In The Good Doctor, Freddie Highmore plays Shaun Murphy, a surgical resident with autism and savant syndrome. So, basically, he’s both a genius with diagnostic powers exceeding those of his superiors at the hospital he’s just started working at, and he lacks the social awareness to resist from saying exactly what he’s thinking, both to patients and to his fellow surgeons.
“You’re very arrogant,” he tells his attending surgeon the first time they work together. “Do you think that helps you be a good surgeon? Does it hurt you as a person? Is it worth it?” When told he shouldn’t have told a patient she had a malignant tumour, he asks, “Why? Her prognosis is terminal without immediate medical intervention. Isn’t that scary?”
Freddie Highmore, who you’ve probably seen in Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the Johnny Depp one) and Bates Motel, is no Shaun Murphy. When we meet in the closed bar of the Sofitel Hotel, he immediately strikes me as possibly the most polite person I’ve ever met. It’s not even the words he uses or ‘manners’, just the sound of his voice is polite. His accent is polite. His posture is polite.
After I talk to him, he’s got one more interview before his first time off in months and yet, as far as I could tell, there was nothing in the world he’d rather be doing. That’s how polite he is. Or how good of an actor he is. Or both. Probably both.
Henry Oliver: So, I’ve just been told that in an hour you’re on holiday?
Freddie Highmore: Yes, nearly!
Must feel good?
Yes, we sort of finished Thursday of not last week, but the week before in Vancouver. And then the next day I headed off to Tokyo and then to Sydney and then here. First time in all these places so it’s been quite the tour.
And you finished your last show [Bates Motel] three days before filming this one?
I know! It always seems to end up that way. That you finish something and then there’s another amazing opportunity to go onto.
So you’ve really been working for like, how long?
I had a little bit of a break between the pilot and then shooting the show itself. We did that in April of last year and then you don’t hear until May if you’re gonna be picked up or not. So, it’s been alright.
So it hasn’t felt like two years imprisoned in Vancouver?
I like it there. I don’t mind too much. Bates Motel was also filmed in Vancouver so, I’ve certainly been there for a long time.
Does it feel like a second home by now?
It does, yeah. And we’ve got a lot of the same crew, one of whom is actually a New Zealander: John Bartley our DP, who worked on all the seasons of Bates and has done the first season of The Good Doctor. A lot of the camera crew and the gaffer as well, so it’s nice to have that family from Bates kind of segue into The Good Doctor and keep that intact.
How did you go from one show to the other so quickly?
We finished filming in early February last year and that happened to be the time when pilot season was coming around. I was going to L.A. anyway, not for anything other than the sun, probably.
I was sent the script on the way down and then met with the director David Shore and it just seemed too good an opportunity to say no to. I wasn’t looking to jump straight into another TV show and it was just the conversation with David and the chance to play Shaun that persuaded me otherwise.
What was attractive about that character?
It felt like a character that hadn’t been shown before in quite the same way, certainly not in a leading role on TV. We had a great chat about not only the pilot itself but what he saw for the first season arc and onwards from that in terms of Shaun and his development.
I think when you’re looking for characters in TV you want to have these richer, more nuanced characters so you get an extended amount of time to get into depth with them. Norman was certainly that on Bates Motel and Shaun felt like that to me, but also entirely different. You don’t want to play the same thing again and again. So had he been a serial killer surgeon, it probably wouldn’t have been the thing for me.
Maybe he will turn into that in like season five when they run out of ideas and think, “Oh let’s just have him kill people.”
What sort of challenges did that character present, with the autism and Savant Syndrome?
The first thing that David and I did was share various pieces of literature or documentaries that we found useful, and discussed with a consultant that we had on the pilot and still have on the show to this day.
I think it’s important to remain aware of the fact that he can never represent everyone who’s on the spectrum. If you have a neurotypical lead character of a show, they’re never going to represent everyone who is neurotypical. The same goes for Shaun and the extent to which he could ever possibly represent people on the spectrum. So, I guess it was coming at building his character from two ways. One which was remaining true to the autism that he has, but at the same time feeling free to build him as his character in his own right with his own interests and idiosyncrasies that may not be necessarily linked to the fact that he’s got autism.
One of the things it does for him as a character in the show is it allows him to say things that a character in his position wouldn’t usually say, which seems like a fun thing to do for an actor. It’s a good truth-telling exercise.
I think he asks questions we’re too afraid to ask ourselves in the sort of neurotypically constructed society that we live in. Or, perhaps questions that we didn’t really think about before. He sees the world in a different way and thinks about things differently and it is, I think, refreshing to try and see the world from his point of view – and critique it.
And the premise of the show is that that makes him a good doctor.
But also, he tells people when they’re being a dick. And you don’t usually do that.
But there’s no judgment behind it. That’s what I like too. He’s not judgmental in being critical of people. I think he has a curiosity and a desire to try and learn more about this world that he’s thrown into. I think anyone, regardless of whether or not they have autism, would find the adjustment of going from a quiet country life and that secluded upbringing that he had, into this big city and this big hospital and adjusting to that for the first time. And learning the rules and codes of how one should behave.
There’s a really nice thing about the positivity in the show, isn’t there?
I think that’s what has made it connect with people in America and around the world. There’s so much negativity that you can get instantaneously when you turn on your TV, be it in the form of anti-heroes, other dramas – Bates Motel is one of them – or the news cycle and everything that we see on a daily basis. Switching the channel and watching someone like Shaun, who has a positive view on humanity and the direction of where humanity can be going, is lovely, I think.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You can watch Freddie on both The Good Doctor and Bates Motel:
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