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Bates Motel: 'I don't want to mimic Anthony Perkins'

...but 21-year-old Freddie Highmore has the Psycho stare, he tells Gerard Gilbert, as he takes on one of the screen's best-known roles

So now we know – Peter Pan grew up to be Norman Bates. In terms of Freddie Highmore's career he did at least. The 21-year-old British actor who shot to international stardom at the age of 12 opposite Johnny Depp in the JM Barrie biopic Finding Neverland (and later took the title role in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) now embarks on his adult career playing the twitchy, mother-obsessed motel-keeper first witnessed in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic Pyscho. It's quite a jump.

In the new US cable television prequel, Bates Motel, Norman is a 17-year-old high school student popular with the girls, his mother, Norma, is still alive and – oh yes – it's set in the present. Throw in Chinese sex-traffickers, marijuana farmers and a town full of sinister oddballs and you have got something strange indeed – Breaking Bad meets Dexter with a –dollop of Gossip Girl, perhaps, or another twist on Twin Peaks.

"I've never seen Twin Peaks so I can't comment," says Highmore when we meet. "But people have said there's this 'Twin Peaksness' to the dodgy town in the show." The drama's co-creator (and formerly the head writer on Lost), Carlton Cuse, has been more explicit. "We pretty much ripped off Twin Peaks," he told American journalists. "They only did 30 episodes… I thought we'd do the 70 that are missing."

Bates Motel comes close on the heels of another TV prequel about a popular fictional killer, NBC's Hannibal. It also follows three Psycho sequels (all of them with Anthony Perkins), Gus Van Sant's shot- for-shot 1998 re-make of Hitchcock's original, this time starring Vince Vaughn as Norman, and a failed TV pilot, also called Bates Motel. This new re-incarnation has intrigued critics and viewers however, and has been re-commissioned for a second season.

Highmore gives a cleverly understated portrayal. "There was never any attempt to mimic Anthony Perkins's performance but you take things from his quirks and traits and try and use them," he says. The young actor also gives an uncannily good Norman Bates 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."

And on the subject of Mrs Bates, Vera Farmiga is terrific as the smother-mother with the seeming potential for incest. Highmore isn't so sure about that. "Norman and Norma… they may look at each other, but there's nothing that's explicitly wrong with it," he says. "Yet people are 'Oh, it's very dodgy their relationship'. But the show is more suggestive than conclusive in that way, and Vera maintains that she thinks it's an innocent relationship – just a mum trying to do the best for her kid."

Farmiga, who was Oscar-nominated for her role in the 2009 George Clooney film Up in the Air, might have been being slightly disingenuous. She certainly gets many of the best lines, aided by the audience's fore-knowledge of Psycho. There's a deliciously cruel scene in the second episode, for example, when Norman invites a female classmate home to study, and Norma, learning that the girl has cystic fibrosis (as does series writer Bill Balas), bluntly asks her about her life expectancy. When she replies "27", the look of relief on Farmiga's face is deepest black comedy.

Highmore's own mother is the talent agent Sue Latimer, whose clients include Daniel Radcliffe. "He's a few years older than me but our families have known each other for ages," says Highmore. "Dan and I used to play together on the beach." And with his father, the former Howard's Way actor Edward Highmore, also in the profession, it's easy to see how Highmore has kept grounded.

He is three years into a four-year languages degree at Cambridge, studying Spanish and Arabic, and managed to film Bates Motel in the four months when he wasn't living in Madrid as part of his course. He says he still hasn't decided whether to make a career out of acting – using his Arabic in the services of MI5 being another option. "Being a spy, that's what people always think about when they hear you're learning Arabic."

The series was filmed in Vancouver, although the famous motel itself apparently remains incomplete. "The house is actually chopped off," he says. "You only get the first two floors, with the rest added by CGI later." Highmore first saw Hitchock's version when he was 13. "Is that too young? The funny thing about Psycho is there's nothing explicit. I think at the time the most shocking thing is they showed a flushing toilet" (cascading loos had never been shown in mainstream films or television before Pyscho).

Anthony Perkins, one of the most promising actors of his generation (he was Oscar-nominated in only his second film, Friendly Persuasion), never really saw his career properly recover from playing the cross-dressing lady-slayer who lives happily with his dead mum. He spent most of the 1960s in Europe – most notably as Josef K in Orson Welles's 1962 adaptation of Kafka's The Trial – before semi-rehabilitation in the more permissive Hollywood of the 1970s. It seems highly unlikely anything similar will befall Highmore – we're used to our anti-heroes now and anyway, his version is more ambiguous. "Hopefully people will disagree whether Norman is nice and somebody we should be rooting for, or not," he says. "I think there's this weird sense of hope that Norman won't go down the path that we know he must.

"The good thing about Bates Motel is that I'll be around until the end. I think all of the other actors will probably be wondering when they're going to die, asking 'when's he going to do me in?' Even Norma isn't looking so good … she'd better watch out."

'Bates Motel' begins on Thursday at 9pm on Universal