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Freddie Highmore gets under the skin of a 'Psycho' killer in 'Bates Motel'

Freddie Highmore
Freddie Highmore
A&E

The A&E TV series “Bates Motel,” inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 genre-defining film, “Psycho,” is a contemporary exploration of the formative years of “Psycho” killer Norman Bates (played by Freddie Highmore); the relationship with his mother, Norma (played by Vera Farmiga); and the world they inhabit. Viewers will have access to the dark, twisted back story and learn first-hand how Norma helped forge the most famous serial killer of them all. Season 2 of “Bates Motel” premiered on A&E on March 3, 2014. Here is what Highmore said when he sat down with me and other journalists for a roundtable interview at Comic-Con International 2013 in San Diego.

Freddie Highmore at Comic-Con International 2013 in San Diego
Freddie Highmore at Comic-Con International 2013 in San Diego
Carla Hay

Congratulations on “Bates Motel” getting renewed for a second season.

We get to do it again, which is great fun.

Vera Farmiga got an Emmy nomination of the first season of “Bates Motel.” What’s been the most exciting thing about working with her?

Working with her has been a real joy. She brings so much to Norma, and constantly challenges me as an actor. She’s incredibly alive during scenes in a way that keeps you on your toes. She’s always prepared to change something up and try something new, which is exciting, which makes it interesting to watch.

At the end of the first season of “Bates Motel,” we see Norman murder someone. How is Season 2 of the show going to start?

Season 2 starts up immediately after the end of Season 1, so I think the end of Season 1 is the biggest concern as Season 2 opens up. It’s a continuation, as opposed to a refreshing of the story. I don’t know all of the answers to your questions.

I’ve read the first few scripts [of Season 2], but I don’t know where it goes after that. [“Bates Motel” executive producers] Carlton [Cuse] and Kerry [Ehrin], they’ll know. I’m not really hiding anything from you. I don’t actually know myself. People always think I know the answer. I really don’t. I don’t know if anyone goes to jail. He [Norman Bates] might go to jail.

How do you feel about playing a disturbed, homicidal character like Norman Bates? How has it affected you?

I enjoy playing him. I don’t stay in character, and I don’t go home and look at kitchen knives in a different way. It would be slightly dangerous. It is great fun. I’m really excited to continue that journey going into “Psycho.” Season 2 is about that part that we know must go down as a journey of perhaps greater self-awareness of who he is.

Can you explain why people might sympathize with the Norman Bates character?

I think it’s this weird sense of hope we have for Norman, because you know where he ends up, but you think, “Hopefully, he doesn’t have to.” He’s going to go down that path, whether we like it or not. I do like that you can root for him and think he might not turn out so bad and believe in that illusion for a while.

How much do you study Anthony Perkins’ characterization of Norman Bates?

I guess it was a source of inspiration for the [Norman Bates] character. It was never an attempt to mimic the performance, but certainly you might find little tics or traits put in, in a subtle way. Hopefully, it doesn’t take away attention from the new world that we’ve created in “Bates Motel.” We all felt free to bring it into a contemporary setting and bring in our ideas and create something ourselves, instead of purely relying on material that had come before.

Have you had a chance to walk around at Comic-Con? Have you seen anything really great or strange?

I haven’t, unfortunately. I was here a few years for an animated film, but that was before the movie was released. This time, people have seen [“Bates Motel”].

You’ve been acting since you were a young child. How do you juggle your work with school?

I’ve kind of combined schooling and acting. I’m studying Arabic and Spanish at Cambridge [University] back in the U.K., so I’ve gone back to that. And when I finish Season 2 [of “Bates Motel”], I’ll go back to college. I’ll be graduating this time next year. It’s been great to be able to fit in schooling with this [TV show]. In my year abroad, I spent most of my time in Spain.

What kind of mindset do you have to get in to portray Norman Bates?

I don’t know. People are like, “Oh, how do you get into Norman and the process behind it?” I’m not too sure, really. You just have an idea what the character is and go for it and commit to it. I think, in general, a lot of it is not being self-conscious, as long as you believe it and commit to it.

A lot of former child stars have problems with drugs or they get in trouble with the law later on life. What’s kept you grounded and out of trouble?

I’ve always seen acting as a nice addition to my life, as opposed to being my life. Not that you don’t commit professionally as much as other people would, but there’s a slight distinction when you see your life back in London, going to a normal school as I did and now university. That’s what I see as my normal, my main life. And I get to do acting as well, which is brilliant. So perhaps that distinction has kept me on the right track.

Who or what inspires you as an actor?

I actually saw the Dalai Lama give a talk at Cambridge a few months ago. I guess I’m inspired by people more than a particular environment. And usually, people that you’ve met have had the biggest influence on you or whom I look up to or emulate in some way, as opposed to figures I’ve never met. I’ve never idolized someone in that way. But certainly, people you have worked with, you owe a lot.

What surprised you the most about the first season on “Bates Motel”?

I think the nice thing which was kind of a pleasant surprise that we hoped for is the fact that we didn’t do too much too soon. There’s a great temptation when you get to a place where you have Norma and Norman’s relationship, and you think, “Oh, he’s going to dress up in her clothes. We can show all this from the start.”

But it’s much more delicious to play it out over time and not to show too much too soon. That’s the nice thing about the show. It’s never conclusive. It’s more suggestive. And that intrigue is what makes it exciting.

You’ve been in some high-profile projects. Have the friends around you changed because of your fame?

Not really. I guess because they don’t really see me any differently. I’ve done a few films. Everyone has something that’s interesting about them or something they’ve done differently. Also, the first two years at Cambridge, I was there full-time. I didn’t take any time out to do acting, so I think that was great. I wanted to focus on university and my studies, which have always been important.

It’s also different being at a university where you can do school work on a secondary, high-school level away from that place, and you follow the national syllabus, and you make sure you’re prepared for the exams. Being at university and being taught by specific people, you kind of think, “Oh, I’ll do that from afar,” when that’s not the point. You’d be missing out on something. So that’s why I chose to prioritize.

For more info: "Bates Motel" website