Bates Motel with Freddie Highmore

The famous Bates Motel opens its doors again this autumn, welcoming a fresh batch of guests in a new TV drama. A prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s genre-defining Psycho (1960), Bates Motel depicts the relationship between Norman Bates and his mother Norma (Oscar-nominated Vera Farmiga) prior to the events of the film, and is an intriguing exploration into how the young Norman’s psyche slowly unravels.

Ahead of the start of season 1 this month in the UK, Flicks and the City was invited to chat with the show’s star Freddie Highmore, who plays Norman Bates. Here, the 21-year-old talks about co-star Vera Farmiga, the lessons he learned from working with Johnny Depp, and continuing his studies whilst pursuing acting. Check out the highlights below…

Bates Motel - Season 1You play a 17-year-old in this, but it feels like your first grown-up role.

It’s certainly a break in terms of time because before doing this I was at Cambridge for 2 years. I’m still studying, but I managed to fit this in around that this year. I guess I was 2 years older than stuff I’d done before. But it was more the kind of character itself as opposed to a desire to do something that was older. I’ve never seen it as a big thing, that move from child actor to adult actor in that as I’ve got older I’ve just played older characters. It just seemed normal. But I’ve been lucky in that way to carry on doing stuff.

When did you first see Psycho?

Psycho_bfi-00m-fmmI was 13 or 14 the first time I saw it. Is that too young? [laughs] The funny thing about Psycho is that there is nothing explicit. The famous shower scene, you don’t actually see the knife hitting the flesh; it’s just your interpretation of what it is. I think at the time the most shocking thing was that they flushed the toilet and you can see the toilet flushing which was horrendous for people to see!

But it is that suspense that drove Psycho and we’ve tried to replicate it in Bates Motel. The first episode I think contains the most hard-hitting moment of the whole season with the rape scene, so it’s not driven by that. It isn’t Norman Bates kills one person every day and then you come back next week and who’s he going to get this time. It’s more about suspense and psychological ruin and seeing Norman’s transformation into insanity.

It’s an iconic house. Did you enjoy being on set?

It was funny arriving for the first time and seeing it in Vancouver, more so because the house is actually chopped off so you sort of see it all with the CGI added on a bit at the top whereas it’s actually just 2 floors. So at first I thought they’ve changed it dramatically [laughs] and then they added it later.

Does it help having the source material or do you prefer to go into projects fresh?

I’ve really enjoyed having more sources of inspiration. There’s never an attempt to mimic Anthony Perkins’ performance, but certainly you want to take quirks or traits that were in his portrayal and try and use those in my Norman. You come up with ideas and you practice them beforehand, and hopefully it works out.

Bates Motel - Season 1There was also a danger of doing too much, too soon. It’s so tempting when you have a story about Norman and his mother to have him dressing up in her clothes in the first episode. But it’s more delicious to see that take place subtly over time. People can then have their own thoughts about where the relationship is before that’s actually shown. They may look at each other here, but there’s nothing explicitly wrong with it.

The show is more suggestive as opposed to conclusive in that way, so hopefully lots of people will disagree on whether Norman is nice or not. I think there’s this weird sense of hope that Norman won’t go down the path that we know he must go along. You don’t have to go and kill people; you could have been someone so different! [laughs]

Bates Motel - Season 1The series is based on the dynamic between Norman and his mother. Did you do screen tests with Vera and other actresses to make sure the chemistry was right?

Vera was there when I signed on. I never met her until I headed out to Vancouver, but it seemed to work out OK. We get on very well which is lucky because we spend so much time together, it wouldn’t be good if we didn’t get along! It’s a slightly uncomfortable and borderline relationship between the two characters, although Vera would disagree.

Bates Motel - Season 1Does the fact the show focuses on both you and Vera take some pressure off you?

Yes. There’s as much focus on her as Norman and vice versa. The first episode they’re very together, but as the show goes on you see them branch off and have their different lives in this town. I just always want to do my best. If you get to the end of the process of filming and you think “I’ve done the best that I can do”, there’s not really any pressure left because you’ve done what you can. The only regret would be if you hadn’t prepared well enough and you hadn’t done what you wanted to.

I read that when you were younger you didn’t want to pursue acting when you were older. What changed your mind?

I guess it’s that thing you have when you don’t want to commit to something for the rest of your life and say this is what I want to be forever. It’s a big step, especially at 12 years old. Now I’d love to carry on acting and do more things on top of Bates Motel, but who knows? I’ve kept my studies going. The tricky thing is I’ve always had something alongside acting, and acting has almost never been the focus of my life. So it’s a big shift to say that acting is the main thing you’re doing as opposed to something that fits in really well with your normal life.

You’ve worked with both Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter before. Do you stay in contact with them? Who have you learned the most from?

I’d say I’ve probably learned the most from Johnny. We’re friends and I see him if I’m in LA or he’s in London. Having spent a lot of time with him – I’ve worked with him twice – and at a young age where you’re still learning a lot more, not that you ever stop learning, but your first big film experience is with him so you look up to him not only because he’s a great actor but also the way he carries himself on set and how he leads the production.

Bates Motel - Season 1There was a sense that Norman Bates was a bit of a curse on Anthony Perkins. Did you have any sort of trepidation about that or did you just view it as a great role?

You do something and you want it to be successful. Of course, if it is successful and continues to be so, people will see you more and more in that role. People probably see Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow; it’s great that he’s done so well and he’s found a character people identify with.

I think it’s also key to carry on doing different things. That’s something I’ve always tried to do, not focus on one specific character. It would get a bit dull just to play the same person again and again. As I’m still young, I’m constantly changing so it’s harder to pin me down with 11-year-old and 21-year-old roles because that time is so fleeting.

The good thing about Bates Motel is that I’ll be around until the end! [laughs] This is a show where lots of people will probably die, so actors are thinking “when is he going to do me in?” [laughs] Even Norma isn’t looking so good in the chair; so she better watch out!

[SPOILER] Can you tell us a little bit about the arrival of Norman’s brother?

Bates Motel - Season 1He arrives at the start of the second episode. He’s interesting from the audience’s perspective because he can offer a more stable viewpoint from which to assess Norman and Norma. People have said there’s this Twin-Peakness to the dodgy town that’s starting to be developed in Bates Motel and he is the sort of person that extends more into that. They all develop their separate storylines, so you have Norman and his relationship with people at school and girls he likes who Norma may or may not approve of.

Bates Motel season 1 starts Thursday 12 September at 9pm on Universal Channel.