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'Bates Motel': Freddie Highmore talks becoming Norma

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James Dittiger/A&E

It’s a moment that Bates Motel fans have been waiting for since the show premiered—and one that will certainly strike a chord with anyone who’s been dying to know when Norman Bates would finally transform.

On the April 13 episode of A&E’s thriller, motel manager Norman (Freddie Highmore) snapped. After a bombshell revelation saw his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) storming out of the house last week, Norman has slowly crumbled from the abandonment, plagued by visions of darkness and his taxidermy coming to life. Finally, Norman’s well-meaning brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) discovers Norman in the dead of night, wearing Norma’s bathrobe and scuttling around the kitchen, voice high and light as he encourages Dylan to call Norman down to the table for breakfast.

Hints of Psycho Norman have been dropped throughout this season: his obsession with Norma’s clothing has slowly (and literally) materialized, and an early season glimpse of Norman spying on a woman in the shower was gleefully delightful for fans. (That sentence sounds bizarre, but it’s true.)

Norman’s cross-dressing is the biggest development so far toward Bates Motel‘s Norman becoming Hitchcock’s Norman. EW chatted with actor Freddie Highmore about the much-anticipated reveal and why this episode—and the season finale—will irrevocably bring Norman closer to the Psycho we’ve been waiting for.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Norman finally became Norma! You’ve known this would happen since the show premiered, but how did you feel when you learned it was actually happening here, now, in season three?

FREDDIE HIGHMORE: Excitement! I think that’s what everyone’s feeling was in reading episode six in general. There’s so much brilliant material for everybody—the writing, Kerry [Ehrin] just did such a marvelous job on this. Vera had so many tricky, emotionally challenging scenes, and as you see, she just plays them brilliantly, as did everyone else. I think it wasn’t purely this sense of what a brilliant scene I get to do, but how amazing the episode is in its entirety and how it’s just this string of scene after scene that lands with such a blow and pushes the story forward so much.

What does this mean for Norman moving forward?

I think it’s the beginning of the end. I’ve always seen season 3 as the real turning point where, by the end of it, Norman is much closer to the Norman Bates of Psycho than to the Norman that we set up at the beginning of Bates Motel. I think this episode is potentially pivotal in showing us how Norman will start to live much more in fiction as opposed to reality. Whether that’s good or bad…I mean, he’s quite happy to wander around the kitchen and pop blackberries into his mouth. But he’s very much living in his fantasy world, and similarly in the basement where he imagines his taxidermy coming to life. More than anything, it’s the start of that [fantasy] for Norman.

Did something specifically spark this moment for Norman? The inciting incident seems to be Norma storming out, but the seeds were of course planted earlier.

The nice thing is, we always knew it was going to come, so that’s what makes it even harder to watch. Because you’re like, oh, it’s finally happening! Norman has always had these visions of Norma, yes, but at the same time, he has moments where he does feel that he is her. He hasn’t quite gone to the extent of dressing up as her in the past, but think about the second season, when Caleb was in the motel room, and Norman felt Norma’s flashbacks, and scratched this imaginary scar on his leg, and was accusing Caleb of doing things as if he were Norma. So we’ve seen that side of Norman before. I think what makes this scene so interesting and more hard-hitting is the fact that Norman’s just so cheery about the whole thing.

Is that unlike how you envisioned the scene in your head?

That’s what’s brilliant about the writing from Kerry, who wrote this episode. It’s so fantastic because instead of it coming from anger or angst or a big fight in which he slips into this Norma character, the fact that it can be so understated and happy makes it even sort of worse to watch. And even creepier, really, that in this turbulent episode, Norman has actually found his real moment of happiness when he is Norma. And Max [Thieriot]’s expression is of course priceless. You can play the scene so much just off of what he’s looking at and what he’s thinking and how he’s reacting to it. That’s a testament to how great he is as well.

You’ve had input into Norman and Norma developments in the past, like the kiss in the season two finale. Did you have any input into this scene?

To some extent. I think it was always a plan of theirs, as it would have been from anyone who’s seen Psycho. You know that Norman is going to have this moment at some stage in Bates Motel. But there was a day just before we started shooting when I went into the costume fitting with Monique [Prudhomme], the costume designer, and there, alongside all of my clothes of the season, were all of Norma’s dresses and robes. S Monique and I were like, oh, let’s just try a few of them on. We ended up taking a few photos of me in a few of Norma’s garments and sending them off to Kerry and Carlton [Cuse] in LA. So we like to think that that further hastened the fact that they could finally see me in those clothes and say, yeah, let’s just go ahead and do it! [laughs]

This was such a monumental moment for fans. Did you treat it as such, or did you try not to make a big deal of it?

I guess there was more preparation that went into it, given the novelty of it, and the fact that something like it had never been done before on Bates Motel. You want to make it right, and you have to find that new character of Norman completely believing that he is Norma.

So you consider this Norman-as-Norma a new character in itself?

It’s very much this mix of how Norman saw his mother almost every single day bustle around the kitchen making breakfast. What would Norman have taken away from that experience every day, throughout his life? It isn’t necessarily a mimicking of Norma, but of Norman’s version of her that he holds in his mind.

I want to say something about blackberries. Norman, as Norma, says he bought fresh blackberries the day before, and Dylan finds the berries in the refrigerator. He holds them—they exist! And so I’m wondering if there’s any chance here of Norman already having gone outside of the house thinking he is Norma, to purchase berries, or if he’s burglarizing Norma’s memories, like when he experienced her flashbacks about Caleb.

I think that you’re right! The question is, how much of what Norman is imagining really takes place? And in the basement, when Norman puts his head down on the table next to the pigeon who is very much dead, and Juno the dog is next to them, and then you cut back to him, and he’s just staring straight into space…you wonder whether all of what we’ve just seen has merely taken place in Norman’s head and if he’s been staring ahead in his basement the whole time. You wonder whether what he has enacted in the kitchen takes place in his head. I think there is that suggestion, as you say, that there’s more to what you actually see taking place. I guess you just have to decide how mad you think he is.

Dylan and Emma have always tolerated Norman’s behavior and given him the benefit of the doubt in most situations. Will they reach a threshold when they can no longer justify his behavior?

I’m not sure. I think this episode demonstrates better than ever that Dylan really does care for his brother and wants what’s best for him. When Norma leaves and Norman very much needs to be taken care of, Dylan doesn’t shy away from that responsibility at all—and goes out of his way, as does Emma, to make sure that he’s as safe as he possibly can be. So I think the episode does demonstrate, too, that Norman hasn’t entirely lost the love and support of his family quite yet.

Until he finds out that Emma and Dylan might be romantically linked.

[laughs] Yes, there’s the blossoming of that. They’re both recognizing in each other these kindred spirits of people who haven’t quite managed to find their place in the family yet.

The season finale is called “The Psycho.” What should we make of that? That’s a very bold title.

I wasn’t aware of it as we were shooting, the weight in which this episode carried that title. If this episode itself isn’t the turning point, by the end of the tenth episode, it’s undeniable that Norman is very much further towards the point of being Psycho than towards the little innocent boy that he once was. I think implicit in the sense of “being psycho” is also this question of knowledge about whether Norman is truly innocent and unaware of all the things that he is doing, or whether he’s started to assume this position as being psycho, and slightly toy with it, and use it against others for his own personal gain and fulfillment.

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