Freddie Highmore and Carlton Cuse Discuss ‘Bates Motel’ and the Season 2 Finale

Freddie Highmore and Carlton Cuse Bates Motel Interview
Freddie Highmore stars in A&E's 'Bates Motel.' (Photo by Joseph Lederer/Copyright 2014)

By Rebecca Murray

The thrilling season two of A&E’s Bates Motel will come to an end on May 5, 2014 at 10pm ET/PT with what’s expected to be an explosive finale. And in support of the season finale, Bates Motel star Freddie Highmore (‘Norman Bates’) and executive producer Carlton Cuse teamed up for a conference call to discuss the critically acclaimed series and what fans of the show can expect.

Freddie Highmore and Carlton Cuse Bates Motel Interview

Freddie, how has your acting style evolved and how did you manage to break free from the ‘cute kid’ mold to do something a little darker? And, how did you avoid the pitfalls of stardom at a young age?

Freddie Highmore: “I’ve always remained, I guess, relatively distant from the sort of film world while growing up whenever I wasn’t doing one myself. I carried on sort of going to normal school and right now I’m just a couple of weeks away from doing my final exams at the university. So having always combined acting with my studies and always have a life back here in England, I think that’s given me a kind of nice sense of distance in terms of not falling into the pitfalls that you mentioned.

In terms of evolution, I guess you become more aware as you get older of how lucky you’ve been to have been on these fantastic sets, and also aware of the learning process that goes on kind of subconsciously just by being on the set from a young age and learning from actors. Having never been to acting school myself, I guess you become more aware of the things that you learn and traits and other actors that you see to sort of replicate or ways that they’ve approached certain scripts or material that you find inspiring. I guess it’s recognition of being lucky and also kind of maintaining this certain distance from it, which has always been rewarding.

Norman Bates certainly is different but I never transitioned from a child actor to a young adult, so I don’t find it to be particularly problematic in the sense that I just saw it as a natural thing. As you get older you start to play all the characters, and so I wouldn’t say doing anything different now than I did before. It just seemed natural to me.”

Were you both fans of the movie? Carlton, how much does the film affect the series?

Carlton Cuse: “I was a huge fan of the movie. I think it’s kind of in the pantheon of nearly perfect movies. I was actually very afraid about making a show that would fall too heavily in the shadow of that. Right from the get-go when Kerry Ehrin, my partner on the show, and I started working on it, the very first and most important decision that we made was to do the show as a contemporary sequel which I think put the show in a different place than the movie. I think if we had done it as a period show it would always be kind of in the oppressive shadow of this amazing master work that Hitchcock made. And, for us, what we really wanted to do is just take these characters, take the idea of like how Tom Stoppard took Rosencrantz and Gildenstern and brought them to life from these two minor characters from Shakespeare and gave them their own existence, we took these two major characters from this Hitchcock movie and we sort of just placed them into a different time and gave them their own existence.

I think one of the things that’s been really rewarding as the show has gone to a second season is people are really beginning to see that Bates Motel is really its own thing. It was inspired by the Hitchcock movie but it’s really an original show taking some elements from the original Hitchcock movie, but our goal is to tell a wholly new story.”

Freddie Highmore: “I think I saw it for the first time when I was 14 and then saw it one more time or a couple more times before finally doing Bates Motel and starting the first season. I haven’t returned to it since. As Carlton said he was slightly [scared] in terms of taking it on, [but] he did a great job – both Carlton and Kerry – in making us all feel free to bring our own ideas and to not feel tied at all to this original material which I think is so key really to the show. Whilst there are certain aspects of Anthony Perkins’ classic performance that people see that or that in some instances sought to replicate, there was never a sense of mimicking him. It was more sort of seeing him in the original film as an inspiration and one of several forms of that.”

How wedded to the source material are you? The audience is invested in these characters so do you have to end up where the film begins eventually?

Carlton Cuse: “I think that I’m very happy to hear you say that because I think that’s the key to a great tragedy and tragedy is a great storytelling form. It worked extremely well for Shakespeare, it worked extremely well for Jim Cameron…Titanic is a tragedy and in that movie you kind of hope that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet don’t meet their inevitable fate. I think that that tension between your expectations as to what’s going to happen to these characters and what’s actually occurring now on their journey is that dramatic tension. I think it’s the essence of what we are trying to accomplish as writers. I think that Freddie and Vera – no one could do a better job than the two of them executing that. We do foresee that there are some bad things that loom ahead for Norma and Norman but I think it would actually rob the audience of the enjoyment of the journey to be too specific about how we’re going to play that out.”

How does the season two finale compare to the season one finale?

Freddie Highmore: “I think the whole arc of the second season has been fantastic for Norman, and there’s always a time that you need in terms of establishing a character and seeing them as they are before they start off on this journey. I think towards the end of this season we certainly see Norman […]in the tenth episode especially, and perhaps number eight that we’ve already seen, we start to see this small manipulative side to Norman that starts to question our allegiance to him and support and backing of him, which has been great fun as an actor to play because you play against the sense of what people think Norman should be like. But then there comes a point where I think to what extent can you continue to support his actions? And with Norman’s growing realization of who he is and who he might become and what he’s capable of comes this sense of power for him. What I think is great about the tenth episode is to what extent would that power Norman take as sort of a selfish decision, and by the end of the episode are we still with him or not?”

Carlton Cuse: “I personally think that the season finale is better because I think it moves the overall narrative a big step forward – and I don’t want to spoil that too much. But I think that it’s pretty evident as we’ve moved downstream here that there’s really significant looming questions. One is what is Norman’s ultimate culpability in the murder of Ms. Watson? And secondly, how aware is Norman of what it is that he’s done or is capable of doing? To us those are really important questions because the character’s self knowledge is a huge factor in how he moves forward, and we’re going to jump right into the heart of those questions in the finale.

It’s really satisfying as a writer to have a chance to take those kinds of questions on. Kerry and I loved writing that stuff and it was just made all the better by how well Freddie executed it. I think the finale is my favorite episode of the season and a lot of that has to do with just how great the performances are by Freddie, Vera [Farmiga] and also Max Thieriot.”

Can we expect an answer by the end of this season as to who killed Ms. Watson? And Freddie, what was the greatest challenge for you of making the audience constantly question back and forth whether Norman was the one to kill her?

Freddie Highmore: “I guess, yes, there will be an ultimate [answer] to that question before the end of the season. I think it’s tricky in terms of not wanting to spoil too much, but their toying with the audience has what’s been so fun. And also just stretching the relationship between Norma and Norman which has been likened in the past to this sense of an elastic band and it’s kind of stretched out, but then ultimately it returns to its original shape. You kind of stretch it and you think it’s going to break but it never quite does. Norma and Norman always seem to get over whatever challenges they’ve had previously, up until now.”

Freddie Highmore and Carlton Cuse Bates Motel Interview
Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in "Bates Motel" on A&E. (Photo by Joseph Lederer/Copyright 2014)
Norman and Norma are usually so close but the secret that she’s been keeping about his blackout has really driven a wedge between them. Will their relationship continue down the strained path or is there reconciliation in the near future?

Carlton Cuse: “You know, Norma and Norman’s relationship is at the very heart of the show and that I don’t think ever will change. That’s what makes the show wonderful is this incredible dynamic that exists between these two characters as portrayed by these two actors. I mean, that’s the very heart and center of the show. The nature of that relationship, however, will evolve over time. I think what’s really interesting is that Norman is going from being sort of a boy to being a man. That’s part of his journey over the course of the show. I think that as he becomes more of a man that has consequences in terms of how he and his mother relate to each other. Kerry and I certainly don’t see that relationship as being static, but we definitely see it as always being very close and very intense.”

What were some of the biggest writing challenges you faced going into season two?

Carlton Cuse: “I guess it was just kind of fun to figure out how we most effectively could expand our knowledge of the world in which these characters inhabited, both sort of interpersonally and also externally with the community at large. We really wanted to show the characters in White Pine Bay to get to know more about that community, too, and to really deepen the audience’s connection with Norma, Norman, and Dillon kind of throughout the season. I guess to kind of summarize I think you’re making a show that is extensively about a serial killer but the goal from a writing standpoint was to make the audience really care deeply about Norman and about Norma, to like them, to root for them and so you have these two things that are kind of in opposition.

Kerry and I, our goal always in the writing is to have the audience be really deeply connected on an emotional level to Norma and Norman and be right there with them as they go on this fun but also perilous journey. I think that’s the challenge is to kind of be able to take a genre like a serial killer, a show that’s extensively about a serial killer, but to make it heartfelt and emotional and funny and humanistic. And I think that’s what we work really hard at as writers.”

Do you have a sense yet of what the shape of season three will be or what would we can expect given how much has been covered in season two?

Carlton Cuse: “Look, our goal is to continue to write the show on a high level and make season three hopefully even better than season two. Our expectations are that high and Kerry Ehrin and I have actually spent a fair amount of time talking about it. We do have a preliminary game plan that we’re very excited about. I mean, it’s tough to say too much about it because a lot of it is driven by events that are in the finale that I don’t want to spoil. But I feel very confident that we can make a really engaging season three. We do have a plan and in fact we’re already – now that we’ve been picked up – we’re hard at work in terms of just laying out the architecture of the new season. I think it’s going to be great. I’m really excited about it.”

Do you have an overall plan for however many seasons Bates Motel will go? Do you know how you want to end it?

Carlton Cuse: “Yes, Kerry and I have a plan. We’re having discussions with A&E and Universal Studios about just how many episodes we’re going to do to finish the show. I mean, it’s definitely a show that has a beginning, middle, and end, and I think we’re kind of getting to the point where we need to sort of define that with the studio and the network and kind of figure out exactly how many more total episodes we’re going to do. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to work that out because we do know where we’re going to end. We’re planning to start some time later this fall, so season three we’ve got also sort of up in the air.”

What part of Norman would you like to see portrayed next season that maybe hasn’t been explored completely these past two seasons?

Freddie Highmore: “I guess, again, that’s something that’s sort of hinted out in the finale of this year is the continuation of [blowing down] the boundaries, the kind of definitive boundaries between this is Norman and this is Norma. We’ve already seen earlier in the season Norman at times assuming, especially with Katie in the motel room, kind of assuming [her] identity and there’s this kind of continuation of somewhat merging between them at times, and an ability to distinguish that. That is kind of further pushed out in an incredibly dramatic way in the last episode. I’m excited to continue on exploring that, if Carlton and Kerry decide to.”

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