Back in 2012, producers Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) were determined to make a modern-era prequel to Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal film about our favorite mother-obsessed killer. They had the script, the title—Bates Motel—and the network (A&E had signed on). All they needed was Norman Bates: an actor to believably move from a socially awkward, seemingly innocent high school kid (he’d murdered his abusive father but repressed the memory) to the young man who ultimately kills his mother, but in high delusion believes she’s still alive.
Cuse and Ehrin found their Norman in Brit Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). “We looked at a lot of actors,” Cuse says, “but we were completely charmed by Freddie.” Highmore’s casting was a popular choice. “When I learned Freddie would play my son,” says Vera Farmiga (Norma Bates), “it sealed the deal for me.”
After five seasons, Bates Motel dims its iconic neon sign on Monday, April 24 (10/9c, A&E; a retrospective follows the final episode). Highmore, now 25, also wrote two episodes and makes his directorial debut with the April 10 installment. Here, he describes his journey as Norman Bates.
Playing Norman on Bates Motel for five years was a wonderful experience. I’m in the denial stages of grief now. Twelve hours after we completed filming, the motel set, the interior stages and even the iconic house were being dismantled. All I could think was, “That’s my home they’re destroying!”
Bates Motel was my first American TV series. I was studying at Cambridge University when I was sent the opening six scripts, and I knew I wanted to play Norman. I was also really keen to work with Vera. She’s so completely amazing and I loved the deep, dark relationship between Norma and her son. I had seen the Hitchcock film, but Carlton and Kerry didn’t want to make our Norman full-on crazy from the start. We started him off from a more stable point and then had him slowly descend to where we see him in Psycho.
There was a wealth of material on Norman Bates from which to draw, starting with the book Psycho by Robert Bloch, which is based on the notorious killer who inspired the movie. I rewatched Psycho at least once each season to remind myself where Norman’s story arc ultimately ends up. Anthony Perkins, who played Norman in the original film, was such a great source of inspiration. I never tried to purely mimic his performance, but I think we did get closer to his Norman in our final episode.
At the beginning of Bates Motel there was an element of mystery to the teenage Norman. We slowly began to reveal who he really was, as opposed to how he presented himself at school. By Season 5, we know him better and hopefully the audience can understand and relate to Norman and can begin to enter the messed-up world inside his head.
Even though he killed several people—including his beloved mother—my first thought on Norman isn’t as a full-on, knife-wielding murderer. There was always a good side to him. When we see the version of his mother that he interacts with in his imaginary world and see his hopes and dreams, we know he so wants the world he finds himself in to be different. It’s tragic. I truly feel for him.
Of course, in action Norman is dangerous and bad. The killing scenes had an intensity to them that I had to find and play. But in a funny way, they were cathartic to film, similar to how you can sometimes feel good after shooting a scene where you have to cry. As in real life, you can get a sense of release, because you’ve gotten out whatever was inside you. Not that I personally ever want to kill anybody!
With the show over, I’ll find out if it’s hard to let go of Norman Bates. I don’t think he’ll be following me around, but making the show has given me some great memories, and I did end up with a huge collection of Norman’s socks—even if I’ve finally stepped out of the character’s shoes!
Bates Motel, Mondays, 10/9c, A&E