Entertainment

03.18.13

‘Bates Motel’: Freddie Highmore Talks Sex, Incest, and Young Norman Bates

What would Hitchcock think? ‘Bates Motel’ actor Freddie Highmore talks about the new ‘Psycho’ prequel that begins tonight on A&E.

We all know the scene, almost too well: A woman steps into a white ceramic-tiled shower and turns on a steady stream of hot water. She washes her hair, her arms, her legs, but a dark character emerges on the other side of the curtain. The shadowy figure swiftly pulls back the drape, wielding a large kitchen knife positioned to strike. The woman lets out a high-pitched cry. One, two, three—eight times the woman is stabbed until she falls, lifeless, onto the bathroom floor, pulling down the bloodstained shower curtain with her.

This is, of course, the murder of Marion Crane, the most indelible sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. It’s a scene that induced vomiting, fainting, and even left some audience members screaming and running from the theater. It’s a scene that is said to have sparked shower phobias in viewers for years after watching. But in Bates Motel, A&E’s contemporary Psycho prequel, which begins tonight at 10 p.m., this iconic scene won’t be reenacted, because the killer is still a teenage boy and his homicidal urges have yet to take hold of him.

Bates Motel, from executive producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights), takes viewers inside the teenage adolescence of Norman Bates, a character the American Film Institute named cinema’s second greatest villain of all time. But this is a Norman Bates—played by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore—that is not yet possessed by “Mother,” a young protagonist who still has a fighting chance at a healthy life.

After the mysterious death of her husband, Norma (Vera Farmiga) and seventeen-year-old Norman buy an old motel in an idyllic coastal town, hoping to start their lives afresh. As they settle into their new home, the show dives deep into the pair’s complicated and nearly incestuous relationship.

“When the show is pushed slightly too far, the audience is left to wonder if their relationship is normal or not,” Highmore told The Daily Beast in January.

The last time we saw Highmore, he was a spritely little kid starring in films that could be found in the family section of Blockbuster. Now, at age 21, the once pint-sized sidekick of Johnny Depp has truly blossomed: At nearly six feet tall, the thinly framed actor looks his age. With a thick head of brown hair, and bushy eyebrows showcasing pale blue eyes, we could almost call the August Rush star a heartthrob.

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Joe Lederer/A&E (L, R) Frank Ockenfels/A&E (C)

Highmore’s mannerisms are a product of his scholarly pursuits: Acing every single one of his academic exams, Freddie studies Spanish and Arabic at Cambridge University. In his free time, Highmore kicks around a soccer ball and even organizes group games with the Bates crew. (“I can tell you’re a huge football fan,” he joked during our chat, when I couldn’t come up with the name of any soccer positions.) Unlike his Bates Motel character, Highmore is, in a word, grounded.

In the show, the Bateses—mother and son—are often seen holding one another, kissing each other and speaking as if they were an old married couple. In an early episode, Norma even undresses in front of Norman and is shocked when he turns away from her. “I’m your mother,” she says to him. “It’s not weird or anything.”

Highmore said that it’s the audience who is most uncomfortable with Norma and Norman’s intimacy. “[She sees him] certainly more than as just a son,” said Highmore. “But it’s mutual. The interesting thing is both people are participating and are completely comfortable with it ... Norman doesn’t pull away every time his mum gives him a kiss. They think it’s normal; they’re the ‘lets snuggle up together’ type.”

Sex, although rarely mentioned, is the glue that binds Norma to everyone she meets—an angry neighbor, a local policeman, her late husband, and perhaps even her son. As far as we know, Norma may be nothing more than a loving mother, but she wields a weapon that causes more injury than a sharpened kitchen knife, and it’s concealed up her perfectly ironed A-line skirt.

Yet the question of “How far is too far?” is constantly tested—is this a family that is simply tightknit, or is this a family that has skeletons (perhaps literally) hidden in its closet? (Executive producer Kerry Ehrin confirmed viewers’ suspicions: “The basis of Norma and Norman's relationship is obviously Oedipal,” she said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January.

Despite Norma’s wishes, there are other women influencing Norman. Highmore explained that while Norman wants to have relationships with other people—with girls—it isn’t always easy because of a particular maternal force. “It’s competitive, isn’t it? Norman has a certain amount of conflict—internal as well as pressure from his mum—wanting to maintain closeness with his mother.”

He begins friendly relationships with two of his classmates, and when Emma (Olivia Cooke), a girl with cystic fibrosis comes to the motel to work on a school project, Norma fires off a line of intimidating questions: “What’s your life expectancy, Emma?” she asks. When the girl responds, “Maybe … 27,” Norma cracks a small, sinister smile, and it is here we realize our teetering curiosities about Norma’s intentions may be affirmed. Maybe.

To further deepen the troubling family dynamics, Norma’s son and Norman’s half-brother, Dylan (played broodingly by Max Thieriot), comes to stay with his estranged family members. He too may have unresolved anger uses, and perhaps even a murderous side. Everyone in this town appears to be hiding something.

“Dylan’s character is very useful,” Highmore said, “because it adds an extra point of view that says, ‘Maybe there’s something weird here.’” When Dylan comes to visit, he refers to his Norma and Norman as “Mr. and Mrs. Bates” and has his mother listed as “The Whore” in his iPhone.

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“He could have been just like anyone else, but we know he’s going to end up being a serial killer.”

One thing that positions this prequel apart from others, is that technically speaking, Bates Motel—set in contemporary times—takes place more than 50 years after Robert Bloch’s original 1959 novel and Hitchcock’s film. So why the change?

“In some ways it’s more accessible to see him growing up nowadays,” said Highmore. “It allows people who are coming to Norman Bates and Psycho for the first time an accessibility, because there’s no necessity to have seen anything else before.”

And while the characters exist in the same modern space as their viewers, a vintage muse is clearly present: dusty flannel prints, boxy televisions with lengthy antennae (shown only playing black and white films), iron bed frames, and tightly buttoned collars remind us that this present day retelling is still anchored to a romanticized past.

“There is this timeless nature to the house,” Highmore said, referring to the imposing structure in front of the motel, which is an almost exact replica of the one used in the 1960 adaptation. “[Norma and Norman’s] relationship is set apart from the real world outside when they’re in the house.” He also noted that vintage detail, when juxtaposed with an otherwise modern world, “enhances the weirdness of their relationship.”

But their relationship isn’t the only thing that’s strange—subplots involving townspeople’s odd behaviors, hidden notebooks, missing women and perhaps even organized crime, give the show a Lost-like quality—as new mysteries will always outnumber answers offered.

While executive producer Carlton Cuse—who knows a thing or two about persistent mysteries—promised there would be “no smoke monsters” in Bates Motel, he wouldn’t speculate on time travel, or any other elements Lost fans have come to expect of his work. “We're not just solving one particular crime,” he said to reporters in January. “There [are] a number of mysteries.” But unlike Lost, Cuse promised Bates Motel would have a distinct narrative with a “beginning, middle, and end.”

And there are some things we can expect, like Norman’s eventual transformation to a serial killer. “There’s a duality to Norman,” Highmore said. “You think he’s a nice guy and he could have been just like anyone else, but we know he’s going to end up being a serial killer. He might not know it himself yet but we certainly do.”

Additionally, Cuse reinforced the notion that the audience will be cheering for a doomed character. “I love Titanic and the idea that you're rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to survive despite the fact that you know that they're not going to,” he said. “You know their fate ultimately is tragic. But the specific way in which their tragic fate plays out is going to be something that will be of our own invention.”

And while it’s easy to draw the conclusion that it is Norman’s mother who drives him to the point of no return—and to stabbing poor Marion Crane in Psycho—Highmore asks viewers to be open-minded about the root of Norman’s psychosis.

“It might just be the easy conclusion to draw at the start of the series,” said Highmore. “There might be more to it.”