On a Monday evening in early May, Freddie Highmore slips out of the Los Angeles-based writers’ room of The Good Doctor, where he’s been spending most of his hiatus. It’s the only time the baby-faced Brit, who plays the titular “good doctor” Shaun Murphy, can spare a few minutes to talk before jumping back into the thick of planning for the new season. “It’s funny to me that season two has already begun because it feels like season one just ended,” Highmore, 26, says in amazement when we connect over the phone.
Since the freshman season finished airing in March, Highmore has barely had time to decompress from the rigors of being No. 1 on the call sheet. He spent much of his down time on a “crazy, but fun” trip to Japan, Australia and New Zealand promoting The Good Doctor before going back to work. And if being the show’s star and producer wasn’t enough, Highmore is adding writing and directing duties to his list of responsibilities for the coming year.
“That’s what excites me,” Highmore says with a childlike exuberance. Staying consistently busy, he goes on to explain, is the fuel that feeds his creative fire. “I think when you’re on a project that’s as compelling as The Good Doctor is, it’s all-consuming and that’s a positive thing.”
On ABC’s popular medical drama, which is based on a 2013 South Korean series and was the top-rated freshman show of the 2017-18 season, Highmore adds warmth and a dose of sentimentality to Shaun, a promising up-and-coming surgical resident with autism and savant syndrome at the fictional San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital -- elements that would have been missing had another actor stepped into the character’s shoes. His affecting performance has since gained notice (the New York Times called Highmore’s portrayal “striking”) and snagged him a Golden Globe nomination -- his first, shockingly enough, in an already impressive career.
Highmore made his mark in Hollywood as a child star in family-friendly movies like Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but Bates Motel, A&E’s provocative Psycho prequel series in which he inhabited the part of a young, troubled Norman Bates for five seasons, quickly became his signature role. When the series ended last spring, wasn’t anticipating jumping into the demands of another television gig so quickly. The universe, it turns out, had other ideas.
“I didn’t feel any pressure to jump immediately back into TV and to finda new show. My initial thought was, It can’t quite be possible, I can’t have gotten this lucky, but I guess that was the reality,” Highmore says. It was his experience on Bates Motel -- where he made his TV writing and directorial debuts -- that led him to dive head-first into The Good Doctor without much of a break.
“Bates Motel gave me an awareness of the need to choose shows carefully and to play characters who deserve an increased amount of time spent with them,” says Highmore, who is still vying for his first Emmy nomination. “I think a character like Shaun is someone who works so well on television, and who needs 18 episodes a season in order to give them the attention and care when plotting out the character arcs that they deserve.”
In many ways, the character of Shaun was the palate cleanser Highmore didn’t know he needed at this point in his career. While Bates Motel was the first step in transitioning Highmore to risky, thought-provoking adult fare, the aspirational Good Doctor allowed him to flex his acting muscles in a more understated fashion and bring to life a subset of the population that’s often overlooked. Because of that, Highmore wanted to depict Shaun’s autism in a respectful and truthful manner, and show that the character isn’t wholly defined by it.
“In building Shaun as a character, it was important to see him as an individual in his own right and feel free to characterize him with traits that may not necessarily be rooted in the fact that he has autism,” Highmore elaborates, sharing that he and showrunner David Shore (House) read literature, watched documentaries and had dozens of conversations with the show’s consultants about the best avenue to go about doing so. “There’s a phrase that’s often said in the autism community: ‘When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.’”
Over the course of the first season, Shaun gradually showed signs of growth. He embarked on an innocent, but short-lived, romance with next-door neighbor Lea (Paige Spara, who will be a series regular in season two); sought his independence from mentor and surrogate father figure Dr. Richard Glassman; and struggled with Glassman’s devastating brain cancer diagnosis -- all personal highlights for Highmore. Still, there is a lot Shaun has left to learn.
“It’s not purely about Shaun adjusting to the rules and codes of society and this new environment that he finds himself in [at the hospital], it’s equally about us as an audience hopefully learning from Shaun and finding a new way of seeing the world,” Highmore says. “He of course struggles with social interactions, but he’s also extremely perceptive and makes us re-evaluate [how] you interact with people on a daily basis.”
With Highmore dipping his toe into every facet of the show, in front of and behind the camera, the actor’s ambition and workhorse mentality mirror Shaun’s -- whether he’s comfortable admitting it or not. “I don’t know if this is a negative or a positive,” Highmore confesses with a nervous chuckle, before taking a moment to self-diagnose his need to keep himself consumed. “There’s something exciting about being on a show where you want to contribute as much as you can, but I’m sure in other walks of life, that might be a deficit. I think Shaun has a similar way of approaching his work.”
Perhaps Highmore’s connection to Shaun goes much deeper than that. “He makes me a better person. His optimism and his hopefulness, I think, takes away some of the natural British cynicism that I have,” Highmore says, perfectly summing up why The Good Doctor has been received so warmly: “The hopeful optimism the show has resonates around the world, in that people everywhere are looking for someone likable to cheer on -- for a show and a character that reminds us that humans are essentially good. So far, so good.”