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TV Goodness Q&A: Series Star Freddie Highmore and EP Carlton Cuse Discuss Season 2 and Preview the Finale [INTERVIEW]

Photo Credit: Joseph Lederer/A&E

Photo Credit: Joseph Lederer/A&E

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

It’s been a roller coaster of a season, but that’s what we love most about this show. TV Goodness participated in a press call with series star Freddie Highmore and Executive Producer Carlton Cuse. They discussed Alfred Hitchcock, what to expect in the finale and what to look forward to in season 3.

Were you a fan of the movie and how has that affected the series?
Carlton Cuse: “I was a huge fan of the movie. It’s in the pantheon of nearly perfect movies. So I was actually very afraid about making a show that would fall too heavily in the shadow of that. Right from the get-go when Kerry Ehrin, my partner on the show, and I started working on it the first and most important decision we made was to do the show as a contemporary sequel, which put the show in a different place than the movie. I think if we had done it as a period show it would always be in the oppressive shadow of this amazing master work that Hitchcock made. For us, what we really wanted to do is just take these characters, take the idea of- it’s like Tom Stoppard took Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, these two minor characters from Shakespeare and gave them their own existence. We took these two major characters from this Hitchcock movie and we placed them into a different time and gave them their own existence. I think one of the things that’s been really rewarding as the show has gone to a second season is people are really beginning to see that Bates Motel is its own thing. It was inspired by the Hitchcock movie, but it’s really an original show taking some elements from the original, but our goal is to tell a wholly new story.”

Freddie Highmore: “I think I saw it for the first time when I was 14 and then saw it one more time or a couple more times before starting the first season. I haven’t returned to it since. He did a great job – both Carlton and Kerry – in making us all feel free to bring our own ideas and to not feel tied at all to this original material, which I think is so key really to the show. Whilst there are certain aspects of Anthony Perkins’ classic performance that people see or that you might have in some instances sought to replicate there was never a sense of mimicking him. It was more seeing him in the original film as an inspiration.”

You’ve talked about the series being its own entity. I’m so invested in these characters that I’m hoping you aren’t wedded to taking this series to where the movie goes.
Carlton: “I’m very happy to hear you say that because I think the key to a great tragedy is a great storytelling form. It worked extremely well for Shakespeare, it worked extremely well for Jim Cameron. Titanic as a tragedy, and in that movie you hope that Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet don’t meet their inevitable fate. I think that that tension between your expectations as to what’s going to happen to these characters and what’s actually occurring now on their journey is that dramatic tension, is the essence of what we are trying to accomplish as writers. Freddie and Vera [Farmiga] – no one could do a better job than the two of them executing that. We do foresee that there are some bad things that loom ahead for Norma and Norman, but I think it would actually rob the audience of the enjoyment of the journey to be too specific about how we’re going to play that out. I mean, certainly we think that a literal resuscitation of the events of the movie would not be fully satisfying.”

How does this season finale compare to the season 1 finale?
Freddie: “I think the whole arc of the second season has been fantastic for Norman and there’s always a time that you need in terms of establishing a character and seeing them as they are before they start off on this journey. I said a couple minutes earlier that Norman was a lovely guy, but I think in the tenth episode especially, and perhaps number eight, that we start to see this small manipulative side to Norman. [We] start to question our allegiance to him, which has been great fun as an actor to play because you play against the sense of what people think Norman should be like. But then there comes a point where to what extent can you continue to support his actions? With Norman’s growing realization of who he is and who he might become and what he’s capable of comes this sense of power for him. By the end of the episode are we still with him or not?”

Did you have Freddie in mind when you were casting Norman and what was it about him that made you know he’d be incredible in this role?
Carlton: “I have to give great credit to April Webster our casting director who is a genius at what she does. She put Kerry Ehrin and I on a Skype call with Freddie very early on and we were immediately charmed and captivated. Along with the network and studio, [we] did our due diligence and we read a whole bunch of other actors and it was one of those things where we were just spoiled right at the gate. Once we talked to Freddie and reviewed his work it was just so clear that he was the guy and no one else even came close. So this is one of those things that I think is always what’s so interesting about television. Whatever your intentions are, however good a script you write, there’s this (alchemy) that has to occur. We had to get lucky enough to find Freddie, to get Freddie to do the show. I can’t imagine the show working or existing or being half as good as any without him. It’s one of those things that just happened. It was to our great fortune and, you know, I’ll take it.”

Freddie what was the greatest challenge for you in making the audience constantly question whether Norman was the one to kill Ms. Watson?
Freddie: “I think it’s tricky in terms of not wanting to spoil too much, but yes they’re toying with the audience. The relationship between Norma and Norman has likened in the past to this sense of an elastic band and it’s kind of stretched out but then ultimately it returns to its original shape. You stretch it and you think it’s going to break but it never quite does. Norma and Norman always seem to get over whatever challenges they’ve had previously up until now. I think that with the tenth [episode], it’s inconclusive as to whether that bond has been (set) and whether Norma and Norman can continue along the path that they were going before or whether they can’t ignore such key facts about each other any longer.”

Norman and Norma’s relationship is strained right now. Will their relationship continue down that path or is there a reconciliation in the near future?
Carlton: “Norma and Norman’s relationship is at the very heart of the show and I don’t think that ever will change. That’s what makes the show wonderful is this incredible dynamic that exists between these two characters as portrayed by these two actors. I mean that’s the very heart and center of the show. The nature of that relationship, however, will evolve over time and I think what’s really interesting is that Norman is going from being a boy to being a man, that’s part of his journey over the course of the show. As he becomes more of a man, that has (cumulative) consequences in terms of how he and his mother relate to each other. Kerry and I certainly don’t see that relationship as being static but we definitely see it as always being very close and very intense.”

Carlton I love the relationship between Norma and Sheriff Romero. Do you have any other Lost actors that you would like to have an appearance on the show?
Carlton: “There are so many wonderful actors on Lost. I don’t think there’s anyone on Lost I would not want to work with again; I mean they’re all so great. It just so happened that when we were creating Sheriff Romero’s character [Nestor Carbonell] popped into my mind and he so vividly encapsulated everything that we wanted in the character. But I really actually never think about that. I don’t think about intentionally taking someone from one show and using them in another. Hopefully it will happen that a character that we create might lend itself to being cast by someone else from Lost that would soon be opened up but I don’t have any plans immediately to add anyone else from Lost.”

What’s happening with Michael Vartan‘s George? Is he too good to be true?
Carlton: “Part of the story arc this season has really been about seeing how close to the sun Norma can fly. I mean she’s always had this vision of moving to this idyllic small town and being in with the right people and having the right relationships. George personifies acceptance and admission into the society of this town. In the finale we will definitely see where that leads and where that leave Norma. It will pay off.”

It’s a bit of surprise that Norman is such a ladies man. If he were to be suddenly well, which woman on the show do you think he’d be happy with?
Freddie: “I think there’s this still unexplored relationship with [Olivia Cooke‘s] Emma that is- they’ve got tension there that’s constantly been and has never quite gone as far as it could have at different moments. That’s another pair-off I think that comes in the last episode. We see Norman’s relationship with Emma take a twist and perhaps the one that we expected.”

I enjoyed Norman’s relationship with Cody Brennen. Can you talk about what you enjoyed about that relationship and working with Paloma Kwiatkowski?
Freddie: “Paloma’s fantastic and has such a different synergy I think that is brought to the show. It not only serves to revitalize Norman in many ways and, I think, to come up to this whole other world, but also in terms of the audience in keeping things constantly changing in Norman’s world outside of the home. She’s been great to work with and loads of energy and always comes incredibly well prepared. For now Cody has left the world of White Pine Bay but certainly not without going incredibly noticed and leaving her mark upon Norman.”

This season has been so good. What were some of the biggest writing and/or production challenges you faced in season 2?
Carlton: “From a writing [perspective] it was just kind of fun to figure out how we most effectively could expand our knowledge of the world in which these characters inhabited both interpersonally and also externally with the community at large. We really wanted to show the characters in White Pine Bay, to get to know more about that community too and to really deepen the audience’s connection with Norma, Norman and Dylan throughout the season. You’re making a show that is ostensibly about a serial killer, but the goal on a writing standpoint was to make the audience really care deeply about Norman and about Norma – to like them, to root for them. You have these two things that are kind of in opposition. One, you know this character is in dissent, but at the same time we want the audience to really relate to him and connect to him. What we didn’t want was the audience looking in at him from the outside. sort of pathologically we want the audience. Kerry and I- our goal always in the writing is to have the audience be really deeply connected on an emotional level to Norma and Norman and be right there with them as they go on this fun but also perilous journey. I think that’s the challenge, to be able to take a (genre), a serial killer show but to make it heartfelt and emotional and funny and humanistic. I think that’s what we work really hard at as writers.”

We always mention Psycho as an influence, but how much has Alfred Hitchcock’s larger body of work influenced the tone of the show or the way you write the series?
Carlton: “Hitchcock is one of my favorite filmmakers and I think his ability to find suspense in very human moments and connect them to characters – there’s just so many ways in which I’ve been influenced by him in terms of what he does as a filmmaker. Working on the show and just thinking about Rope or Vertigo or North by Northwest. He’s just such an amazingly talented filmmaker in terms of his ability to tell these sort of stories that were deeply suspenseful but also deeply psychological at the same time. He had this incredible ability to put characters in really tense and dynamic perilous situations, but also get you inside their psyche’s. The way in which he connected his characters to the psychological and physical dilemmas of storytelling is something that was a huge influence on me.”

What is it about the Bates family? They came into White Pine Bay as outcasts at first and now it seems as though they’ve cast a spell over the entire town.
Carlton: “Well I think that’s what this season Arc was about. Norma came here with this dream and this idea that she was finally going to find a place where they would fit in, where she would be socially accepted, where she would be someone important, where she would be hanging out with the right people. So we wanted to explore whether that was possible. I think what’s really interesting about Norma as a character is that there’s this gap between her perception of what she should be and the reality of what she’s actually able to pull off. She dragged everyone in her slipstream to White Pine Bay and we really wanted-the thematic question of Season 2 is, ‘Who am I?’ Can she be the person that she wants to be, is that possible? For Norman that question is really about his growing awareness of the fact that he has these blackouts. What happens when he’s blacked out? ‘Who am I?’ goes right to the fold of Norma’s character. For Dylan the question is really about, ‘Who am I?’ Am I really a drug dealer? I just took a job, I needed to make some money. I was guarding some pot fields and now I’m in the middle of a frickin’ drug war between these two families in this town. You know, so that was a thematic drive for the second season of the show and our goal was to try to give them a version of a life that they wanted and see what the consequences of getting that was going to be for our characters.”

Will Dylan always be the odd man out or will he repair his relationship with Norman?
Freddie: “The last episode- I mean even just talking about it right now you realize how many different things [are] brought together and how many new directions are suggested from the last episode. One of them certainly is to what extent Dylan is needed by Norman in Episode 10 and when his brother needs him most. Will Dylan flip to one side whatever issues he has with Norma or with the family in general and be there to save his brother? When Carlton and Kerry were pitching it to me and this final idea of how it was all going to end up – it’s just fantastic. I just think I was really excited to do it.”
Carlton: “I know, I think it’s the best episode of the series so far, honestly.”

Do the incestuous undertones between both Dylan and Norma and Norman and Norma intentional? How does that play into Norma’s relationships with her sons?
Carlton: “There’s a sexual tension that is a part of Norma and Norman’s dynamic. With Dylan it’s really much more incidental, or it’s not really intentional. Norma and Norman have this very close relationship that borders on being inappropriate. But I hope that, as writers, Kerry and I have tried to make you understand why it exists. I don’t think that they think that it’s inappropriate. I think that’s just part of the tension of the show, you’re closest relationship is between mother and son. I mean it makes sense at a certain age, I’m not sure it makes sense as a young man moves into adulthood. So that’s part of the tension that’s at the center of the show. We’re intentionally playing into that, but at the same time there’s certain lines that we as writers don’t feel comfortable crossing.”

Freddie can you talk about your chemistry with Vera and what it’s been like working with her?
Freddie: “Obviously it evolves over time. That’s the joy of being on a TV show, the relationships I have with the stars is completely different [than what] I have right now with Vera. Having grown incredibly close to her and her husband and children and spent time at their house, they’ve been sort of my family away from home. They’ve just been absolutely wonderful and they’re certainly my very best friends. So I’m just incredibly lucky on a personal level to have met them. As an actress I think there’s just always something going on. Every single take she’s alive and trying something new. With TV, because you spend so long with each other and you spend so much time shooting different scenes with each other there could be a tendency to think beforehand, ‘Oh we know how the scene will go because it’s another scene with Norma and Norman.’ I think part of it is due to the quality of the writing in keeping everything different and there’s never been any moment that we thought to be repetitious in any way. As I’m sure Carlton and Kerry have wanted to do many times, you could shoot an entire scene just on Vera because she carries the emotions, not only when she’s speaking but when she’s listening of the entire scene. It’s just a joy to work with her.”

How do you tap into the strange yet unique connection between Norman and Norma?
Freddie: “You completely disengage from the relationship that you know you have with Vera. Being – comfortable with any sort of more intimate or more borderline moment never feel awkward. You both commit to whatever it is on the page. So exploring that relationship has been wonderful and certainly one of the best things about the show. And building in I guess sort of taking various care in the sense of having so many supple ties and building up the characters and this relationship with not only events but moments or shared connections between each character than then can return in different episodes and in different seasons. Having never done a TV show before I guess I’m kind of really enjoying the chance to get into – into sort of great introduction into Norman but into the sort of character and the relationship in general than you do in sort of 1 1/2 hour or 2 hours on the show.”

Carlton, do you and Kerry ever think you’ve pushed things too far?
Carlton: “We certainly haven’t crossed the line and had Norman and Norma having sex. That [would] cross the line. The show is this very intentional cocktail of very pulpy storytelling and very nuanced character work and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish week to week as writers. It’s hard when you start out and you’re making something that’s under the cycle monitor and everybody’s got their expectations and thinking about the original movie and stuff. Now that we’re into the second season and we’re a long way from that origin I think people are beginning to understand what we are trying to do as storytellers.”

Season 2 has been great and you’ve covered so much. Do you have a sense of how Season 3 is shaping up?
Carlton: “Well, I’m happy that you like Season 2 and thank you for your kind words about it. Look our goal is to continue to write the show on a high level and make Season 3 hopefully even better than Season 2. Our expectations are that high and Kerry Ehrin and I have actually spent a fair amount of time talking about it. We do have a preliminary game plan that we’re very excited about. It’s tough to say too much about it because a lot of it is driven by events that are in the finale that I don’t want to spoil. But I feel very confident that we can make a really engaging Season 3. We do have a plan and, in fact, now that we’ve been picked up we’re hard at work in terms of laying out the architecture of the new season. I think it’s going to be great. I’m really excited about it.”

Freddie is there anything you’d like to see in Season 3 for your character? Anything that hasn’t been portrayed yet?
Freddie: “Something that’s hinted out in the finale of this year is the continuation of (blowing) the boundaries, the definitive boundaries between Norman and Norma. We’ve already seen earlier in the season Norman at times assuming this identity and there’s this continuation, I guess, of somewhat merging between them and an ability to distinguish that. Seeing that is further pushed out in an incredibly dramatic way in the last episode. I’m excited to continue on exploring that if Carlton and Kerry decide to.”

Will Norman and Norma reconnect before the end of the season or will we have to wait for that in Season 3?
Carlton: “Don’t spoil it.”
Freddie: “One of the great things about the show is that it’s never overly conclusive. You’ll never shove the conclusion down your throat saying, ‘Oh this is how you must think about- this is your take on Norma and Norman’s relationship.’ So I imagine and I hope that various people will see the end differently and come out of it with a different opinion from the person sitting next to them. I think that’s what makes the show great. There’s this constant dialog and constant discussion as to certain boundaries [being] crossed or [the] stage [of a] certain relationship. It’s nothing definitive or easily distinguished, it’s just more a sense of reality than fiction I guess.”

Carlton, now that there’s a Friday the 13th series do you there’s a trend of taking older characters back to their origins and refreshing their stories for TV?
Carlton: “I think it’s already happening in some sense. I mean obviously Hannibal is a parallel example where Bryan Fuller has done a really great job of reinventing that character in a different context. As writers Kerry and I really don’t think too much about what other people are doing, we’re just worried about our own show. For us, we’ve tried to make the show very heart-felt and it has a lot of humor and emotion. It operates on a level that you don’t expect from a show that’s ostensibly about a guy who’s a serial killer. That’s one of the things that’s surprising about it. We focus on trying to make the best version of our show. I think  the season finale is better because it moves the overall narrative a big step forward. I don’t want to spoil that too much. It’s pretty evident as we’ve moved downstream here that there are these really significant looming questions. One is, what is Norman’s ultimate culpability in the murder of Ms. Watson and secondly how aware is Norman of what it is that he’s done or is capable of doing? To us, those are really important questions because the character’s self-knowledge is a huge factor in how he moves forward. We’re going to jump right into the heart of those questions in the finale. It’s really satisfying as a writer to have a chance to take those kinds of questions on. Kerry and I loved writing that stuff. It was just made all the better by how well Freddie executed it. The finale is my favorite episode of the season and a lot of that has to do with just how great the performances are by Freddie, Vera and also Max Thieriot.”

Edited for space and content.

The season 2 finale of Bates Motel airs tonight at 10/9c on A&E.

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