The Long Haul — Freddie Highmore in Bates Motel

These posts are about great acting performances sustained across the full run of a television series.

freddie bates pilot
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Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates in Bates Motel (2013 – 2017)

In direct opposition to the apparent certainty that it is easy to replicate bygone creative achievements, there are a multitude of challenges built into the ongoing pop culture trend of prioritizing recognizable brands above all. Familiarity might make wary audience members, balancing finite available time and budgetary limits, more inclined to make an initial sampling, but a rebooted or remade property is sure to face comparisons to the predecessor that feeds it. For actors, the shadow is surely longer and darker. If the role they’re playing reverberates with echoes of iconic earlier work, the performer trying on the costume of a thespian ancestor can be understandably held back by the need for some amount of reverential duplication, constrained from the exploration and personal invention required to make a portrayal truthful.

Freddie Highmore wasn’t born yet when Anthony Perkins first played Norman Bates, troubled hotel proprietor. Nor was he around for any of the other times Perkins circled back to the role, with diminished returns. But whether or not Highmore was intimately aware of the character’s onscreen history, Norman Bates came with more baggage than could ever be loaded into the rooms of his roadside business. Developed by Carlton Cuse,
Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano, Bates Motel positioned itself as a prequel of sorts to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, albeit time-shifted to today. The series begins with Norman’s motherly best friend, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), still a genuinely living presence around the freshly-purchased motel of the title. The wounds on Norman’s psyche are just being formed. Highmore has to play what’s come before, but suss out what the character would be like before scenarios that had played out in earlier fictions. Norman is drifting in the direction of the deep end, yet to slip off it.

Through the initial episodes of the series — arguably through the initial seasons — Highmore builds his performance around an intense restraint that can appear to be flatness, especially when compared to the beautifully unhinged work of Farmiga. In Highmore’s rendering, Norman has a tentativeness that suggests inner wounds. The operatic sordidness largely happens around him, and he seeks out means of finding inner peace, through hobbies and attempts at connecting with others that are shaded with creepiness because of his earnest, doe-eyed social awkwardness. Creepiness settles into Norman slowly, like puberty taking over and changing his center of gravity. Unburdened by the need to capture the whole character in the space of a two-hour movie, Highmore lets his inner tremors of disturbance out slowly.

As the show moves into its final couple of seasons, the series bends to the requirement to decisively escalate the stakes and draw Norman closer to the character he simultaneously was, in earlier cinematic efforts, and will be, in the context of the fictional narrative. Highmore responds by maintaining his previously established emotional volume, while revealing graver and wider dissociation with his inner being. Reality is elusive for Norman, and Highmore shows how he wanders in his own head, adopting another persona as an instinctive defensive mechanism.

Given the floridness of tone inherent to Bates Motel, it would make sense for Highmore to press his performance to keep pace, which would have pushed it close to camp. Instead, he takes his cues from the murmur of an unwell mind he established earlier. By the end of the series, Norman has committed brutal, unspeakable crimes, but Highmore defines the characterization by the mounting terror Norman feels in himself, the sense that he’s not only lost control, but lost a mental grasp on what control might even be.

With fine patience and impressive modulation, Highmore achieves what any actor must hope for when they sign on for a role that’s already been memorably, famously played by another. Blessed with the time to do it right, Highmore makes Norman Bates his own.

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Previously….

—Keri Russell in The Americans
—Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation
—Kaley Cuoco in The Big Bang Theory
—Rob Delaney in Catastrophe

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