Vintage coat from James Veloria, New York. T-shirt by Helmut Lang Re-Edition. Trousers and shoes by A.P.C. Belt, stylist’s own.
After five seasons playing a pre-Psycho Norman Bates on A&E’s critically acclaimed Bates Motel, Freddie Highmore deserved a break. What he got was three days, just enough time to switch gears from a repeat murderer who begins to manifest his mother’s personality after he kills her to Dr. Shaun Murphy, a surgical resident with autism and savant syndrome on The Good Doctor, the ABC medical drama which became the television season’s most-watched drama after it premiered last September. The turnaround was, Highmore admits, rather abrupt, although he says he had always expected to find his way back to television eventually, if perhaps not so quickly. “I mean, not within the week,” he laughs. “I don’t think it could have been part of the plan. Your first reaction is questioning whether it could possibly be true, whether you’re so lucky that some great opportunity comes along so quickly after something else. I love working in television, I just wouldn’t have thought that the next thing that I wanted to do would have come along as quickly as it did.”
Now twenty-five, the British actor has found a new level recognition in a career that began nearly two decades ago, earning his first Golden Globe nomination for his turn as Shaun (he lost out on Sunday to Sterling K. Brown from NBC’s feel-good breakout hit of the year before, This Is Us) and praise for his nuanced and sensitive portrayal as one of network television’s first openly autistic characters. Given the focus on representation in culture today, the show took a major gamble in casting Highmore, who has neither autism nor savant syndrome, in the role, but the autism community’s response has been generally positive, especially as Shaun’s character has developed and expanded beyond his diagnosis. “It was important to recognize that Shaun has to become his own person,” Highmore says. “He’s an individual and he can’t ever possibly represent everyone who has autism in the same way a neurotypical lead character of a television show could never possibly represent everyone who’s neurotypical in the world. As much as the research was important, it was also important to think about Shaun and build him as a character in his own right and not purely define him through his autism and the savant syndrome that he also has.”
Developed by House’s David Shore, The Good Doctor is an adaptation of a 2013 Korean series that was a smash hit in its own right and was celebrated for putting an autistic character before a wide audience. Given the popularity of the American version, Highmore says that the cast and crew (he himself serves as a producer, continuing a behind-the-camera role he jumped into when he began writing and directing later episodes of Bates Motel) understand their responsibility in providing what may be for many viewers their first encounter with someone with autism, working with a full-time consultant to ensure accuracy. “Hopefully he is an introduction into a condition that people may not have been as aware of before,” he explains, “but merely acts as a starting point for further discussion and further research and further understanding of what the condition means.”
As the show returns from its winter hiatus this week, Shaun is dealing with both a blowout fight with his mentor at the hospital and a budding romance with a neighbor, plot twists that would not be out of place for any neurotypical character. The show’s forthright and honest portrayal of him is what elevates what is in other ways a somewhat conventional hospital series to something more. Highmore captures many of the physical behaviors typical to autism, from the avoidance of eye contact to his clasped hands and lilting speech, but emphasizes that the character has more depth to him. “It’s nice that the reception is and has been positive and it’s interesting now to see how Shaun has developed over time,” he says. “Of course he has autism and always will, but he is finding ways to learn to navigate this new world and he’s striving for some sort of independence. It’s wonderful to see him grow as a person and get to portray that whilst of course remembering that certain aspects of what makes him who he is will never change.”
As for the show’s explosive success, Highmore suggests that The Good Doctor offers comfort in complicated and dark times. ABC’s president Ben Sherwood has been quoted describing a newfound focus for the network on “not just appealing to both coasts,” and the series walks a careful middle ground. The cast, for example, is strikingly diverse—white lead characters are actually in the minority—but race is rarely an issue. Late last year, the show featured a smart depiction of the sometimes-confusing path from friendliness to sexual harassment but refused to allow a pat resolution. And Shaun, who is accomplished and, as many reviews have noted, “brilliant” both because and in spite of his diagnosis, is complicated and layered but ultimately approachable. “There’s an optimism to him and a positivity to him that are perhaps lacking at times today and in the world,” Highmore suggests. “He has a hopeful outlook and always tries to see the good in people and is deep down a good person who’s trying to do the right thing. It feels refreshingly optimistic and unabashedly so.”
It’s been a long path to Dr. Shaun Murphy for Highmore, who first came to attention early in the 2000s as a child actor opposite Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet in Finding Neverland and playing Charlie Bucket in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Raised in London to a mother who represented actors and a father who was formerly one himself, Highmore says he nevertheless never saw acting as the defining purpose of his childhood. He studied Arabic and Spanish at Cambridge and says he briefly considered becoming a lawyer after a part-time job at a law firm during his year abroad in Spain. “Maybe in another life or maybe in the future I’ll end up doing that,” he laughs. “I think in part what was important to me about going to university was so that acting as an adult would be an active decision and a choice that this is something I want to do as opposed to something I fell into by dint of just continuing on something that I did as a kid. Taking that break was important for me.”
Bates Motel cemented his return to the industry, offering him a dark role as a “quintessential antihero figure” that he sees as a stark contrast to Shaun. The series, billed as a “contemporary prequel” to Psycho (taking place before the events of the 1960 movie but set in the present day), centered on the twisted relationship between Norman and his mother Norma, played by Vera Farmiga. Bates Motel quickly became a cult hit and fans may be surprised that their perception of Norman doesn’t quite mesh with Highmore’s. “I love Norman and I think he’s very nice as a person,” he laughs. “He undeniably killed some people, which is unfortunate, and the argument is maybe best saved about whether or not it’s his fault. Who knows?”
The show always had a certain self-awareness about its dramatics, and Highmore says that his five years spent playing a killer were tempered by a certain levity on set. “It’s played very straight and very serious, but there’s a subtle joy that’s bubbling underneath lots of the scenes in small ways,” he explains. “Like Norman really loved being the manager and would touch his manager’s badge the whole time and try and be the boss. It’s heartbreaking, but there’s also a funny side, so I think it’s mining those moments of humor that keeps everyone sane and keeps a lightness to it and makes it more watchable and makes the show more interesting.”
At this rate, The Good Doctor looks set to run just as long as Bates Motel did, if not longer, which means it could be many years before Highmore has to go looking for his next big project. But, given his past experience, he seems ready to settled into a role for half a decade before moving on, as long as it’s the right one. “It’s a departure and a new character and something very different from what I’ve done before,” he says about Shaun. “I think that’s what you always want to do and that’s what drew me to Shaun, never wanting to repeat yourself and play the same character over and over again.”
The Good Doctor continues on Mondays on ABC.
Styling by Anna Santangelo. Grooming by Corey Tuttle at Honey Artists. Shot on location at Go Studios, New York.