What explains the raves for ABC’s The Good Doctor? The show’s positive outlook, says star Freddie Highmore, whose character — a surgical resident — has both autism and savant syndrome.
On a cold and drizzly day in Los Angeles, Freddie Highmore sits down at a table on the covered patio of Culina, a restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.
The weather reminds him of home — both London, where he was born and raised, and his temporary home of Vancouver, where he's working these days. He considers ordering a "London Fog" (Earl Grey tea with steamed milk and vanilla) but decides instead on a cup of English breakfast with lemon.
Sipping his tea, Highmore settles in to talk about the first season of The Good Doctor, the hit ABC drama that's now available on Hulu, too. He stars as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a surgical resident with both autism and savant syndrome — a combination that makes for a skilled diagnostician with an unfiltered and seemingly cold bedside manner.
Despite this, Murphy has a lot of heart, and so does the series, which has become the network's top-rated new drama and won an early renewal. To hear Highmore tell it, the appeal lies in Murphy's positivity. "He's a hopeful, optimistic character. He's not an antihero. And I think in a time when it's very easy to come by negativity on a daily basis — the moment you go online or turn on your television — someone who is the opposite of that is somewhat refreshing."
Highmore's performance — nominated this year for a Golden Globe — is an impressive juggling act. Take the scene in the mid-season premiere where, in addition to managing Murphy's American accent and extreme emotional restraint, Highmore portrays the young doctor as both drunk and falling in love for the first time.
It's a layered performance that he hopes will help shed some light. "One of the misconceptions people have is that those with autism are devoid of emotion — or don't experience as wide a breadth of emotion as neurotypical people do," he says, using a term for those who are not on the autistic spectrum. "I think it just manifests itself in a different way."
Series creator–executive producer David Shore — whose previous medical drama, House, ran for eight seasons on Fox — sums it up another way: "This is a part that is easy to do badly. It's a challenge to actually portray this character in a convincing, moving way. [Murphy] does not show his emotions the way we expect people to show their emotions; and yet, the emotions are there.
"Everything is there, but not necessarily at the surface," Shore adds. "Freddie found a way to convey that: with his eyes, and with his gestures."
The Good Doctor first hit Shore's radar when multiple people told him to watch Good Doctor, a 2013 series from South Korea. After screening the first episode, Shore says, he immediately got on the phone with Erin Gunn, who heads development at his Sony-based Shore Z Productions. Convinced they had to bring the show to an American audience, they soon met with actor Daniel Dae Kim (Lost, Hawaii Five-0), who had already acquired the rights to the series.
Shore discovered they had a kindred spirit, he says, "in terms of our attitudes toward this. We wanted to make the same show." Kim now serves as an executive producer, along with Shore, Gunn, Mike Listo, Seth Gordon, David Kim, Sebastian Lee and Thomas L. Moran.
Is The Good Doctor an adaptation? Shore says that while it owes a great debt to the source material, "We've gone a different direction in terms of our storylines" since the pilot. "But ultimately, it really is about the same thing: a young man who is trying to make the best of his abilities, and to have an impact on this world."
The pitch at ABC had its own impact. "If I recall correctly, I made them cry," Shore says. "I gave that little speech that Freddie as Dr. Murphy gives at the end [of the pilot]." Standing before a board of hospital executives, the young doctor delivers a stilted yet affecting account of two traumatic childhood events that inspired him to study medicine. Suffice it to say, the speech swayed the execs at ABC, and it does the same at the fictitious St. Bonaventure Hospital.
Highmore was also swayed by the script — only a few days after wrapping the fifth and final season of A&E's Bates Motel.
"I think my first reaction was, 'This somehow is not going to happen,'" he recalls. "It seems implausible that you would finish making a television show for five years and that very weekend you would somehow get this great script — but it ended up being the case," he says, shaking his head. "I sat down with David three days after dying as Norman.
"Then I got back to London, and people were saying how great it was that I was finally home and I said, 'Well, actually, in a couple of weeks….'"
Highmore soon began his preparation for the role, which included lengthy discussions about the character with Shore, trading pieces of literature, watching documentaries and meeting with autism specialist Melissa Reiner, a consultant on the series.
What they collectively agreed upon — and all make a point of saying during their interviews — is that Murphy is not meant to represent all people with autism. "We wanted to be really clear that this individual, Shaun Murphy, was this individual," Reiner says.
As Highmore explains, autism and savant syndrome are aspects of the character, as is his optimism. His behavior is not always rooted in his diagnosis; sometimes it's simply a quirk of the individual character. He refers to Murphy's backstory — an insular upbringing and rote memorization of medical textbooks — to explain the way he methodically recites answers.
The handling of Murphy's savant syndrome was a concern for all involved, because of the rarity of the diagnosis and its depiction. "We didn't want it to be a gimmick or be distracting," Shore says. "I think there was some worry that it was just going to be, 'He's autistic, but he knows everything!'"
The desire to remain truthful to the experience of those with autism meant getting the little things right. Reiner cites a scene in the pilot in which the script had Murphy using the word "and." She told Shore, "Shaun can't say the 'and,' because it links the two together, making it sort of correlating. He's connecting the thoughts in a way that he probably wouldn't."
That attention to detail is not lost on Richard Schiff (The West Wing), who plays Murphy's mentor and father figure, Dr. Aaron Glassman. Schiff's own son is autistic (though very unlike Murphy), and caring for him prepared Schiff for the role in many ways.
"Many autistic people have this inability to lie," he says, remarking on one similarity between his son and Murphy. "Because they tend to think in a very literal fashion. So that alone can be very disconcerting for some people in normal social situations, but very upsetting to patients in a hospital."
Schiff says he is grateful for the challenge of acting with someone portraying a person with autism. "If someone is not giving you the reaction that your character wants, that's a gift. I'm happy — very ecstatic, in fact — to work off an actor who is honest and present. And that's what Freddie is as an actor. He's able to play, in character, with things that I might change up on the day, which I like to do."
Though Highmore's parents were both in the entertainment business, he says he doesn't feel like he comes from a theatrical family. His mother, a talent agent whose client list includes Daniel Radcliffe, and his father, a former actor, didn't steer him toward performing. "If anything," he says, "my parents encouraged me to do the opposite, and made sure that I saw the value in going to school and university."
Heeding his parents' advice, he attended Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge, where he earned degrees in Spanish and Arabic. He spent a summer between seasons of Bates working at a law firm in Madrid, translating documents from Spanish to English.
Yet Highmore had been interested in acting early, and at age seven he began booking small parts in TV movies and miniseries. A few years later, he landed his breakout role in the film Finding Neverland, alongside Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp. Depp would later recommend Highmore for the title character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
"Very quickly, things became quite different," he remembers. "And going back home was always a return to normality. Maybe that's a benefit of growing up in London as opposed to Los Angeles, and having a sense of perspective outside of the industry and outside of that world. If you're a kid growing up and acting in L.A., you probably are much more easily defined as an actor."
More films followed: August Rush, The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Art of Getting By. He also appeared in the 2017 HBO telefilm Tour de Pharmacy, a mockumentary about doping in the cycling world that allowed Highmore to prove his range in a straightforward comedy.
His most recent role in a series, however, was as Norman Bates in Bates Motel, a contemporary prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The irony of going from playing a character who kills people to one who saves them is not lost on Highmore. More important, though, he values the opportunity to adopt a more positive mindset.
"In some ways, [playing] Norman was cathartic in getting out pent-up energy, but at the same time there's something nice in not needing to carry around the weight of that," he says. "Shaun is naturally optimistic, and I think living within his headspace makes you happier."
Both roles have required him to work with fake blood and guts, but that doesn't faze him. "I feel completely detached," he says of The Good Doctor's surgery scenes. "You just marvel at the human body — or the plastic versions of the human body — and think, 'Oh, wow, is that really what that looks like?' I see it more as educational fun, as opposed to being traumatic."
Bates allowed Highmore his first forays into other creative areas. He created the story for one episode, wrote another and directed still another. He also cowrote two spec pilots with Bates showrunner Kerry Ehrin.
"Moving forward into the next season [of The Good Doctor], I'd love to write and direct on the show and be involved in that way," he says, adding that he's most excited about writing scenes between Drs. Murphy and Glassman. "That's what I love to do. And who knows whether that could one day be something that becomes more all-consuming or more of a priority."
For now, though, he's happy to flex his creative muscles behind the camera as a producer on the series. "My role is mostly to support David, as all of the writers and producers do, in his vision for the show," Highmore says. "Because the writers' room is in L.A., and we're up in Vancouver, I feel like I can be somewhat of a help in bridging those two worlds."
Vancouver is indeed a world away — one the actor likens to a bubble. "You kind of forget people are watching the show," he says. He does his best to avoid reviews, because, "I feel like you would be opening yourself up to a dangerous game of trying to please everyone." He even steers as clear as he can of ratings: "People will make you aware of how the show is doing." It's a formula that works for him.
Despite the fact that, at 26, he's already been in the business for nearly two decades, he doesn't come across as the least bit jaded or entitled. "I feel like I'm in an incredibly fortunate place," Highmore says. "I would love to carry on doing The Good Doctor and working on this great character with great people for as long as possible."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018