Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin – Dark Days at Bates Motel
Updated: Apr 11, 2020
Freddie Highmore & Vera Farmiga star in Bates Motel
Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin
Dark Days at Bates Motel
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s always dangerous trying to update a masterpiece, so people were understandably concerned when A&E announced a few years ago that they were creating a modern-day prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho. Two years later, though, it is hard to remember why we were so concerned.
With the strong acting of Academy Award-nominee Vera Farmiga and former British child star Freddie Highmore as the teenaged version of arguably the most famous serial killer in film history, Bates Motel has become an unmitigated smash, popular with viewers and critics alike. Placing the Norman and Norma Bates in the Pacific Northwest, living their lives amongst the moral rot an odd Twin Peaks type of all-American town has leant the story nuance and depth. Yet, for all the side tracks that the show takes, we know the eventual outcome. Or do we?
Created by producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), the series has become a staple of A&E’s original programming. It is doing so well, in fact, that Cuse was hired to head up the series that will follow it on Monday nights, The Returned.
The third season, which has just started, shows some dark doings coming up in White Pine Bay. This interview is culled from two conference calls that we took part in with Bates Motel stars Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore and show-runners Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin. One chat took place a few days before the third season premiere and the other about a week after.
Norman is such an iconic character in horror. Anthony Perkins did such a legendary performance in the role. Now that you’ve been doing the role for three years, how much influence does the original Perkins’ performance have on you? How much are you trying to just completely make it your own?
Freddie Highmore: I guess potentially now they are less comparisons that are made to it because people see the Norman on Bates Motel as being his own entity, as opposed to necessarily precursor to Anthony Perkins’ version. At the same time I’ve re-watched Psycho before every season and in some ways tried to implement things that Anthony Perkins brought to the role. Especially as the show continues, because I’ve always seen that the end of Bates Motel not necessarily as the end of Psycho, but the end of Norman is a lot closer to Anthony Perkins’ version than the boy that we saw at the start [of Bates Motel]. But certainly I don’t think any of us feel tied constrainingly to Psycho, or to any performance that came before.
Norma became oddly a stronger and more confident woman in season two. Will we still continue to see signs of her odd variation of person growth like the whole political thing?
Kerry Ehrin: Yes. I think Norma’s whole plan in going to White Pine Bay was to have a normal life. Although she has had a hell of a lot of trouble since she got there, it has forced her to have to deal and interact with a lot of people and find parts of herself that were stronger than she probably ever knew. That actually has had the affect of making her stronger.
Has it been interesting to play that Vera?
Vera Farmiga: (laughs) To say the least, yes. Kerry’s taken the lead on writing Norma. She writes Norma for me like I’m some sort of a demigod. But I’m not, man. I’m just a mere mortal en vérité. I’m mortally wounded from what she has me go through. It’s pretty nutty to see now what we explore with this character this season. The height of righteousness that she possesses. The depths of manipulation and depravity almost that she is capable of. There just is so many antics and adventures for me to explore. (laughs again) It’s an outstanding role. I have never been challenged the way I am with this story and this particular character. Even as we speak, just so you know, I’m heavily medicated right now with tremors and spasms and a torn shoulder and neck muscles and the like. I am broken in smithereens.
Kerry Ehrin: It’s a physical role.
Vera Farmiga: (laughs) It’s not even that. It’s a mental role that is frankly so not health for me, with all due respect to everyone. It’s formidable. As it is to Kerry, man. She writes this stuff. It’s torturous to us all to hit the notes that are required emotionally. And to do it earnestly. Kerry really keeps us on point like that. It just requires the tenacity of ten f’ing tornados and I only had about nine and a half in me. I didn’t get to finish that last day on set.
Kerry Ehrin: But what we have is pretty amazing.
Freddie Highmore & Vera Farmiga star in Bates Motel
The house and the motel are also iconic horror images. I know that it’s a new version of it built up in Canada but does working around that atmosphere add to the creepy feeling, both as an actor and as a writer?
Freddie Highmore: Yes it does. The first time I stepped on the set, it has this weight already behind it. When you look up and you see a very similar version of the house and the motel to the one that was in the original. Then over time it seems to become in view with your own memories and events that took place in Bates Motel. Like from the steps, for example, leading up, there’s still the blood stain – or whatever they used to pretend to be blood – from Deputy Shelby’s death back in the first season. (laughs) So there are little reminders to us all of how far we’ve come.
Kerry Ehrin: There’s definitely a texture to that set that is emotional. You feel it when you’re there. It’s very cool.
Carlton, can you speak at all about the premiere along with your other show and how that all came about?
Carlton Cuse: A&E had acquired the remake rights of The Returned. [ed note: It was based on a French series called Les Revenants.] They offered that to me. It was after I had already been working on Bates. I started developing that show. My hope is, is that the audience for Bates will really enjoy The Returned also. It makes a lot of sense for A&E to put the two scripted shows back to back on the same night. Obviously I’m a little nervous and excited about it. I’m very proud of both of them. I hope people will check them out.
Carlton both Bates Motel and your new show The Returned are set in Northwest locations. Is there something about the landscape that just inherently lends itself to stories that are spooky?
Carlton Cuse: I think the physical environment is a big part of both shows. While the second season Bates was sort of warm and summery, Kerry and I felt very strongly that we should go back to a bleaker, more monochromatic winter/late-fall look for season three. It was narratively appropriate. For The Returned, the physical environment, the presence of nature; the overwhelming influence of nature is I think a big part of the storytelling. There’s this really weird phenomenon that’s happening. I think metaphorically using nature to represent that there are forces much larger than our characters was an important part of the storytelling.
Obviously both shows film not in Oregon or Washington but in British Columbia. Is that just because it’s cheaper and easier to film in British Columbia?
Carlton Cuse: Yes, there are distinct tax benefits, currency benefits. But frankly, British Columbia is an amazing center for film production. There’s incredible resources. Great crews, really talented people who you can have work on your shows. That’s the reason that we’re there.
Freddie Highmore & Vera Farmiga star in Bates Motel
Now that Norma knows about Norman’s blackouts, will she ever let him back out into the regular world again or is she going to try to just trap him in their own little world?
Vera Farmiga: Well, yes. I mean you’re going to see a more unraveled Norma this year. There’s mammoth stress in dealing with Norman’s mental state. It has a whopping physical and emotional toll on Norma, the way it would on any parent of a “special needs” child.
Kerry Ehrin: Like any mother, if your child had something wrong with him, especially something they couldn’t control, your instinct would be to literally tie them to your ankle. (laughs) You would want to be in as close proximity to them at all times as you possibly could be. Then you add to that all the dark undercurrents and suspicions that she has, and that is a terrifying ordeal for Norma. Yes, her instinct is to keep him as close as possible.
Vera Farmiga: Following the events of last season, Norma is more aware. She’s more circumspect. She’s more attentive to Norman’s fragility. I think you’re going to see her playing her cards really close to her chest in the beginning of the season, but she’s got to reach out. She’s at a point where yes, to answer your question, she’ll be fiercely protective of him as ever, and determined to help him as best as she can. But she doesn’t always know how. I think she’s going to start reaching out to others. That relationship evolves as they allow more people in their lives. You’re going to see how the mother son bond withstands those pressures from exterior sources.
Freddie, how do you get into character? It doesn’t seem like you have far to go to get there. I guess it’s all that practice.
Freddie Highmore: (laughs) I don’t consider myself to be very similar to Norman. The American actor obviously did one thing. I just try and stay in that as much as possible on set in Vancouver, and off stage as well. The rest of it is a character. I guess now, having done two seasons before this one, you’re more aware of [it] and you can easily slip into [character]. This season was more changing him and making him a bit more mature with the self-awareness that he gained at the end of the second season. So perhaps trickier than giving a look or finding out who Norman was in this third season, it was more about discovering in what ways he would change and grow up.
I know as actors that when you take on a character, you almost have to like them because you can’t judge them. We know that you’re not like Norma. What is it about Norma though that you do relate to?
Vera Farmiga: (laughs) It’s just I’m a mother. I know that my unique challenges as both a daughter and as a mother have given me a fricking wealth and myriad of experience to draw on. I do have a bonanza of maternal angst. I just do. I’ve got this bat and there’s this f’ing piñata over my head. A maternal piñata that I can just bat with all my own personal experience. It just comes showering down upon me. It’s relatability, as a mom. There’s nothing I won’t do to see my children become the absolutely best possible versions of themselves. I’ll fight to the death for that. That’s what I admire so much about Norma.
Kerry, do you have anything to add? How are you creating these characters?
Kerry Ehrin: It’s definitely an evolution. Carlton and I began with the character in the first season. It’s a very different person at this point. A lot of that has to do with self-awareness and also the natural development of teenagers to start seeing their parents as real people as opposed to gods or goddesses in their universe. (laughs) I think there’s a bit of that in it as well. Also this season [is] very much playing with the game of control between him and Norma. The power struggle, which is really delicious.
Freddie Highmore stars in Bates Motel
Freddie, was there a moment or a scene where you really just felt like Norman clicked for you and you really just got him as a character?
Freddie Highmore: No, I wouldn’t say that there was one particular scene that has defined him. It’s a really good question. Do you have one for Kerry and then I can come back to you?
Kerry Ehrin: Having watched him and Vera from day one, Carlton and I were on the set. Literally the first day of filming it felt like they were completely inside, embodying the characters in such a true way. It was amazing. So I just wanted to throw that in.
Freddie Highmore: The end of the second season, I guess I have two great [ones]. The scene in the woods and also the scene just right at the end when Norman kind of looks up and looks into the camera. That’s always enjoyable. That’s the two sides of Norman, really.
Kerry Ehrin: When you were doing the evil face you mean?
Freddie Highmore: The evil face. (They laugh.) That build-up of him with mother Norma appearing and helping him to pass the test, because I think really you need to do two things in order to know who Norman is. There’s this bifurcating of his personality that continues in the third season even more and so you need to understand the absolute duplicity to him.
I’m really interested in the dynamic between Vera’s character and Freddie’s character. How do you manage to keep it fresh and inventive?
Vera Farmiga: It’s a really great question, (laughs) because it’s a great acting challenge for me. For Freddie as well. As they head towards what seemingly is going to be their inevitable Hades, these emotional scenes also come at such high frequency and duration that sometimes I honestly am just running out of ideas. It’s really interesting the closeness and the best friendship and the respect and the trust between Freddie and myself. Kerry, you can talk about the writing aspects of this. But, from an acting perspective, it’s really intense work. Freddie has become really particularly adept at instigating me and knowing my soft spots emotionally and treading like a bulldozer over them. (laughs again)
Freddie Highmore: There’s this struggle for power between Norma and Norman in their relationship that will start to become ever more important. Whereas Norman has always been very much the son or the younger person in the relationship before, that dynamic is starting to shift. Even in the shots that we see in the first episodes, it’s much more set up as these two equals: either lying in bed together, or on some level equal. But it won’t stay that way. Norman will seek to take more and more of a control in their relationship and become the person who’s more dominant by the end of the season. I think that’s interesting. He’s become slightly more manipulative and capable of toying with Norma and using his knowledge about what he’s capable of to gain things from her.
Vera Farmiga: In this last season in particular he can be a real prick when it comes to helping find that endurance and the emotional earnestness. But I’m going to say it’s hard. It’s hard. Sometimes, Kerry, it’s just nutty. I literally get angry at you – at Kerry – for writing this bat-shit craziness. (laughs) Then you find it just because of endurance, man. Sometimes I just don’t know where it’s going to come from.
Kerry Ehrin: He’s starting to understand the chinks in her emotional armor, very well.
Freddie Highmore: Yes. And he gets to wear some of her clothes, so that’s another side to him. (laughs)
Vera Farmiga: You find a way to transfer it into the scene. Sometimes it’s just the panic of not knowing where to drill that wellspring of emotion to quench the scene. Sometimes that’s enough to set me off. But it comes down to what Freddie and I have together as colleagues and as team players. There’s so much trust that we can get pretty wily with each other. Certainly that goes for the entire cast and with every year. We just draw nearer and dearer to each other and can push each other’s limits. We push each other for better, for more, for deeper. But Kerry, why don’t you talk about the mechanics of it?
Kerry Ehrin: Well, it’s similar in writing. Carlton and I like to change up the storytelling a lot. You are telling a very intimate story of two people over a very specific and somewhat small period of time. So it does require a lot of thought about how is this going to be different. I think what personally is so fascinating is that it is a psychological thriller. If you’re in a bad marriage let’s say for like two years, every single day is going to be specific and different and fascinating. It’s going to feed into what happens the next day. The joy of it is getting under that. Playing with it and exploring it so that it’s constantly growing and moving forward in ways that surprise us, because as Carlton and I like to be surprised. (laughs) So yes, it’s fun. Not so much fun for Vera. (laughs harder) Right.
Vera Farmiga: Do you know what it’s like to fight that? Look, I’m not going to lie, especially this season there’s some big dingy, stygian ordeal in store. We’re going to wade through and drown in some agony
Kerry Ehrin: No I know. Seriously. No I get it. I know.
Vera Farmiga: It’s like how on Earth? But there’s also so much… exactly what Kerry said. It’s so much joy and burlesque and absurdity and dark farce and buffoonery and above all love. There’s so much love there. And that’s what makes this show so special. There’s simultaneously so much darkness and yet so much humor watching these characters navigate in some ludicrously improbable situations. That’s what makes it for me so exhilarating. Yes, it’s acute, it’s intense, it’s agonizing most of the time but it’s balanced so beautifully. There’s a lot of joy and beauty and friendship and love.
Kerry Ehrin: Yes. You’re really seeing it through them, through Vera and Freddie.
Carlton Cuse: Yes. I think ostensibly the label of the show would be that it’s about a guy who’s growing up to become a serial killer. But we strive really, really hard to make it feel so human and real. Part of that is humor. The humor and heart of our show is what distinguishes it from other shows in the genre.
Freddie Highmore & Vera Farmiga star in Bates Motel
Is there a manner in which maybe less is more at times? Like those very intensely creepy scenes where Vera’s character and Freddie’s character there’s a hint of some incestuousness going on. In a world where we can get, you know, hard core pornography at the touch of a computer key, just the mere suggestion of that really creeps us out.
Carlton Cuse: We strive for a lot of nuance. We are incredibly blessed because Vera and Freddie are so amazing. A lot of what makes that work is not what’s on the page. It’s what they do as performers. They bring this innate chemistry to the relationship. What we put on the page they elevate in so many ways, in terms of how they translate that and deliver that in their performances.
Is it harder these days in a world where everything is available on the Internet at the touch of a computer key to do suspenseful TV that gets our attention?
Carlton Cuse: It’s harder to get people’s attention just because of the sheer magnitude of choices out there. There are 150-plus scripted cable shows and 100-plus networks. I don’t even know what the total is, but it’s massive. There’s just so many options that people have. But I think as a writer and as a show runner you’ll drive yourself crazy if you worry about that too much. I think the way that it slips into the writing process is that… Kerry and I talk about this a lot… there’s certain conventions people have. People watch a lot of TV so they think that certain things are going to happen. So I think the process is you’re always trying to subvert expectations. Those expectations change based on the amount of TV people are consuming. So yes, I think we try to stay relevant and at the same time we’re always looking for ways to not have our stories unfold in a predictable manner.
Kerry, I’ve been watching the new box set of The Wonder Years. I’ve seen your name on quite a few episodes. How does it feel to have a career that goes from writing for Kevin Arnold to writing for Norma and Norman Bates? Also does it make you feel good that after all these years The Wonder Years is finally available on video?
Kerry Ehrin: (laughs) Yes, it does, actually. I didn’t even know it was [available]. It makes me feel as timeless as our series. It’s a long time. But yes.
Vera Farmiga: I didn’t know that Kerry. I loved The Wonder Years.
Kerry Ehrin: I did too. It was a great show.
Freddie Highmore & Tracy Spiridakos star in Bates Motel
Tracy Spiridakos played an interesting part in the season premiere as Annika.
Carlton Cuse: Yes. Tracy plays this mysterious, beautiful, enigmatic woman who checks into the Bates Motel. She really becomes the catalyst for our entire crime story this season. It may seem at first blush that it’s an obvious storyline out of the movie Psycho, but it doesn’t turn out to be that way at all. We’re teasing Norman’s confused sexual perspective. Her fate and her whole back story is the big mystery that drives our plot and our narrative over the course of the season. She did a wonderful job in a very short time, making us very intrigued about the character. She’s not only beautiful, but really a really great actress. [It] was really kind of fun to have her on the show.
The ending of the season’s premiere was more or less open-ended but very suspicious. Is it safe to assume that Norman killed Annika?
Kerry Ehrin: I feel like on Bates Motel it’s safe to assume anything. (They laugh.) There’s an aspect to the storytelling that we love which is there’s a lot up for interpretation. Part of the fun of the stories that we do is slowly peeling away layers of truth to them. So I think that it’s safe to assume whatever anybody wants to assume. (They laugh harder.)
Freddie Highmore: It’s safe to assume that Norman will be killing again. That’s what everyone knows. It’s just when does he do it?
Will we know one way or another by like the next episode we’ll know for sure what happened to her?
Kerry Ehrin: You’ll know a lot more, yes.
I wanted to talk a bit about the character of Annika and how Norman and her are going to kind of evolve. I almost felt like even though it’s wrong I feel like Norman spying on a girl was one of the more normal things that he’s done so far. So can you talk a bit about how their friendship or whatever is going to evolve?
Freddie Highmore: I guess it remains to be seen whether it evolves definitively and conclusively already or not. We’ll have to wait and see in that respect. But yes, it is interesting that Norman’s action of looking at Annika through the window isn’t necessarily a trait unique to a serial killer. It wasn’t that he sought her out or aimed to do it. He merely stumbled upon the open window and peered in and was slightly transfixed. I guess we slightly have to ask ourselves what would have happened had Norma not come down and caught him in the act, as it were. Would Norman have realized that he was being slightly pervy and gone upstairs back to the house? Or would he have gone around and tried to break into her motel room?
Kerry Ehrin: It was really all the raccoon’s fault. That’s who I blame in that scenario. Why was the raccoon hanging out there?
Freddie Highmore: Maybe Norman should have been taxidermy-ing it and had it as a little trophy. By the way, it was a blind raccoon actually. A trained one who’s a blind one.
Kerry Ehrin: So you had to chase a blind raccoon?
Freddie Highmore: Yes.
Kerry Ehrin: The things we ask you to do.
Freddie Highmore: It was a rescue, a rescued raccoon. It was very good though.
Kerry Ehrin: Yes it was. He was very sweet.
Freddie Highmore: It did do a bit of eating.