‘Bates Motel’ Season 4: Nestor Carbonell and Carlton Cuse Interview

Nestor Carbonell Bates Motel Season 4
Nestor Carbonell stars in A&E’s ‘Bates Motel’ (Photo by Cate Cameron/Copyright 2016)

Nestor Carbonell not only stars in A&E’s gripping thriller Bates Motel but also directed an episode of season three and the seventh episode of season four, airing on April 25, 2016. Season four of the critically acclaimed series is the best season to date, with Norman (played by Freddie Highmore) slipping closer to the Norman Bates in Psycho as he continues to lose touch with reality. This season has also found Sheriff Romero (Carbonell) and Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) marrying and then finally confessing they truly love each other, with Romero providing much-needed support for Norma as she deals with Norman’s deteriorating mental state.

Nestor Carbonell joined executive producer Carlton Cuse for a conference call to discuss season four of Bates Motel which is currently airing on A&E on Mondays at 9pm ET/PT. Carbonell and Cuse talked about Norma and Romero’s relationship and what audiences can expect as we head into the final episodes of season four and toward the final season next year of the popular series.

Nestor Carbonell and Carlton Cuse Interview:

Are you ready for bliss or are is Sheriff Romero rethinking giving up the money?

Nestor Carbonell: “Well, what I love about every season is that every character has obviously evolved in different ways and largely impacted by the people that they interact with. And for my character, certainly, the biggest impact has been Norma. This season she seems to have absolutely softened and he’s completely fallen for her. At the same time, as you mentioned, old habits die hard. This is a man who has his own code and one of them apparently is if it’s Bob Paris’ money and he’s no longer around, then now it’s my money. So the question, the big question is he’s made such a huge effort to hide that money to what end is it? He’s a got a sort of a fluid moral compass. Where will it go to next? I think you’ll get some answers certainly in the next couple of episodes regarding that.”

Carlton, are you enjoying the feedback from fans on social media?

Carlton Cuse: “Absolutely. I mean, Kerry [Ehrin] and I had put together fairly early on a five-year plan for the show. And season four is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time because it really is…we’re activating these major kind of elements of the show’s narrative one of which is Norman is really sort of descending into being kind of pathologically the character that is similar to the one in Psycho. And secondly, really finally getting to sort of let Norma and Romero’s relationship blossom. And so it’s really, really fun. It was really, really fun for us to sort of see the audience embrace both of these events which are really huge kind of advancements in our storytelling. We’ve always envisioned the show being five seasons, so we’re really kind of entering the critical phase of the show now as these two events – these two kind of story events unfold.”

Carlton, this is a follow-up question on your five-year plan. Has that altered at all dramatically, based on what you’ve seen fans embrace about the show? Or is it the same thing that you set out with from season one, this path that you’re taking to get to that finale of season five?

Carlton Cuse: “I think there are some changes that occurred in that. I think in certain ways kind of it’s been enhanced by what’s happened with the actors. I mean, we think we discovered, for instance, that there was a really nice chemistry between, Dylan’s and Emma’s characters. And that really pushed us towards engaging those two romantically, which was something that wasn’t planned from the very beginning. And in terms of like the Norma, Romero, that was something we really thought about from the very beginning. But what we didn’t anticipate was the incredible chemistry that existed between Nestor and Vera [Farmiga]. And so that storyline kind of was amplified and really just it became so much more heated up by the fact that the two actors are so amazing and so kind of connected. So, it feels so real and believable. It just kind of is a level of combustion that we didn’t expect.”

Why do you think Romero feels the need to protect Norma? Is it simply because he cares so much for her or is there something deeper there?

Nestor Carbonell: “I’ll tell you what – and steer me right where I’m wrong – but my take on it is that he feels a certain kinship with her and feels somewhat in that they both have a sordid history. They’ve had a tough upbringing. I mean the both of them have had a dark, not equally dark, but there were both very dark pasts that they’ve had to battle. And so they have that in common, but more than that [is] the way they’ve dealt with it. They’re both strong and assertive personalities that have had to fight for everything. I think Romero sees his counterpart in Norma in that respect. She’s a woman who’s come to this town and is completely bucked conventionally in town and gone against all of the things that you’re supposed to, the council, the just the typical ways you’re meant to go about doing things in this kooky town of White Pine Bay. And I think Romero loves that in her and has certainly warmed to her. His struggle with her is that she’s able to trust him and that’s a struggle with him for three seasons up until this season, where I think he finally feels, at least in this particular episode that aired, that he’s finally broken through.”

Carlton Cuse: “Yes. I think that there’s a kind of deep level of empathy in Sheriff Romero. I think he feels that he has a very good grasp of sort of the kind of understanding of people and as a result, it has given him license to set his own morality and draw his own line in the sand. I think his deep level of empathy for Norma is one which he really understands how important Norman is to her, and so therefore because he really deeply loves this woman, he wants to help support Norman as well, you know? So I think it’s everything that Nestor said. And then I would just add that it’s really sort of a deep reading of Norma that also kind of motivates him to be her ally here.”

The Bates Motel and house are re-creations, but still what’s it like to be on that set? How does that add to the whole atmosphere of filming?

Nestor Carbonell: “It’s extraordinary. I mean, we have an amazing set that was built by Mark Freeborn and his crew who I, correct me if I’m wrong, Carlton, I think built the entire exterior of the set in five weeks in Aldergrove which is a border town, a U.S.-Canadian border town, in Canada. It’s much larger than the original set in Universal.”

Carlton Cuse: “[…]The one that’s on the Universal lot actually is a scale model. It’s not full-size. But our set was built using the original blueprints that were taken from the Universal archives. It is a full-scale replica built to the specifications from the Hitchcock movie. It is, when you actually go there, this special relationship and connectivity I think makes it. It gives you kind of a sense of realness that’s really great. I’ll let Nestor speak to that but from a performing aspect, it really grounds that. It just makes it feel real even though those sets are so iconic and kind of from the world of cinema. There’s also the sense of reality when you actually have them built and this big special relationship exists. You know, so much movie-making is trickery. We actually have these things; you can walk into a motel room downstairs. There’s the office. You go up the stairs and you go into the house. It’s kind of wonderful other than the fact that it’s built on a landfill of a garbage dump. Other than that, it’s fantastic.”

Nestor Carbonell: “I think that only adds to it. You’re absolutely right. It is largely a practical set and has become more practical as every season has gone on. The crew had built more rooms and added a roof for the second season. So I think so, yes, as Carlton said, the minute you step on the set you can’t really help but already be in that world because it is so beautifully realized by Mark Freeborn and his crew.

The other thing too I would add is that we have to drive an hour and a half from downtown Vancouver every time we shoot at the motel. So there’s something to be said for that drive as opposed to driving to a lot. When you’re driving to a place pretty far away, pretty remote on a border town that, as an actor, certainly gets you in the mood for you to say, ‘I’m going to this remote motel out there and it is out there.’ So there’s something about that, and then we shoot predominately during the and the fall so you add the gray skies of Vancouver to the mix. That only adds to the sort of impending thriller and thrill and doom element to it.”

Separating Norma and Norman this season has propelled the story and the characters forward. Would you speak a little bit about how that separation has slowed Norma to evolve and change and perhaps reach the turning point that she did in last week’s episode?

Carlton Cuse: “I think for Kerry and I, we felt like this was a very important story moment. […]There were kind of a lot of things that were serviced at all the same time, we wanted Norma to kind of confront this idea that she’d never had actually gotten any professional help for her kid despite a lot of sign posts that he needed psychological help. So the fact that she does that was important. Also, we wanted to hold out this hope that Norman being in this place where he’s getting mental help is possibly a really optimistic event for him. It’s also really kind of untethering Norma from Norman and gives us an opportunity to explore the character in a different way. She’s suddenly freed from the 24/7 obligations of her kid and this really allowed her relationship with Romero to flourish. We want to, in a way, give her the sort of thing she’d always wanted.

She’s, I think, a character who her whole life has wanted to find some pure manifestation of love. She’s instead gotten involved with the wrong guys and been the victim of a lot of horrible circumstances. Now for the first time everything seems to be going right. She’s with a guy who loves her, who is really at his core…I think we believe a very decent guy with his own kind of strong sense of morality and someone who fiercely cares about her and like this relationship has really blossoming. Yet you have Norman who’s in a mental institution and is kind of a ticking time bomb. It just felt narratively that it was a great opportunity to put the characters in some different circumstances that allowed us to push some of our storytelling in new directions.”

Nestor, the scene with you and Vera Farmiga finally discussing the truth about Norma’s relationship with Caleb was heartbreaking and a turning point for Norma. Was there anything out of the ordinary you did to prepare for that scene? Was that just another day on the set or did it take extra effort to get through that scene?

Nestor Carbonell: “I mean, it was driven by Vera’s incredible performance. It was on the page, I remember welling up, crying, reading that scene and then thinking, ‘Wow, this is going to be a tough one.’ And Vera, she’s so incredibly well prepared and so emotionally available. She got me in the first take. Thankfully, the camera was on her but I was like, ‘I’m going to lose it here.’ It was definitely a tough scene to shoot.

What was interesting is even though we, as a viewer, knew everything she was saying – I mean, we’d heard it – I think she had to reveal all that. She did. She had to reveal it to Dylan as well. So while she had revealed it before having the impact on the character that she had fallen for, having her see the impact on that character was something completely new. And what it meant to their future and to her future in particular was, I think, particularly important. I love that about the scene. It is her reveal, my response to her, and then her response to that was particularly moving. Like, ‘Wow, finally there’s someone here who doesn’t care, who will take me warts and all.’ But, yes, it was a particularly tough scene to shoot. But when you have Vera driving something like that, she makes it look effortless.”

Was there anything you learned from directing the season three episode that you applied to the season four episode you directed?

Nestor Carbonell: “Yes. […] Due to Carlton, I got this incredible opportunity. This is something that Vera had suggested I do. In the middle of season two, she said, ‘You should try directing. You really should.’ And when I broached the subject with Carlton he said, ‘Yes, absolutely. I think that would be a great idea.’ I suggested maybe shadowing and then lo and behold, he said, ‘Well, if someone falls out would you be willing to step in?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ and sure enough someone had to fall out last year and then I had the daunting prospect of actually having to do it – and having not gone to film school. But the great advantage I have, outside of amazing scripts to work with, is a phenomenal cast, is an extraordinary crew that helped me a lot last year. I learned so much from that particular episode from Tucker Gates, our Producing Director who really established the look of the show. The dolly tracks, mostly nothing longer than a 40 millimeter lens so that pretty much it’s a single camera show. That the whole world is mostly in focus as you’re shooting it. So, I wanted to certainly pay respects to what Tucker was doing.

I got enormous help from the crew and that particular episode last year was fairly stunt-heavy so I learned a whole other thing on top of just getting behind the camera. So yes, I took as much of that as I could to this episode which, as you’ll see without giving anything away, is totally a very different episode than the one I got to direct last year, which is another bonus for me getting to do something completely different as a director.”

What’s one of your favorite things about playing Sheriff Romero this season?

Nestor Carbonell: “Well, this particular season what’s been a lot of fun – Carlton and I talked about this stuff in the beginning – is the arc of the character, that he wasn’t necessarily particularly sympathetic when we first met him. He was bit of a bulldog. But knowing full well that eventually he would wind up with Norma, it was nice to be able to track as an actor that trajectory so that you can play has hard as you want initially knowing full well that eventually he will soften. His guard will come down. And knowing that it was because of Norma that he was going to soften was what made that choice that much more interesting because of my dynamic with Norma and with Vera. With this particular season what’s been rewarding is finding the ways for him to slowly break that guard down. And what Carlson and Kerry and the writers came up so cleverly with was how do you do that after three seasons of a pretty hard-nosed guy? The only time we’ve seen Romero sort of drop his guard was when he’d been drinking, so Kerry, Carlton, and the writers cleverly had me go out on dates and have a few cocktails and suggested Norma drink as a way of loosening up. That sort of let the walls down, initially.

I love what Carlton and Kerry did in terms of bridging or having these two get together. It was a product of a marriage first, of a false marriage, that turns into passion, that turns into liking each other. And then eventually it turns into declaring a love for each other. So it’s sort of a backwards way to enter a relationship, but I think it’s sort of in keeping with what these two are.”

Norman is obviously becoming more and more unstable this season. Now that Romero has married his beloved mother, do you think it’s inevitable that there’s an altercation coming between the two?

Carlton Cuse: “Yes. I mean, we clearly constructed this narrative that these two characters are on a collision course. You know, how that actually plays out, we obviously don’t want to spoil what’s to come. You know, the idea that while Norman’s away, Norma will play is obviously a very loaded scenario. The kind of degree in which [Norman] is willing to accept Romero into his life and to accept the fact that Romero and his mother are romantically involved is a question that just looms large across the show and will definitely be addressed in coming episodes.”

Those who’ve seen the movie know what’s apparently coming for Norma, which is obviously even harder for us to deal with now that we’ve gotten to know her. Do you think the Bates Motel ending might be completely different? Do you think of that as a separate entity?

Carlton Cuse: “You know, Kerry and I, we certainly don’t think it would be rewarding to deliver up to the audience the exact same ending of our show that you saw in the movie. However, the tension of all great tragedies is sort of this idea of you’re hoping against hope that characters don’t meet their inevitable fate. That’s the essential tension of tragedies. So if you watch Titanic, you know the ship is going to sink. But you’re hoping, ‘Oh man, did Kate and Leo make it?’ I think that we want our audience to feel that same tension. Are Norma and Norman going to make it? Is Norma going to make it? What’s going to happen? I think that we like to think of the idea that we’re sort of crisscrossing with the mythology of the original movie. But it is certainly not our desire or obligation to exactly align our storytelling with what goes on in the movie. The tension of what you should or shouldn’t expect is something that we’re very aware of. We want you to feel that tension, but I certainly don’t want to tell you how we’re planning to pay it out.”

How does it feel to see the end coming with the series finishing up next year? Are you already getting nostalgic, even though you’re still in the middle of it?

Carlton Cuse: “For us, it’s kind of this really mixed thing because it’s absolutely best for the storytelling. I mean, this is a story that just is so much better closed-ended, knowing that there is some kind of finality to it. The tension of that finality, what that finality’s actually going to mean is, I think, what really helps engage the audience. But on a personal level, it’s an absolutely blessed experience. I’ve never worked with a cast that is more connected, more aligned, more professional. Everyone is so lovely and talented and the work experience, I think, is so satisfying and rewarding for everyone involved that it’s really painful for that to come to an end, you know? This assemblage of actors is so special and rare. The way everyone treats each other and the respect that everyone has for everyone else and for the process is so high that that is a really serious bummer that that’s ending. You know, that’s not the case on many TV shows or films or anything where you have this level of connectedness. That part’s going to be sad because whenever you make a show, you have a fictional show but it leads to the creation of this sort of real world family behind the scenes that actually makes the show. The fact that that’s going to be coming to an end in the near future is sad.”

Nestor Carbonell: “Again, yes, I completely agree and I’ve told you this too, Carlton, that I hold this up in the same way as I held Lost. This has been one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had creatively and then personally, too. Like you said, the people are extraordinary, working again obviously with you and Kerry and the incredible crew and the cast. It’s the old cliché thing which is true: it’s like a family. Our Line Producer put together and amassed the most incredibly talented and sweetest crew that you could imagine and we spent many hours together, so it’s going be extraordinarily hard to see the show end.

For some of us, we don’t know when it ends. You know, you’ll have to find out as a viewer for some when that end comes. But so far it’s been and has been, like I said, one of the best experiences that I have ever had professionally.”

Freddie Highmore wrote one of the upcoming episodes. Did either of you give him any special advice?

Carlton Cuse: “You know, I think Freddie is a multi-talented guy who is different than a lot of actors in many respects. He has a degree from Cambridge University in languages. He’s fluent in Spanish and Arabic. I honestly think he’s with MI6 but that’s something he will neither confirm nor deny. And he, I think, has like Nestor the potential to be a significant artist in an area beyond acting. I think for Freddie it was a great experience to come and sit in the writer’s room and work with our incredibly talented group of writers on the construction of the story. What was really interesting, and it was a first for me, is to see a script come together from the perspective of someone who’s writing it who actually really inhabits one of the main characters in the show. His perspective on Norman and then writing of the script was something that I think Kerry and I were really taken with because we’re the progenitors of that character but he’s the person who’s playing that character and inhabiting it. It was just interesting to see the ways in which he would [as] Norman react in a certain circumstance versus what we would imagine the character would do. [We] kind of in a collaborative way found our way towards I think using the best of both, using our ideas about how the character would be in combination with insights that I think Freddie brings to the table playing Norman day in and day out. I think it was a real learning experience for Freddie.

He did a great job. I believe when you are engaged in a process like making the show, I think particularly you look for opportunities to really nurture the talent in the people you work with. You know, see the ways in which that talent extends the job that they’re currently doing. I think that Nestor has turned out to be a phenomenal director. I think he’ll have a healthy career as a director alongside his acting career. I think Freddie has definitely shown the ability to do more than act himself.”

Nestor Carbonell: “Thank you, Carlton. That’s very kind. And again I would not be in this position if it were not for you. You literally made this happen and I can’t thank you enough for that. It’s been extraordinary. I love that you’ve fostered that and you’ve helped Freddie through this process, too, as a writer. I know he will have a chance to go beyond that and direct next year. He was extraordinary. It was great to work with him and great to see him even in pre-production. I would sort of bump into him when he was prepping for the episode. He would ride on the bus with scouts and everything, and he really wanted to learn every aspect of the process. I love that and I loved just giving him a hard time when we’re doing scenes. I mean, you brought this up, Carlton, that I did. At one point we’re doing a scene and I said, ‘These words are just not sayable. I mean, you just don’t say these things.’ [Laughing] So that went over really well. I said, ‘Who wrote this, man?’ No, but it was a lot of fun. And just to see his level of excitement and how invested he was in every aspect of it was great. He’s an unusually gifted individual and an incredibly warm person. It was just amazing to see him succeed on this level as well.”