Nestor Carbonell and Carlton Cuse – Watching Over Bates Motel
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Nestor Carbonell in “Bates Motel.”
Nestor Carbonell and Carlton Cuse
Watching Over Bates Motel
by Jay S. Jacobs
Things are really ramping up on Bates Motel, the best show you may be missing on TV. The fourth season has been had a whirlwind of actions and repercussions as the series sets up its penultimate season.
The legendary mother and child characters, Norma and Norman Bates (Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore) are increasingly at loggerheads as Norman’s mental condition seems to be eroding. Finally, after three seasons of covering for her son, situations call for Norma to have her son committed.
Because she did not have health insurance, she entered into a marriage of convenience with White Pine Bay police chief Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), however the romantic tension that has bubbled between the two of them boils over and Norma believes she may have finally found true love. Unfortunately, Norman does not approve of the relationship, which has her unsure. At the same time, one of the chief’s morally ambiguous acts has him in the sights of the DEA.
As season four winds down, we had the opportunity to take part in a conference call with star Nestor Carbonell and show creator Carlton Cuse to get a look at what life is going to throw at the Bates.
BATES MOTEL — “The Vault” Episode 406 — Pictured: Nestor Carbonell as Sheriff Alex Romero — (Photo by: Cate Cameron/Universal Television)
Nestor, are you ready for wedded bliss or are you rethinking giving up the money as your character is changing here?
Nestor Carbonell: (laughs) What I love about that, every season, is that every character has obviously evolved in different ways, largely impacted by the people that they interact with. For my character, certainly, the biggest impact has been Norma. This season she seems to have absolutely softened and he’s completely fallen for her. At the same time, as you mentioned, old habits die hard. This is a man who has his own codes and one of them apparently is if it’s Bob Paris’ money and he’s no longer around, then now it’s my money. So the big question is: he’s made such a huge effort to hide that money, to what end is it? He’s a got a sort of a fluid moral compass. Where will it go to next? You’ll get some answers certainly in the next couple of episodes regarding that.
Carlton, I know you keep in touch with your fans on Twitter and social media. Are you liking the feedback that you’re getting with all this craziness?
Carlton Cuse: Absolutely. [Co-creator] Kerry [Ehrin] and I had put together, fairly early on, a five-year plan for the show. Season four is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time, because we’re activating these major elements of the show’s narrative. One of which is: Norman, is really descending into being pathologically a character that is similar to the one in Psycho. Secondly, really finally getting to let Norma/Romero relationship blossom. It’s really, really fun. It was really, really fun for us to see the audience embrace both of these events which are really huge advancements in our storytelling. We’ve always envisioned the show being five seasons. So we’re really entering the critical phase of the show now as these two story events unfold.
Your five-year plan, has that altered at all dramatically, based on what you have seen fans embrace about the show? Or is it the same thing that you set out with from season one, the path that you’re taking to get to that finale of five?
Carlton Cruse: There are some changes that occurred in that. In certain ways it’s been enhanced by what’s happened with the actors. We discovered, for instance, that there was a really nice chemistry between Dylan and Emma’s characters. That really pushed us towards engaging those two romantically, which was something that wasn’t planned from the very beginning. In terms of Norma and Romero, that was something we really thought about from the beginning. What we didn’t anticipate was the incredible chemistry that existed between Nestor and Vera. So that story line was amplified. It became so much more heated up by the fact that the two actors are so amazing and so connected. It just feels so real and believable. It is a level of combustion that we didn’t expect.
We know why Norma tries to protect Norman. But why do you think that Romero feels the need to? Is it simply because he cares so much for Norma? Or is there something deeper in there?
Nestor Carbonell: Go for it. No, No, please.
Carlson Cuse: No, you start. I want to hear your answer.
Nestor Carbonell: All right. I’ll tell you what, and steer me right where I’m wrong, but my take on it is that he feels a certain kinship with her. In that they both have a sordid history. They’ve had a tough upbringing. The both of them have had, not equally dark, but there were both very dark pasts that they’ve had to battle. So they have that in common, but more than that. Then the way they’ve dealt with it. They’re both strong and assertive personalities that have had to fight for everything. I think Romero sees his counterpart in Norma in that respect. She’s a woman who has come to this town and is completely bucked convention in the town. Gone against all of the things that you’re supposed to. The council, [for example]. Just the typical ways you’re meant to go about doing things in this kooky town of White Pine Bay. I think Romero loves that in her and has certainly warmed to her. His struggle with her is that she’s not able to trust him. That’s a struggle with him for three seasons up until this season, where I think he finally feels, at least in this last particular episode that aired, that he’s finally broken through. That’s my take on it, but I want to hear Carlton’s thoughts.
Carlton Cuse: Yes. I think that there’s a deep level of empathy in Sheriff Romero. He feels that he has a very strong grasp, an understanding of people. As a result, it has given him license to set his own morality and draw his own line in the sand. His deep level of empathy for Norma is one which he really understands how important Norman is to her. Therefore, because he really deeply loves this woman, he wants to help support Norman as well. So I think it’s everything that Nestor said. Then I would just add that it’s really sort of a deep reading of Norma that also kind of motivates him to be her ally here.
BATES MOTEL — “There’s No Place Like Home” Episode 407 — Pictured: Nestor Carbonell as Sheriff Alex Romero — (Photo by: Cate Cameron/Universal Television)
In past years, I’ve asked both Vera and Freddie about this. But how does the experience of being on a such an iconic set add to the whole atmosphere of filming? I know it’s a re-creation of the original set, but it is so accurate to it.
Nestor Carbonell: It’s extraordinary. We have an amazing set that was built by Mark Freeborn and his crew who… correct me if I’m wrong, Carlton… I think built the entire exterior of the set of five weeks. In Alder Grove which is a border town, a U.S./Canadian border town, in Canada. It’s much larger than the original set in Universal. And the detail is…
Carlton Cuse: The one that’s on the Universal lot is actually is a scale model. It’s not full size. Our set was built using the original blueprints that were taken from the Universal archives. It is a full-scale replica, built to the specifications that were from the Hitchcock movie. It is, when you actually go there, the spatial relationship and connectivity I think gives you a sense of realness that’s really great. I’ll let Nestor speak to that from a performing aspect. It really grounds that. It just makes it feel real, even though those sets are so iconic from the world of cinema. There’s also the sense of reality when you actually have them built. This big spatial relationship exists. So much movie making is trickery. We actually have these things you can walk into a motel room downstairs. There’s the office. You go up the stairs you go into the house. It’s wonderful, other than the fact that it’s built on a landfill of a garbage dump. (Nestor laughs,) Other than that, it’s fantastic.
Nestor Carbonell: I think that only adds to it. You’re absolutely right. It is largely a practical set and has become more practical as every season has gone on. The crew had built more rooms and added a roof to the second season. Yes, as Carlton said, the minute you step on the set you can’t help but already be in the that world because it is so beautifully realized by, has been by Mark Freeborn and his crew. The other thing too is I would add is that we have to drive an hour and a half from downtown Vancouver every time we shoot at the motel. So there’s something to be said for that drive as opposed to driving to a lot. Where you’re driving to a place pretty far away, pretty remote, on a border town, that as an actor certainly gets you in the mood to say I’m going to this remote motel out there. It is out there. There’s something about that. We shoot predominately during a winter, the winter and the fall. So you add the gray skies of Vancouver to the mix. That only adds to the impending thrill and doom element to it.
Carlton, I really feel like separating Norma and Norman this season has propelled the story and the characters forward. How has that separation has allowed Norma to evolve and change and perhaps reach the turning point that she did in last week’s episode?
Carlton Cuse: Sure. For Kerry and I, we felt like this was a very important story moment. There were a lot of things that were serviced at all the same time. We wanted Norma to confront this idea that she’d never had actually gotten any professional help for her kid, despite a lot of sign posts that he needed psychological help. The fact that she does that was important. Also, we wanted to hold out this hope that Norman being in this place where he’s getting mental help is possibly a really optimistic event for him. Also really untethering Norma from Norman and gives us an opportunity to explore the character in a different way. She’s suddenly freed from the 24/7 obligations of her kid and this really allows her relationship with Romero to flourish. We want to in a way give her the sort of thing she’d always wanted.
She’s a character who her whole life has wanted to find some pure manifestation of love. She’s instead gotten involved with the wrong guys and been the victim of a lot of horrible circumstances. Now for the first time everything seems to be going right. She’s with a guy who loves her. Who is really at his core, we believe, a very decent guy with his own strong sense of morality. Someone who fiercely cares about her. This relationship is really blossoming. Yet, you have Norman who’s in a mental institution and is a ticking time bomb. It just felt narratively that it was a great opportunity to put the characters in some different circumstances that allowed us to push some of our storytelling in new directions.
Nestor Carbonell in “Bates Motel.”
Nestor, I wanted to ask you that just heartbreaking scene where Norma confessed that her brother Caleb was Dylan’s father. I feel that was a turning point for Norma. Was there anything out of the ordinary for you preparing for that scene?
Nestor Carbonell: It was driven by Vera’s incredible performance. It was on the page. I remember welling up, crying, reading that scene. Thinking, “Wow, this is going to be a tough one.” Vera, she’s so incredibly well prepared and so emotionally available. She got me in the first take. Thankfully, the camera was on her, because I was like I’m going to lose it here. It was definitely a tough scene to shoot. What was interesting is we, as a viewer, knew everything she was saying. We’d heard it. She had to reveal it to Dylan as well. So while she had revealed it before, having he see the impact on the character that she had fallen for, having her see the impact on the character, that was something completely new. What it meant to their future and to her future in particular was, I think, particularly important. I love that about the scene. It is her reveal, my response to her, and then her response to that was particularly moving. Like “Wow, finally, there’s someone here who doesn’t care. Who will take me warts and all.” Yes, it was a particularly tough scene to shoot. But, when you have Vera driving something like that, she makes it look effortless.
Oh, don’t cut yourself short. When you asked “where are we going?” with the packed bags, that was a kicker also.
Carlton Cuse: I know, that’s such a great moment.
Nestor Carbonell: Thank you.
The mythology behind the character of Norman Bates and Hitchcock’s Psycho obviously marked the series. But the show’s been a great success. What was it like preparing for a production like this with that history, both for Nestor as an actor, and now doing an upcoming directing job? And Carlton, as a writer and producer?
Carlton Cuse: Well, obviously, there was some trepidation about taking on this very storied franchise. Psycho to me is in that category of a perfect movie. It’s one of my favorite all-time movies. It’s just, it’s impeccable. The sequels and other projects that had fallen behind it, not so much. I mean they weren’t so great. So, obviously there’s a little fear about trying to walk in the footsteps of that movie in a way that will be entertaining and hopefully original. That spurred this idea to embrace the idea of really changing it up. To not make it period, to make it a contemporary prequel. To just take these iconic characters and iconographic images of the house and motel and tell most really a brand new story. In fact, Kerry Ehrin and I sat down and we started talking about it. The thing that really interested us was really subverting the audience’s expectations. If you watch that movie, Norma Bates is one of great characters of cinema who we actually really know nothing about, you know?
But I think from the movie your expectation is that she is this horrible shrew who berated her son into becoming crazy. We thought: what if we actually flipped that completely around? Then she’s an incredible loving woman whose son has this fatal flaw in his DNA and she sort of smothers him with love and affection. Maybe that actually has the opposite effect in that it helps catalyze his this flaw in his DNA. What if we told the story not as a typical serial killer story but as a incredibly tragic love story? Those ideas seem to counterweigh the dangers of taking on the Psycho franchise. We just got so excited about them. We thought that they had so much potential. That really allowed us to go and make it.
For a while and even honestly to some degree now, I don’t think the show gets its just due because it’s under the Psycho moniker. I mean, honestly I will put this season on Bates Motel up against anything on television on a quality level. Hands down, I think it’s as good as anything on television. I think there’s some people who ignore the show because it’s some Psycho remake in their brains. They haven’t watched it and seen that really it’s an original show that borrows from the mythology of the movie. But we’re not retelling the same story. We’ll telling our own brand new, original, unique story. I think we’re doing an incredibly good job. I’m so proud of Kerry and my other fellow writers and the actors on the show. I really get frustrated a little bit because I don’t think the show is as recognized as it should be, on a quality level.
Nestor Carbonell: I agree with Carlton. I think you put it so well. The taking on this iconic feature, I’m sure was daunting. Your take on it, your and Kerry’s take on it, exploring a dynamic that we only imagined in the movie. Norman and Norma and exploring that that sort of Oedipal relationship. Obviously turning it on its head and making her extraordinarily sympathetic. That to me was where the show takes off. Exploring that. Then you add a brother and all these characters. It’s a reimagining. You took some license there. Adding Dylan into the mix and making that dynamic even more complex. Then exploring the town the way you did to me was extraordinary. I remember you sent me the first six scripts when you called me to see about joining. I was up until I think four in the morning because I couldn’t put them down. They were so extraordinary well written. Obviously, like any good writing, character driven. So that was another thing that obviously jumped off the page to me is that everything is motivated through character. From my part as an actor, Sheriff Romero was a completely new character, even though there was a Sherriff in the original. I had a fairly blank canvas to work with. I didn’t have the onus that Freddie did, to take on the iconic role.
BATES MOTEL — “Refraction” Episode 405 — Pictured: Nestor Carbonell as Alex Romero — (Photo by: Cate Cameron/Universal Television)
Knowing that you’ll forever invariably be linked to Psycho, is that something that makes you happy? Or do you mind having that relationship?
Carlton Cuse: You know, I feel that we’ve used the Psycho moniker to tell this great, sprawling, pulpy romantic tragedy. That would have been a hard sell without the Psycho label. I’m grateful that the label allowed us to tell an original story that probably wouldn’t have been made without out it. So on that level, yes. My hope is that, one of the great things about television is that shows get discovered over time now. The Wire, for instance, wasn’t a huge hit when it first came out. But I think it’s universally acknowledged as one of the best, if not maybe the best show, ever on television. Because people started watching it when they could binge it. I think binging Bates Motel is going to be a really rewarding experience, because I think some of the things people questioned or didn’t understand at the beginning now make a lot more sense in the context of four seasons of storytelling. It will be super interesting, just because of Freddie Highmore, for instance, his evolution. He started the show as a kid and he’s really this teenager. He’s grown across… we’ll have been working on the show for about six years by the time we finish it. He’s matured and become a young man.
I think that actual physical transformation exists concurrent with his evolution as a character. It will be really evident and really interesting when you are actually binging the show. Because we will have made that show over basically five to six years. You have seen the physical changes in that character which corresponds with the change in his psychology. I think that’s really great. Again, I just feel like all of the things that we did, this weird cocktail of this sort of nuanced romantic tragedy played against the pulpy crime story of this town, it all makes a lot more sense in the context of seeing a lot of episodes than maybe it did to people right at the very beginning. I hope it becomes one of the shows that people say, “Oh, my God, I got to binge Bates because I think it will be a really rewarding experience.” We have some incredible stuff coming up this season that I think will make the show even more binge worthy for audiences.
Nestor, I was really happy to hear that you’re going to be directing another episode because I loved “The Deal,” the episode you directed in the third season. Coming back behind the camera for this season, was there anything that you learned from directing that episode that you applied to the single episode that you directed?
Nestor Carbonell: Well, thanks. Yes, continually, I have taken this. This completely due to Carlton, I got this incredible opportunity. This is something that Vera had suggested I do. In the middle of season two, she said, “You should try directing. You really should.” When I broached the subject with Carlton he said, “Yes, absolutely. I think that would be a great idea.” I suggested maybe shadowing. Then lo and behold, he said, “Well, if someone falls out would you be willing to step in?” (laughs) I said, “Sure.” Sure enough, someone did fall out last year and then I had the daunting prospect of actually having to do it, having not gone to film school.
But the great advantage I have is, outside of amazing scripts to work with AND a phenomenal cast, an extraordinary crew that helped me a lot last year. I learned so much from that particular episode from Tucker Gates, our producing director, who really established the look of the show. The dolly tracks, mostly. Nothing longer than a 40 millimeter lens, so that pretty much it’s a single camera show. So that the whole world is mostly in focus as you’re shooting it. I wanted to certainly pay respects to what Tucker was doing.
I got enormous help from the crew. That particular episode last year was fairly stunt heavy, so I learned a whole other thing, on top of just getting behind the camera. So yes, I took as much as that as I could to this episode which was, as you’ll see without giving anything away, tonally a very different episode then the one I got to direct last year. Which is another bonus for me getting to do something completely different as a director. But our head operator Mike Rensch is enormously creative and while I might suggest something, he’ll come up with something on the day too. Quite often we will freestyle. I learned, and I continue to learn so much from working behind the camera. Carlton in this particular episode suggested that I take a look at one movie in particular, an incredible film, Son of Saul, as a way to potentially shoot a certain sequence. Again, I won’t give it away. That was enormously helpful. Borrowing from someone’s style and someone’s point of view. I learned a tremendous amount just from that whole sequence alone.
What’s your favorite part of portraying Sheriff Romero this season?
Nestor Carbonell: This particular season what’s been a lot of fun is… Carlton and I talked about this stuff in the beginning… [it] is the arc of a character. He wasn’t necessarily particularly sympathetic when we first met him. He was bit of a bulldog. Knowing full well that eventually he would wind up with Norma, it was nice to be able to track as an actor, that trajectory so that you can play as hard as you want initially, knowing full well that eventually he will soften. His guard will come down. Knowing that it was because of Norma that he was going to soften made that choice that much more interesting because of my dynamic with Norma and with Vera. This particular season what’s been rewarding is finding the ways for him to slowly break that guard down.
What Carlson and Kerry and the writers came up so cleverly with was: how do you do that after three seasons of a pretty hard-nosed guy? The only other time we’ve seen Romero drop his guard was when he’d been drinking. So Kerry, Carlton, and the writers cleverly had me go out on dates and have a few cocktails and suggested Norma drink as a way to loosening up. That let the walls down initially. I love what Carlton and Kerry did in terms of bridging, or having these two get together. It was a product of a false marriage first that turns into passion, that turns into liking each other. Then eventually it turns it into declaring love for each other. It’s a backwards way to enter a relationship. I think it’s in keeping with how these two are.
Norman is obviously becoming more and more unstable this season. Now that Romero has married his beloved mother, do you think it’s inevitable that there’s an altercation coming down the line between the two of them?
Nestor Carbonell: Carlton, you want to take this?
Carlton Cuse: (laughs) That is, I think, the very definition of a leading question, Jay?
Yes, a bit…
Carlton Cuse: But yes, we clearly constructed this narrative so that these two characters are on a collision course. How that actually plays out, we obviously don’t want to spoil what’s to come. But yes, the idea that while Norman’s away, Norma will play, is obviously a very loaded scenario. Norman, the degree in which he is willing to accept Romero into his life and to accept the fact that Romero and his mother are romantically involved is something that’s [real.] It’s a question that just looms large across the show and will definitely be addressed in coming episodes.
You’ve also have been saying obviously the show is very different than the Psycho world. But obviously those that have seen the movie know what’s apparently coming for Norma, which is obviously even harder for us to deal with now that we’ve gotten to know her. Do you think the Bates Motel ending could be completely different? Do you think of that as a separate entity?
Carlton Cuse: Kerry and certainly don’t think it would be rewarding to deliver up to the audience the exact same ending of our show that you saw in the movie. However, the tension of all great tragedies is this idea of hoping against hope that characters don’t meet their inevitable fate. That’s the essential tension of tragedies. If you watch Titanic, you know the ship is going to sink. But you’re hoping, “Oh man, do Kate [Winslet] and Leo [DiCaprio] make it?” We want our audience to feel that same tension. Are Norma and Norman going to make it? Is Norma going to make it? What’s going to happen? We like to think of the idea that we’re crisscrossing with the mythology of the original movie.
But it is certainly not our desire or obligation to exactly align our storytelling with what goes on in the movie. The tension of what you should or shouldn’t expect is something that we’re very aware of. We want you to feel that tension but I certainly don’t want to tell you how we’re planning to pay it off – pay it out. (laughs)
Next year’s going to be the final season for this show. How does it feel to see the end coming into view? Are you already sort of getting nostalgic even though you’re still in the middle of it?
Carlton Cuse: I mean I’ll let Nestor answer as well. But for sure. It is a really mixed thing because it’s absolutely best for the storytelling. I mean, this is a story that just is so much better with a closed ending, knowing that there is some finality to it. The tension of that finality, what that finality’s actually going to mean is what really helps engage the audience. But on a personal level, it’s an absolutely blessed experience. I’ve never worked with a cast that is more connected, more aligned, more professional. Everyone is so lovely and talented and the work experience is so satisfying and rewarding for everyone involved. It’s really painful for that to come to an end, you know? This assemblage of actors is so special and rare. The way everyone treats each other and the respect that everyone has for everyone else and for the process is so high, that it is really a serious bummer that that’s ending.
That’s not the case on many TV shows or films or anything. Where you have this level of connectedness. So that part’s going to be sad because whenever you make a show, you have a fictional show. But it leads to the creation of this sort of real world family behind the scenes that actually makes the show. The fact that that’s going to be coming to an end in the near future is sad. Nestor?
Nestor Carbonell: Again, yes, I completely agree. I’ve told you this too, Carlton, that I hold this up in the same way as I held Lost. This has been one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had creatively, and then personally too. Like you said, the people are extraordinary. Working again obviously with you and Kerry and the incredible crew and the cast. It’s the old cliché thing which is true, it’s like a family. Justis Greene, our line producer, put together and amassed the most incredibly talented and sweetest crew that you could imagine. We spent many hours together. So it’s going be extraordinarily hard to see the show end. For some of us, we don’t know when it ends. You’ll have to find out as a viewer for some when that end comes. But so far it has been, like I said, one of the best experiences that I have ever had professionally.
Another upcoming episode that I’m really looking forward is one that Freddie Highmore wrote. I’m just curious, did either of you guys give him any advice? Also with the writing process and also what it is was like to see his story come to life?
Carlton Cuse: Freddie is a multi-talented guy who is different than a lot of actors in many respects. He has a degree from Cambridge University. In languages, he’s fluent in Spanish and Arabic. I honestly think he’s with MI6, but that’s something he will neither confirm nor deny. (Nestor laughs.) He, like Nestor, I think has the potential to be a significant artist in an area behind acting. I think for Freddie it was a great experience to come and sit in the writer’s room and work with our incredibly talented group of writers on the construction of the story. What was really interesting, and it was a first for me, was to see a script come together from the perspective of someone who’s writing it, who actually really inhabits one of the main characters in the show.
His perspective on Norman and the writing of the script was something that Kerry and I are really taken with, because we’re the progenitors of that character. But he’s the person who’s playing that character and inhabiting it. It was interesting to see the ways in which he would have Norman react in a certain circumstance versus what we would imagine the character would do. In a collaborative way [we] found our way towards using the best of both. Using our ideas about how the character would be in combination with insights that Freddie brings to the table playing Norman day in and day out. It was a real learning experience for Freddie. And, something I’m sure he’ll talk about when he has his call next week. He did a great job. I believe when you are engaged in a process like making the show, particularly as a show runner, you look for opportunities to really you know nurture the talent in the people you work with. See the ways in which that talent beyond extends the job that they’re currently doing. I think that Nestor has turned out to be a phenomenal director. He’ll have a healthy career as a director alongside his acting career. Freddie has definitely shown the ability to do more than act himself.
Nestor Carbonell: Thank you, Carlton. That’s very kind. Again, I would not be in this position if it were not for you. I mean, you literally made this happen and I can’t thank you enough for that. It’s been extraordinary. I love that you’ve fostered that and you’ve helped Freddie through this process too, as a writer. I know he will have a chance to go beyond that and direct next year. Yes, he was extraordinary. It was great to work with him and great to see him even in pre-production. I would sort of bump into him when he was prepping for the episode. He would ride on the bus with scouts and everything. He really wanted to learn every aspect of the process. I love that. I loved just giving him a hard time when we’re doing scenes. You brought this up, Carlton, that I did, at one point we’re doing a scene and I said, “These words are just not sayable. I mean, you just don’t say these things.” (Carlton laughs) So that went over really well. Said, who wrote this, man? No but it was a lot of fun. Just to see his level of excitement and how invested he was in every aspect of it was great. He’s an unusually gifted individual and an incredibly warm person. So it was just amazing to see him succeed on this level as well.
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