Freddie Highmore’s transition from the lovable child actor of Finding Neverland (2004) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) to the creepy Norman Bates in the Psycho-inspired Bates Motel (2013-2017) and a medical genius with autism in The Good Doctor points to a career graph that warrants close examination.
After starring in several successful films as a child, including August Rush (2007) and The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008), Highmore took a step back from acting projects to focus on his degree in Arabic and Spanish at the University of Cambridge. He returned in dramatically different form with Bates Motel, a contemporary prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, where he stars alongside Vera Farmiga as a young Norman Bates who transitions from loving son to disturbed serial killer.
Highmore furthered his fame with The Good Doctor, which became one of ABC’s top-rated shows after it premiered in 2017 and fetched him a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Actor – Television Series Drama category. With a third season on the way, Colors Infinity in India began reruns of the series on March 19.
The series, based on a 2013 South Korean show of the same name, stars Highmore as Shaun Murphy, an autistic savant whose photographic memory and observation skills make him a highly skilled surgeon. Scroll.in caught up with Highmore to speak about The Good Doctor, his life as a child actor in the early 2000s, and why he stays off social media.
How do you prepare to play an autistic genius and a superb surgeon at the same time?
Shaun Murphy’s role required more preparation than any other role I did on TV. In terms of medicine, we do our best. We trust our medical consultant to give the right information. Doing this role made me appreciate the medical craft and profession in a new way.
In terms of autism, it was important for all of us that the portrayal of the condition was authentic. Again, we had a consultant here too. David [Shore, series creator] and I watched documentaries and read relevant books to help ourselves construct the character. But we were aware that Shaun is representing an individual’s story and not everyone in the autism spectrum. The key was to portray his journey as an individual and not someone’s who just autistic.
You didn’t watch the 1971 film ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ because you didn’t want to get influenced by Peter Ostrum’s Charlie Bucket. Did you avoid the South Korean series on which ‘The Good Doctor’ is based?
I saw a little bit of it. The pilot is similar, for about the first 10 minutes, but both shows become different from that point onward. The original Dr Shaun performance [Joo Won as Park Shi-on] is so well-done and brilliantly acted, if I kept watching it, I’d end up copying that. So, I stuck to our script. Now that we’ve sort of established our own show and character, I’d like to rewatch the South Korean series.
You played a young musical genius in ‘August Rush’ (2007). Did that role influence Shaun Murphy in any way?
It’s funny you mention it, because it never crossed my mind. I never thought about it before. In my head, they seemed different. About that film, it was great to shoot in New York and work with the great Robin Williams. I wish I continued to play music after I learned to do so for that film.
Your two key films early on as a child were with Johnny Depp – ‘Finding Neverland’ (2004) and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (2005). How was that experience?
My memories of coming to the film industry and working are tied up with him in a way. He was very lovely and very generous. I feel lucky to have worked with him, as I did with Helena Bonham Carter [his co-star thrice]. She is a great friend now. I worked with Vera Farmiga [Bates Motel co-star] for so long. She has been a great mentor to me.
You went from playing a mentally disturbed young man in ‘Bates Motel’ to an autistic genius in a span of days. What do you look for in a role?
I try to do different roles. It would get dull for me and the audience if the character is a replication of something I did before. The genre isn’t important as much as the need to tell an interesting character-driven story. In case of The Good Doctor, it was more than just a television show. It allowed me to play someone on the autism spectrum as a lead in a broadcast show in America. There was that challenge to raise awareness in an appropriate way.
What makes you stay away from joining social media?
I guess I just was never on it. When I was young and professionally began acting, social media wasn’t around in a big way. I didn’t get into the habit. Now, things are different. Ultimately, it helps to keep a balance between life in the film and television industry and life outside that.
I appreciate the interaction I have with fans in person. They are genuine personal interactions. What was inspiring was personally getting to meet people on the autism spectrum or their family members after they reached out seeing me in this show.