The Golden Globe-nominated English actor, 25, sounds just like he does on TV over the phone — gentle and unassuming. There is never any hint of impatience or superiority. It's work but even so he is kind. He softly fends off the PR, who was understandably rushing the interview. From Vancouver, Highmore tells us how his hit series The Good Doctor helped to demystify autism, and how he manages to stay grounded while navigating the fame game.
8 DAYS: On The Good Doctor, you play Shaun Murphy, a surgeon with autism and savant syndrome. The show is based on a Korean drama of the same name. How familiar are you with the original show?
FREDDIE HIGHMORE: The pilot of The Good Doctor is very similar to the Korean series, in terms of introducing Shaun and setting up his backstory. But from the second episode onwards, showrunner David Shore took the show in a new direction — it becomes its own show. I think this may be because Korean shows typically run for only one season, while we're hoping our version will be told over many years. So that requires a different approach to the storytelling. In terms of romance, [we’re following the Korean series]. Shaun is full of emotions in spite of his autism. Part of what we will see in the first season is him falling in love, what that means to him, and how he has a different preconception of love.
The Good Doctor is one of this year’s breakout hits in the US. Did you know you had a hit in your hands when you were working on it?
We were all excited about the show from the beginning. We felt that it was a unique story that hadn't been done before, with a fascinating character at the centre of it. But at the same time I don't think any of us were expecting the level of success the show has achieved so far in terms of [the viewer reactions from] around the world. We're all incredibly lucky to be part of it. It's funny because we filmed in Vancouver and so we lived in a bubble. We're making these small intimate stories on a daily basis, within the confines of a small hospital set. And so we were removed from the responses in America and elsewhere around the world.
What do you hope this show will do for people with autism?
It's important to understand that Shaun can't represent everyone [with autism] on the spectrum. It's a double-edged sword when answering this question. A good thing is that the show can help people [better understand] autism. But to gain a deeper understanding of autism, the show can't possibly do that. Also, I think Shaun hopefully speaks to all people who feel different, are made to feel different, or have been discriminated against, because of their condition.
You accepted The Good Doctor just three days after you wrapped Bates Motel. Both Norman Bates and Shaun Murphy are psychologically complex characters. Is that why you are drawn to them?
When I read the script, sometimes the character just jumps off the page and I can hear them speak. And then I think about what I can bring to the part and what excites me. That's what happens for me when choosing any role.
Why didn’t you take a break?
I went to some hockey game in Vancouver. I love getting into the hockey out here in Canada. I’m also a big soccer fan. So whenever I'm in London, I try to watch Arsenal play as much as possible as I have season tickets. It was certainly a short period of time between Bates Motel and The Good Doctor but more than anything I feel incredibly lucky and honoured to be doing what I’m doing. It’s a great responsibility to play Shaun and it's inspiring to do that. I'm not quite sure what I'll do if I just sat around for a few months. I’d get itchy feet (chuckles).
Is American TV something you'll continue to do?
Yes! Hopefully with The Good Doctor (chuckles). But in general what I really love about TV is the chance to delve really deeply into the characters and stories, as supposed to a film, where you may only have weeks to work on something and that's it. I love the chance to develop the nuances, and bring out what makes each character tick. There's nothing forced about the end product because the process over the long period of filming is organic.
You’re a former child actor who transitioned smoothly to adulthood. What’s your secret?
I never wanted to become an actor when I was a child, and it was never a thing I needed to do to feel fulfilled. Going to [Cambridge University] certainly helped because it kept me grounded. And, of course, my family too. Living in London, away from Hollywood, definitely helps.
You received a double first in Spanish and Arabic. Why the interest in languages?
I guess languages are the gateway to cultures. It's not really about the linguistic technicalities that I am interested in, but the idea of travelling and speaking to as many people as I can. There’s something thrilling about that.
The Good Doctor airs Fri, FoxLife (Singtel TV Ch 301 & StarHub TV Ch 501), 10pm. It also streams on Fox+.
Photos: FoxLife, TPG News/Click Photos.