‘Bates Motel’ Interviews: Freddie Highmore, Nestor Carbonell, Carlton Cuse & Kerry Ehrin

It’s the rare television show that actually gets better the longer it runs. That means if you stop watching after only a few episodes, you’re going to miss the best it has to offer.  Sure, you can binge on it later, but it’s not the same thing as seeing it live and experiencing its surprises for the first time with everyone else.  I’m talking specifically about Bates Motel which, in its fourth season is the best it’s ever been.

You could argue that as Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) inches closer to becoming the killer from Psycho that we all know and love, it’s bound to get better. However, that natural evolution aside, the acting, direction and writing of the show has improved to near-perfect, week after week. In a phone conversation co-creator/Executive Producer, Carlton Cuse, and the actor who plays Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), Cuse spoke about the quality of Bates Motel.

“I think for a while, and I think even honestly to some degree now, the show doesn’t get its just due because it’s under the Psycho moniker. Honestly, I will put this season of Bates Motel up against anything on television this season on a quality level. Hands down, I think it’s as good as anything on television.  I think there’re some people who ignore the show because it’s some sort of Psycho remake in their brains.

“But they haven’t watched it and seen that really it’s an original show that borrows from the mythology of the movie. We’re not retelling the same story. We’re telling our own brand new original unique story. I think we’re doing an incredibly good job.  I’m so proud of Kerry (Ehrin, co-creator and Executive Producer) and my other fellow writers and the actors on the show and I get frustrated a little bit because I don’t think the show is as recognized as it should be on a quality level.”

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In a second phone conversation a week later with Ehrin and the actor who plays Norman (Freddie Highmore), I asked Ehrin if she felt the same way. I asked her to speak to the opposite: what is the influence Bates Motel has had on television?  For example, since the show started, there have been five other series based on horror movies.  While that’s not necessarily an original trend, would that have happened without a quality show like Bates Motel?

“It’s a good question. I’m sure that it has influenced certain areas of development because any successful show does.  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 that the show is so good.  The acting is so good and it really deserves to be recognized.  We both get frustrated about that.”

Highmore added, “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.

“It’s so interesting, 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. 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.  Hopefully that just proves that even if a premise seems on the face of it relatively small, there’re so many intricacies in 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.”

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During this season of Bates Motel, the show pulled an Empire Strikes Back move and separated the main characters for most of its first seven episodes, as Norman was admitted into Pineview for psychiatric care and Norma found love with Romero. I told both Cuse and Highmore that I felt doing so propelled the story and characters forward and asked them each to talk about how the separation allowed Norma and Norman to evolve and change.

Cuse said, “I think for Kerry and I, we felt like this was a very important story moment. There were a lot of things were serviced and, at the same time, we wanted Norma to 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. And 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 untethering Norma from Norman and gives us an opportunity to explore the character in a different way.  You know, she’s suddenly freed from the 24/7 obligations of her kid and this really allowed her relationship with Romero to flourish.

“We wanted to give her the sort of thing she’d always wanted. She’s 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, at his core a very decent guy with his own strong sense of morality.

“And 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.”

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

I asked him, “So, like your character then, you sort of agree that he may have been better of just staying at home rather than going into Pineview?”

“Well, I feel like they have to be together. They need to be with each other in order to function. In a way, from Norma’s point of view, 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 more of a fantasy and of a dream of another life, but it’s not a life that she can ever actually leave.

“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 may 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.”

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Episode seven was a turning point for Norma. For the first time, she admitted the true nature of the incestuous relationship with her brother.  The final scene of the episode was heartbreaking, as Norma spilled her guts to Romero.  I asked Carbonell if there was anything out of the ordinary he did to prepare for that scene.  Was it just another day on the set, or did it take extra effort to get through the scene?

“It was driven by Vera’s incredible performance. I remember welling up, crying, reading that scene and then thinking, ‘Wow, this is going to be a tough one.’ Vera is 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.”  By the way, Carbonell directed this episode.

He continued, “What was interesting is even though we, as a viewer, knew everything she was saying, I mean we’d heard it, having her see the impact on the character that she had fallen for was something completely new. What it meant to their future and to her future, was particularly important.  I love that about the scene.  It is her reveal, my response to her, and then her response that was particularly moving.  Yes, it was a particularly tough scene to shoot.”

The nice thing about television viewing these days is that if you aren’t around at 8:00 on Monday nights, you have many other options to catch a show you missed. Plus, there are multiple avenues for catching up on previous episodes.  That means you have no excuse for not watching Bates Motel!  There are only two episodes left, so if you need to, spend your Mother’s Day weekend with everybody’s favorite pyscho-mother, Norma, and her twisted teen, Norman.

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