Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin – Dark Days at Bates Motel
Updated: Apr 10, 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.
Freddie Highmore stars in Bates Motel
Given that we know a lot of things about where he ends up in Psycho, would you say things like learning taxidermy were very significant to establish Norman’s character?
Freddie Highmore: Yes. Taxidermy is ever more important as the season goes on. We’ll have to see what he ends up taxidermy-ing by the end. It’s the trick, as Kerry’s spoken about in the past, is in not making those moments that are present in Psycho seem overt or really noticeable when you’re watching it. Of course part of the joy when we see Norman as Norma is knowing that this also has an extra creepy value because it will reappear in Psycho the film. At the same time, it should never be gratuitous, or simply put in, in order to cause that little wink to the audience. I think what Kerry balances so well is never making those moments in Norman’s progression seem out of place within our show, but at the same time allowing them to have the power that comes from referencing Psycho.
We got a shower scene during the premiere when Norman is looking in on Annika. Can we expect any other like shower, or bathroom related scenes this season?
Freddie Highmore: Definitely. There’s definitely another really interesting bathroom scene in many ways.
Kelly Ehrin: It is a different bathroom, though. We got a new bathroom set this year, which is amazing. I know it sounds stupid to say that we’re excited about a bathroom set. But it’s such an amazing design and we got to film some really pivotal scenes in it. It’s inside the Bates house. And there’s some huge amazing scenes in it, yes.
How are you all able to maintain a freshness and excitement for a show? How do you Mr. Cuse sustain the thrill and originality to the writing of the show without straying too far from the show’s foundation, which is the film Psycho?
Vera Farmiga: I’m really going to throw this over to Kerry and Carlton. I just think the pianist is only as good as the composition. (laughs) They just keep writing these arpeggios that roll off the fricking Richter scale. With Norma it’s just incredibly surprising to me and amazing where they can take this character.
Carlton Cuse: Look, it’s an incredible joy to do a show with two amazing actors. So to me the key is pretty simple. I mean, Kerry and I work closely on the stories. Then, Kerry really does magical things as a writer, really bringing these characters to life. Then those words pass into the hands of Freddie and Vera and the rest of our cast. They infuse the show with a whole other level of energy. It’s really remarkable. I think as a show runner sometimes you imagine something in your head when you conceive a story. In a way it’s the idealized version. Bates is one of those rare and absolutely beautiful experiences when watching cuts, it feels like what’s coming back is better than what I imagined in my head. I’m blessed to be working with an incredibly special writer and Vera and some other incredible performers. That’s what makes the show so magical.
Vera Farmiga: It’s true. We haven’t even talked about Kenny Johnson as Caleb or Nestor Carbonell as Romero. I tell you all these actors just kill it, kill it this year. They play such dissonant, discordant roles, but they find the harmony in it. I can’t tell you. It’s like they’re just incredibly nuanced actors. It’s true. They’re so much a part of that.
Kerry Ehrin: It’s amazing chemistry. Just all around.
Vera Farmiga stars in Bates Motel
In the movie, we really didn’t know his mother. She was already dead in the movie. Because you’ve got Norman so young, we don’t know much about him at that age and you don’t know about his mother. So you might be boxed in in some ways but you also have a lot of freedom in a lot of ways.
Kerry Ehrin: Yes, Carlton and I from the very beginning wanted to tell a story about Norman’s mom that was different than what you hear in the movie. Because what you hear in the movie is from Norman, when he’s completely gone crazy. People carry many different versions of their parents inside of them from different memories and different times and what you went through with them. We definitely wanted to broaden out the scope of who this woman was and the same thing with Norman. He’s really in many ways such an endearing person. The concept that someone who had a good heart was trapped in this situation and in this body and in this circumstance was so compelling. It opens up so much storytelling that we were always excited about and continue to be excited about.
You have a little bit of room to mold him and do your own version of him.
Kerry Ehrin: A lot of room.
Freddie Highmore: Yes, of course. Yes. I think also the contemporary setting has given us a certain freedom, too, in sort of reimaging this odd duo.
Joshua Leonard will also be guesting, who Vera directed in Higher Ground. What was your experience getting to work with Joshua again? Also from the writing point of view, could we get a little tease of how Joshua’s character will play into the storyline of season three?
Vera Farmiga: Sure. Well, let me explain James Finnegan. Norma’s determined to make her business a success. So she starts enrolling in business classes at the local community college. There she meets James Finnegan. He launches her into a whole new path of discovery. I rooted for Joshua to get this role. It’s very interesting, though in Higher Ground he played a husband in a relationship that I’m leaving. This is more of a romantic role. Yet we’re very close friends. It was a very interesting and bizarre dynamic between the two of us. It’s a character that Norma bonds intensely with. He’s just phenomenal. It was a quirky experience to embark on. We were so close and this is just a weird twist. It was amazing but odd at the same time to work so closely in a different capacity.
Carlton Cuse: The quirkiness of it is great. It’s exactly the right word. Kerry and I strive to create characters who are quirky and odd, yet believable within our larger than life pulpy world of White Pine Bay. Joshua did such an incredibly great job of fitting that mold exactly. He’s odd, but he’s really compelling. Over the course of a few episodes, I think the audience will find themselves incredibly engaged in this relationship with these two characters as it starts to deepen and unfold.
Who are some of the other guest stars who are going to stir things up a little bit?
Kerry Ehrin: One of the really interesting things in structuring this show that Carlton and I have faced since day one is weaving together two worlds that don’t necessarily, you wouldn’t think, go together. Part of that is these dark secrets that exist in White Pine Bay and are told through various peculiar characters that emerge from the society. This year we have some amazing actors. Ryan Hurst plays such a cool character who’s this bent mountain man. He does such a brilliant performance. He feels threatening, but at the same time he seems incredibly erudite at certain times. Dylan does not know what to make of him but he definitely brings some mystery and trouble with him.
Carlton Cuse: We work hard on the crime story aspect of the show. The show for us is just a cocktail of super nuanced character writing combined with this intentionally pulpy crime drama. So getting that right is something that is really hard to do. We have this character of Chick Hogan who played by Ryan Hurst. [He] was a very dangerous character for us to create, because he’s right on the edge of being ridiculous or being terrifying. That was something that we were very nervous about being able to pull off. I think we got on the right side of the line.
Kerry Ehrin: Another really wonderful character is played by Kevin Rahm. This is a very prominent head of a very exclusive, elite hunting club. Very old school high buy-in. He’s just such a great antagonist. He’s a really fun character. He’s a bad guy that really likes himself. Enjoys his life and his senses and his body and dresses great. Kevin Rahm just is so amusing in this role and so great. Then it also takes a darker turn because he’s also someone who grew up with Alex Romero. The storyline reveals a lot about their own history growing up together, but also Alex Romero’s history. He’s this great stoic character who we know nothing about. So we get to peel back some layers and look inside, which is really fascinating.
Freddie Highmore: I need to say though, you called him Alex Romero because I don’t think any of us have really referred to him as that on set. Nestor is Sheriff Romero, or we just call him the Sheriff. Especially in the sixth episode of the season, because Nestor directed for the first time. I mean it’s absolutely…
Kerry Ehrin: Amazing.
Freddie Highmore: …amazing. It certainly amused us just to see him in his sheriff’s outfit, directing away. He was very much the Sherriff/director.
Freddie Highmore & Vera Farmiga star in Bates Motel
I noticed that the season coming up the creepy factor between Norma and Norman is ramped up. He is starting to manifest himself as Norma. Are we going to see more of that and is she going to be oblivious to it?
Carlton Cuse: Well, she’s certainly not oblivious to it. (laughs) We try to make the relationship between Norma and Norman different every season. We’re watching a progression here. It’s the story about a mother who desperately loves her son and is trying to prevent him from becoming this guy that’s he inevitably going to become. This season he starts to slide much more significantly into that character. He becomes less able to modulate or be conscious of his decline. That causes really serious consequences in his relationship with his mom. We explore that in a lot of different ways. That’s really the journey of the season.
Freddie Highmore: Then the other relationship I think to tease in this season is the one between Norman and his fictional version of his mother. He conjures up certain moments and entices him and repels him various times into or from doing things. That’s a really interesting dynamic, the way that Norman starts to struggle with knowing whether he is talking and whether he’s interacting with this fictional version of his mother or the reality.
Is there any difference as the other Norma has appeared more and more? Freddie, is it any different for you to act with the imaginary Norma as opposed to the actual mother?
Freddie Highmore: It’s interesting. We’ve experimented with in many ways this season, how Norman himself is behaving. Which comes a lot from the writing, how he’s behaving in those moments with this vision of her. Whether he’s purely imagining her there in front of him, whether he is imagining himself as her, whether he’s talking out loud and using her words, or whether he’s merely listening and hearing them. From what perspective do we see those scenes? Is it purely from Norman’s perspective, or is it from the third person storytelling that we’re used to in most television shows. So they all play a part, I think when we’re doing those scenes between Norman and this vision, this mother, this Norma character. But there’s also a new sense of freedom to be found in them. Ways in which they might interact, isn’t the reality and so that opens up exciting new possibilities for how both Norman and Norma can behave.
Kerry Ehrin: Mm-hmm. Also the hallucinations to him are incredibly real. I think that the big goal is to get people to go on the journey with Norman. If you’re crazy…, I guess I shouldn’t use the word crazy. If you are imagining something that isn’t there, to you it is incredibly real. That’s what you want people to be inside of, that part of it. It’s actually really exciting to get to develop the fictional, the hallucinatory version or versions of Norma as a reality. That’s a pretty exciting thing to get to do.
Do you think anything could be said about like the return of Bradley (played by Nicola Peltz)? Are we going to find more conflict between Norman and Dylan, more complex than normal when she’s reintroduced?
Kerry Ehrin: I’m trying to think of how to answer that. No, actually. No. It’s not what you would expect it to be. We get to see what Bradley has been through since we last saw her, which was pretty daunting. She’s on a journey of her own in returning back to White Pine Bay. But it does not directly intersect with Dylan.
Freddie Highmore & Vera Farmiga star in Bates Motel
It was interesting that Norma really doesn’t realize that what she and Norman are doing and have done all summer is so strange until Dylan mentioned to her. Will we see her try to find more of a balance in her relationship with Norman because of what Dylan has to say?
Vera Farmiga: Yes indeed. I think she’s relying on Dylan in a way that she’d never expected to. That relationship really deepens. They both share the same concern. They both want to help Norman. I think she is relying on him for a male perspective on how to care for Norman. That’s going to trigger some jealousy in Norman.
Kerry Ehrin: It definitely heats up.
Freddie Highmore: I guess you see in the first episode how Dylan starts to get in between Norma and Norman. I think that previously they have both shared this unbreakable bond and no one could come between them. For the first time, in the third season, Dylan starts to breach that a little bit. Norma will start to confide in Dylan things that she can’t say to Norman. So that’s kind of where their threesome is headed to some extent.
Kerry Ehrin: The relationship with Norma and Norman is so peculiarly close. Because it is so co-dependent and because they have this sense that they emotionally need each other to survive, the presence of someone else in that universe is threatening. Norma is in a stronger place and she’s in a more desperate place at the same time. She is a little more open to Dylan. She’s reaching out more to him. Norman, who has basically stayed in the world for his mom at this point, feels incredibly threatened by it.
I love that Norma’s brother is back in town. Kenny Johnson is so great in that role. I love that he’s trying to have a relationship with Dylan. I’m assuming if he sticks around long enough that either Norma or Norman or both will run into him. Are you allowed to talk about that at all?
Kerry Ehrin: Yes. I mean that’s an incredibly loaded situation because of Dylan and the Fulcrum.
Vera Farmiga: It is.
Carlton Cuse: He’s a series regular this season. So you’re going to be seeing a lot of him. It’s not a simplistic relationship. I mean it’s not simply that he’s just a bad guy. We just didn’t paint him with one color. I think a lot of the season is about untangling all the layers of the relationship that he has with Norma, and also with Dylan, his son. There’s some really beautiful stuff that happens between Vera and Kenny and Max [Theriot] as they play this unfolding drama.
Kerry Ehrin: The really exciting dynamic of the story is that he is a ticking bomb present in that family community. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if Norma’s going to see him. We don’t know if Dylan is going to bond with him. We don’t know if Caleb is full of it and is duplicitous. We have no idea. It could be any of those, because of the history we have of him. The thing that’s so moving to me is Dylan. This kid who wanted nothing more than a family and to belong to someone his whole life, who’s finally made strides with his mother for the first time ever. [He is] now is faced with this thing that is going to betray her, but also has such a tremendous emotional pull on him. A father, an alleged father showing up saying I want to claim you. I want to be in your life. I want you to belong to me. And that’s like Carolyn to Dylan.
Freddie Highmore: There’s one fantastic scene that I guess I should tease in the widest of possible ways. Kerry said at the start [there would be a point] where everyone comes together. That’s going to be this amazing meeting of people.
Freddie Highmore stars in Bates Motel
In this first episode, they touched on his grandmother and she was literally crazy. Will we learn anymore about that in terms of how maybe it’s all hereditary?
Kerry Ehrin: That’s an evolution that will be parceled out. (laughs) I can’t really say more than that. I’m sorry.
Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of Norman and Emma (Olivia Cooke)’s relationship and where we’re going to see that go this season?
Freddie Highmore: I guess we’ve seen in the first episode how Norman wants to try and date Emma. I guess the reasons behind that become clearer as the season goes on. It isn’t entirely, purely out of the feelings that he has for her. But a lot of it is also out of feelings for his mother, in the way that he feels like he should feel dating Emma. Not only does he on some level want to, he also feels like he’s doing the right thing by asking her out.
Kerry Ehrin: Emma in general has done some growing up, as Norman has. When Norman first met her she was very much in many was still a little girl, very idealistic. I think lonely. She was really grateful to have this friend, who was Norman Bates. As she grows older she has to deal with the reality of her health, which clarifies a lot of things in life when you have a crisis like that. She starts to mature and part of her story this year is her starting to understand things about Norman that are concerning to her. (They laugh.)
Will Norma have another relationship or does she think all men are evil?
Kerry Ehrin: I don’t think she thinks men are evil.
Vera Farmiga: I don’t think she does. Oh Lord, I think she wants desperately to have someone sweep her off her feet and take care of her in the way that she’s never had in her life. She’s never had anyone like that in her life. I think yes, she yearns for that. There’s a hankering. There’s a deep, deep hankering to find a man she can trust. Certainly she hasn’t had that experience yet. But I think she’s a hopeless romantic and yearns for it. There’s a couple of good potentials this season.
Kerry Ehrin: Yes there is.
Vera Farmiga: We may or may not be talking capital R romantic. May or may not. I can’t say.
Freddie Highmore & Vera Farmiga star in Bates Motel
Is it hard to find that balance in the scenes between Norma and Norman? Because you do walk such a fine line: a loving relationship, but they’re on the edge of something else that’s dangerous and that will shape who Norman’s going to become.
Kerry Ehrin: In the writing we always have approached it that it is a mother-son relationship and on the deepest level it’s a loving relationship. There’s things that are happening inside of Norman that he’s not fully in control of. He doesn’t understand that he never separated from his mother emotionally at the right age. He’s way too invested in her while he’s going through sexual maturing. But Norma is a mom. She’s always innocent. She sees him as her son as you do. My sons are turning into teenagers and I still look at them and see them as seven-year-olds. (laughs) It’s really hard to ever see your kids any other way. I think that the heart of that innocence is at the base of it and it imbues it.
Vera Farmiga: From the acting perspective, I think this is what makes it so delicious for an audience: to construe, or misconstrue as the case may be, it is so hopeless and so grim. It’s so dark to witness your child succumbing to darkness. The only way that Norma knows how to keep her child from teetering over this miserable dark edge is to love him, physically, emotionally. That is the bottom line purpose and aim, to keep her Norman safe and sound. To help him navigate the world and to protect him. Promote normal psychological growth. She is trying to do that in the best way she knows how. I always come through that earnestness. That’s really just always through that lens.
Kerry Ehrin: She’s always doing the best she can.
You know where it’s going to go but it’s lovely to watch it unfold because there is love there. It started from love.
Vera Farmiga: Yes. It’s really unsettling bonding but it is so heartfelt. (They laugh.)
In the season premiere this year what did you make of the “you silly woman” line when they’re getting back into bed together?
Freddie Highmore: I love that line. (They laugh) These are the lines that I enjoy. Well I guess they’re all different, but one of the ones I especially enjoy are Norman’s moments when he’s just reading them. You get the same creepiness, but also this excitement of being able to play these borderline scenes. So there were various takes of “move over, you silly woman,” with various levels of intensity and suggestiveness. So it was more or less finding the right one.
Kerry Ehrin: All very delightful. Sometimes Carlton and I have so much fun writing things for Norman. If you just imagine for a moment that he has a quality like Cary Grant, which actually Freddie does, so you can throw in these very incongruous kind of romantic comedy bits. The fact that he’d doing it with him mom is unusual, but they are still great fun. Carlton and I actually really enjoy those.
Did Vera try different inflections of her end of that conversation too?
Kerry Ehrin: She always gives you so many totally different versions of things. It’s amazing. Really, when you’re in editing and you have to actually select a take, it’s painful sometimes because so many of them are so great and so different. So you really have to pick one. It’s like you’re giving up the other ones that have a really different vibe, which are also awesome. So it’s champagne problems. Yes, we’re lucky.
Freddie has talked about how in real life he’s become a really big part of your own family and how he spends a lot of time with you and your family. Is that essential to how this has all worked out?
Vera Farmiga: I can’t really answer that what if. It just did. We are who we are to each other. (laughs) I can’t imagine being any other way. He wasn’t spending the night this year. He got a girlfriend. (They all laugh.) So I sort of kept him at bay. But that’s not to say he still doesn’t have… the other day I just looked at his spare toothbrush lying in my children’s drawer and I thought should I throw this away or no? I left it there for next year. He’s got his contacts and everything.
Does the friendship make it less tough for you and does it fuel your passion to do the scenes?
Vera Farmiga: Yes. We’re just very close. He’s very close with my husband, who is a kind of surrogate father for him. He is a good buddy for my children. He’s an incredible influence on them. Just we are who we are to each other. We rely heavily on each other to execute these roles. I can’t imagine it any other way.
Freddie Highmore: Yes. I’d be pretty selfish or disrespectful to say no. (laughs, jokingly) I just do them completely without Vera. I don’t need her at all. (They laugh harder.) She’s such a key part of everyday on Bates. I think where the release is to be found with the two of us is in the humor that we always end up laughing about. Like the scene of “move over you silly woman” and the various takes to amuse us and keep us sane, laughing at our own characters and the way in which they’re behaving. Sometimes those bed cuddling scenes, which do return through season three and end with a nose rub or more, the joy is doing them with Vera and then pushing them up to the point where they seem to be believable. That’s when we end up laughing. The joy of being on set every day is constantly bouncing ideas off Vera, both during a take or off it. Of course she’s essential to that dynamic working. We often look at each other and say oh, we’re just so lucky that we get along, because we really couldn’t imagine doing it with someone that we didn’t really get along with.
Freddie Highmore & Vera Farmiga star in Bates Motel
Let’s talk about perspective. You as writers and producers, how is it to create this kind of dark environment? And Vera, as a character, how is it to play these things?
Kerry Ehrin: Well we really experience what we write. It isn’t like we just sit around and say hey, let’s make them do this. We really feel it. The writing staff, myself and Carlton, we live inside of it. It’s a very real psychological universe to us. It’s sometimes exhausting to be inside it all the time. But I think the thing that is always rejuvenating when you’re inside it is the intense love that we have for the characters. We want them to get out alive. That is always propelling us when we write. We’re like in there. We’re in the foxhole with them. (to Vera) Do you want to take it?
Vera Farmiga: Yes. From an acting perspective, I’m sailing with Norma Bates’ ship and then most of the time I’m just dreading the rigging failure. Kerry has me with Norma’s emotions just turning on a dime. It feels like you’re sailing 40-knot winds and 30-foot waves. It’s like I’m in down take because there’s so much joy and friendship on the set between the cast and the crew. I have found the way that I cope with it this year is very different than I have had in past seasons. It’s such acute and intense work for me, just in between on the set this year it’s like I have to do things that really lighten it up for me. So this year I’ve been learning the guitar, in between the scenes, with an emphasis on heavy metal.
Freddie Highmore: I pitch Kerry’s silly ideas.
Kerry Ehrin: That’s true. We do laugh a lot. If you have to deal with something sad, there’s always parts of life that renew you. My kids are like an amazing haven of happiness. I stepped outside my kitchen this morning and orange blossoms were blooming. That’s the stuff that keeps you out of a black hole.
Freddie Highmore: Yes and we have the cold and gray in Vancouver.
Kerry Ehrin: Which I like.
Freddie Highmore: So we all huddle together around the fire in the living room and tell each other stories.
Kerry Ehrin: And laugh a lot.
Vera Farmiga: It’s like I’m just finding ways to do anything but. That’s become really important to me. I find it’s a beautiful coping strategy. You know what we do also? We make up songs for each other. Kerry, I have to release those on Twitter eventually. Eventually they’ll be released on Twitter. But it’s like it’s all fun and shenanigans on set. Then when we get to work we get to work. Playing it for me… because so much of the time Norma Bates is so unafraid… is finding as much as joy as I can in the role and finding as much joy and lightheartedness off screen. So I play Slipknot (laughs) and practice triplet notes on my guitar. I have to release those songs strategically Kerry.
Kerry Ehrin: I know. They’re so funny.
Vera Farmiga: Strategically I’ll let them go on Twitter.
Do you feel that people come up to you more on the street or whatever?
Vera Farmiga: No, not at all. They don’t recognize me. They don’t recognize me. I’m a blonde on the show. It really freaks people out. I mean I can virtually tell them when I take the wig off and I’m on the street, they’ll ask me like, “Who do you play? What show?” And I say, Bates Motel. And they say, “Who do you play?” (she and Kerry laugh) It’s that incognito. It’s wild.
Do you think Norma is a victim or the origin of Norman’s evilness?
Vera Farmiga: No. I don’t think she’s a victim of Norman. I think her greatest challenge and her success is not to give up. She’s been a victim her whole life. She’s fallen prey to such tragedy. Kerry, why don’t you talk about this?
Kerry Ehrin: I think that she has to some extent aggravated the situation, by not having the tools to be strong enough to face certain things about him. That’s from her own childhood. The thing we love about her she’s always trying to best that she can. She always has the good intention. She has a lot of crazy ways of getting there. But she is always doing the best she can. She doesn’t know they’re crazy. I think that’s why she’s so incredibly endearing. Especially played by the most endearing person in the word.
Vera Farmiga: I love you.
Freddie Highmore stars in Bates Motel
It’s very hard to have a likable anti-hero as your main character. I know what we have seen it successfully done with Dexter. How are you doing that with Bates Motel to make sure that people still feel connected with him?
Kerry Ehrin: Well first of all you cast Freddie Highmore, who is incredibly likable.
Freddie Highmore: Then you have Kerry writing. (laughs) You also have likability.
Kerry Ehrin: When we write these things, we love the characters. In a way actors have to love the character they portray, because they have to do the best version of it from that person’s point of view. I think the writing is similar. If you’re going to take on a bad guy, you have to get inside of them and feel the world through them. No one wakes up in the morning and says “Hey, I’m a bad guy. I’m going to go out today and do bad things.” (laughs) Everyone wakes up in the morning and lies to themselves. Norman is no different. He’s been through a lot. He’s been through a lot that people would have a lot of sympathy for, empathy for. Tough, very violent childhood, home life. Dysfunctional family. No father figure present. A mother who loves him to pieces, but is very emotionally needy. He’s been through a lot of terrifying things and he’s very endearing because he always tries to do the best that he can. I think that we love him for that. He doesn’t want to be a bad guy.
Freddie Highmore: At the same time as not wanting to be a bad guy, in spite of his best intentions, I think he does become so over the course of the entire show, but moving towards that in the third season. So I feel it was especially important to set Norman up in the first two seasons as someone we supported and on whose side we were. So as now we can start to make a challenge whether we were right to get on his side and to start supporting him in the first place.
The website Trip Advisor is a very popular tool for tourism and advising where to eat and which hotel to stay at. In your mind, what would Bates Motel guest reviews sound like? What would be some things they would mention or comment on?
Kerry Ehrin: Well I’d have to look at this from inside the reality of Norma Bates. I think they would have a good time. They would be well taken care of. Norma and Norman would be charming hotel managers/owners. I think I would like to stay there. It would be good.
Freddie as your new role as hotel manager, it would probably be your responsibility to respond to reviews. How do you think Norman would handle like a negative review?
Freddie Highmore: (laughs) I don’t think his reaction would be to go and kill people, if that’s what you’re angling toward. I think he’d probably be a little disappointed, because he puts a lot into being the manager of the motel. Now he’s assumed this responsibility as one that he’s both incredibly proud about and also keen to working diligently in the role. He’d be one of those managers that would respond thoughtfully to the concerns, be that about the closeness of the two managers or anything else. But I think he would write a nice, intelligent response and maybe offering a free night back so they can relive their experience in a different way.
Kerry Ehrin: That’s a hilarious idea.
Freddie Highmore: Perhaps that will appear in the fourth season.
Kerry, you and Freddie both stated that this would be a different and darker upcoming season. If the two of you were to describe the upcoming season in a distilled version, maybe eight words or less, how would you describe it?
Vera Farmiga: In eight words or less?
Kerry Ehrin: I would say: Going down a dark rabbit hole.
Vera Farmiga: Oh yes, that’s good. Going down a dark rabbit hole. You’re like two words short of that. (laughs)
Kerry Ehrin: Dark is redundant. There’s not a lot of brightly-lit rabbit holes.
Vera Farmiga: (laughs) Yes. Going to leave our audience open mouthed and panting. (counts) Okay. So I got eight words. It’s gonna… get the preposition out of there… Gonna leave our audience open mouthed and panting.
With season three taking a darker tone, as you were writing it and preparing to act in season three, were there any books that you read, movies that you watched or music that you listened to get into the frame of mind of the tone of this season?
Kerry Ehrin: (laughs) I’m embarrassed to say this, but I really don’t have to do all that work to get into the tone. It’s doing the work to get out of the tone.
Freddie Highmore: I do find it more, especially at this stage, comes very much from the great writing and the previous episodes and the weight of all of that that you’ve known. Apart from Psycho, which as I said I re-watch this, there’s so much that’s in the writing as a source of inspiration. There isn’t much need to look elsewhere aside from the basic things like taxidermy and certain incident skills.
Kerry Ehrin: It’s interesting when you haven’t written a script for the show for say six months or acting, I assume is similar. But when Carlton and I were writing the first episode of the season and you face a blank page for the first time and you’re like is it going to feel awkward? Is it going to feel great? You write two sentences on the page and it’s almost like you slip into a dream. It’s right there. I think that’s exactly what Freddie is saying: there’s a history in it, because we’ve all emotionally lived through it. There’s part of it that’s just in us now. So I think it’s easy to go inside and outside of it.
What’s there going to be more of this season: murders, drugs or sex?