Shelley Marsden finds out what actor Ian Hart has to say about checking into one of the world’s most famous motels…
Liverpool actor Ian Hart, whose grandparents came over from Ireland, is known for taking on unusual acting roles.
He’s not a perennially mirthful guy either (he once told a journalist “I’m belligerent rather than ambitious”). Back in 2009, during a curtain call of Speaking in Tongues at The Duke of York Theatre in the West End, he is alleged to have lunged at a man in the audience whom Hart believed to have been talking through his performance. If that doesn’t give you a bit of edge as an actor, nothing will.
Temperament aside, from his breakthrough portrayal of John Lennon in the brilliant Beatles biopic to the young communist of Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, he always brings something unique, and arguably a little dark, to each part he approaches. It’s no different for his latest project, where Hart, who is happily married to a teacher and has two daughters, plays the enigmatic Will Decody, father of Norman Bates’ love interest Emma in the creepy televisual treat, Bates Motel.
A modern prequel to Hitchcock’s genre-defining Psycho, which cemented the British director’s name as the king of suspense, Bates Motel premiered on UK TV last Thursday night, with a young British the iconic role (Freddie Highmore of teen flick The Spiderwick Chronicles, who starred alongside Hart in Peter Pan fantasy film Neverland). The opening episode was chirpily entitled First You Dream, Then You Die, to be followed this Episode 2 this week – Nice Town You Picked, Norma…
Hart, 48, says the surreal, alternative world the series has managed to create, which depicts Bates as a seventeen year old and begins just after the death of Norma’s husband, the pair moving towns in search of a new start, was the draw for him.
“That was the really interesting thing, this whole Gothic town the Bates moved into”, he says in his distinctive Liverpudlian cadence. “They’re basically running away from whatever tragedy befell them, and she buys a little hotel in some backwater in the American northwest [in the TV series it’s ‘White Pine Bay, Oregon,’ as opposed to the film’s fictional location ‘Fairvale, California’).
“When they meet other members of the town, they realise they’re all oddballs, know what I mean?! They’re not quite what they say they are. You know the way with Twin Peaks, all was well on the surface – the lady in the coffee shop was the lady in the coffee shop? Then in episode seventeen you realise oh, that’s not quite it? Like that.”
Hart is also intrigued by the nature versus nurture debate, how the series explores the smothering mother and son relationship that led to Norman becoming a sick and twisted adult (and, yes, loses the plot completely until we arrive at ‘that’ famous shower scene).
“It is about that nagging, controlling thing that develops. That’s how Norman comes to be Norman Bates. We all know what happened in Psycho, but it’s going through the psychology of how you get to that point. There’s a little devil within us all. How damaged are our own parents and how does that dictate our future? We all know somebody who has one kid in the family who’s a nut.”
Bates Motel, which was filmed in British Columbia, has taken Hitchcock’s famous film as a springboard to do something different with the Psycho ‘brand’, winding back to the clock to explore Norman’s childhood and at the same time transporting the legend to modern times.
Its writers have delved deep into the Oedipal nature of Norman and his mother’s relationship (Norma is played by Up In the Air Oscar nominee, Vera Formiga): “It’s not set in 1956; they’re trying to deal with how Mrs Bates’ behaviour and the things she does – there’s a lot about her – affects Norman. You’re born with certain traits, but you’re brought down a certain road by those around you.”
Hart’s character washes up in the town under circumstances that, like the majority of its small population, are never quite explained. He gets to know Norman through his daughter Emma, who attends the same high school and with whom Norman develops a strange kind of romantic attachment.
Emma, who has cystic fibrosis, develops an instant crush on Norman, and her father is initially suspicious as any protective father would be when, coming home from work after a hard day, he finds this peculiar young man hanging out with her.
Ordinary family life is juxtaposed, however, with the series’ seeping creepiness. Norman’s unexpected meeting with Will is one of those. A young guy meeting his potential girlfriend’s father is going to feel a bit nervous, but not a bit of it. And Dad’s advice to him, to “be decent”, sounds more like a coded warning.
Hart chuckles at the fact that he’s the one who teaches the psychopath-in-the-making the joys of taxidermy: “I teach Norman how to be a taxidermist which, in the lexicon of Psycho is…. Well, it’s building your skill set. He has this dog, this little stray dog that he befriended and it gets run over, so I tell him, look, I’ll teach you how to stuff your dog, and prepare it and all that business.”
The first series has just begun on British screens, but it was announced last week that Bates Motel has been commissioned for a second series. As far as he knows, Hart will be a part of it: “I haven’t died yet (a lot of people die), so…. I’m waiting to see!
Bates Motel comes on the heels of another TV prequel about a popular fictional killer, NBC’s Hannibal. Gus Van Sant’s 1998 re-make of Hitchcock’s original starred, rather oddly, Vince Vaughn as Norman and flopped, and there was a failed TV pilot, also called Bates Motel. This new reincarnation, however, seems to have hit the spot with viewers and critics alike.
Highmore has said that, though he doesn’t try to mimic Anthony Perkin’s p[erformance in the movie, he has tried to assimilate a few of his quirks, particularly the dead-eyed stare: “. “Lots of people have mentioned that stare to me… I guess you come up with ideas and practise. There’s a danger of doing too much too soon though. It’s tempting when you have a story about Norman and his mother to have him dressing up in her clothes in the first episode, but it’s more delicious to see that take place subtly and over time.”
Bates Motel is the latest in a long line of quality TV dramas from the States which are giving Hollywood a run for its money and attracting the crème de la crème of actors and directors.
For Hart, who always seems to have moved seamlessly between interesting TV, film and more recently theatre projects, it’s because filmmakers can’t get their projects off the ground any more – and everyone has to make a living.
He says: “If you’re a writer, director, or anyone else for that matter – the costume designer – you still need to eat! So where are you going to go? You’re going to do your best work in whatever medium’s going to allow you do that. There are writers that have been sitting round trying to get films off the ground for ten years who are now writing great television – with just as much artistry, just as much care.
“With cable, HBO and things like that, there are no commercial breaks, so you’re not chained to that methodology. Now you can write for cable what is, effectively, a film. And you don’t have the rigmarole of waiting to see if somebody buys it at a film festival somewhere, to put it on limited release to 23 screens. It gets broadcast on a Sunday night – to millions.”
For the full interview, pick up the September 21 Irish World.