'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Freddie Highmore ('The Good Doctor')

The star of TV’s highest-rated new network drama, whose portrayal of an autistic surgeon has already brought him a Golden Globe nom, looks back on child stardom, re-emerging as an adult on the drama series 'Bates Motel' (he received Critics' Choice noms for three of its five seasons) and then heading right into another, very different show.
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"In many ways it's the opposite," says Freddie Highmore of the role that brought him back to TV, on ABC's The Good Doctor, less than a year after he vacated his previous role, on A&E's Bates Motel, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's "Awards Chatter" podcast. Whereas the character Norman Bates, who was at the center of the A&E series, was, well, a psycho, the actor's new character of Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, is anything but. "He's full of hope and optimism," Highmore emphasizes, "and I think people connected to that sort of personality [have been] increasingly rare and hard to come by on television."

The Good Doctor began rolling out in September with a Monday pilot that became ABC’s most-watched in 21 years, since Dangerous Minds; its first season was ABC’s highest-rated in 13 years, since Desperate Housewives; it was the most-watched series in the 10 p.m. slot — new or returning, on any network — in 11 years, since CSI: Miami; and it finished as the 2017-18 season’s most-watched new drama. Highmore, who received a best actor in a drama series Golden Globe nom for his performance on the show late last year, and might well receive a corresponding Emmy nom next month, says he never imagined the show's first season would be this big a hit — but, in hindsight, he believes he understands why it was: "I think in a time when there's so much negativity that's out there, Shaun was a refreshing change from the news that you might watch after the show."

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 21:13], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Borys Kit, a senior staff writer at THR who helps oversee its Heat Vision blog, about this weekend's release of Solo: A Star Wars Story, this summer's roster of popcorn movies and the potential for fanboy and awards-voter overlap on Black Panther and A Quiet Place.

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Highmore, who is 26, was born and raised in London, the older of two sons. His mother was an actor's agent and his father, a hommemaker. He insists that despite coming from "an industry family," he never felt pressured to pursue acting, and "didn't really do any drama at school." Instead, what happened was a casting director friend of his mother inquired if he might like to go out on a few auditions, and he thought he'd give it a try. That is how he wound up, at the age of nine, going out for — and landing — his "first big opportunity," a key role opposite Johnny Depp in Marc Forster's film Finding Neverland. He was so impressive in the emotionally challenging part that, after the film finally came out a few years later, in 2004, he received a best supporting actor SAG Award nomination. He was reunited with Depp after winning the title role of the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake, which was released a year after Neverland; there are reports that Depp fought for Highmore to play the part, but, true or not, Highmore still had to go through an elaborate audition process. Highmore says of the older actor, "There was a real closeness that we formed through the work that we were doing," adding, "He was just truly wonderful."

Throughout the rest of Highmore's adolescence, he popped up in films both intimate (he played the younger version of Russell Crowe in 2006's A Good Year, and starred in 2007's August Rush alongside Robin Williams) and epic (2007's The Golden Compass and 2008's The Spiderwick Chronicles). He says he looks back at his early career — during which he was always accompanied on sets by his father — with nothing but fondness: "I've always thought acting enhanced my childhood and added things to it, as opposed to took things away from it," he puts it. Schoolwork was also an important part of his life throughout those years, and it was always understood that, when the time came, he would go off to university as well. He landed a spot at a great one, Cambridge, and decided to take a full break from acting while there. But during his third year, when he was to study abroad, he had some time off and decided to wade back into acting — knowing now that it was surely his own choice to do so — and accepted a part on the drama series Bates Motel, a Psycho-prequel, of sorts. Over that show's five seasons, he matured immensely as an actor — learning a great deal from co-star Vera Farmiga, and scoring three Critics’ Choice noms for best actor in a drama series, in 2014, 2015 and 2018. He also got to explore other creative pursuits that appealed to him, working in the show's writers room during its fourth season and directing an episode during its fifth.

When that well-reviewed but little-seen show came to an end, Highmore fully expected to take a break from work — but just three days after leaving its Vancouver set, while on an airplane, he decided to read a script that he had been sent for an ABC pilot called The Good Doctor. He quickly became totally enamored with the main character, Dr. Shaun Murphy, who was completely unlike anyone he had ever been asked to play before, and he soon entered into discussions with the creative team behind the show to gain assurances that, if he did agree to do the show — which, being on a broadcast network, would demand many more episodes per season than Bates Motel ever did — he would have time to do independent research and engage in dialogue with the autism community, and that the show would provide an accurate and respectful depiction of autism. "I was certain that this was a role that I'd have to prepare more for and put more into than any other one that I'd done," he explains. Given these assurances, he signed on — not only as an actor, but also as a producer — and quickly set to work. (The show ultimately brought him back to Vancouver, with many of the same crew who had worked on Bates Motel.)

Highmore brings to the character of Dr. Murphy a childlike innocence that is tremendously endearing. The physical manifestations of autism are always present in his performance — clasping his hands in front of himself, for instance — but don't define the character. For Highmore, it was extremely important that Dr. Murphy be presented as a "fully formed human being, an individual in his own right, and not entirely being myopic in terms of focusing solely on very specific research." All of this has contributed to the show's warm reception from the public at large, and specifically from the autism community, the response of which has been "very positive," Highmore says — making him feel excited as he looks ahead to a second season of the show, for which he also will write and direct episodes. "The idea that people do find things to connect to with him is lovely and inspiring and makes it worth it," he says. "It makes it feel more important than just a TV show."