While most college students often use their year abroad to embrace the culture and night- life of new countries, British actor Freddie Highmore opted to play one of the most notorious fictional serial killers, Norman Bates.
Highmore, 22, plays a teenage version of Norman Bates who helps his erratic mother run a hotel in modern-day Oregon in the A&E series “Bates Motel,” which recently returned for its second season.
“Bates Motel” is the first television series for Highmore, who is finishing up his final year at Cambridge University, where he studies Spanish and Arabic.
The actor started out his career playing wide-eyed young boys in films such as 2004’s “Finding Neverland” and 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
But playing Norman Bates has presented a new direction in Highmore’s career, playing an innocent, sensitive teenager who begins to transition into a psychologically disturbed young man with an abnormally intimate relationship with his mother, played by Vera Farmiga.
“I always did want to get to play a killer, so I guess that one’s ticked off,” the young actor said with a laugh.
“What’s fun about ‘Bates Motel’ is that the characters change so much. The Norman that we see at the start of season one is markedly different to the end of season two,” he said.
After a dramatic finale in season one that culminated with the suspicious death of Norman’s attractive young female teacher, the second season opens with Norman trying to cope with her demise by embracing taxidermy. The hobby of stuffing dead animals may be an eerie foreshadowing of his future path.
“The biggest journey he’ll go on is this growing sense of self-awareness about who he is or who he might become,” Highmore said.
At the center of “Bates Motel” is the complex and, at times, almost inappropriate relationship between Norman and his high-strung single mother Norma, which earned Farmiga an Emmy nod.
In the first season, the two are dependent on each other for support and comfort as they try to start fresh with the purchase of the motel in a new home town, but in the second season, Highmore said their bond will be more fraught with tension.
“Vera and I disagree, but I think our disagreements fall in line with our characters, and she sees the relationship as more platonic,” Highmore said. “For me, I think Norman does read a little more into it and has feelings for his mother that go beyond what most boys would have.”
The close relationship and fascination that Norman has with his mother was made famous in Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel “Psycho” that was adapted by director Alfred Hitchcock into a film of the same name in 1960, becoming one of his most famous films.
Norman Bates is based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein, who was notoriously discovered with mutilated body parts in his house after police suspected him in the disappearance of a store owner in 1957.
Working in television has allowed the character of Norman Bates to be explored indepth, developing the origin story that leads him on the journey to murder over a gradual arc.
Highmore said that he went back to Bloch’s original source material for season two in order to understand Norman’s psychological unraveling as he becomes more engrossed in taxidermy. But he often found a challenge in reigning himself to play out Norman’s journey.
“It’s always a sense of being tempted to do more than is best to do at this stage of the series, and you have these fantastic characters, and there’s so many places you can take them,” Highmore said.
“For the series to develop well, it’s much more fun and delicious to have this tension playing out over time.”
(one hour) airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on A&E.