Bates Motel: Freddie Highmore on re-imagining Psycho’s serial killer

"Is Norman Bates always destined to become a serial killer? Or is it because of this dodgy town he’s moved to and the weirdly intimate relationship with his mum?"

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Remember that cute kid from Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Family? He’s now 21 years old and playing a serial killer. And if that didn’t leave you feeling old enough, he’s starring in a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror flick Psycho. Bates Motel – which premiered in the States earlier this year to favourable reviews – sees Highmore play Norman Bates, but not as you know him. 

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Rewinding back to his teenage days when he and his doomed mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), first moved to the fated Bates Motel, the series – set, however, in the modern day – sees Norman as a nervy teenager struggling to fit in at school and help run the family business. Fully aware of what he will eventually become, Highmore offers a sympathetic take on one of the most notorious serial killers in cinematic history. 

In real life, Highmore is studying for a degree in Spanish and Arabic at Cambridge University in between his busy filming schedule (Bates Motel already has a second series), but RadioTimes.com found a moment to sit down with him and hear all about his new role, plus his fears for Arsenal (this was back before the season kicked off) and his dreams of becoming a spy…

Were you nervous about taking on such an iconic character? 

I guess there was more pressure in some ways as you have something to live up to but it’s the same with every film and television show, you want to make sure that the potential it has is reached. The original film we all saw as a source of inspiration but we felt free to do our own thing. Certainly from my point of view, it was never an attempt to mimic Antony Perkins’ performance but more to see it as an inspiration and perhaps use little quirks or traits that bring something else to it as well. 

Are you pleased Bates Motel has succeeded in establishing its own identity? Reviewers have avoided just comparing it to Psycho…

Certainly, yes. It’s got that instant appeal because people recognise Bates Motel and Norman Bates as a fun idea. What made Norman Bates Psycho? But the fact that they kept coming back is obviously good. The idea I guess is what first attracted me to it – solving the problem of when you see Psycho, why is he like this? What made him this way? And it’s that argument between nature versus nurture – is Norman Bates always destined to become a serial killer? Or is it because of this dodgy town he’s moved to and the weirdly intimate relationship with his mum that has made him this way? 

Were you a fan of Hitchcock’s films before this role came along?

I’ve always enjoyed that psychological thrill. We tried to mimic that thing from Hitchcock of the suspense and having that drive the plot as opposed to it just being one death after another – Norman kills someone every single week – which I guess would be one way of doing Bates Motel but not the one that they chose to do. There’s obviously an additional ability to take the pace off things because you know where he’s going to end up – people are expecting him to be a serial killer doing people in so you can almost play against that sense of expectation. There’s a weird sense of hope that he won’t turn out the way that we know he must. But because of that story you can use it in a positive way and say, “Well that’s where we might get to but how?”

How hard did you have to work to perfect Norman’s death stare?

I guess you work on it. I wasn’t staring at myself in the mirror. As we see in the first season, there’s a development of this split personality with Norman – there’s this other side to him that he can’t really control. He’s influenced more and more by his mother in this alternative trance-like state that he sometimes slips into and so later on in the season you see his mother’s presence slowly infusing into Norman. But he’s nice, Norman. He’s a nice guy.

Do you expect Bates Motel to end at the same point the movie ends?

That’s the way I saw it, yes. Who knows whether that will end up being the last thing we see on Bates Motel. Him and Marion driving up… But I think that’s the end in sight and hopefully I’ll be there until the end. This is the good thing about playing Norman Bates. In a show where lots of people get killed, I imagine that the other actors to a certain point have to be slightly wary of their own life, whereas I have this nice calmness thinking I’ll be there until the end. It would be a big surprise, anyway, if Norman was suddenly killed off! He can’t die. Even Vera – she doesn’t look so well at the end of Psycho! She’s got it coming for her. 

Norman has a half brother Dylan in Bates Motel – how would you describe their relationship?

He’s almost the audience’s perspective on Norma and Norman’s relationship. Because they’re both quite unstable figures, he’s in some way a narrator for people to look at and he gets you inside their house when he arrives at the start of the second episode. 

The prequel is set in the modern day but everything has quite a 1950s feel to it – was that something you were all playing up to?

Yes, I think the whole house has that timeless quality. I think the first moment when you see Norman with his headphones at the bus stop, you think, “oh yes, he’s in a contemporary setting”.

Bates Motel is pretty scary – what frightens you?

Lots of things frighten me. At the moment it’s Arsenal – I’m clearly not deep enough. Arsenal fans now speak like this: “We’ve got the Champion’s League, we’ve won it,” whereas actually we came fourth and qualified but that feels like a real success. You think maybe we can do better next season and then your hopes are dashed. 

How do you balance your acting career with your degree at Cambridge?

I’ve just finished my year abroad because I’m studying languages and so the requirements from Cambridge’s point of view were that you had to spend eight months in an Arabic or Spanish speaking country which I could fit in around Bates Motel. The first two years at Cambridge I didn’t do anything because I wanted to focus on being there and it’s an opportunity to learn from world-leading professors as opposed to at school. Being at Cambridge isn’t just reading the books they have on their list, it’s being taught by the people there and being surrounded by students that share a similar enthusiasm. This last year I’ll be able to do because we’re starting Bates Motel, the second season, in a couple of weeks and then we’ll do it over the summer and I can go back to do my last year. This was all agreed beforehand – I wouldn’t have done something to jeopardise my time at Cambridge. 

What were you doing during your year abroad?

I was in Madrid for most of the time. For Spanish as opposed to Arabic. Or a spy. Supposedly in my last year you get a brown envelope and they’ll say, “Do you want to come and have a coffee and discuss working for your majesty.” So we’ll see if this ends up coming true. Or maybe I already am? This is all a big game and I’ve been spying in Canada. It would be a great cover story – they’d be like, “It’s not him, he’s obviously not a spy.”

Bates Motel begins on Thursday at 9pm on Universal


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