The series, which bows Monday, explores the formative years between Psycho’s Norman Bates (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s Freddie Highmore) and his overbearing mother, Norma, and features the duo moving to a mysterious new town as the family prepares to start fresh following the death of Mr. Bates.
The drama marks the series regular debuts of both Farmiga and Highmore and a big swing for A&E as it looks to capitalize on the recent influx of horror-themed fare on cable (FX’s American Horror Story, AMC’s The Walking Dead). The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Farmiga (Up in the Air) and Highmore to discuss the appeals of television, the hints of Psycho in the drama from Lost‘s Carlton Cuse and Friday Night Lights‘ Kerry Ehrin, and how much Hitchcock viewers can expect from Bates.
THR: What was it about the role that drew you to TV for the first time?
Farmiga: It wasn’t a big decision. Culturally, I don’t think it’s a step down. The only thing that makes it different from film is the venue you watch it on. I have a 2- and 4-year-old, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a film in a theater; I watch on my laptop or on television. To me, there is no difference. I’m someone who chases after story and characterization.
Highmore: It was the right project and the character itself and the chance to develop it over a longer period of time. On a film, you have an hour and a half or two to make that character; here you have at least 10 episodes to make that transition, which is great; you can play more on the subtleties and build things in slower.
THR: Had you seen Psycho before you signed on to Bates? What drew you to the script?
Farmiga: Piggybacking off of Psycho, we know it ends badly. The only thing we know about Norma is through the warped psyche of Norman Bates. The idea of creating who that woman was was really appealing to me. I boiled it down to simply being an extraordinary love story that goes awry. I don’t know if the producers will ever get there in the show or what the plan is if you’ll see that; these are the very challenging teenage years. To me, it read like the most beautiful, wacky love story between a mother and her son. That simple premise is what intrigued me. It’s a dynamic relationship between mothers and sons. A woman, through her sensibilities and the kind of nurturing she does, shapes the man he will become. To see how such a loving, intimate relationship — they’re best friends — that umbilical cord is still attached is fascinating.
Highmore:I had seen Psycho but none of the sequels. The question that’s left unanswered in Psycho that Bates Motel attempts to answer is what made Norman Bates psycho? That was the intrigue for me. It’s such an iconic character — where did it all come from? It’s that balance of all that debate between nature vs. nurture. Was Norman Bates always destined to become that serial killer, or is it something that is brought upon him by him circumstances and his overbearing mother and this dodgy new town that they move to? Would we be slightly different if we’d have had his upbringing? Would we be slightly crazy? We all go a little mad sometimes.
THR: How did you approach playing Norma, who is never seen in Psycho?
Farmiga: My sincere approach to it is yes, she missteps; yes, she doesn’t do the right thing — that’s the nature of maternity. Sometimes we love our children so much we don’t always see clearly. We want them to succeed so badly. It’s a very innocent approach and it will be misconstrued. You take the show to a European audience and they might think something different. Affection in Europe, a father can sit with his son and hold hands watching television. In the states, that may be misconstrued as being “off” or warped. It’s all open to interpretation. I also want the audience to feel about Norma the way they do about their own mother: the good, the bad, the ugly, the perfect, the imperfect — it’s a messy relationship we have with our mothers.
THR: Norman is pulled in so many directions — a new group of friends at school, girls, his mother and his half-brother. Where do you find the balance between the good in Norman and his dark side bubbling under the surface?
Highmore: Hopefully, people empathize with Norman and root for him, even though we know how he ends up. There’s still this false sense of hope that he might change and manage to pull through and surprise us all — even though he won’t (laughs). He is a nice guy who just has a mad side to him that’s unfortunate and awful, but there’s two sides to his personality. It’s developed further and that difference is made clearer as the show goes on.
THR: The series has given Norman an older half-brother. How will that dynamic help explore who this damaged kid is?
Highmore: It’s interesting to give a sense of perspective on Norman and Norma and to get inside the Bates house and see the way they interact through someone else’s eyes, who is supposedly more stable than they are. Dylan (Max Thieriot) ends up becoming the brother that Norman has never had, and a perhaps more sane person to bond with. At the start, that’s how it seems anyway.
THR: A big part of the show will feature Norman exploring dating for the first time. Will we see Norman in love and how that experience helped shape him?
Highmore:Yes, it will be tricky for him to balance liking a girl and his relationship with his mother. That’s clear right from the start in her reaction to that, but also from his perspective: Will there be a sense of betrayal on his part or not?
THR: Are there any elements of Hitchcock that you’ve brought to your roles?
Farmiga: There’s always elements to the Hitchcock blonde — this cool cucumber but [then] there’s this heated animal side [that comes] out to her when she’s put in danger or distress. There’s a lot of that in Norma and certainly the Swiss blonde, there’s a little hat tip to that, too. I took more inspiration from other sources of literature since there wasn’t much clue in Psycho for who this woman is. There’s the image that morphs from Anthony Perkins’ face to the skeletal Norma with the wig, and I might have stolen that updo in episode five or six (laughs). Other than that, I took my inspiration more from literary sources like Hedda Gabler and Nora from A Doll’s House.
Highmore: Hopefully, there will be a few mannerisms that people will pick up on. That’s the aim, to do it in a way that’s subtle and doesn’t detract from this new story that we’re starting to create. For fans of Psycho, there’s something that will remind them of where it all began.