Freddie Highmore (‘The Good Doctor’) talks autistic character and excellent ratings with SAG Awards voters [EXCLUSIVE PODCAST]

Freddie Highmore made a daring choice when he decided to star in another drama series just weeks after “Bates Motel” ended its run. It turned out to be a great decision, because “The Good Doctor” is bringing in excellent ratings for ABC and some of the best reviews of any new series for this TV season. On the program Highmore stars as Shaun Murphy, a surgeon just out of medical school with autism and Savant syndrome who is controversially hired to join the staff of a prestigious hospital.

Listen to our exclusive podcast below as Gold Derby moderates a recent event where Highmore addresses a packed audience of Screen Actors Guild voters. Both he and the show could be strong contenders at the 2018 SAG Awards and Golden Globes. A full transcript of this 35-minute Q&A session is featured below.


Gold Derby: Once again I’m Chris Beachum with Gold Derby. Did the episode run and then it started again?

GD: Since we’re in the Chaplin Theatre that was the silent version.

(audience laughs)

GD: I don’t wanna talk too long. Let’s welcome the star and one of the producers of “The Good Doctor,” Freddie Highmore.

(audience applauds)

Freddie Highmore: So you did get to see the whole thing. Can you hear me?

FH: Hello?

FH: So you did get to see?

Audience: Yes.

FH: Not just the silent version. I was watching in the back like “what’s at the end?” but maybe it’s just they’ve truncated it down.

GD: There’s a different version where you don’t get hired.

FH: In case things had gone really badly and they didn’t like me at all and been like that was the alternate version that we shot.

GD: Can you hear us okay?

Audience: Yeah.

GD: Well let’s talk a little bit. You came off of “Bates Motel” and-

(audience applauds)

GD: You did something that a lot people would do and that’s, say, three days later you sign on for another drama series as the lead. I’ve always heard people say being the lead on a drama series as an actor is one of the tougher assignments because just so many days of shooting and so many days that they need you to be shooting and not necessarily the supporting. Is that true?

FH: Yes. It was pretty quickly after the end of “Bates,” as you said. Yeah, it was three days after wrapping and I went, came down to L.A. and met with David Shore and I guess your first reaction is “Oh of course this is… nothing that brilliant can follow something else that I love so much so quickly afterwards,” and so you think there must be some trick to it or it’s not gonna be as good as the script seems like it’s gonna be or David’s gonna be horrible. But no, David Shore was wonderful we had a great chat, and with Seth Gordon as well, he directed the pilot and it kinda went on from there. I guess I couldn’t have been luckier really that it happened so quickly. I think that was my feeling behind wanting to do more television was well there’s not need to rush into it, but then yes when something comes along I think it was recognizing that thankfully and then going for it. And being back in Vancouver again for the pilot which was… I just got back to London and all my friends were like, “Oh great you’re finally home,” I was like, “Well I’m actually going back to Vancouver again in a couple of weeks but I’ll be back at some point.”

GD: I know they’re not really similar but I was thinking about a couple of ways. You are Norman Bates, Shaun Murphy, how are they similar from an acting standpoint?

FH: I guess the face is the same.

(audience laughs)

GD: Both quiet. They’re both quiet.

FH: They’re both quiet. It’s funny, I haven’t really ever considered them to be that similar. But maybe you all think otherwise and Shaun’s gonna start killing people by the end of Episode 3 on purpose. He’ll be prying them with the wrong drug. But unless I’ve caught the wrong gist of the show I don’t think that’s happening.

GD: David Shore produced, created one of the best medical shows of this century, “House.” Did that play into your decision to want to work with him on this medical drama?

FH: Yes. I mean of course he’s wonderful. The script was great and the character was so fascinating. And it also meant a lot to me that he wanted to do it. Erin, who’s his development person at the production company he has at Sony always tells this story of how she watched the Korean version of the show and thought it was really brilliant and said to David it’s something we have to do and here’s a list of writers and David wasn’t on the list. And he said “Well what about me? Can’t I do it?” And she was like, “I didn’t think you wanted to do another medical drama.” But it says a lot that he did want to and that he was personally invested in the story and truly cared enough about it to make him want to do another medical show after “House.”

GD: Your character is autistic and a genius, a savant. What kind of research, what kind of work did you do to get ready to play him?

FH: Yes, there’s people that I know personally who have autism, I guess, weren’t a form a research as such, but made me aware of the condition in a personal way before the show. And then documentaries and literature and we’ve got an autism consultant who’s there full-time on the show in all aspects of production and was really present during the pilot too. All of those things I guess contributed into making Shaun and making the portrayal as authentic as possible in terms of him having autism. But I think something David and I discussed from the very beginning was that he’s never going to be able to represent all people with autism and nor should he in the same way that a neurotypical character in the lead of the show is never going to represent everyone who’s neurotypical in the world. It shouldn’t be expected of Shaun with regard to people who have autism. And I really like, too, the way that the fact that he has autism is a central part of the pilot in particular but it isn’t dealt with in a… he’s not a stereotypical character. He’s not emotionless in the way people with autism seem to have been represented on television in the past. And we see what makes him laugh as the show goes on. The fifth one airs tomorrow when we see more of him falling in love and what makes him laugh what makes him tick, the things that make him a fully-rounded individual and it’s sort of odd needing to say that but I think it is wonderful that he becomes his own person in his own right and moves past purely being labeled as a character with autism. You find out his idiosyncrasies and what that is.

GD: The scene in the pilot at the end where they ask you why you wanna be a doctor, why you wanna be a surgeon, that’s a very powerful scene. Can you just talk about when you first saw that particular part of that script?

FH: Yes. I like that moment in the pilot because it’s Shaun, it’s the first time we’ve really seen him try to express himself and that’s a balancing act, I guess, throughout the show is this character who is in many ways very internal and doesn’t always give out a lot or share how he’s feeling in a way that most of us are able to identify with and so I think moments like that at the end of the pilot are so key to get an insight into who he really is.

GD: By the way be thinking of questions ‘cause we’re gonna throw it all to you for most of this Q&A session. You’ve worked with a lot of great actors in your career. Richard Schiff, I’m sure you all enjoyed Richard Schiff in this pilot, Emmy winner from “The West Wing,” been in a lot of shows and movies. What is he like to work with? How is he different than others maybe you’ve worked with?

FH: I love his dry, wry sense of humor.

GD: He doesn’t mince words.

FH: (Laughs) No. But he brings so much to the part and I think that’s a sign of a … it’s always the actors who are those who I most admire, I guess, and those that do more than what may be there on paper and Richard certainly brings a huge amount to the show in the way and he cares a lot and I think that’s what was so nice about getting to work on this with David and Richard and the other actors and the crew in Vancouver was that there’s this, similar to what we had on “Bates Motel,” a real desire to be making the best show possible and people care about the subject matter. They care about Shaun and these stories and it’s not just a day job where you go in and turn off and go home at the end of the day and forget what you’ve done on set.

GD: As not just an actor on the show but also a producer you must be following the ratings each week as it improves even more on ABC. It’s been a big smash hit. What are your feelings about that?

FH: Well I guess it’s lovely that people watch it.

(audience laughs)

FH: Thank you.

GD: As I’ve looked at them, it’s across all age groups. My mother just last night without even knowing I was coming here today we were talking on the phone and she said something about — she knows I watch a lot of movies and TV for my job — and she said have you seen “The Good Doctor” yet? I said “Well yes as a matter of fact I’ve seen all of them. And I’m gonna be talking to Freddie tomorrow.” So her age group down to little kids I think are enjoying this and that’s a credit to all of you.

FH: Yeah it’s great and I think we’re all appreciative and it’s funny being in Vancouver you feel like you’re in some ways making this little show because the stories are, they’re big stories and they’re meaningful stories but they’re character-driven stories and it feels like our little hospital set and we kind of go through the day and do some scenes and do them to the best of our ability and we’re slightly tucked away from the madness elsewhere which I don’t mind too much. But it means you’re just sort of focused on the job and you realize oh the show is actually airing. People are watching it.

GD: We’ve got a lot of actors here, Screen Actors Guild members. You’re a two-time Screen Actors Guild Awards nominee. For “Finding Neverland” he was nominated for his performance, nominated as part of the ensemble as well. I remember you coming on, they have the ensemble members come on stage to introduce the clip and you came out and did that. How old were you for “Finding Neverland?

FH: I think I was nine. Nine or 10. So I didn’t remember meeting Chris supposedly yet back then so I apologize.

GD: Red carpets I don’t expect you to remember, they’re so crazy. What’s your favorite memory from being at the SAG Awards as a nominee?

FH: The suit was very stiff, I remember.

(audience laughs)

FH: It was a long time ago. I guess 15 years?

GD: Another lifetime ago for you.

FH: Exactly. But I have fond memories from those times and certainly from making it.

GD: You’ve worked with Johnny Depp multiple times I really am expecting you, especially as a producer to bring him on as a guest patient this year.

(audience laughs)

GD: He works for Disney a lot.

FH: Well there you go, so it’s a done deal already. People have been saying Vera Farmiga needs to come on as well but I feel like that would be too distracting, Mother shows up.

(audience laughs)

GD: It’s an extension of that show as a surprise.

FH: Yeah, exactly.

GD: We’ll throw it to questions from you in just a moment, I think one more question from me, speaking of, you’ve done something I think very few people have ever done and we can all name them almost, there’s so few of them, and that is be a really successful child actor and then become a really successful adult actor, it doesn’t happen often. What would you tell if somebody’s in the audience that has a child in that situation or friend in that’s in that situation, how do you make that transition?

FH: I feel like I’ve been lucky in terms of my own transition from my personal experience. I think it was useful that I wasn’t in L.A. as a kid. You became your own person and you weren’t defined as an actor which is what I would fear for those kids doing it in L.A. today that that’s who you are and from a very early age it’s acting and that’s it, so in that way I feel fortunate with my upbringing and being in London and going to university and taking a bit of time away from acting and then coming back to it as a choice as opposed to something that… not that it was ever something I was forced into doing but as a kid you don’t necessarily want to make decision of what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life. And so I think those years are all so important in terms of helping me realize it was something I wanted to do as an adult as opposed to ending up in however many years time thinking “Oh did I really choose that this was the thing I wanted to do? How come I’m here, I could’ve done something else.”

GD: So university and having other things in your life other than acting no matter where somebody lives you think that helps a lot.

FH: Yes, and I think also it’s something that you’re going to draw on as an actor. I think if you grow up as a kid and all your experiences are on a film set and with adults it must be very hard to become an adult one day and then try and relate to these other characters, these new characters that you’re playing without any sense of similar life experience to something that they’ve had, whatever they’ve gone through.

GD: What questions do we have I think we have microphones ready to come around. Right here on the second row?

Audience Member: Hi, how’s it going? Great show by the way, love it. To kind of piggyback on the last question, what do you think is your key to success with so much great material you’ve had over the years? Everything you’ve done has been pretty phenomenal, has a lot of heart to it. What would you think the key to success for that was?

I do think that luck plays a big part of it. I think I’ve always tried to make the most of opportunities as well when they come and put everything into it instead of going into something half-heartedly. Especially with this character I guess I felt that you have to be bold you have to make choices. It’s difficult when it’s just some sides and you don’t really have an idea of who the character is and so there’s a tendency to Richard calls it, all of us have done, of playing it safe or playing a version of it that may appeal to various different versions of whatever character someone else in some room somewhere has in mind. But I think you have to make choices and go with them and sometimes they will work and something they won’t but I don’t know. I’ve sort of have that feeling a lot with Shaun that you can’t sit on the fence. You have to kind of decide who he is and what he’s going to be like and make it believable and believe it yourself as opposed to trying to sit back and hope that no one will notice (laughs).

Audience Member: I just have a question for you. So, what do you find physically or mentally the biggest challenge in playing an autistic person? I imagine at the end of the day you’ve gotta be mentally exhausted to some degree?

FH: With all characters, with Norman, with Shaun you find yourself drained a little bit at the end of every day because you’ve put things into it. Not to avoid your question but I think it’s also been interesting for the other actors in the show… because Shaun, he views the world differently. He lives internally for lots of the scenes and so I can imagine that’s very hard for other actors to engage with and of course there’s stuff to play off but it’s very new for all of us, I guess, to do a scene in which Shaun and maybe the best example isn’t even in the pilot but is thinking about something else … completely different idea than what the scene may be about for someone else’s point of view and so there’s moments of connections that you often search for in a scene. You have to kind of reevaluate it and process it from a different point of view.

GD: Over on that side I think somebody?

Audience Member: I don’t know if you’ve answered this question or not but the whole time I was watching this I kept wondering it is possible that a person could really be like your character or is this just some science fiction?

FH: Sure, I think there’s two facets to Shaun’s personality, the fact that he has autism and the fact that he also has savant syndrome and one doesn’t necessarily imply the other. But there certainly are people like Shaun. Yes, so I definitely don’t think he’s a work of science fiction but of course as we were saying earlier, he doesn’t represent everyone on the spectrum.

Audience Member: But there are people that actually can be like your character.

FH: Yeah and even thinking in… Temple Grandin, for example, I think is a reference point for many people with autism and she has a very visual mind that lots of people, the savant side to her is foreign to many people who have autism. But she was useful to me through various books of hers that I read and developed in trying to understand that visual side to Shaun’s mind we see through the pop-ups on the shows and there’s Shore-visions, I guess, as we’ve come to call them where we try and get inside his head and figure out what he’s seeing and what he’s relating to and how he’s experiencing the world differently, which is sort of Temple Grandin’s phrase that I’m borrowing, that idea of thinking differently.

GD: Another one on that side.

Audience Member: Congratulations first of all, very detailed and heartfelt performance. I was just curious as a producer how involved you were in casting the rest of the show and if you were if you could talk a little bit about putting together an ensemble of series regulars and what you were looking for. How do you take very limited information of a couple auditions and extrapolate someone who you think can carry an entire season?

FH: In terms of the casting on the show I wasn’t really involved at all, certainly not in the pilot stage because I think Antonia [Thomas] was actually cast before I was in the sort of madness of pilot season which I hadn’t been really experienced before in quite the same way, such a mad rush. So in that way I guess I can’t speak to how the show was put together but I think they did a wonderful job and I always felt like it was lucky I was British with this whole process because David Shore had obviously had such success with another Brit on a different show. I remember him saying I’ve had good success with Brits.

GD: Now that’s the patient we wanna see on your show.

FH: Exactly. Obviously Antonia and Chuku [Modu] are also British so we’ve got a nice British contingent up in Vancouver.

GD: Right in the back in the middle.

Audience Member: Hi, looking back at your pilot, if you were given more time to prepare for your role and develop your character would you do anything differently?

FH: No, I don’t think so because, and it sort of goes back to an earlier question about, I guess, the way I’ve always worked and what keeps me happy or satisfied is knowing that you put everything into every single day and every single scene and giving a huge importance to everything that you’re doing so that you can always look back and say, “Well I did my best.” If people love it or people hate it there’s no real sense of regret because you knew that you did all that you could. And so in that way I feel satisfied, not that I go around patting myself on the back, but I don’t ever really look back and think “Oh I wish I’d done this differently or that differently” because I did the best that I could at that time.

GD: Right over here.

Audience Member: Yes, I just want to thank you for the wonderful show that you show us and only to tell you that I got all the ingredients that I need when I sit in front of the TV, which one is evolution or revolution and no. 3 it has what you call the observation and education that we need sometimes when we sit in front of the TV so I really am very excited about the show.

FH: Thank you.

(audience applauds)

GD: Right down front.

Audience Member: Just a quick question. Well I’m a foreigner so I was wondering how hard was it for you, how long did it take you to speak with a U.S. accent?

FH: Yeah, I guess it’s been something that I’ve been doing for awhile. I think with Shaun it was the idea of coming up with a different voice that wasn’t just his accent I guess it’s true for every character but maybe it becomes more obvious with certain ones and in some ways I feel that makes it easier to do an accent successfully when it becomes a part of a character as opposed to you trying to convert your normal way of speaking into an American way. So it’s not purely changing your way you say your vowels or getting rid of intrusive “Rs” or whatever the phrases are but it’s also about different cadences and different rhythms and that’s what was exciting with Shaun. But I also try and stay in the accent as much as possible when filming so it’s been odd yesterday and today being in L.A. and sort of needing to speak in my normal accent again. You find that you’re kind of reverting how you, like, “Is this how I speak? I don’t really know anymore. So who knows what this is. I think it is a version that’s closer to me than Shaun is,” but yes I try and stay in that accent as much as possible so that it becomes somewhat second nature as opposed to doing a scene thinking, “Oh I wonder how this sounds or what sound will come out.”

GD: I think right over on this side?

Audience Member: Hey, how’s it going man? I had a question kind of based on how you go about, you said that you leave everything out there and every scene you make sure that you do the best you can do so that you never have to feel like any regrets or I wish I would’ve done this differently. Knowing that with this role you’re kinda, I feel like, just hearing that there were so many different age ranges that were pulled to it, so not necessarily representing the autistic community but maybe even just people who feel like underdogs or they haven’t been given a fighting chance like your character seems to be getting in the beginning. Is that ever something that you put into your roles trying to make sure that in this element, I guess, you come out victorious with each one of your roles whether it be how you take your losses, ‘cause interacting with your kid brother I was like “Oh this brother’s gonna die” but I saw the way that you were handling it so is that something that you hope people get from this?

FH: Yeah, absolutely it’s a great point it’s something that we’ve all kind of discussed from the very beginning with this show in terms of, to what extent people will be able to identify with Dr. Shaun Murphy and realize that of course it’s not just people with autism who have been able to identify with him but everyone who has felt somewhat different in life or feels like they haven’t been given their fair shot or has been discriminated against or prejudiced against and whatever it is that they have been somewhat dealt with as an outcast by society that hopefully they recognize some of themselves in Shaun and in his experiences.

GD: Okay over here on the right?

Audience Member: You said that you like to stay in your accent when you’re on set. Do you like to stay in character while you’re on set or do you kind of break a little and when you’re done with a day of shooting do you do anything to let that go or do you like to keep Shaun with you?

FH: I don’t carry the scalpel around at the end of the day.

(audience laughs)

FH: I think that would be a step too far if I got it out now. Just keeps me in character! But no, I guess not so much in character. I try and do a lot of preparation beforehand with the script and so you know when you’re going on set what big ideas of how the scene could be or booking ideas or once you get to know the set so well then you understand how the show’s being filmed. That side of it I guess you’re somewhat in character sitting at home making your notes on the script but even in between set-ups I wouldn’t say that I was entirely staying in character the whole time. I think it’s more to do with an emotional… staying on the same emotional track to what the scene is about. I’ve always found it very hard if there’s a sad, more heartbreaking scene to then be laughing with people take after take as we’re going back in and out of those emotions that’s always been tricky for me and so you just stay in that same emotional space but it doesn’t necessarily need to be through the character and likewise for more lighthearted moments it can be useful on set to have a nice lighthearted, playful atmosphere where people are working hard and obviously taking it professionally but there’s room for creating the set as maintaining a certain emotional space on set that replicates the scenes that are going on.

GD: Could you pass that mic?

Audience Member: I don’t have a question. I just have something that I want to share with you. I have a young man that’s in my life and he’s autistic and he’s 22 and he has this little stuffed animal called Yoshi and for years I’ve been saying he needs to take it away from him so that it can help him grow and mature and whenever you take it away from him he has those fits and just goes raging past to find it and I didn’t understand it until I saw pictures when you were left standing at the bus stop and you took out your knife and I just wanted to say I learned and I was so happy ‘cause now I know.

FH: Thank you very much.

(audience applauds)

Audience Member: At the beginning you said you went to the university. What did you study there?

FH: I studied Arabic and Spanish. It’s not really related to what I ended up doing at all. Maybe I’ll get to do a foreign language film of some sort. Yeah I did languages.

GD: Let’s take one more question ‘cause I know you all wanna meet Freddie at the reception in a couple minutes.

Audience Member: I was curious with regards to the choice, so you mentioned that there was a consultant that was sort of like an autism expert and then you obviously did your own research. In most portrayals of autism and in my personal experience with autistic people and in sort of the common literature there’s always been an aversion to touch and I was wondering if you could touch on that topic as far as whether that was a choice that you made ‘cause he seems relatively okay with other people touching him and it was something that while I was watching the show I’m thinking, Well it seems to me like he’s more like an Aspergers type than really autistic as far the spectrum goes” and whether that was in the writing, whether that was your choice or it was a decision made after the fact between you the consultant the director that kind of thing.

FH: Yeah I think it was a mixture of both being in the script and also a choice that you make on the day and what feels right. I think Shaun is not necessarily okay with touch but I don’t think it fills him with a huge sense of aversion that would lead him to lash out or be completely incapable of being touched. I think it’s more the lack of connection that he might get from someone who is touching him which is interesting ‘cause it’s explored in Episodes… the ones we were just doing which I think is the seventh and eighth one to come out… or the eighth or ninth one. I always get confused ‘cause 108 is the ninth episode to come out and the 100 is the pilot. But it’s also the idea of potentially internally he feels somewhat frozen, I feel, in the moment at the end of Act 1 or the end of the teaser when the parents of the boy who’s saved in the airport aren’t… he’s slightly frozen and caught between these two people who are hugging him and he has learned enough to know that the correct response in that situation can’t be to lash out and run away but I don’t think he’s necessarily enjoying that feeling.

GD: Well Freddie, you’ve got another big hit on your hands here.

FH: Thank you.

(audience applauds)

GD: And you’re just halfway through shooting the first season so you’ve got a long way to go. Thanks for coming and doing this today.

FH: Thank you very much.

Be sure to make your SAG predictions so that Hollywood insiders can see how their TV shows and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions until just before nominations are announced on December 13. And join in the fierce debate over the 2018 SAG Awards taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our TV forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.

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