Golden Globe nominee Freddie Highmore (‘The Good Doctor’): Shaun is ‘a good person who has a wonderful heart’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

After a long run on the cult hit “Bates Motel,” Freddie Highmore decided to skip a career break. He immediately jumped into another lead role, this time playing the young surgical resident with his first hospital assignment on “The Good Doctor” for ABC. His biggest physical challenge is that he is autistic savant with troubles relating to other people. Board members have concerns that his diagnosis will prove to be too great of a risk for the hospital liabilities and the patients themselves. And now Highmore has picked up his first career Golden Globe nominee on Monday for this role.

Watch our fascinating interview with Highmore above, hosted by Gold Derby’s Matt Noble and Tony Ruiz. And you can also read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby (Tony Ruiz): Freddie Highmore, “The Good Doctor” really has become just this huge breakout hit. What do you think is the reason why this show has just struck such a cord with viewers?

Freddie Highmore: I know, it’s funny, isn’t it? It’s funny ‘cause I’m here in Vancouver where we film and it feels somewhat like this little bubble that we shoot in, making these small… not small in a demeaning way but intimate personal stories and we go into our little hospital rooms and then as you say, it’s like, “Oh, I guess people are watching elsewhere outside of our cozy bubble that we’re working in.” But I guess it’s maybe the optimism of Shaun. That’s certainly what I like about him, his hopeful outlook on the world, the fact that he’s always trying to see the good in people. He’s not immediately judgmental. I don’t think he really recognizes or understands stereotypes and I think in the world that we live today where there’s a lot of trouble that we hear about on a daily basis, the idea of someone who is just a good person who has a wonderful heart and tries to do the right thing I think is someone people are drawn to.

Gold Derby (Matt Noble): And what was your experience with autism before being in this show, and how has playing Shaun Murphy maybe given you a new perspective or enhanced your perspective on autism?

FH: Yeah, I knew people personally before the show came along who have autism and I’m very close to people who do, but of course, as the phrase goes, when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And I think that’s important to remember with respect to Shaun, is constructing him as an individual. He can’t represent, nor should we try and make him represent everyone on the spectrum in the same way a neurotypical lead character of a show couldn’t possibly represent everyone who’s neurotypical. So in terms of research I guess beyond those personal connections that I had, it was trading pieces of literature and documentaries back and forth with David Shore and then working on his scripts, really, that so beautifully set up Shaun from the very beginning. And we have a specialist on board, too, who’s there in all aspects of production.

GD (Tony): And it’s interesting, you mention David Shore, and I think I had read that you said that you read this script three days after finishing “Bates Motel.” So was working with David Shore a draw with this particular script and what’s been that experience like with the two of you?

FH: Absolutely, I think his name is a draw and speaks for itself, but I think the reason that we clicked as we needed to so quickly three days after “Bates” was that we saw the show from the same perspective and he’s so focused on character, really, and on building those emotional arcs first, as opposed to the medical drama that obviously drives a lot of the plot but it doesn’t drive the emotional storylines from Shaun’s point of view throughout much of the season, and broader themes of how he’s adjusting to this new world that we see him in, this big city life that he’s never experienced before, how he’s gonna fall in love or the idea of him trying to assert some form of independence as time goes by, but not truly understanding, necessarily, how that can manifest itself for him. And yet David and I, I guess we often look at each other and we’ll forget that despite the hospital environment and the medical storylines that we’re working on a medical show. It doesn’t always feel like that and then you’re reminded with certain lines that you’ve gotta twist your mouth around. There is some medical jargon to deal with. But it never feels like the driving force of the show, in a funny way.

GD (Matt): “Bates Motel” was your first big lead in an American TV series. What’s it like starting another one, starting “The Good Doctor” after you’ve had “Bates Motel” under your belt?

FH: I guess there’s a level of confidence that you get, as with all professions or things that you get to do when you’ve done something for a certain period of time it gives you more confidence to go and do something else and you’ve learned something. I think the idea with Shaun is, because he’s a very specific character, you couldn’t really shy away or hide in the background or not make decisions, and that was exciting and perhaps daunting at the same time. But yes, “Bates” gives you a confidence, I guess, to go and to choose something and to actively go for a specific portrayal of a character.

GD (Tony): And along those lines, one of the things I think is so fascinating about Shaun is that he’s not made flawless. He has flaws and struggles. Was that really important that he not be, quote-unquote, just “good” to the point of being perfect?

FH: Yes, and I think it’s particularly important that we give them flaws because I think the stereotype that’s often put out there about someone with autism is first of all that they’re somehow emotionless or devoid of emotion or don’t experience as broad a range of emotions as neurotypical people do. But also along the lines of the savant syndrome side to Shaun that, as you say, that he’s somehow machine-like or knows everything and will never get anything wrong and is some kind of superhero, which we never wanted Shaun to be. So yes, and I think those flaws make him endearing, too, but it’s fun when you find out that his medical prowess is his greatest strength and at times his greatest weakness. He can be so focused on something to the point of not seeing another solution or another problem and gets wholly invested in something in ways that can be detrimental.

GD (Matt): One of the themes of the show touches on is this idea of mistakes, and how Shaun makes mistakes but so does everyone, although sometimes with Shaun, it’s very easy for people to blame the autism when he makes the mistake and sort of takes away his credibility of being a doctor, where other people, their mistakes are more easily excused. How do you strike the balance with making Shaun different than everyone else but also touching on the universality of Shaun?

FH: I think that’s a good point. I think what’s interesting so far… we just finished the episode that will be the midseason finale, if that’s the right phrase (laughs), the 10th episode overall, which is one of my favorites. Everything kind of comes to a head, I guess. It’s a journey of self-discovery for Shaun and understanding where his weaknesses may lie. I think in many ways he’s probably sailed through a lot of the more technical or exam-related material in his younger years and despite difficulties with social interaction, for example, they haven’t quite been put to the test as much as the practical hospital environment requires. And as we’ll see in this last big episode, too, it’s him finding some form of independence and working at the person and the doctor that he wants to be and what he sees as important, his priorities and those things that maybe aren’t as important to him or he doesn’t see as being relevant, which may be shocking to others but from Shaun’s perspective is completely logical.

GD (Tony): And we’ve started to see in recent episodes some of that, including the episode that just aired last night, “Apple,” which was directed by your former co-star Nestor Carbonell. First of all, what was it like working with him as a director and just having that kind of “Bates” reunion?

FH: it was wonderful. It was great. Yeah, so he directed three episodes on “Bates Motel” and then sitting down before this season I said he would be brilliant to come in and direct an episode of this. So we had a great time and also because we’re in Vancouver I managed to kind of convince a lot of the same people who worked on “Bates Motel” to come and work on this show. So with Nestor around, as well as the DP that we have and the camera guys and the gaffer, it certainly felt like the family was reunited. He called me Norman a couple of times too (laughs). It’s like, “When Norman does… I mean when Shaun, sorry.” Our rivalry has been put to bed, though. We can finally work together as partners as opposed to enemies all through those years.

GD (Matt): And you directed an episode of “Bates” yourself, Freddie. Are you keen to direct some “Good Doctor”?

FH: I’d love to, yeah. The first season, I guess because of the requirements of the character and having never done 18 episodes of something before I kind of wanted to just focus on that, but absolutely I’d love to direct and write further down the line.

GD (Tony): Some of the most interesting, and to me the most dramatically interesting scenes on the show take place between you and Richard Schiff. What’s that relationship been like working with him?

FH: He’s great. He has such a dry, wry sense of humor that I think the British humor side of me identifies with and gets along with very well. And he brings so much to the scenes. He brings so much to the character, and it’s been really fun. There’s a big climactic scene that we’ve got together in this last midseason one that resets in some ways what that relationship is about between Shaun and Glassman. But Rich is great and alive and in the moment and always looking for new ways to play a scene. It never feels, even though we have so many scenes together just the two of us, they never feel repetitive because of what he continues to search for and new ways of solutions, if you like.

GD (Matt): Richard’s fantastic. What do you think of, Freddie, what’s been the most challenging thing for you in playing Shaun?

FH: The most challenging… I think, not to not answer your question by shifting it onto others but no, I will give you an answer, too. Shaun is very internal. A lot of what Shaun is thinking isn’t necessarily obvious to those who he’s interacting with. And so I guess I was going to say sometimes I feel it’s an adjustment for everyone when there’s a scene which Shaun’s a big part of that other actors aren’t necessarily getting what they may expect from another scene partner and it’s all of us as a group as opposed to me just purely as an individual who find those new ways of creating a scene and constructing it with a central character that is different from something we’ve experienced before, and that changes the whole group dynamic. So yes, I hope that they feel like they’re getting something from me, even if Shaun is very much in his head. Not that I’m not thinking those feelings or their emotion but it’s different and it must be odd for others to react to.

GD (Tony): And along those lines it seems like Shaun has that very specific cadence to his voice and when you combine that with the eyes and then you add the medical jargon, how do you prepare all of that? Do you just tackle it? Do you learn the lines using Shaun’s voice in your head or does that come later? Does the voice come later?

FH: It’s funny, the voice was something… I mean obviously through a combination of research but also just reading the script from the very beginning the cadences seem to be there in the way that David was writing it, with the logical way in which Shaun seems to think and therefore speak. It’s sort of odd now speaking in my British noble accent because I try to stay in the, if not Shaun’s specific voice, at least the American accent as much as possible so that it becomes somewhat second nature. But you’re right, it’s a different way of speaking and it’s always ultimately tying it up with the emotion that’s going on underneath. I think that’s the way that i always try to approach characters in general is, there are the external manifestations of whatever Shaun is going through at the time and the specific way in which he may hold his hands or speak, but the most important thing is getting in tune with what he’s thinking, with what’s going on in his mind.

GD (Matt): Can you think of a scene or a moment from the show where you’ve had to tap into an emotion or a express something of Shaun that’s been a bit difficult because it’s more stuff that’s going on in his head rather than the stuff that is happening outside?

FH: I think one of the really interesting episodes was Shaun when he meets a patient who also has autism and seeing how Shaun deals with that, and I think our expectation as an audience would probably be along the lines of Shaun would have an immediate connection, an immediate bond with this person. But I think what was interesting was that he didn’t. He didn’t recognized himself. It wasn’t until the very end, of course, with the arc of the episode but it was fighting against, perhaps, those usual instincts and thinking no, from Shaun’s point of view he’s looking at this person and thinks, “I’m nothing like them, I don’t see myself in them at all,” and whether that’s some form of self-denial from Shaun’s point of view or whether he just genuinely doesn’t see it is the interesting dynamic at the beginning of the episode. And I think those big moments of emotional connection on the show are often underplayed in the traditional sense because, like the moment where he says “You’re like me,” and has that big epiphany, I guess, of seeing himself and finding that connection finally, but those moments aren’t melodramatic. They’re not over the top, and nor should they be. That’s what’s interesting, too, when you see this big scene at the end that you know has to feel meaningful. At the same time it has to stay true to Shaun’s specific character.

GD (Tony): And it seems like that theme, we also saw that at the end of last night’s episode where he has that lovely scene with Lea, and he just says, “I made a mistake and someone got hurt,” and she hugs him. That relationship between you and her is really, really fascinating. What can we expect from that dynamic?

FH: There’s much more of that. Paige [Spara] is brilliant and I love those scenes together. But yes as you said, it’s the perfect example of where the entire episode really rests, from Shaun’s point of view in terms of the culmination of his arc and journey, in that final little scene that’s all about a hug. And so for me it feels like that’s what’s fun about the show, those subtleties those small little beats and little moments on which a lot of stuff seems to hang but that doesn’t necessarily need to be shoved down your face, down your throat, whatever the phrase is (laughs). But no, there’s a lot more to come with Shaun and Lea, and yeah, I think we’ll just continue to see how he falls for her, really, and how she brings out a different side to him than we may have seen otherwise and I think at the moment Shaun has been his most relaxed and his most easygoing at the hospital and he feels comfortable in that medical dynamic but I think there’ll be a point at which he feels similarly as comfortable with Lea.

GD (Matt): What do you think is the biggest thing Shaun has learned over the course of the season so far and what’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from your working on the show?

FH: For me, one of the things… and I’ve just finished this book called “NeuroTribes” which delineates the history of… it’s a pretty book so I’ve been reading it for awhile, the kind of history of autism and how perceptions of that have changed over time and that was fascinating to me as a learning experience. And I guess from Shaun, in some ways you realize, as with all your characters you realize your own limitations or the idea that he pushes himself beyond a point that is necessarily healthy and sometimes within this all-consuming world of making a television show, I have a similar tendency to want to throw myself into absolutely everything. And what was the first part of your question? I’m sorry, I got distracted by your “West Wing” thing on the side and was thinking “Oh, Richard Schiff is there with us!” (Laughs.) And how has Shaun changed?

GD (Matt): Yeah, how has Shaun changed? Or what’s he learned?

FH: I think he’s learned, on a basic level I think he’s learned how better to go about easy social conversation and learn the bed manner of being a doctor to some extent. He’s gone on that journey. And at the same time, I think the real question now as we get to the end of this part of the season is that of independence, of him realizing who he is, what he wants to be, and the friction between him and Glassman, who obviously wants only to protect Shaun and has Shaun’s best interests at heart, but from Shaun’s perspective, he doesn’t see it that way and so I think the tension between the two of them is building, I guess.

GD (Matt): Do you have a favorite Richard Schiff moment from “The West Wing,” Freddie?

FH: (Laughs.) Now I’ve put myself in it, haven’t I, by mentioning “The West Wing?” I’ve still to see the whole of “The West Wing” but I’ve promised Richard that I will catch up as soon as possible.

GD (Matt): That’s fine, it took him ages to finally watch the show ‘cause he doesn’t like to watch himself.

FH: Yeah, absolutely. He’s seen none of “The Good Doctor” and he won’t have seen any of this so he won’t know that I didn’t have a favorite Richard Schiff “West Wing” moment (laughs).

GD (Matt): (Laughs.) Do you have a favorite Richard Schiff “Good Doctor” moment?

FH: I do. I like the scene at the end of, I think it was a couple of episodes ago, where the two of them are watching television together in the store. He makes me laugh. He kind of cracks me up by doing so little. It’s that dryness. No, he’s fascinating. There’s always so much going on but I like the two of them chilling in the store, hoping that they can go to the Super Bowl one day (laughs).

GD (Matt): Or even just not have to watch it on the TVs in the store.

FH: Yeah, exactly.

GD (Tony): Well, Freddie Highmore, thank you so much for talking with us and congratulations on “The Good Doctor” and we look forward to talking with you again soon.

FH: Thank you very much.

GD (Matt): And all the best at the Golden Globes, Freddie, as well.

FH: Well you never know… yes. Thank you (laughs). No it’s lovely that people are recognizing the show and enjoying what we’re doing and I guess as I said at the beginning to bring us full circle, it’s funny doing these conversations because you feel like, “I’m just in this little world in Vancouver,” so it’s back to the American accent now and onwards.

GD (Tony): Fantastic, lovely to chat.

FH: Cheers.

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