‘Bates Motel’ Season 4: Freddie Highmore and Kerry Ehrin Interview

Bates Motel Freddie Highmore Season 4
Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates in ‘Bates Motel’ (Photo by Cate Cameron / Copyright 2016)

If there isn’t already an active campaign to get Freddie Highmore recognized with an Emmy nomination for Bates Motel season four, one needs to be launched immediately. Highmore’s performance as the mentally unstable Norman Bates in season four of the critically acclaimed series has been nothing short of perfect. Highmore also added Bates Motel writer to his resume this season, penning the script to episode eight. Titled ‘Unfaithful’ and airing on May 2, 2016, the eighth episode of Bates Motel season four is going to be a game-changer.

In support of the episode, Highmore and executive producer Kerry Ehrin teamed up for a conference call to discuss what many believe is the best season to date of Bates Motel. They teased episode eight but didn’t give any spoilers during the Q&A, however it’s important that you’re caught up through season four episode seven before reading on.

Freddie Highmore and Kerry Ehrin Interview:

Do you want to get more involved in writing and maybe even directing?

Freddie Highmore: “Yes, I’d love to. I mean first of all, I’m obviously incredibly grateful to Carlton [Cuse] and Kerry for allowing [me in] the writers room and giving me an opportunity to write an episode and be a part of Bates Motel beyond merely acting. I guess it was borne out of this desire to want to be involved in the wider process and it just seemed a little odd to me to put so much into this character for the four, five months that we shoot in Vancouver and then let it completely go and just sort of go away and ignore it for a few months. And then come back and be like, ‘Oh, let’s just see what’s been happening.’ […]So that’s I guess where the desire was borne out of and now very much so I am sort of loving the writing experience on Bates Motel and being part of that team and am writing more things.”

What was the biggest challenge in writing the episode and who was the character that was the hardest for you to write for?

Freddie Highmore: “I found, in terms of the writing room in general, I guess the hardest thing was to create the dynamic, and I didn’t have any scenes actually with Dr. Edwards in my episode. But if you know the tone of these characters that you’ve lived with for so long, and the introduction of new characters that you don’t know so well, it’s very much getting on the same page as everyone in the room without any actual sort of physical scenes to watch and to get into.”

Kerry Ehrin: “Well, it was really interesting because I mean first of all, it was great to have him in the room because it was such a presence of Norman just because Freddie has lived inside that role and experienced it in all dimensions. So that was really interesting but I had sort of thought perhaps […] the interaction with Romero, I would have thought might be the hardest. Like, Romero might be the hardest character to get inside of as a writer because as an actor he’s in a place where he really does not like him. So I just thought that would be a very interesting thing from a writing point of view. I wondered how he handled that.”

Freddie Highmore: “There is a sense of battle of control between Norman and Romero in this episode. And I guess sort of secretly inside you’re like, ‘Norman’s just got to win all these battles,’ you know? And then you have to set your sort of character’s self-interest aside and figure out what’s best for the story.”

Freddie, do you think Norman being separated from Norma has allowed him to evolve and to change?

Freddie Highmore: “I think part of the interesting thing about having separated Norma and Norman is that we’ve allowed the mother side to Norman to develop greater. And I think part of that is borne out of the fact that they are physically apart, and so through that sense of missing her and yearning for her, he at times has visions of her, or more commonly starts to slip into that guise of being her. And I think that’s what was fascinating for me to play this season, those moments of transitions in scenes with Dr. Edwards, for example, where we see Norman slip into the guise of mother and take on this other side. And I feel like that is released because of their physical separation. So that’s been really, really fun to play.”

Do you agree that he may have been better off just staying at home rather than going into Pine View?

Freddie Highmore: “Well, I feel like they have to be together. There’s a scene at the end of [episode] eight when Norman says this to Norma and the whole Romero thing comes to the fore in number eight. And they do have to be together. They need to be with each other in order to function. And in a way from Norma’s point of view, I feel she slightly deludes herself by living in this dream, this very happy reality that she created with Romero. But when Norman comes home, as he eventually will, and we know from the story that he’s going to have to come back, it sort of becomes revealed as this more of a fantasy and of a dream of another life, but it’s not a life that she can ever actually leave. So I think Norman, in number eight, in a scene towards the end, really latches onto that idea of knowing how inseparable they really are. And as much as they want to deny it, or as much as they wish that it might not be true, it always will be. No one will be able to get in between the two of them. No one will be able to break that cord.”

Kerry, Carlton Cuse has said he doesn’t think Bates Motel gets the recognition it deserves. What influence do you think Bates Motel has had on television? There have been five other series based on horror movies after Bates Motel. Do you think that would have happened without a quality show like Bates Motel?

Kerry Ehrin: “It’s a good question. I’m sure that it has influenced certain areas of development because any successful show does. I mean I promise you there are a lot of people trying to figure out how to do O.J. Simpson as we speak. That’s just how it works. It’s hard for me to speak to the influence it’s had because honestly, as a creator, I live so much inside of it and I agree with Carlton [Cuse] that the show is so good. The acting is so good and it deserves to be recognized. We both get frustrated about that.”

Freddie Highmore: “I think what Kerry and Carlton have done so successfully with the show that hopefully will influence the way in which other television shows can be made is that without the background of Psycho, without this story being told within that backdrop and as a prequel to Hitchcock’s Psycho, which everyone knows, I wonder whether the show would have been able to be made in the first place just based on this reasonably small premise of a relationship between the mother and the son, and the intricacies of that, and what it means. I think it’s so interesting [that] Bates Motel is sometimes — people talk about it in the sort of horror genre, but I really think it’s more of a psychological thriller or just this sort of psychological kind of romance or love story. And I think Kerry and Carlton have been amazing in digging out the nuances and the intricacies of a show based around one relationship between these two people. And so hopefully that just proves that even if a premise seems on the face of it relatively small, there’s so much intricacies and people, and the way in which people live their lives that means you can make a show out of just that, out of just one single relationship.”

Freddie, when you got into the mindset of writing about Norman, did you learn anything about the character by looking at him in a different way than you normally do as an actor? And Kerry, were you sort of surprised by some of his takes on Norman or even any of the other characters?

Kerry Ehrin: “I mean really, it wasn’t that it was different. It was more that you elevated. It was you have always just completely, like, understood and embraced the sensibility and I can’t honestly say that there were differences. It was just elevated. It was just from the very beginning when we saw Freddie in dailies, and Vera [Farmiga] – I don’t even know how to describe it. It was just such a beautiful realization of an emotional story that we had lived with inside of ourselves. And then to see it so beautifully come to life, I suppose that’s always a surprise because honestly it has a lot to do with chemistry and it has a lot to do with a lot of things. And, obviously, Vera and Freddie had never read together. It’s like it just happened on screen and was just so kind of magical.”

Freddie Highmore: “I guess the [writing process] of the script was interesting and a sort of learning experience for me. Because almost all of the episodes were written before we started shooting and so by the time you get back to revisiting this episode that you wrote various months ago, you come at it with the sort of extra weight of actually having filmed and experienced everything that you knew was written out that you hadn’t quite shot yet. That was an interesting thing, being able to tweak stuff and seeing the evolution of the script from that very first draft into something sort of linking it in with the entire arc of the character. I guess number eight becomes quite pivotal for Norman. Obviously, at the end of seven he’s left the institution and he comes home. And so it was an interesting episode from that point of view because it pushed Norman into this new space and drove him forward with, ultimately, this fresh motivation. I guess I felt lucky to be able to write that episode because from Norman’s point of view it’s a sort of key hinge moment. But that sense of, certainly at the beginning of the episode, Norman is trying to some extent to make things work between the two of them. By the end of the episode that will all have descended into something else, and Norman realizes that perhaps that isn’t possible anymore.”

Will there be some hurt feelings because of Dylan’s relationship with Emma?

Freddie Highmore: “Well, Norman and Emma have a fun scene. I always describe these scenes as fun; a fun scene for me is a scene that’s just exciting. I’ll describe a killing scene and it was really fun so do with that what you will. But there’s a really interesting theme between Norman and Emma in this episode and I think that goes some way towards keeping the audience on Norman’s side to some extent and really feeling for him and seeing that he’s not just a lunatic and that he genuinely does have a moral compass.”

Freddie Highmore Bates Motel Season 4
Freddie Highmore in ‘Bates Motel’ (Photo by Cate Cameron / Copyright 2016)

Norman is often an intense and introverted character. Some actors say that playing roles like that makes it hard for them to separate themselves from the character when they’ve been playing it for a long time. Is that something that you’ve experienced, Freddie?

Freddie Highmore: “Not really, no. It’s interesting the sort of sense of because someone’s more introverted, it affects you more and certainly Norman is that. What’s been great I think about the writing that Kerry has led this season is that it’s really been even more so than before focused on those nuanced interesting moments and the transitions and themes, and the keys to sort of unlocking on a deeper level various relationships. That lends itself towards a more sort of introverted take on the character. For example, we’ve had these great scenes in episode five between Norman and Dr. Edwards that sort of run four or five pages. It’s so bold and confident and trusting. too, to sort of allow a scene to play out in its full as opposed to feeling the need to sort of cut the time or cut it back for television. Those moments and those long interesting themes have always been championed by Kerry.

I guess in terms of me, no, I haven’t really been that affected by it. I don’t know. You get into it on the day, of course, and it’s impossible to sort of be yourself one minute and laughing and happy with everyone and the next you sort of change and become your character. But I feel like at the end of the day when you leave and go home there isn’t that sense of anything lingering over me. I mean in some ways, not to encourage acting as a form of therapy, but it can be quite cathartic to have a big emotional scene and in the same way when in reality you’re crying with someone or you shout at someone and you feel like you vented all of this energy. And then you feel kind of good about yourself and relaxed. Maybe there is a Norman within me and I’m just allowing him to express it, to make sure it doesn’t impinge on my real life. I don’t know what I’m going to do when the show’s over. Watch out!”

What are some of the biggest challenges with trying to keep Bates Motel on track with at least some of the events in the original movie?

Kerry Ehrin: “I don’t really see those as challenges. Those are more opportunities and they’re fun. When you can really organically pull in little important bits or an iconic image, a little bit of dialogue, a reference, those are fun. Those are fun to get to use and we use them sparingly. Carlton and I always from the beginning wanted it to feel like a world of its own but we wanted certain iconic presences like the house, the Psycho house. And when we get to use those things, it’s actually really, really fun. So I wouldn’t say it’s challenging; I’d say it’s sort of delicious.”

Freddie Highmore: “And number eight there’s actually a big recognizable moment from Psycho that will be revealed, the sort of origin of one of the sort of classic Psycho scenes that will be set up in number eight. So it is that sense of, as Kerry was saying, teasing stuff in and having it there but it never taking over the show or never being about it.”

Kerry Ehrin: “It doesn’t lead the story. And there’s been quite a few Easter eggs this year. Not gigantic references from Psycho but little ones, and those are fun too.”

As you were writing the script, did you hear your fellow actors’ voices interacting with you as Norman on the page?

Freddie Highmore: “Yes, I think so. I mean I guess you hope to embody every character when you’re writing as opposed to just one. But, certainly, the scenes where Norman is more dominant you can’t help but see it through his eyes. But I feel like that’s to do with creating the perspective of a scene too, and in general with any scene that you write there’s one person in the scene who is maybe driving it or who is maybe more in control and that sort of can be a useful way into a scene, to approach it through one person’s eyes as opposed to these two people.”

Norman’s slowly sunk into this sort of dissociative state. Was there any kind of research or anything you did to learn a little more about this sort of mental illness?

Freddie Highmore: “Yes. I mean that was something that certainly was discussed in the writer’s room and Kerry has done a lot of research, I know, into the effects of DID and whether Norman himself fits neatly into that description. I don’t think anyone is sort of entirely one thing. But from my point of view, I guess the season arc for Norman has been interesting to both at the same time try and maintain people’s sympathy towards him, but also develop this slightly more cunning or Machiavellian side to him whereby there’s a sense of sort of self interest in him acting selfishly, when in number seven he says to Julian that he knows how to make people think that he’s normal. There’s this sense of a trickier, more mature Norman that has come out who knows how to manipulate people and that’s been interesting to play with and to develop. The key with that has been at the same time we must be careful for the audience to know exactly when Norman is being genuine and when he’s not. So that there’s still a sense of being with him on his journey as opposed to being completely bewildered by whether his actions are sort of merely manipulative or genuinely coming from his heart.”

You had a great scene with Damon Gupton at the end of episode seven and it showed the vulnerability of Norman as he’s going through these tough times, but he also has this agenda to put on a persona to trick people. Do you think that Norman truly is as scared as he admitted to Dr. Edwards? Or is that part of his mask he puts on?

Freddie Highmore: “It’s a really interesting question because I remember discussing this with Kerry beforehand and Nestor [Carbonell] who obviously directed the scene on the day. And to me, I think it ultimately is a mixture of both. I think that he exploits genuine fears that he has and real emotions that he does feel, instead of sort of entirely making them up. But perhaps he puts on a little bit of a show in exaggerating them in the moment. I think that usually when you’re upset about things, you try hard to cover it up. I always use this phrase of ‘playing against the emotion’ and I feel like in that moment Norman perhaps isn’t entirely genuine in that he doesn’t try and sort of behave in the way that usual people would, and sort of hide and cover that emotion up. I feel in doing so, maybe there is a slight sense of manipulation because he’s very open and certain wants Dr. Edwards to feel it.

And, of course, he has his agenda. His agenda in that scene is to make sure that whatever happens, he’s going to get out of the institution and that’s his driving goal, and that can’t help but effect these genuine feelings that he’s feeling, but that perhaps he uses for his own self-interest.”

Kerry Ehrin: “One of the really fun things about writing the show is that so often in this show, characters are not saying out loud what they’re actually feeling. They’re saying something else and it’s very layered. And it’s like there’s a whole other emotional dialogue that goes on under each scene as opposed to just what they’re saying. Also it’s just like the acting is just so layered and amazing, but those scenes are just really fun to write. This idea that you cannot be both honest and manipulative at the same time I think is funny, because you absolutely can be. And I mean, my personal feeling in that scene was that there was a part of him that was scared to go home and that knew he was kind of screwed. But he had to go home and he had established this trust with Dr. Edwards. There was just so many different things going on in that scene, and Freddie and Damon Gupton just did it beautifully.”

Freddie Highmore: “I think in terms of what the writing gave was Norman feels – I mean he’s talking with different people but he feels very similarly about his situation when he’s talking to Norma and when he’s talking to Dr. Edwards in two of his biggest scenes that come up towards the end of seven when he’s trying to get home. And so despite the fact that he goes into that with a similar emotional position and with a similar desire, it’s interesting to see the ways in which he plays those two scenes differently. […]And so that’s a sort of guide to how that works and to how he manipulates and is sort of socially aware enough to slightly change his story depending on the situation itself.”