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Bates Motel’s Freddie Highmore on Playing Young Norman and the Show’s Dark Humor

Freddie Highmore. Photo: Getty Images

Freddie Highmore has grown up before our eyes. He starred opposite Johnny Depp twice, first in his breakthrough role in Finding Neverland and later as Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and then he played a young music prodigy in the sentimental tearjerker August Rush. A few years ago, while beginning his studies in both Arabic and Spanish at Cambridge, he filmed the 2011 Sundance entry The Art of Getting By (formerly Homework) opposite Emma Roberts, a performance that caught the eye of Vera Farmiga, with whom he currently stars in A&E’s Bates Motel (premiering tonight at ten). Vulture recently chatted with Highmore, who just turned 21, about playing a young Norman Bates, filming atop an old dump in Vancouver, and why the comparisons to Twin Peaks are exactly right. (Minor spoilers about the pilot within!)

My most vivid memory of you is from quite a while ago. You were having a fit (and breaking my heart) in Finding Neverland.
In the playhouse?

Yes! I was on a date and you ruined my face, you were so good.
Did it work out for your romance?

Well, we got married.
Oh, good! [Laughs.] People do still talk to me about that movie. It’s funny; that was so many years ago for me. People come up to me about that and Charlie, and actually August Rush as well.

Yeah, a lot of people seem to have seen it on cable or DVD, I suppose. It’s got quite a few fans now.

It’s startling to see you so tall, and so … extra close to Vera Farmiga in this show.
Yeah, when he says, “I love you,” to her in the boat? He’s all, “There’s a cord between our hearts,” and you think, Hmmm, this is a bit much. But then he goes, “Ha-ha, Jane Eyre; I was just joking with you, Mom.” It’s like Chekov’s gun, isn’t it?

Series boss Carlton Cuse has said he thinks of Norman’s story as primarily a tragedy.
Yeah. I think the idea is that he’s a nice person who things have happened to that might turn him different. There are a lot of moments, even in the pilot, where you see him outside of this bond with his mother living a relatively normal life. He goes off to the party and he meets a girl that he fancies, and he’s almost gonna get her, but he doesn’t, and that’s okay. But he’s always kind of ultimately unsatisfied. [Laughs.] There’s that dramatic irony of us always knowing he’s going to wind up a killer, so you think, Oh no, Norman, you don’t have to go down that route! Maybe if you didn’t have your mother or stayed out in this other world and enjoyed your parties more you might end up being an okay guy!

It’s funny how no one on the show is using the word horror to talk about the show. No one says, “Yeah, it’s super creepy!”
I guess we’re so used to it. Also, [the characters] don’t see it as creepy themselves. There’s no need for them to be, “Oh yes, I love you too, Mother.” It’s more delicious when it’s played completely straight and the audience is left to think, That’s not quite right. It’s a tease. TV in general is a lot about teasing people and setting things up.

You’ve got two majors at Cambridge, which sounds like a full load. Why were you interested in taking on a television project at the same time?
I’ll be able to finish my courses at the same time. It works out together. The role was just brilliant, and A&E seemed to be very committed from the start, doing ten episodes and putting a lot behind it. It’s nice to go in having that kind of support. Also, we had so many scripts before we started, I think we had six of them, and that’s so great to know where it’s going before you start, as opposed to having just the one hour. It’s my first experience of television, so I don’t know.

It’s not normal.
Yeah, that’s what everyone’s saying to me. And I like that although there are dark moments and violent moments, although as violent as it gets is in the pilot and that’s not the main part of it, there’s also a dark humor that Vera and I often discuss and want to keep it in there. Like when we have to dispose of a body, dragging it down the stairs and it’s knocking into things and then it falls over her in the bath.

Or when Norman throws himself out the window.
[Laughs.] “I’m going to study, Mom!” Wham!

Did you and Vera do anything special to bond?
We studied together, yeah. I read her Spanish poetry. [Laughs.] No. But we’ve spent so much time together, she’s like my new best friend. And she’s so great at throwing away emotions and playing against things as opposed to just being one thing the whole time. It’s a pleasure to work with her.

Some of the initial reviews compare Bates Motel to Twin Peaks.
I can see the comparison. If you drove through White Pine Bay on a nice day, you’d think it was a lovely town. “Such nice people! Isn’t it pretty?” But once you’ve moved in you realize there’s a whole other side to it. Yeah. It’s set up a bit with that notebook Norman finds in the pilot. Like, Hang on, maybe this town isn’t as pleasant as it seems. And you’ll see that. Norman will have his own life to some extent. He goes to school. Norma isn’t there babysitting him every day. He’s let loose. And Norma similarly will develop relationships with characters Norman doesn’t meet.

So, why do you guys film near a dump?
I think there are a few reasons. It’s about an hour out of Vancouver, so it was specially selected within the radius of all the places they could have chosen. We’re actually on top of an old dump, and there’s also a new dump across the road. Honestly, I think part of the reason is it had the hill, like from the original Psycho house with the motel being down below, and then the big hill that [has] the house on the top. I think the house is actually sitting directly atop the old dump, and if the wind blows the wrong way, yeah, it smells quite bad.

Freddie Highmore on Playing Young Norman Bates