'The Good Doctor' Star Nicholas Gonzalez on Why the Show Is Connecting With Viewers (Exclusive)

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ABC

One month into its freshman season, The Good Doctor’s prognosis is good. 

Based on the Korean series of the same name, the one-hour drama centers on Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a young genius surgeon with autism and savant syndrome -- whose brother tragically died when he was young -- who joins the prestigious surgical department at the San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital. Since its Sept. 25 debut, The Good Doctor is averaging more than 18 million viewers with DVR, making it the top new broadcast series so far this season.

“It’s appointment TV. People are watching it live with family members and in overwhelming numbers. I don’t think I could have imagined a better outcome, not just for pure ratings,” The Good Doctor star Nicholas Gonzalez, who plays hotshot surgeon Dr. Neil Melendez, tells ET. “We’re storytellers. We want to affect people. We want to tell other people’s stories that others might not here. I think that’s what this show does, not only with its diversity and dealing with characters that are outside of neuro-normative ideals. It’s just so much more than I could have hoped for the show.”

Ahead of Monday’s new episode, Gonzalez jumped on the phone with ET to discuss the show’s early success (ABC officially ordered a full season earlier this month), why it’s clicking with viewers and what’s coming up.

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ET: Why is The Good Doctor connecting with audiences?

Nicholas Gonzalez: Autism hits so many people. This isn’t a side character. This isn’t comic relief, where we bring someone in and tease their malady. This is a very heartfelt, very honest portrayal of one person who happens to be on the spectrum -- not trying to represent everybody in any way -- but a very beautiful, respectful representation. I think people are curious and, at the same time, it’s very important just the same way it is for minority children, diverse races to see themselves represented on TV. It’s been overwhelming to watch that response from people who are autistic who have reached out and shared why the show is so important to them and how they gain strength from it. There’s a young lady with autism who is studying to become a veterinarian and she’s like, “I’m Dr. Shaun Murphy. That’s me!” And that’s beautiful.

Your character, Dr. Melendez, doesn’t exactly welcome Shaun into the hospital with open arms.

You have to understand what Melendez’s job is. He is the attending and his job is to reduce the unmeasurable, the unknown and eradicate that as much as he can from his surgeries. To him and to many people around him, Shaun represents that unknown. He doesn’t know what he’s capable of. He doesn’t know what he’s been through. He doesn’t have the luxury of watching flashbacks like the audience does and get an insight into his life and know what he’s about. All he sees is someone who’s unpredictable and he needs a very predictable environment. Until he learns what [Shaun]’s capable of, he has to concentrate on being a good teacher and that’s something he has to learn too -- how to teach someone who sees things differently. That’s a tough task. Melendez comes from a place of love, which may be hard for people to understand. When you really look at what his job is, it’s really sobering why he’s a little bit the way he is. That being said, as he gets to know Dr. Murphy, they’re going to make mistakes together and they’re going to have triumphs together.

What will it take for Melendez to respect Shaun on a professional level?

He’s got to prove himself, just like every other resident. He has things working against him and he has advantages. Everybody doesn’t come with a video reel that Melendez can watch and get an insight into his life in flashbacks that tug at the heartstrings. There’s a line that comes later in the show, but I’ll paraphrase it, at one point when Melendez is asked about Shaun, he says, “Look, my concern is with the person whose guts are open in front of me on the table, not the soul of the man standing in front of me.” There are no ulterior motives. He’s not a bad person or wants to be bad. He wants Shaun to be capable; he wants him to listen and he wants him to learn. He’s a tough taskmaster, but this is an occupation that you can’t afford mistakes.

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What you can tease about Melendez’s life outside of the hospital, specifically his relationship with hospital board member Jessica Preston?

The relationship that I really enjoy is the relationship between Melendez and his fiancee, Jessica Preston. There’s a lot going on there. There’s a lot of backstory there. There’s backstory between Jessica, Dr. Glassman [president of the hospital and Shaun’s mentor since he was a teenager] and Melendez. There’s a lot more for us to learn about their relationship, which, I think, is built on a lot of respect. Jessica’s very intelligent. She has a very calming energy, especially in the midst of all these debates, she always keeps her head, which is something Melendez is not always as great about. Jessica’s a nice mitigating force there. She’s able to stand up to him a man as strong as Melendez and get her views listened to. I’m interested to see more with that relationship. I love Beau Garrett in the role. I think she does an amazing job. She brings an energy that I don’t think a lot of other people would’ve done in this role, that is the real secret to why I’m interested in that relationship. They will be tested. Oh yeah.

What are you excited for fans to see?

I’m excited for every single [episode] as they come out. When we start reading the [scripts], I’m always like, this is incredible. The fetal surgery we did in the last episode, that blew me away -- the whole scope of it and the idea of it. I have a 7 and a half-month-old daughter and seeing that fetus and operating on it, all that together is a powerful image for me. They all cut to the quick. There are some cool surgeries coming up. There are some obscure things you’ve never heard of, as well as human stories of tragedy and trauma. 

How comfortable are you with the medical jargon?

My father’s a dermatologic surgeon, my brother’s a surgeon. I like to say I got it through osmosis. That part I feel like I sink into. The difficult part of it is you’re saying the lines while you’re doing a difficult surgery while there’s an emergency going on while there’s a whole hospital full of extras bustling in the background. You’ve got to be on. That’s the tough part because we’ve got a lot of script and a lot of show to shoot every week, so you don’t have the time to mess up a lot. That being said, I do. We have tough days where we can’t get the words out. My heart goes out to Antonia Thomas, who is English and not only is she doing it, she’s doing it in an American accent, which ain’t easy.

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How do you get through those long days when nothing seems to be clicking?

We always keep it light and fun. Freddie Highmore sets the tone as any lead should and he’s such an approachable and fun guy. For a guy who does beautiful, textured work, he still can step out [of his character]. A lot of really good actors are able to go straight from life to their work. They don’t treat it as something that’s an unattainable, weird thing that they have to aspire to and reach for in a scene. It’s life [and] that’s what we’re portraying onscreen. Freddie is very approachable -- laughing one second, then slips into character the next.

Daniel Dae Kim is a producer on the show. Are you and the cast desperately trying to get him on the show for a cameo?

Not only is he a consummate actor, but look at that face! It would be great. We would be honored. I know he’s busy shooting Hellboy and concentrating on his producing duties, he’s selling us worldwide. But oh god, I know I speak for everyone on the production, we’d welcome with open arms. I can see him coming in and being a badass surgeon. 

He’d be giving you a run for your money in the looks department though.

(Laughs.) I’m fine with that.

The Good Doctor airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.

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