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Freddie Highmore on the Bates Motel Finale and Saying Good-bye to Norman Bates

Bates Motel is finally closed for business. Norman Bates has been reunited with his mother Norma, the only person who ever really knew him, in the great beyond. During the A&E drama’s five seasons, Freddie Highmore has given one of the most underrated performances on television, capturing a young man mentally coming apart at the seams. Watching Norman progress from a terrified young man into a killer has made for riveting television, no more so than in this final season, which should justly earn the 25-year-old actor an Emmy nomination. Ahead of the Bates Motel finale, Highmore spoke to Vulture about saying good-bye to such a legendary character.

I found myself surprisingly emotional in the final hour. Bates Motel is an emotionally grounded series, but I didn’t expect the Dylan arc to resonate the way it did.
That last scene is such a heartbreaking scene. The ultimate tragedy is that everyone in that trio — Norman, Norma, and Dylan — all wanted the same thing. They wanted to be a family. They wanted to be together. They couldn’t make it happen. They couldn’t get it together to overcome their problems. They were too insurmountable.

A lot of shows race to the end in the final episode, but this one takes its time, with the flashbacks and the melancholy tone, instead of a fast-paced ending.
I love the last episode. Tucker [Gates] did such an amazing job directing. The humor that he always manages to dig out, which he has done from the beginning. The beautifully composed nature and the humor that he brings. Norman is waking up and lying in the snow and it’s slowly revealed that he’s next to dead Romero and his dead mother and he’s all cheery. He’s driving back with Chick and declaring that this is crazy. All that stuff was very funny and poignant.

What will you miss most about Norman Bates? What do you miss already?
I will miss the people. It’s not putting down the show itself or the challenge of playing the character, but it never felt like an individual achievement. It always felt completely all-encompassing. Everyone was on the ride. We had such a close-knit group of actors who threw themselves into it in every way they could. Nestor did such a good job of acting and directing. I got a chance to write and direct. Everyone wanted to be a part of it so desperately and so fully and that is rare. We had such a team of people that really wanted to be a part of it. There was a moment that I don’t think I’ve spoken about before that really stood out for me — Max (Thieriot] and Vera [Farmiga] have this brilliant scene in episode nine. She rushes down the stairs and he says, “You’ve never been a mother to me.” He rushes off and she calls him back and you think she’s going to say, “Oh, it’s going to be okay.” But she asks for the earring. And he says no and leaves. I happened to be watching that scene, and it ended and I looked over and our focus puller was crying. It spoke so much about how everyone was present in that scene. It wasn’t just about Max and Vera, but about how everyone was involved in those moments. We had such a special group of people and that dynamic is something that I’m already missing.

What did you personally learn? How did it change you as an actor?
An easy answer would be the opportunities it gave me to write and direct. The way in which you grow and learn in other ways can be hard to separate from how your personal life affected you onscreen. Or the work onscreen made you more mature as a person. Certainly, they were pivotal years of my life — I started at 19 and I’m 25. So, of course, you change a huge amount in those years, whether you’re on Bates Motel or not. In a way, I’ve certainly grown up on Bates Motel. I really loved directing this year. It was great fun. Having had Tucker and his guidance and wisdom, and watching how he worked, it was an amazing place to learn those things — to start to find your own way in that world. I’ll miss the scenes with Vera that we probably missed a bit this season too — those scenes that felt that most Bates-like were the ones where we were shouting or crying or laughing for pages and pages. Those scenes were always difficult to navigate in a way that made them different from what we had done before, so we never felt like we were just playing out the same old beats. I can’t say enough great things about Vera. And the way this year that she reinvented herself was amazing. What she brought to mother and this new personality.

I’ve spoken to Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin about how they mapped all five seasons from the beginning. How much of that did they share with you? How long ago did you know the endgame for Norman, and did that change the way you played him?
I knew the end of this last season for a couple of years. When it was first floated as an idea, we were like, “No, let’s just keep it going.” [Laughs.] But by being in the writers room, it meant that I was more ahead than most people would be. Nestor [Carbonell] likes to think that I was the one who pitched for Romero to die. I definitely wasn’t. Our rivalry on the screen adds to the idea that I was the most fervent supporter of having Romero die under my gun. Did it change things? I’m not sure. It was certainly nice to know where the endpoint was. You knew you could plot that descent into further insanity. You could find ways of keeping it moving that you wouldn’t if you felt like you had to hold some stuff back.

Did you have input into the final arc as a writer?
Yes. It’s hard to know — probably not as much as Nestor would have you believe. [Laughs.] I always love Nestor. We’ve covered so much as part of our rivalry onscreen. And then we take this out into the world and people think maybe we actually hate each other, which we definitely don’t, but it’s amusing to think that we do. What’s nice about being in the writers room is there are so many ideas floating around, and people take someone’s idea and run with it, but it still has that initial something that you gave it way back in the beginning. It’s hard to know who pitched what. The bigger points of the season come from Kerry and Carlton, but individual episodes are rich with every writer’s idea and suggestion.

Do you want to go back to film or stay in TV? If you were offered another leading TV role tomorrow, would you take it?
Yeah. I’ve loved being in TV. It’s been the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had, both personally and in my career. I’d love to do more television.

Will you write and direct more too?
I’d love to do that too. I really loved directing this season. I had a great script that I was lucky to have. It was very much like getting inside Norman’s head deeper than before. And there were scenes that were fun to wrap your head around as an actor and director — scenes where Norman has become “Mother” but then “Mother” has to pretend to be Norman. I just found those scenes very funny. The crocodile tears and the web of deception that she tried to spin to Sheriff Greene. I was lucky to do it.

This is probably the last time you can say something to your fans about Norman Bates, at least for a while. What do you want to say to them?
Oh gosh, this is it! It’s certainly interesting to me arriving in this last scene. I think everyone thought, “Norman is going to go insane. He’s going to completely lose everything he was.” In many ways, he has. He goes into this scene with Dylan believing that his mother is alive and he’s back in the time of the pilot and he’s more insane than ever. But when Dylan starts to press him on things, we realize that underneath it all Norman is not quite as crazy as we’ve been led to believe. He knows he’s living this illusion. He can see the cracks in it. It’s that interesting place in the end where we almost get Norman back, but in a way that’s more visceral than we’ve had in quite a long time. He’s pleading with Dylan and basically saying, “Please, will you kill me?” That leads to whether that act in the end is a choice, whether Dylan consciously chooses, which I think is a stronger arc, and I think it’s a beautiful arc for him. He actually chooses to put Norman out of his misery and to be with Norma. Max is so brilliant in that scene.

The line that really seems to sum up so much of what happened and the ideology is, “If you believe hard enough, you can make it that way.” That’s not just Norman’s heartbreaking vision of the world, but it was Norma’s too. If they just kept on believing, by sheer force of will, they’d be able to make things good. Things would turn out all right as long as you believe it. You can twist it and say that it’s a happy ending because they’re reunited, but the opposite is that, ultimately, love isn’t enough for them. You do need more than just believing in something. You need a bit of luck that they never got. We’re sort of taught, especially when we’re younger, if you keep trying to be good then you will be good — those things are unspun at the end of Bates Motel. It wasn’t purely nature that dictated where they end up in life, but their circumstances. You can’t really ignore that.

Freddie Highmore on the Bates Motel Finale and Norman’s Fate