The cast and creators of midseason TV’s scariest new series, Bates Motel, sat for a Q&A session at the Television Critics Association Press Tour and spoke about the dark violence of the series, the connection to the film and the frighteningly close relationship between mother and son.
Many scoffed at the news that A&E was doing a TV show based on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. But Bates Motel, a prequel series focusing on a 17 year-old Norman Bates and his mother Norma, is much more, and way better, than one might think. Vera Farmiga (The Departed) and Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), who play the infamous mother and son, were joined by EP Carlton Cuse (LOST) for a panel that was full of revelations.
“I got into this wanting to defend who that woman was,” Farmiga said of Norma Bates. “And to me, she was just such a beautiful portrait of valiant maternity to me. And so therein I saw the challenge. She was just a real head turner, you know. And it read, and it reads still, to me as just a beautiful love letter between a mother and her son, and that’s that’s how I perceive the character. That’s how that’s how I approach it.”
Bates Motel takes place after a family tragedy has claimed the life of Norman’s father, causing Norma to uproot the two of them and buy a dilapidated roadside motel to run together as a means of starting over. “There’s an Edvard Munch painting of the Madonna,” Farmiga continued. “It’s really warped and it kind of exudes the sacred and the profane. And it’s just psychologically gripping, and that’s what I was so drawn to with Norma. She’s a playground for an actress. It’s like when they offer you Hedda Gabler, you don’t say no. And that’s what it was for me. The character’s riddled with contradiction. She’s as strong and tall as an oak and as fragile as a butterfly, and everything in between that I admire in female characters that I come across. Which is resilience and passion and intellect and, at the same time, she’s an absolute train wreck and a magnet.”
So what was it about the backstory of Norman Bates that EP Carlton Cuse thought would make for a great series? “We don’t know much about Norma Bates,” Cuse explained. “But again, we’re doing our own thing here. We are using Psycho as an inspiration for the plot, the ultimate plot, but we very much have our own thing going here. We were interested in doing something that was inspired by Psycho, but not an homage to Psycho, and that was a big difference to us.”
Part of the inspiration element that Cuse is referring to may have to do with the fact that Bates Motel takes place in the present day, and not in the ’60s. Though there is certainly a “throwback” vibe to it all – especially concerning the old, creakiness of the motel and house, which stick out like outcasts themselves. “It just seemed really interesting to us, this sort of fundamental idea of how does Norman Bates become the guy who’s in that movie,” Cuse went on. “And that was just really a fascinating idea for us. And in a certain way we thought this is a tragedy. And we want the audience to fall in love with these characters, particularly Norma and Norman, and yet we know sort of their inevitable fates. And that tension of knowing what their fate is and seeing how they get there was something that we, as storytellers, just thought was really compelling.”
So how long could a tale like this run for? “I think there’s a story here that has a beginning, middle, and end,” Cuse said, definitively. “I can’t tell you exactly how long our story’s going to last just yet. I think that’s part of the discovery process of us developing the show, but I think eventually there is an end point to this narrative, absolutely.”
Most remember British born Freddie Highmore from roles opposite Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland. Certainly not the type of lad who’d grow up to play one of the most famous screen killers of all time, that’s for sure. But Highmore has high hopes for Norman. Highmore spoke of wanting people to be “able to identify with Norman from the start.”
“He kind of indirectly challenges the audience in that we all know where he’s going to end up,” Highmore added. “It doesn’t give anything away to say that he’ll go on to be psycho. But is that necessarily because of his upbringing? It’s that sort of argument between ‘nature versus nurture.’ Is he who he is and will he always become the person that he will become, or is it because they move to this dodgy town and there’s a sort of weird relationship between or certainly close, intimate relationship between Norma and Norman? And that challenges the audience to think, well, if I was in that situation, if I had had the upbringing that Norman had had, would I be slightly different? You know, we all go a little mad sometimes.” Nice.
“I guess, as you say, I have big shoes to fill,” Highmore concluded. “I feel more that if there is any pressure to do as well as you can with a character, it comes more from the character himself other than from previous people who played him. Anthony Perkins has done an iconic take, but the character of Norman Bates is also iconic. And so I guess I just want to do him justice and make sure that we get the best Norman that we can.”
Bates Motel premieres on Monday, March 18 at 10 p.m. EST on A&E.
Follow Matt Fowler on Twitter at @TheMattFowler