Poor Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore). He’s a teenager being forced to move to a new coastal town under the watch of his imperious, entrancing mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga).
Oh, and they’re buying a motel.
These are the bones of A&E’s Bates Motel, a 10-episode “prequel” of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Kerry Ehrin (Friday Night Lights) that fills in the boyhood details of Norman, long before he began wielding a knife. The result is a razor-edged psychological thriller powered by uncertainty: What’s the deal between Norman and Norma? What’s the deal with the town?
It was that quality that attracted Highmore to the project: “You’re trying to discover what goes on inside their minds, what makes these characters tick and what side of the line does Norman and Norma’s intimate relationship fall?” he says. “And I liked the way that things are kind of suggested and hinted at as opposed to being too explicit.”
After years of fresh-faced turns in Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Highmore was looking for something new. “I’ve always played the same character again and again,” he says. “It would get a little dull for me, and for you watching, if it’s always just the same person.”
Norman is definitely not normal, and the pitch — to explore why, how, and when — intrigued the actor. It helped that A&E had already committed to a series order, which meant Highmore was able to see further along into the season than is normal with, say, a pilot project at a network. The challenge was in the details: Norman is the audience’s entry point into Bates Motel — and, eventually, its villain. So the part requires equal parts accessibility and inscrutability. It helped to have Farmiga, Highmore’s “new best friend,” to play off of. “I think she’s got this great ability to play against emotions or throw away lines which marries really well with the scripts for Bates Motel,” he says. After all, Norma (at least in the beginning of the season) is far from an ideal parent. Complicating things is a town full of secrets, plus the addition of Norma’s other son, Dylan (Max Thieriot) — who, let’s just say, has a complicated relationship with his family — and two girls from the local school, who both get drawn into the Bates’ orbit while trying to draw Norman out of his shell.
But Highmore teased “a big revelation at some point in the middle of the season,” which will force the characters and the audience to reevaluate what they know so far. As Highmore puts it, “It’s nice to perhaps have this weird false sense of hope that Norman might turn out okay, that there’s something in him you think, ‘Maybe he doesn’t have to go down this line.’”
With his eerie on-screen bangs and sweaters, has he gotten any pushback yet from people surprised by his transformation from sweet boy to creepy killer? It comes with the territory, Highmore says. “People will probably start hiding the kitchen knives or making sure that they shower behind many locks!”
Bates Motel premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on A&E