British actor Freddie Highmore made his name in feature films and as a young Norman Bates in Psycho prequel series Bates Motel. He explains why his starring role in ABC medical drama The Good Doctor is his biggest challenge yet.
At the age of just 27, Freddie Highmore is already an industry veteran with a slew of box-office hits and two decades of work under his belt. But it’s his latest role, as genius surgeon Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor, which is winning him some of the biggest plaudits of his career thus far.
The British actor plays the shy autistic savant – who can’t look people in the eye but is able to come up with ingenious ways around complex medical problems – with an authentic delicacy and passion that has helped make the show a huge hit around the world.
“Shaun is probably the most challenging character I have ever played,” says Highmore, who first found fame in feature films Finding Neverland and Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. “There was an awareness from the start that this was a story we wanted to do correctly and not mess up, because it feels like it has a wider importance rather than just being a television show in its own right.
“We have a full-time consultant on board to help us with the autism side of Shaun’s character, but autism is just one aspect of what defines Shaun. We have taken care to portray autism authentically while also being aware that he can never represent everyone who is on the spectrum.
“We are telling this one unique, individual story but, at the same time, the letters I get from people with autism saying how the show has inspired them are the most meaningful things about the job.”
The Good Doctor is based on the Korean medical drama of the same name, the international potential of which was first identified by Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), who also stars in the show as Dr Jackson Han. Kim struggled to find a home for the format until Sony Pictures Television expressed an interest and brought David Shore, creator of House, on board. It was subsequently ordered to series by US network ABC in 2017.
Highmore, who demonstrated his full range in thriller Bates Motel, a five-season prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal horror Pyscho, was an obvious choice to play the lead in The Good Doctor, and the actor admits he relishes taking on challenging roles. “I am always drawn to interesting characters, and Shaun is unlike anything we have seen before on television,” he says. “I like that he offers up a different version of masculinity. He’s not an alpha male.”
The actor, who in the flesh is an interesting mix of shyness and confidence, has always wanted to be more than just the leading man – and having directed and written episodes for Bates Motel, he does the same again for The Good Doctor, in addition to serving as a producer.
“When you spend eight months of a year on a project and devote so much of your time trying to make the show as good as you possibly can, it feels natural to want to contribute in other ways,” Highmore says. “I’ve enjoyed being involved on different levels and getting to write and direct as well as produce. It’s exciting to be able to have the chance to influence something of the wider process and also getting to learn from David Shore.”
Highmore wrote the opener of season two and directed the 15th episode. He says that, for his colleagues, there is an easy way to tell where Freddie the actor ends and Freddie the director starts – he changes accents.
“Apparently I direct in a British accent,” laughs the Londoner, who interrupted his Hollywood career to do a degree at Cambridge University. “Normally when I’m on set, I try and stay in an American accent as much as possible. But the British one comes to me naturally when I’m directing.”
Highmore has spent much of the past eight years in Vancouver – the filming location for both Bates Motel and The Good Doctor – and is already preparing for more time in a city he regards as his second home after a third season of the latter drama was commissioned before the second had even finished airing. Season three is due to launch next week.
“A lot of the crew on The Good Doctor also worked with me on Bates Motel, so I have shorthand with them,” he says. “And because the cast is supportive and we have got to know each other so well after an intense few months, I know they all want me to succeed, and that really helps me. I feel very grounded in Vancouver because I know it so well.”
Highmore admits he can’t reveal much about what will happen in the third season, not least because he and the fellow writers are yet to sit down and discuss it. As well as working with a team of researchers to come up with interesting medical stories for Shaun and his colleagues to solve, the production can also look to David Renault, one of the team’s writers and a former doctor, to ensure the medical and the personal merge just as they would in real life.
“As with all good dramas that have a story of the week, the balance is about finding an interesting and dramatic plot that will reflect more widely on the characters people like,” says Highmore. “This means you can investigate your characters on a deeper, higher-stakes level, but it’s important that doesn’t feel gratuitous or forced. Because it’s in a medical setting, where so much of it is about life and death, you are pushing people – the patients and the surgeons – to the extremes of what humans are pushed to. Because it’s happening on a daily basis, that makes for an interesting exploration of character.”
While it will be more of the same in season three – Shaun and his fellow surgeons battling difficult medical problems while navigating their often-problematic personal lives – viewers are gradually learning more about Shaun. For Highmore, the character’s quiet and gradual evolution is one of the highlights of making the show, partly because it’s in contrast to the madness happening around him.
“What I love about the show is that while Shaun necessarily evolves and changes as an individual, that is not done in a melodramatic way,” the actor adds. “We end season two on an emotional high; Shaun is happy because he has asked someone out and she has said yes. It reminds us that the interesting, happy, fun, joyful moments in life aren’t necessarily the extreme ones you can get in the life-and-death situations of surgery but, ultimately, in the small wins we all experience.”