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?
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?
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?
That's a good question.
I think I know the answer. (laughs)
What do you think the answer is?
I won't say. You go ahead and I'll tell you if I'm right.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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
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?
What did I do differently, Kerry? Were you surprised?
Different from what?
Well, from what you might have expected. I don't know.
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.
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
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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…
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
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
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
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?
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
You're playing this über creepy character to perfection. Are you having
very weird dreams?
(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.
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?
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
In writing Norman and then playing him, how different is it when you're
delivering your own words? Is it more organic?
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
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?
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?
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.
Yes, or isolated.
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.
I love that scene.
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?
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.
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.
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
Yes, even though the content is somewhat similar, yes.
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
How do you compare this season with the previous ones?
Do you want to take that one, Freddie?
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.
CLICK HERE TO HEAR WHAT
KERRY EHRIN HAD TO SAY TO US IN 2014!
CLICK HERE TO SEE WHAT NESTOR CARBONELL &
CARLTON CUSE HAD TO SAY ABOUT SEASON FOUR OF BATES MOTEL IN 2016!
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