode and the upcoming end of season four.
Freddie, I love your portrayal this season and am excited to see the episode that you wrote. Is writing something that you want to get into more, or directing?
Freddie Highmore: Yes, I’d love to. First of all, I’m obviously incredibly grateful to [co-creator] Carlton [Cuse] and Kerry for allowing me into the writers room. Giving me an opportunity to write an episode and be a part of Bates Motel beyond merely acting. I guess it was borne out of the desire to be involved in the wider process. It just seemed a little odd to me to put so much into this character for the four, five months that we shoot in Vancouver and then let it completely go away and ignore it for a few months. Then come back and be like: oh, let’s just see what’s been happening. I wanted to continue to be involved in the wider process of creating the character. So that’s I guess where the desire was borne out of. Now very much so I love the writing experience on Bates Motel and being part of that team. I am writing more things.
Kerry, are you doing the Vulcan mind meld with Freddie to give him your thought process in creating the story?
Kerry Ehrin: (laughs) I would say that Freddie and I have a natural Vulcan mind meld. We’ve always had a very, very weirdly idiosyncratic sensibility. That’s just been great. We’ve always talked creatively, talked about writing. This has just been a really great experience to bring him into the workshop of how you run a room. How you put a story together. Just to see behind the veil how that happens.
Freddie, what was the biggest challenge in writing the episode, and who was the character that was the hardest for you to write for?
Kerry Ehrin: That’s a good question.
Freddie Highmore: Interesting.
Kerry Ehrin: I think I know the answer. (laughs)
Freddie Highmore: What do you think the answer is?
Kerry Ehrin: I won’t say. You go ahead and I’ll tell you if I’m right.
Freddie Highmore: Then you’ll tell me if I’m right. No, you’re wrong. I don’t know. In terms of the writing rooms in general, I guess the hardest thing was to create the dynamic. I didn’t have any scenes actually with Dr. Edwards [ed. note: Norman’s psychiatrist played by Damon Gupton] in my episode. If you know the tone of these characters that you’ve lived with for so long, and the introduction of new characters that you don’t know so well, it’s very much getting on the same page as everyone in the room without any actual physical scenes to watch and to get into. I’m not sure if that’s just avoiding your question, but Kerry will tell you what I struggled with more.
Kerry Ehrin: (laughs) Well, it was really interesting because, first of all it was great to have him in the room because it was such a presence of Norman. Just because Freddie has lived inside that role and experienced it in all dimensions. So that was really interesting but I had thought perhaps, especially because in [episode] 408, the interaction with Romero, I would have thought might be the hardest. Romero might be the hardest character to get inside of as a writer because as an actor he’s in a place where he really does not like him. (laughs again) So I just thought that would be a very interesting thing from a writing point of view. I wondered how he handled that.
Freddie Highmore: There is certainly a sense of battle of control between Norman and Romero in this episode. I guess secretly inside you’re like, Norman’s just got to win all these battles, just to be proven right. Then you have to set your character’s self-interest aside and figure out what’s best for the story.
Kerry Ehrin: Well, yes, right. And for Romero because you have to get inside them. A little funny dynamic.
How do you think being separated from Norma has allowed Norman to evolve and to change?
Freddie Highmore: Part of the interesting thing about having separated Norma and Norman is that we’ve allowed the mother side to Norman to develop greater. That is borne out of the fact that they are physically apart, so through that sense of missing for her and yearning for her, he at times has visions of her. Or more commonly starts to slip into that guise of being her. That’s what was fascinating for me this season, those moments of transitions in scenes with Dr. Edwards, for example, where we see Norman slip into the guise of mother and take on this other side. I feel like that is released because of their physical separation. So that’s been really, really fun to play.
Like your character, you agree that he may have been better off just staying at home rather than going into Pine View?
Freddie Highmore: Well, I feel like they have to be together. There’s a scene at the end of [episode] eight when Norman says this to Norma. The whole Romero thing comes to the fore in number eight. (long pause) They do have to be together. They need to be with each other in order to function. In a way from Norma’s point of view, I feel she slightly deludes herself by living in this dream, this very happy reality that she created with Romero. But when Norman comes home, as he eventually will – we know from the story that he’s going to have to come back – it becomes revealed as more of a fantasy and of a dream of another life. But it’s not a life that she can ever actually leave. So I think Norman, in number eight, in a scene towards the end, really latches onto that idea of knowing how inseparable they really are. As much as they want to deny it, or as much as they wish that it might not be true, it always will be. No one will be able to get in between the two of them. No one will be able to break that cord.
Kerry, last week Carlton mentioned he’s sometimes a little frustrated because he doesn’t think Bates Motel is as recognized as it should be based on the quality level. What influence do you think Bates Motel has had on television? For example, since it started there have been five other series based on horror movies. Certainly not a new thing, it’s been happening for years, but do you think that would have happened without a quality show like Bates Motel?
Kerry Ehrin: It’s a good question. I’m sure that it has influenced certain areas of development, because any successful show does. I mean I promise you there are a lot of people trying to figure out how to do [The People vs.] OJ Simpson as we speak. That’s just how it works. It’s hard for me to speak to the influence it’s had because honestly, as a creator, I live so much inside of it. I agree with Carlton that the show is so good. The acting is so good and it really deserves to be recognized. We both get frustrated about that.
Freddie Highmore: I think what Kerry and Carlton have done so successfully with the show hopefully will influence the way in which other television shows can be made. Without the background of Psycho, without this story being told within that backdrop and as a prequel to Hitchcock’s Psycho, which everyone knows, I wonder whether the show would have been able to be made in the first place. Just based on this reasonably small premise of a relationship between the mother and the son, and the intricacies of that, and what it means. It’s so interesting – Bates Motel – sometimes people talk about it in the horror genre, but I really think it’s more of a psychological thriller. Or just this psychological romance or love story. I think Kerry and Carlton have been amazing in digging out the nuances and the intricacies of a show based around one relationship between these two people. Hopefully that just proves that even if a premise seems on the face of it relatively small, there’s so many intricacies in people, and the way in which people live their lives. That means you can make a show out of just that, out of just one single relationship.
Kerry Ehrin: That’s a very good point.
Freddie, when you got into the mindset of writing about Norman, did you learn anything about the character by looking at him in a different way than you normally do as an actor? And Kerry, were you sort of surprised by some of his takes on Norman or even any of the other characters?
Freddie Highmore: What did I do differently, Kerry? Were you surprised?
Kerry Ehrin: Different from what?
Freddie Highmore: Well, from what you might have expected. I don’t know.
Kerry Ehrin: Really, it wasn’t that it was different. It was more that you elevated. It was you have always just completely understood and embraced the sensibility. I can’t honestly say that there were differences. It was just elevated. It was just from the very beginning when we saw Freddie in dailies, and Vera… I don’t even know how to describe it. It was just such a beautiful realization of an emotional story that we had lived with inside of ourselves. Then to see it so beautifully come to life. I suppose that’s always a surprise, because honestly it’s a gift. (laughs) It has a lot to do with chemistry. It has a lot to do with a lot of things. Obviously, Vera and Freddie had never read together. It’s like it just happened on screen and was just so magical. So I don’t know if that answers the question precisely.
Freddie Highmore: I guess the evolution of the script was interesting and a learning experience for me. Especially because almost all of the episodes were written before we started shooting. So by the time you get back to revisiting this episode that you wrote various months ago, you come at it with the extra weight of actually having filmed and experienced everything that you knew was written out that you hadn’t quite shot yet. That was an interesting thing, being able to tweak stuff. Seeing the evolution of the script from that very first draft. Linking it in with the entire arc of the character. I guess number eight becomes quite pivotal for Norman. Obviously, at the end of seven, he’s left the institution and he comes home. So it was an interesting episode from that point of view, because it pushed Norman into this new space and drove him forward with ultimately this fresh motivation. I felt lucky to be able to write that episode because – from Norman’s point of view – it’s a key hinge moment from coming back. I guess we can’t talk about that. (laughs) But that sense of, certainly at the beginning of the episode, Norman is trying to some extent to make things work between the two of them. By the end of the episode, that will all have descended into something else. Norman realizes that perhaps that isn’t possible anymore.
Now, you both mentioned earlier that it looks like there may be some trouble coming up between Norman and Romero. But Norman hasn’t really reacted too much to the fact that Dylan and Emma are now together. I mean he took it lightly the first mention, but do you think that there might be some hard feelings coming down the line on that too?
Freddie Highmore: Well, Norman and Emma have a fun scene. I always describe these scenes as fun. A fun scene for me is a scene that’s just exciting. I’ll describe a killing scene and it was really fun. So do with that what you will, but there’s a really interesting theme between Norman and Emma in this episode. I think [it] goes some way towards keeping the audience on Norman’s side to some extent and really feeling for him. Seeing that he’s not just a lunatic and that he genuinely does have a moral compass.
Norman is an often intense and introverted character. Some actors say that playing roles like that makes it hard for them to separate themselves from the character when they’ve been playing it for a long time. Is that something that you’ve experienced, Freddie?
Freddie Highmore: Not really, no. (Kerry laughs) It’s interesting the sense because someone’s more introverted, it affects you more. Certainly Norman is that. What’s been great about the writing that Kerry has led this season is that it’s really been even more so than before focused on those nuanced interesting moments. The transitions and themes, and the keys to unlocking on a deeper level various relationships. That lends itself towards a more introverted take on the character. For example, we’ve had these great scenes – in episode five – between Norman and Dr. Edwards that run four or five pages. It’s so bold and confident – and trusting too – to allow a scene to play out in full as opposed to feeling the need to cut the time or cut it back for television. Those moments and those long interesting themes have always been championed by Kerry.
In terms of me, no, I haven’t really been that affected by it. You get into it on the day, of course. It’s impossible to be yourself one minute and laughing and happy with everyone, and the next you change and become your character. But I feel like at the end of the day when you leave and go home there isn’t that sense of anything lingering over me. In some ways, not to encourage acting as a form of therapy, but it can be quite cathartic to have a big emotional scene. In the same way when in reality you’re crying with someone, or you shout at someone, and you feel like you vented all of this energy. Then you feel good about yourself and relaxed. Sometimes with Norman. Maybe there is a Norman within me and I’m just allowing him to express it, to make sure it doesn’t impinge on my real life. I don’t know what I’m going to do when the show’s over. Watch out.
As the reimagined story of Psycho is taking its own directions, what are some of the biggest challenges with trying to keep it on track with at least some of the events in the original movie?
Kerry Ehrin: I don’t really see those as challenges. Those are more opportunities. They’re fun. When you can really organically pull in little important bits or an iconic image, a little bit of dialogue, a reference, those are fun. Those are fun to get to use. We use them sparingly. Carlton Cuse and I always from the beginning wanted it to feel like a world of its own. but we wanted certain iconic presences like the house, the Psycho house. When we get to use those things, it’s actually really, really fun. So I wouldn’t say it’s challenging. I’d say it’s delicious.
Freddie Highmore: In number eight there’s actually a big recognizable moment from Psycho that will be revealed, the origin of one of the classic Psycho scenes that will be set up in number eight. It is that sense of, as Kerry was saying, teasing stuff in and having it there but it never taking over the show or never being about…
Kerry Ehrin: It doesn’t lead the story. There’s been quite a few Easter eggs this year. Not gigantic references from Psycho but little ones. Those are fun too.
You’re the embodiment, Freddie, of Norman Bates on screen. By now, you know this character very well. As you were writing the script, did you hear your fellow actors’ voices interacting with you as Norman on the page?
Freddie Highmore: Yes. You hope to embody every character when you’re writing as opposed to just one. Certainly, the scenes where Norman is more dominant you can’t help but see it through his eyes. But I feel like that’s to do with creating the perspective of a scene too. In general with any scene that you write there’s one person in the scene who is maybe driving it, or who is maybe more in control. That can be a useful way into a scene, to approach it through one person’s eyes as opposed to these two people. It was fascinating. Again, I’m just very grateful to have been allowed that opportunity to delve deeper into Norman’s psyche.
What was it like writing from that perspective of an actor having to act these characters?
Freddie Highmore: I guess you hope to do everyone justice. There were certainly fun moments on set when as with every script, someone will say, “Oh, I’m not quite sure about this line.” Like “who on earth wrote this?” (they laugh) Actually I’d be there on set to be like, yes, I guess okay, cut it. It’s not really my decision but don’t tell Kerry if you don’t like it. I feel like everyone appreciated me being there and the input that goes in when writing beyond the mere script. It was useful. We’ve had most of the writers on set for every episode of Bates Motel this season. I think there is something handy in being able to talk things through. There’s such a dialogue on Bates Motel that it was never a sense of “I don’t like this scene,” or “I don’t like this line.” It’s more about: what are you trying to get into, in this moment? Working through those. Solving those little issues. From a writing perspective, I guess you have a little bit more insight because you know the background to everything is so much better having discussed it in the room.
Over the first three seasons, you have slowly sunk into this dissociative state. This season you’ve really fallen into this other persona, the mother. Was there any research or any kind of thing that you did to learn a little more about this sort of mental illness?
Freddie Highmore: Yes, that was something that certainly was discussed in the writer’s room. Kerry has done a lot of research, I know, into the effects of DID and whether Norman himself fits neatly into that description. I don’t think anyone is entirely one thing. But from my point of view, I guess the season arc for Norman has been interesting to both at the same time. Try and maintain people’s sympathy towards him, but also develop this slightly more cunning or Machiavellian side to him. Whereby there’s a sense of self interest in him acting selfishly, when in number seven he says to Julian that he knows how to make people think that he’s normal.
There’s this sense of a trickier, more mature Norman that has come out who knows how to manipulate people. That’s been interesting to play with and to develop. The key with that has been at the same time we must be careful not to know. For the audience to know exactly when Norman is being genuine and when he’s not. So that there’s still a sense of being with him on his journey as opposed to being completely bewildered by whether his actions are merely manipulative or genuinely coming from his heart.
You’re playing this über creepy character to perfection. Are you having very weird dreams?
Freddie Highmore: (laughs) No, I don’t know why everyone thinks that. No, not at all. I think part of it is because towards the end of the season, it’s all going to become more apparent in these last three episodes, but there’s a sense that Norman at the end of this big scene that he has, I think Norman is right. There’s a side to him that’s incredibly insightful. More insightful than any other character on the show. So he’s not completely insane. Maybe this is just me having gone insane defending Norman’s sanity. But I feel like, in some respects, he becomes – not necessarily the sanest person on the show, but certainly one who – you know what I’m trying to say, Kerry.
Kerry Ehrin: I do. He understands the codependent relationship without knowing what to call it. He understands it on a very deep, instinctive level what Norma is trying to do. In that sense he is right. One of the cool things about this episode in particular is that each character has a perspective that makes sense and that is right. That’s what’s so much fun about letting them all loose together. Norman does have an instinctive understanding of his relationship with his mother that is absolutely correct. And that she is trying to deny at the moment.
Kerry, do you have weird dreams?
Kerry Ehrin: I’ve always had weird dreams. (laughs) That has nothing to do with this show, except it may influence the show. But show does not cause them.
In writing Norman and then playing him, how different is it when you’re delivering your own words? Is it more organic?
Freddie Highmore: I guess there’s perhaps a bit more freedom. I’m usually quite precise. The way I approach acting in general is to do a lot of preparation. To know your take on the scene and very deeply. You hit the ground, and do all of that work beforehand. Then when you’re in the scene itself, you can allow yourself a bit more freedom in seeing what happens, but always knowing the backbone of the scene that you predetermined to some extent. I guess with writing, there’s a sense of those processes are all mixed up or condensed. You understand on an instinctive level the motivation behind not only your character but other characters because you’ve been there and written them. So it’s not that the lines aren’t as important, but there’s a sense of: well, this was the intention of the scene. This was the way that I knew along with everyone in the writer’s room that was the point of it. So maybe there’s a bit more freedom in a moment to think not of ad-libbing, making up stuff as you go along, but more freedom to play with stuff and to find different ways of telling what you knew was the original goal of the scene.
What’s the everyday experience like for you of being Norman Bates to so many people?
Freddie Highmore: It’s nice that people appreciate Norman and are on his side, and enjoy the show. It’s always nice to receive lovely feedback on it. At the same time, I don’t know. I’m not on Twitter or I don’t read the reviews. Maybe that’s what helps keep me sane in my real life, the condition between playing Norman and reality, and not confusing the two. Someone suggested the other day I should get an official Norman Bates Twitter account. That if I wasn’t going to go on Twitter, then maybe there should be Norman Bates with a little tick. But I’m not sure, especially given our conversation today, that’s the safest path forward.
Beyond the overarching themes of mental illness and of the Bates Motel functioning as prequel to Psycho, to what extent is there an influence of the Bronte novels in the show?
Kerry Ehrin: There’s a huge influence. From the very, very beginning, because everyone knows it’s Psycho, and everyone knows that it’s Hitchcock. Because that movie is two hours that you can live with Norman and you can feel for him in those two hours. But we’re talking about doing 50 hours of these characters. And it is very intensely about these two characters. I don’t know if any two characters have ever done so much screen time on any show, honestly. It’s kind of amazing. So you need people to buy into this love story, so that they’re on the ride with them. Nobody does that better than the Brontes. I actually studied Victorian Lit in college, so it was a huge influence on me. It was I think probably a personal thing to me to really try to pull out the gothic romantic doomed lovers, but at the same time you desperately wanted things to work out for them. It’s a larger than life love. No one does it better than the Brontes. Thank you for noticing. (laughs) Thank you for the Bronte shout out.
Freddie, when you first found out that you were going to be writing an episode, did you have any specific ideas for what you wanted to do? Or did that come out more in the writer’s room?
Freddie Highmore: That’s the collaborative nature of the writer’s room. You can’t really look back at any finished script and say, oh, this was my idea or this is something that I had pitched. It all becomes mixed up. It all becomes everyone’s opinion. That’s what’s so exciting about the process. You might look back and think, oh, I remember that little line or more things like that. But really, all of the scenes come through because of everyone’s input. Of course, that’s led by Kerry. So there wasn’t this sense of arriving and being like: oh, I’ve got to make sure I get this quirky thing in. Because ultimately it just has to be driven by the characters and what’s right in the moment. That’s not really something that can be predetermined.
Kerry Ehrin: Yes, or isolated.
Freddie Highmore: Or isolated, yes. I guess the other exciting thing about number eight is that I’ve always enjoyed seeing those themes when there’s a slight power play and fight for control between Norman and Romero. Number eight was a perfect opportunity for that, by dint of the storyline. Those were exciting to write. In terms of battle of control, it’s certainly one that Romero often wins but the dark humor underlying all of it to me is that Norman thinks he’s doing so well. He thinks that he can really take on Romero and win. There’s a fun scene at the start of eight that’s built around that.
Kerry Ehrin: I love that scene.
Freddie Highmore: It’s something that becomes more emotional and raw as opposed to two people having a battle of wits.
Freddie, you had a great scene with Damon Gupton at the end of the last episode and it just really showed the vulnerability of Norman as he’s going through these tough times. But I know that he also has this agenda to put on a persona to trick people. So I was curious from your standpoint, do you think that Norman truly is scared as he admitted to Dr. Edwards? Or is that part of his mask to the rest of the world?
Freddie Highmore: It’s a really interesting question because I remember discussing this with Kerry beforehand and Nestor, who obviously directed the scene on the day. To me, I think it ultimately is a mixture of both. I think that he exploits genuine fears that he has and real emotions that he does feel, instead of entirely making them up. But perhaps he puts on a little bit of a show in exaggerating them in the moment. Usually when you’re upset about things, you try hard to cover it up. I always use this phrase of playing against the emotion. I feel like in that moment, Norman perhaps isn’t entirely genuine in that he doesn’t try and behave in the way that usual people would. Hide and cover that emotion up. In doing so, maybe there is a slight sense of manipulation because he’s very open and certainly wants Dr. Edwards to feel it. And of course, he has his agenda. His agenda in that scene is to make sure that whatever happens, he’s going to get out of the institution. That’s his driving goal. That can’t help but effect these genuine feelings that he’s feeling, but that perhaps he uses for his own self-interest.
Kerry Ehrin: One of the really fun things about writing the show is that so often characters are not saying out loud what they’re actually feeling. They’re saying something else. It’s very layered. It’s like there’s a whole other emotional dialogue that goes on under each scene as opposed to just what they’re saying. Also it’s just like the acting is just so layered and amazing. Those scenes are just really fun to write. Also, this idea that you cannot be both honest and manipulative at the same time I think is funny, because you absolutely can be. I mean, my personal feeling in that scene was that there was a part of him that was scared to go home and that knew he was kind of screwed. But he had to go home and he had established this trust with Dr. Edwards. There was just so many different things going on in that scene, and Freddie and Damon Gupton just did it beautifully.
Freddie Highmore: Norman is talking with different people but he feels very similarly about his situation when he’s talking to Norma and when he’s talking to Dr. Edwards. In two of his biggest scenes that come up towards the end of seven when he’s trying to get home. So despite the fact that he goes into that in a similar emotional position and with a similar desire, it’s interesting to see the ways in which he plays those two scenes differently. To get the effect that he wants. They’re not the same scene.
Kerry Ehrin: Yes, even though the content is somewhat similar, yes.
Freddie Highmore: That’s a guide to how that works. How he manipulates and is socially aware enough to slightly change his story, depending on the situation itself.
How do you compare this season with the previous ones?
Kerry Ehrin: Do you want to take that one, Freddie?
Freddie Highmore: I can start. Knowing now that we have a five season arc to the show, and that this season that’s currently airing and the next one will be the last, has allowed the writers and Kerry and Carlton to push forward towards an end point with more haste and determination than ever before. There’s not this sense of needing to hold back anything for any longer because now is the time to reap the rewards of the payoff [for] the set up that we had over the entirety of three seasons. So the payoff is what starts to be developed in this fourth season and will continue into the fifth season. That’s the most exciting point of the show. If you started the show at the start of episode eight, or nine, or ten, or 15, it wouldn’t quite work. There’d be something odd and there would be something… not unbelievable… but it would be very difficult to get inside those characters. What’s great is that we have that huge amount of backstory that we know and that we are invested in. This is the opportunity, in a way, for Norman coming home. There’s a sense of an attempt of a fresh start, and of resetting things and moving towards that end point.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 9, 2016.
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