Bates Motel - Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga
Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) ©2011 A&E

Anyone who has seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 genre-defining movie Psycho will remember its final scene, which freaked-out the audience at that time.

On March 18th, A & E premiered a contemporary prequel Bates Motel. Following the tragic death of Norman Bates’ (Freddie Highmore) father, his mother, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), buys a motel on the outskirts of the coastal town of White Pine Bay, seeking a fresh start. They soon discover this town isn’t what it seems, but the Bates’ have secrets of their own.

Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga spoke at the TV Critics tour about their new series and portraying such iconic characters.

Can you talk a little bit about playing these characters that people think they know well, but you get to bring a whole new aspect to them?

Bates Motel 102 - Vera Farmiga
102 “Nice Town You Picked, Norma…” – Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) ©2011 A&E

Vera: We don’t know much about Norma Bates. We are using Psycho as an inspiration, the ultimate plot, but we very much have our own thing going here. As far as Norma Bates, we only know [her] through Norman’s warped psyche.

I wanted to defend who that woman was. I was sent the first three episodes, and she was such a beautiful portrait of valiant maternity to me. Therein, I saw the challenge.  The story is a beautiful love letter between a mother and her son. That’s how I perceive the character, and how I approach it.

She’s a playground for an actress. When they offer you Hedda Gabler, you don’t say no. Norma is riddled with contradiction. She’s strong and tall as an oak and as fragile as a butterfly and everything in between that I admire in female characters, which is resilience, intellect and passion at the same time.

Bates Motel 102 - Vera Farmiga
101 “First You Dream, Then You Die” – Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) ©2011 A&E

Freddie: It’s certainly, for me, the interesting idea of people being able to identify with Norman from the start. He indirectly challenges the audience. We all know where he’s going to end up. It doesn’t give anything away to say that he’ll go on to be psycho.

Is that necessarily because they move to this dodgy town and there’s certainly a close, intimate relationship between Norma and Norman? That challenges the audience to think, ‘If I was in that situation, if I had had the upbringing that Norman had, would I be slightly different?’ We all go a little mad sometimes.

I’m very lucky playing Norman Bates. They are big shoes to fill. 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.

Have you ever visited that iconic house?

Bates Motel 101 - Motel sign
Motel sign ©2011 A&E

Freddie: I haven’t seen the original house. I haven’t done the [Universal Studio’s] tour, unfortunately. But maybe now. It [is amazing] when you see the house in Vancouver, which is the exact replica of it.

Vera: I think the architectural detail by detail is the actual plans.

Is Norma a character you ever thought about when you were watching Psycho?

Bates Motel 102 - Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore
102 “Nice Town You Picked, Norma…” – Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) and Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) ©2011 A&E

Vera: Quite frankly, I didn’t think about it. She exists on a separate plane. I didn’t align with that. I had done a whole comprehensive Hitchcock ten years ago, and I sat down and watched it, and I watched it again recently.

[In this,] she’s a cool blonde at the onset, appears very lovely, but as soon as she encounters danger [she acts in an] animalistic way.

Do you remember seeing Psycho for the first time?

Freddie: Yeah, I was 13 or 14. Was that too young? Apparently the most shocking thing was the toilet that was flushed in Psycho.

That wasn’t particularly interesting to me, but at that time it was shocking, as opposed to the stabbing. So we might have a toilet at some point!

Bates Motel episode 2 “Nice Town You Picked, Norma…” is on Monday March 25, 2013


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.