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An Interview with Bates Motel’s Nestor Carbonell and Executive Producer Carlton Cuse

Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/A&E Networks
Photo Credit: Cate Cameron/A&E Networks

Talk Nerdy With Us recently had the opportunity to participate in a conference call with Bates Motel‘s Nestor Carbonell who plays Sheriff Alex Romero and Executive Producer Carlton Cuse. Check it out below!

I am so enthralled with this season. Every season gets better and I have so many questions. But the first one will be for Nestor. Are you ready for bliss or are you rethinking giving up the money as your character is changing here?

Nestor Carbonell: “Well, what I love about that, every season, is that every character has obviously evolved in different ways and largely impacted by the people that they interact with. And for my character, certainly, the biggest impact has been Norman. And whether or not, you know, this season she seems to have absolutely, you know, softened and he’s completely fallen for her. At the same time, as you mentioned, you know, old habits die hard. And this is a man who has his own code and one of them apparently is, you know, if it’s Bob Paris’ money and he’s no longer around, then now it’s my money. So the question, the big question is he’s made such a huge effort to hide that money to what end is it? And will his morality, you know, he’s a got a sort of a fluid moral compass Where will it go to next, you know? And, I think, you’ll get some answers certainly in the next couple of episodes regarding that.”

Great. and Carlton, I know you keep in touch with your fans on Twitter and social media. Are you liking the feedback that you’re getting with all this craziness?

Carlton Cuse: “Absolutely. I mean, you know, Kerry and I had put together, fairly early on, a five-year plan for the show. And Season 4 is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time because it really is – we’re activating these, you know, major kind of elements of the show’s narrative. One of which is – Norman, is really sort of descending into being kind of pathologically, the character that is similar to the one in Psycho. And secondly, really finally getting to sort of let Norma/Romero’s relationship blossom. And so it’s really, really fun. It was really fun for us to sort of see the audience embrace both of these events which are, you know, really huge kind of advancements in our storytelling. And you know, we’re, you know, we’ve always envisioned the show being five seasons. So, you know, we’re really kind of entering the critical phase of the show now as these two events – these two kind of story events unfold.”

Has your five-year plan altered at all dramatically, based on what you’ve seen, fans embrace about the show? Or is it the same thing that you set out with from Season 1, the path that you’re taking to get to that finale of five?

Carlton Cuse: “I think there are some changes that occurred in that. I mean, and I think in certain ways kind of it’s been enhanced by what’s happened with the actors. I mean, we think we discovered, for instance, that there was a really nice chemistry between, you know, Dylan and Emma’s character. And that really, you know, pushed us towards engaging those two romantically, which was something that, you know, wasn’t planned from the very beginning. And in terms of like the Norma, Romero, that was something we really thought about from the very beginning. But what we didn’t anticipate was the incredible chemistry that existed between Nestor and Vera. And so that story line, you know, kind of was amplified. And, you know, really just it became so much more heated up by the fact that, you know, the two actors are so amazing and so kind of connected. And so it just, it feels so real and believable. It just of kind of, it kind of is a level of combustion that we didn’t expect.”

And now obviously we know why Norma tries to protect Norman. But why do you think that Romero feels the need to? Is it simply because he cares so much for Norma? Or is there something deeper there?

Nestor Carbonell:  “All right. I’ll tell you what, you know, and steer me right where I’m wrong. But my take on it is that he feels a certain kinship with her and feels somewhat in that they both have a sorted history. They’ve had a tough upbringing. You know, hers is, I mean the both of them have had a dark, not equally dark, but there were both very dark pasts that they’ve had to battle. And so they have that in common but more than that. And then the way they’ve dealt with it. They’re both strong and assertive personalities that have had to fight for everything. And I think Romero sees his counterpart in Norma in that respect. And she’s a woman who’s come to this town and is completely bucked conventionally in town and gone against all of the things that you’re supposed to, the council. The, you know, the just the typical ways you’re meant to go about doing things in this kooky town of White Pine Bay. And I think Romero loves that in her and has certainly warmed to her. His struggle with her is that she’s able to trust him and that’s the, you know, a struggle with him for three seasons up until this season, where I think he finally feels, at least in this particular episode that aired, that he’s finally broken through. So that’s my take on it, but I want to hear Carlton’s thoughts.”

Carlton Cuse: “Yes. I think that, you know, he, you know, there’s a kind of deep level of empathy in Sheriff Romero. And I think he feels that he has a very grasp of sort of the kind of understanding of people and their, and as a result, it has kind of, I think, has given him license to kind of set his own morality and draw his own line in the sand. And I think that he, his deep level of empathy for Norma, you know, is one which he really understands how important Norman is to her. And so, therefore, he really deeply loves this woman, he wants to help support Norman as well, you know. So I think it’s everything that Nestor said. And then I would just, you know, add that it’s really sort of a deep reading of Norma that also kind of motivates him to be her ally here.”

Now in past years, I’ve asked both Vera and Freddie about this. But how does the experience of being on a such an iconic set add to the whole atmosphere of filming?

Nestor Carbonell: “It’s extraordinary. I mean, we have an amazing set that was built by Mark Freeborn and his crew who I, correct me if I’m wrong, Carlton. I think built the entire exterior of the set of five weeks. You know, in Alder Grove which is a border town, a U.S.-Canadian border town, in Canada. And it’s much larger than the original set in Universal. And the detail is…”

Carlton Cuse: “Which is only three. Because the one that’s on the Universal lot is – actually is a scale model. It’s not full size. But our set was built using the original blueprints that were taken from the Universal archives. And, you know, we actually, you know, it is a full-scale replica of the, you know, built to the specifications that were, you know, from the Hitchcock movie. It is, when you actually go there, this special relationship and connectivity I think makes it. Gives you a kind of a sense of realness that’s, that’s really great. And I think, you know, for, you know, I’ll let Nestor speak to that but from a performing aspect. It really, you know, you, it really grounds that. It just makes it feel real even though those sets are so iconic and kind of from the world of cinema. There’s also the sense of reality when you actually have them built. And this big special relationship exists. You know, so much move making is trickery. We actually have these things you can walk into a motel room downstairs. There’s the office. You go up the stairs you go into the house. It’s, you know, it’s kind of wonderful other than the fact that it’s built on a landfill of a garbage dump. Other than that, it’s fantastic.”

Nestor Carbonell:  “I think that only adds to you. You’re absolutely right. It is largely a practical set and has become more practical as every season has gone on. You know, the crew had built more rooms and added a roof to the second season. So I think so, yes, as Carlton said, the minute you step on the set you can’t really help but already be in that world because it is so beautifully realized by, has been by Mark Freeborn and his crew. The other thing too is I would add is that we have to drive an hour and a half from downtown Vancouver every time we shoot at the motel. So there’s something to be said for that drive as opposed to driving to a lot. Where you’re driving to, you know, a place pretty far away, pretty remote, on a border town that, as an actor, certainly gets you in the mood for, you know, to say I’m going to this remote motel out there and is it out there. So there’s something about that. And then add the, you know, we shoot predominately during a winter, the winter and the fall. So yes, you add the gray skies of Vancouver to the mix. And, you know, that only adds to the sort of the impending thriller and thrill and doom element to it.”

Carlton, I really feel like separating Norma and Norman this season has propelled the story and the characters forward. Would you speak a little bit about how that separation has slowed Norma to evolve and change and perhaps reach the turning point that she did in last week’s episode?

Carlton Cuse: “I think, you know, for Kerry and I, we felt like this was a very important story moment because we really wanted to, we wanted to. There were kind of a lot of things that were serviced at all the same time we wanted Norma to kind of confront this idea that she’d never had actually gotten, you know, any professional help for her kid, despite a lot of sign posts that he was, you know, that, you know, that he needed psychological help. And so the fact that she does that, you know, was important. And also, we wanted to sort of, kind of, hold out this hope that, you know, Norman being in this, you know, this place where he’s getting mental help is, you know, kind of possibly a really optimistic event for him. It’s also really kind of untethering Norma from Norman and gives us an opportunity to explore the character in a different way. You know, she’s suddenly freed from the 24/7 obligations of her kid and this really slowed her relationship with Romero to flourish. And, you know, we want to in a way give her the sort of thing she’d always wanted. You know, she’s, I think, a character who her whole life has wanted to find some pure manifestation of love. And, you know, she’s instead gotten involved with, you know, the wrong guys and been, you know, the victim of a lot of horrible circumstances. And now for the first time, everything seems to be going right. She’s with a guy who loves her. Who is, you know, really, you know, at his core. You know, I think we believe a very decent guy with his own, you know, kind of strong sense of morality. And like, you know, someone who fiercely cares about her and like this relationship has really blossomed. And yet, you know, you, kind of, have Norman who’s, you know, in a mental institution and is kind of a ticking time bomb. And it just felt narratively that it was a great opportunity to put the characters in some different circumstances that allowed us to push some of our storytelling in new directions.”

I feel that was a turning point for Norma. Was there anything out of the ordinary for you preparing for that scene? Was that just another day on the set? Or, you know, did it take extra effort to get through that scene?

Nestor Carbonell:  “Yes. It was, I mean, it was a driven by Vera’s incredible performance. It was on the page, I remember welling up, crying, reading that scene. And then thinking, “Wow, this is going to be a tough one.” And Vera, you know, she’s so incredibly well prepared and so emotionally available. I didn’t, yes, you know, she got me in the first take. Thankfully, the camera was on her but I was like I’m going to lose it here. It was tough – it was definitely a tough scene to shoot. What was interesting is even though we, as a viewer, knew everything she was saying. I mean and we’d heard it. And I think she had to reveal all that. She did. She had to reveal it to Dylan as well. So while she had revealed it before having the impact on the character that she had fallen for, having her see the impact on that character was something completely new. And what it meant to their future and to her future in particular was, I think, was particularly important. And I love that about the scene. It is her reveal, my response to her, and then her response to that was particularly moving. Like wow, finally, there’s someone here who doesn’t care. You know, who will take me warts and all. But yes, it was a particularly tough scene to shoot. But, you know, when you have Vera driving something like that, she makes it look effortless.”

 

What was it like preparing for a production like Bates with that history, both for Nestor as an actor, and now doing an upcoming director? And then, Carlton, as a writer and producer?

Carlton Cuse: “Well, you know, I think, obviously, there was some in trepidation about taking on this very storied franchise. And, you know, Psycho to me is in that category of a perfect movie. It’s, you know, it’s one of my favorite all-time movies. And I think it’s just it’s impeccable. And, you know, the sequels and other projects that had fallen kind of behind it, not so much. I mean there were not, I mean they weren’t so great. So, you know, obviously there’s a little, you know, this little fear about, you know, trying to kind of walk in the footsteps of that movie in a way that will be, you know, entertaining and hopefully original. So, you know, that, kind of, spurred this idea to embrace the idea of really changing it up to not make it period, to make it a contemporary prequel. To just take a couple of these, take these iconic characters and iconic graphic images of like the house and motel and tell most really a brand new story. And in fact, you know, with Kerry and I, Kerry Ehrin and I sat down and we started talking about it. The thing that really interested us was really subverting the audience’s expectations and that, you know, if you watch that movie, (Norma Bates) is, kind of, one of the great characters of cinema who we actually really know nothing about, you know? And, but I think from the movie your expectation is that she is this horrible shrew who borated her son into becoming crazy. We thought what if we actually flipped that completely around and then she’s incredible loving woman whose son has sort of this fatal flaw in his DNA and she sort of smothers him with love and affection.

And then maybe that actually has the opposite effect in that it, kind of, helps catalyze his, you know, this flaw in his DNA. And, you know, what if was, what if we told the story not as, you know, as kind of a typically serial killer story but as an incredible tragedy love story. And so, you know, those ideas seem to counterweigh the dangers of taking on the Psycho franchise but we just got so excited about them. And we thought that they had so much potential. And that I think, you know, really allowed us to go and make it. And, you know, I think for a while and I think even honestly to some degree now, the show gets its just due because it’s under the Psycho moniker. I mean, honestly, I would, I will put this season on Bates Motel up against anything on television this season on a quality level. Hands down, I think it’s as good as anything on television. And, you know, I think there’re some people who ignore the show because it’s some sort of Psycho remake in their brains. But they haven’t watched it and seen that really it’s, you know, it’s an original show that borrows from the, you know, the mythology of the movie. But it’s, but we’re not retelling the same story. We’re telling our own brand new original unique story. And I think we’re doing an incredibly good job. And I’m so proud of, you know, of Kerry and my, you know, my other fellow writers and the actors on the show. And I really, you know, I get frustrated a little bit because I feel like, you know, I don’t think the show is as, you know, as recognized as it should before, you know, for on a quality level.”

Nestor Carbonell: “Well, I agree with Carlton. I think you put it so well. The taking on this iconic feature, I’m sure was daunting. You know, you’re take on it, yours and Kerry’s take on it. Exploring a dynamic that we only imagined in the movie. You know, the father, I’m sorry, Norman and Norma and exploring that that sort of unamiable relationship. And obviously turning it on its head and making her extraordinarily sympathetic. That to me was that’s where the show takes off.

You know, that exploring that and then you add a brother and then all these characters that, you know, it’s all reimagining. You take some license there. But adding, you know, Dylan into the mix and making, you know, that dynamic even more complex. And then exploring the town the way you did to me was extraordinary. I remember you sent me the first six scripts when you called me to see about joining. And I was up until I think four in the morning because I couldn’t put them down. They were so extraordinary well written. And obviously, like any good writing, character-driven. So that was another thing that obviously jumped off the page to me is that they’re all, everything is motivated through character. But no, I was, and from my part as an actor, Sheriff Romero was a completely new character even though it was the Sheriff in the original. I had a fairly blank canvas to work with so I didn’t have the illness that Freddie did, you know, to take on the iconic role.”

Knowing that you’ll forever invariably be linked to Psycho, is that something that makes you happy? Or something that you wanted to stay completely set on this tone? Or do you mind having, you know, obviously that relationship?

Carlton Cuse: “You know, I feel that we’re, we’ve used the Psycho moniker to tell this sort of gray, sprawling, kind of, pulpy romantic tragedy. And, you know, there would have been a hard sell without the Psycho label. So I’m grateful that the label allowed us to tell an original story that probably wouldn’t have been made without out, you know. So, you know, on that level, yes, you know, my hope is that, you know, one of the great things about television is that, you know, shows get discovered over time now. You know, so the Wire, for instance, wasn’t, you know, a huge hit when it first came out. But I think it’s, you know, universally acknowledged as one of the best, if not maybe the best show, ever on television. Because people started watching it when they could, you know, could binge it. And I think binging Bates Motel is going to be a really rewarding experience because I think some of the things people questioned or didn’t understand at the beginning now make a lot more seen in the context of four seasons of storytelling. And, you know, I think it will be super interesting just because of like Freddie Highmore, for instance, his evolution. He started the show as a kid and he’s this, you know, really this teenager and he’s grown across the, you know, across this. Will have been working on the show for about six years by the time we finish it. And, you know, he’s matured and become, you know, a young man. 

And I think that actual physical transformation exists concurrent with his evolution as a character. And I think it will be really evident and really interesting when you are actually binging the show. And, you know, because you know, we will have made that show over, you know, basically five to six years. And you will have seen the physical changes in that character which, kind of, corresponds with the change in his psychology. I think that’s really great. And, you know, again, I just feel like all of the things that we did. This weird cocktail of this sort of nuanced romantic tragedy played against the sort of pulpy crime story of this town. I think it all makes a lot more sense in the context of seeing a lot of episodes of maybe it did to people right at the very beginning. And you know, I hope it becomes one of the shows that say, Oh, my God, I got to binge, you know, Bates Motel because I think it will be a really rewarding experience.” And, you know, we have some incredible stuff coming up this season. And I think that we’ll make, you know, the show, even more, binge-worthy for audiences.”

Nestor, I was really happy to hear that you’re going to be directing other episodes because I loved the deal, the other one that you directed in the 3rd season. So was there anything that you learned from directing that 3rd season episode that you applied to the single episode that you directed?

Nestor Carbonell:  “Well, thanks! Yes, I mean continually, I have taken this and this completely on. Due to Carlton, I got this incredible opportunity. This is something that Vera had suggested, you know, I do. In the middle of season two, she said, “You should try directing. You really should.” And when I broached the subject with Carlton he said, “Yes, absolutely. I think that would be a great idea.” And I suggested maybe shadowing and then low and behold, he said, “Well, if someone falls out would you be willing to step in?” I said, “Sure.” And sure enough, someone had to fall out last year and then I had the daunting prospect of actually having to do it. And having not gone to film school, but the great advantage I have is, you know, outside of amazing scripts to work with is, a phenomenal cast, is an extraordinary crew that helped me a lot last year. And I learned so much from that particular episode from Tucker Gates, our Producing Director, who really established the look of the show. The dolly tracks, mostly the, nothing longer than a 40-millimeter lens so that pretty much it’s a single camera show. So that the whole world is mostly in focus as you’re shooting it. So that I wanted to certainly pay respects to what Tucker was doing.

But no, I got enormous help from the crew. And that particular episode last year was fairly stunt-heavy so I learned another, a whole other thing, on top of, you know, just getting behind the camera. And this, so yes, I took as much as that as I could to this episode which was, as you’ll see without giving anything away, is totally a very different episode than the one I got to direct last year. Which is another bonus for me getting to do something completely different as a director. But the Operator, Head Operator, (Mike Rensch) is enormously creative and while I might suggest something, he’ll come up with something on the day too. So quite often we will freestyle. But no, I learned and continue to learn so much from, you know, from working behind the camera. And Carlton in this particular episode suggested that I take a look at one movie, in particular, an incredible film, Son of Saul, as a way to potentially shoot a certain sequence. Again, I won’t give it away. And that was enormously helpful. You know, borrowing from someone’s style and someone’s point of view. And I learned a tremendous amount just from that whole sequence alone.”

What’s one of your favorite parts of portraying Sheriff Romero this season?

Nestor Carbonell:  “Well, this particular season what’s been a lot of fun is, you know, Carlton and I talked about this stuff, in the beginning, is the arc of a character. That he wasn’t necessarily particularly sympathetic when we first met him. He was a bit of a bulldog. But knowing full well that eventually he would wind with Norma, it was nice to be able to track as an actor that trajectory so that you can play has hard as you want initially knowing full well that eventually he will soften. His guard will come down. And knowing that it was because of Norma that he was going to soften was, you know, made that choice that much more interesting because of my dynamic with Norma and with Vera. So with this particular season what’s been rewarding is finding the ways, the ways for him to slowly break that guard down. And what Carlson and Kerry and the writers came up so cleverly with was how do you do that after three seasons of a pretty hard-nosed guy. Is the, the only time we’ve seen Romero, sort of drop his guard was when he’d been drinking. So Kerry, Carlton, and the writers cleverly had me go out on dates and have a few cocktails and suggested Norma drink as a way to loosening up. And that sort of let the walls down initially. 

And I love what, you know, Carlton, Kerry, did in terms of bridging or having these two get together. So it was a product of a marriage first, of a false marriage, that turns into passion, that turns into liking each other. And then eventually it turns it into declaring each other, a love for each other. So it’s sort of a backwards way to enter a relationship. But I think it’s sort of in keeping with what these two are.”

Norman is obviously becoming more and more unstable this season. Now that Romero has married his beloved mother, do you think it’s sort of enviable that there’s an altercation coming down the line between the two of them?

Nestor Carbonell:  “Carlton, you want to take this?” (laughs). 

Carlton Cuse: “That is, I think the very definition of a leading question. (laughs). But yes, I mean, you know, we clearly constructed this narrative that these two characters are on a collision course. You know, how that actually plays out, we obviously don’t want to spoil what’s to come. But yes, I mean, you know, the idea that, you know, while Norman’s away, Norma will play is, you know, obviously a very loaded scenario. And Norman, you know, Norman is, you know, the kind of degree in which he is willing to accept Romero into his life. And to, you know, accept the fact that Romero and his mother are romantically involved is something that’s, it’s a question that just looms large across the show and will definitely be addressed in coming episodes.”

Obviously, those that have seen the movie know that what’s apparently coming for Norma, but do you think the Bates Motel ending maybe completely different? Do you think of that as a separate entity?

Carlton Cuse: “We certainly don’t think it would be rewarding to deliver up to the audience the exact same ending of our show that you saw in the movie. However, the tension of all great tragedies is sort of this idea of, you know, you’re, kind of, hoping against hope that characters don’t meet their inevitable fate. That’s the essential tension of tragedies. So if you watch Titanic, you know, the ship is going to sink. But you’re hoping, “Oh man, did Caden, Leo, make it, you know?” And I think that’s that, you know, we want our audience to feel that same tension. Are Norma and Norman going to make it? Is Norma going to make it? You know, what’s going to happen? So, you know, I think that we, kind of, like to think of the idea that we’re sort of, you know, crisscrossing with the mythology of the original movie. But it is certainly not our desire or obligation to exactly align our storytelling with what goes on in the movie. And, you know, the tension of what you should or shouldn’t expect is, you know, something that’s we’re very aware of. And, you know, we want you to feel that tension but I certainly don’t want to tell you how we’re planning to pay it off – pay it out.”

No, I believe next year’s going to be the final season for this show. How does it feel to see the end coming into view? Are you already sort of getting nostalgic even though you’re still in the middle of it?

Carlton Cuse: “I mean I’ll have Nestor answer as well. But I mean for us, I mean, we have been, it’s, kind of, this really mixed thing because it’s absolutely best for the storytelling. I mean, this is a story that just is so much better closed ending, you know, knowing that there is some kind of finality to it. And the tension of that finality, what that finality’s actually going to mean is, I think, what really helps engage the audience. But on a personal level, it’s an absolutely blessed experience. I don’t think I’ve, I don’t think, I’ve never worked with a cast that is, you know, more connected, more aligned, more professional. You know, everyone is so lovely and talented and the work experience, I think, is so satisfying and rewarding for everyone involved that. I mean, it’s really painful for that to come to an end, you know? This assemblage of actors is so special and rare. The way everyone treats each other and the respect that everyone has for everyone else and from the process, you know, is so high, that that is a really serious bummer that that’s ending.

You know, that’s not the case on many TV shows or films or anything. You know, where you have this level of, kind of, connectedness and, you know. So just so that part’s going to be sad because, you know, whenever you make a show, you have a fictional show. But you also, it leads to the creation of this sort of real world family behind the scenes that actually makes the show. And the fact that that’s going to be coming to an end in the near future is sad. Nestor?”

Nestor Carbonell:  “Again, yes, I completely agree and I’ve told you this too, Carlton, that I hold this up in the same way as I held Lost. It was, this has been one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had creatively and then personally too. I mean, like you said the people are extraordinary working again obviously with you and Kerry and the incredible crew and the cast. You know, it’s the old cliché thing which is true, it’s like a family. And just as (Green), our Line Producer, put together and amassed the most incredibly talented and sweetest crew that you could imagine. So it’s, and we spent a lot, many hours together. And so it’s going be extraordinarily hard to see the show end. For some of us, we don’t know when it ends. So you’ll have to find out as a viewer whether, for some, you know, when that end comes. But so far it’s been and has been, like I said, one of the best experiences that I have ever had professionally.”

 

 

Bates Motel airs Mondays at 9pm on A&E.

Written by Shadia Omer

Shadia is a total nerd and a lover of all things pop culture. She watches way too much TV for her own good. She has a passion for writing about entertainment and when she's not writing or trying to figure out her plans in life, you can find her on twitter talking about her faves, one tweet at a time at @lolitsshads.

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