Richard Schiff doesn’t watch medical shows. Which makes his decision to take The Good Doctor—one of the year’s most robust hits, soon approaching its second season shoot—rather surprising. But creator David Shore jonesed for Schiff to author Dr. Aaron Glassman, the hospital administrator and mentor to the surgeon with autism Dr. Shaun Murphy (played by series lead Freddie Highmore). “I’d never seen [Shore’s show] House, because I don’t watch doctor shows,” Schiff explains. “I remember calling my friend Eli Attie, who used to be a writer/producer on The West Wing, who had worked with David on House for a few years. So I called Eli, and I said, ‘What can you tell me about working with David?’ And he said, ‘David’s a fantastic guy. A real upstanding human, and really fun and really great to work with. By the way, they really, really love you for this.'”
Schiff had a personal connection to the autistic community, so when the script arrived full of the complication inherent in life on the spectrum, he was prepared to dive in. Life for Dr. Glassman hasn’t been easy this first season, and our conversation touches upon the revelations in the season finale.
You have a personal connection to autism in your life. This is a show that deals with a person with autism in a way that acknowledges both the opportunities and the challenges of living with the condition.
That’s what appealed to me, that it wasn’t just a celebration, but it dealt with the difficulties and challenges in a way that seemed truthful to me. You can’t celebrate something without a struggle to get to the mountaintop. It can’t be an easy path, just for the sake of good storytelling. I know from my experience with different people with autism, they’re all quite unique and very different sets of problems and challenges. But those challenges are very, very, very real. And that it’s a bit of an improvisation how a caretaker, or a surrogate caretaker, is going to have to deal with it.
It was that aspect of the relationship between Shaun and Glassman, as defined by at least the pilot, that gave me the courage to accept the role because the genre is not something that I’m attracted to, I have to admit. And I think that this show kind of separates itself from a medical drama in that it’s really about family, and it’s really about the personal relationships.
Very much, by the way, like any great show, I think. I mean, The West Wing was really about family, and they happen to be in the most powerful building in the world, making decisions that affected whether people lived or died, but the fact of the matter, ultimately it was about a family. We were siblings, and the President and Leo were really the parents. And it was that dynamic that really set it apart. It wasn’t just about the subject, it was about people. I think The Good Doctor has that same aspect to it; that same quality of family.
Glassman goes to bat for Shaun, but you get the sense that he’s not 100% convinced he’s made the right call here.
Yeah. It’s interesting that he gambles his career on the whole experiment, for lack of a better word. I mean it’s the definition of my character, Dr. Glassman, in that he’s at a stage in his life—and I think we find out maybe why towards the end of the first season—where this personal relationship and the success of his mentoring of Shaun is more important than anything else. And it’s interesting when people get to the point where they don’t care anymore about their own personal stake. Their legacy is meant to be different than what it was meant to be ten years, or twenty years earlier when they started out. His legacy is in a private concern. His own private life, having to deal with losing his daughter, and trying to elevate, if not save, or save, if not elevate, his surrogate child.
The other quality of the character is that ultimately he’s a really good man. It’s rare, in this era of antiheroes and outright villains, for a character on television to be purely a nice guy.
Can I tell you, it’s harder to play a nice guy. And it’s more than just a nice guy, but it’s hard to play a good man. There are no larger characteristics on which to use as your driving mechanism. There’s no stutter, or twitch, or evil thought that you can come back to defining who he is and that you can ride. I went through a phase of playing these kinds of super bad guys. On a TV show called Rogue I played a very Trumpian type of guy. And I was a guest star on Chicago Justice las a bad guy. Those kind of roles are just somehow more fun, and easier to jump on the wild horse and ride it.
This role is challenging because everything lies in the quiet moments. He’s not a bombastic character. He’s not loud. He’s not particularly eloquent, you know. He just does the grunt work of being a president of a hospital without glamour and without a blown up ego. It’s always more fun to play a blown up ego. So there’s an interesting challenge in doing this and maintaining a truthfulness from moment to moment, and sometimes it’s the hardest work you can do.
Do you think that’s because you actually fall more in love with a character like this, and maybe your sense of responsibility is greater?
I never really think about whether the character’s loved or not. It never crosses my mind. I just try to play the truthfulness of it the way I see it. And I’ve played bad guys that people have fallen in love with, probably because there’s a humanity there despite the bombastic and somewhat evil aspects of that character. You know, I think truthfulness is endearing. I think honesty in the work is endearing. And what people recognize are moments, and it hits them, and I think that’s endearing. So I don’t color the character or point him in any particular direction because I think he’s lovable or likable or endearing in any way, because that’s a trap. That’s a bad trap. You don’t want to fall into that.
You know, people hated him for a second based on the tweets I was getting because he had shut Shaun out for a while. And if I was an actor who cared about that, I would have said, “Well, couldn’t I do this in a nicer way?” But the truth of it is, you have to really do it in order to make Shaun realize that, yeah I cannot be your friend. It’s got to have a severity to it. Otherwise, the door’s going to stay open. And the point was to shut the door, at least temporarily. If I was thinking about wanting him to be likable, that might have affected the way that came about.
And that aspect of the story this past season created a complexity between the two of them, or at least it dug into that complexity and illuminated it. That made it just like real parents and real kids and people who love each other, they have ups and downs and bad moments, and they shut each other off. So being truthful is the most important thing to me.
Did you know where Dr. Glassman was going to wind up by season’s end when you started out?
Oh, I knew from reading the pilot. I think the first or second question I asked David Shore when we met was, “Is Dr. Glassman going to die?” He said, “How did you know?” I said, “Well there’s a clue.” He goes, “Yes. Yes, he’s dying.”
It’s not something that he even explored until towards the end of the season. So, it became a much more urgent issue that he was gonna be dying sooner than he thought.
I was surprised by how it manifested. I was having a dinner date with this woman named Debbi, who happened to be played by my real life wife, Sheila Kelley, which was lovely for us. We had a blast doing that. Then had that event happen during dinner. That was surprising.
Then the last episode, in one respect, you certainly expect the way the show is set up for Shaun to have a need to figure it all out. So, that aspect wasn’t surprising, but the emotionality of it I didn’t expect and wasn’t even sure about it when we started to shoot. I didn’t quite know where I was gonna go or what was gonna happen, which is a new way of working for me, which I kind of love. I don’t make decisions, and I see what happens. When you’re working with an actor life Freddie, you can do that because what happens between you will dictate where your emotionality goes. We’re not acting by ourselves out there. We’re not bringing performances and locking them in. We’re coming in and seeing what happens, and that’s a real gift and it’s a real pleasure, I have to say.
Tell me more about working with Freddie.
It’s been easy. There’s no conflict at all, which is good. It’s really very simple. We come and we do our work and after each take, he’ll say something like, “This is fun.” And I’ll make fun of him for saying that. That’s our relationship. He’s a very positive, easygoing, talented guy, and my job is to trip up how easy life is for him off camera. It’s just way too easy. He’s a good-looking kid with a lot of talent and he has an accent. He could literally walk down the street and have good things happen to him just because of who he is. People like me resent him deeply and want to find ways to mess him up. On a very light level, I do that. Whenever he says something, I’ll contradict.
He’s a delightful guy. I mean, what can I say? It’s a pleasure to work with him. It’s a gift when two actors make each other better, which I think is what happens when we work together. It used to be the case with Allison Janney. We never walked away from a scene thinking that we left anything on the table. That’s the case, I think, with Freddie.
As a Brit, I should point out that you’re the one with the accent.
I just completely disagree.
Let’s make one thing historically clear. The accent that you traveled over here with, you can find it. It’s in Appalachia. It’s in Ocracoke on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Elizabethan English is still spoken in some little pockets of isolated communities in Appalachia, and Ocracoke because it was 100 miles off the shore of North Carolina. And up until TV and radio, they still spoke Elizabethan English, so it’s relatively recent.
I learned this from the Royal Shakespeare Company workshop. I did these Shakespearean Soliloquies with Pierre Lefevre. But he had us in masks and he had us picking characters unrelated to the material and unrelated to the play, and doing an improv. Then out of the blue, you would just go into your Shakespeare. It was another way into the language. I had picked this character who was from Georgia. He was a truck driver. He had a whole different kind of gait to him. I did this monologue, and it was like the language just flew out of me. Everyone was kind of stunned. I had never done Shakespeare before. Then I got the history lesson from Pierre, who was a Royal Shakespeare Company guy. He said, “You spoke Shakespeare the way it was spoken at the Globe Theater.”
The English accent changed after the French took over things and the English started to imitate the nasality of the French. And everything started to go in the upper palate. It a bit Cockney and actually a little bit of Irish. It sounds very much like the American South. Even, “I reckon”, the expression, which is very English, is also in the American South.
Look at the music. Look at the bluegrass music, is very similar to country fiddle music from Ireland and middle England, right? There you go. You guys changed yourselves because you were imitating the French, just because this little guy [Napoleon] took over the world, and you thought you wanted to be a little bit more like him. So, you’re the ones that put on the accent.
I’ve never been more thoroughly shamed. I suppose I better concede.
Yeah, you’re going to have to. I accept your concession. Yeah, there you go. There’s another accent. You’re now going to go to speech class. You’re going to find Henry Higgins and you’re going to remove the pretense.
How long ago was this workshop?
Oh my gosh, maybe 33 or 32 years ago. It was my only connection to the Royal Shakespeare Company, until a year or two ago when they offered me a role that I couldn’t do. I’m still upset about it. It was seven months in Stratford and I just couldn’t do it. I hope they’re not too angry with me and they’ll invite me again someday.
You’re on their radar at least.
What I’ve noticed is that you’re on people’s radars until you reject them, or at least they interpret it as a rejection. Then you’re very quickly completely off. But I love working in the UK. I’ve worked in London quite a bit and I really enjoy doing theatre there. I’ve done some TV and film there too.
Perhaps now you’ve mentioned it in this interview they’ll be back in touch.
Maybe so. Actually, someone’s in discussion with me to do Death of a Salesman, believe it or not. I don’t know how impossibly far off that is in reality. But that would be a dream. That’s the play I listened to when I was 17 in the Lincoln Center Library that got me interested in all this stuff in the first place. You couldn’t check out the album. You had to go and sit there and listen to it. I would sit and listen to it and read along with it. Lee J. Cobb doing the original Willy, and Dustin Hoffman—who later played Willy—played Benjamin on this album. It brought me to tears every time I listened to it and read it, and so it’s always been a dream of mine to do that play.
Maybe I should tell you every career dream I have and after this interview, they’ll all come true.
How long has it been since you were last on stage in London?
I did a one-man show called Underneath the Lintel at the Duchess, which ended up being quite an extraordinary experience. And I did a play at the Chocolate Factory in New York, and more recently I did Speed the Plow, which got quite a bit of notorious attention because Lindsay Lohan was in it. People actually liked it quite a bit. From what I understand, the reviews were pretty good. I didn’t read them, but the other actor, Nigel Lindsay an I, we had a great time. He and I really flew on stage with that material, and I loved doing Mamet, so, despite one particular issue, we had a great time.
Based on what you said about Glassman earlier, should we brace for an uncomfortable second season?
You know, I don’t ask the writers’ room what they’re doing. I went into the writers’ room last year, gave them a ton of ideas, which they used to some degree, mostly for Shaun actually. And I prefer to not be involved anymore. So, I’m just going to wait and see.
But I did hear from David. We had a conversation, and I said, “Obviously I’m going to be sick, right?” You can’t not deal with that truthfully. You can’t get cancer and then not have it. So we’re going to have to deal with that, and I certainly suggested to David that it can really play into the way the relationship changes between Shaun and Dr. Glassman. I certainly imagine that the roles could even be reversed at some point and that Shaun might have to become the caretaker, and David said something which I certainly think is a good idea, which is that most doctors make horrible patients. So then yeah, we can go along with that, that’s a good idea. So, those are the things that I’m imagining, but we have to deal with it. I might have to shave my head, completely. And we’ll see how David and the writers want to move out of that. Who knows? Maybe I’m outta here.
One thing that is certain is you’re going to be directed by that pesky Brit, Freddie Highmore, this year.
Oh, so he thinks. The kid’s going to have quite an awakening, let me tell you, when he tries to give me his first direction. “Richard, would you mind—” “Yes, I do mind, shut up.” I’ll do it, you watch. You should be there, with a camera, because you will never have seen a Brit blush so deeply red until I’m done with this kid. He’s in so much trouble. He wants to get a little power? He’s a kid!
No, I’m sure Freddie will be fine. I think he’s writing the first episode as well.
He’s a triple-threat.
I think he just wants to be a one-man band. He’s going to have a little cymbal on his knee, and he’ll be playing a trumpet and who knows what. But it’s good. He’s going to be stuck doing this show for the next 27 years, so he might as well find something interesting to do alongside it.
Right, the show has been such an unprecedented hit in this era of fractured audiences.
I took the show knowing there was a danger of it lasting a while. And what I mean by that is I like variety. I like to move around, I don’t like being stuck. The West Wing, as great as it was, was too long. We should have lost the re-election and gotten out of there in three or four years. But, you know, that’s an actor’s perspective, not the studios. They want to milk it for whatever they can get.
I did not expect the reaction to be as overwhelming as it’s been, but that’s the best position to be in. The danger, really, was that it would be a middling success. You’re just kind of lost in the mid-range of TV viewers, and nobody’s really talking about it, but you don’t get canceled. That’s the thing you don’t want.
The fact that this show does have resonance, and people are responding, and it’s actually affecting the autistic community in a very positive way… I get Tweets and letters from people with autism who are encouraged to use their voice, and to express themselves, and to write these beautiful letters, and to send me artwork, and to send me music, and there’s an emboldening by-product for, I think, all people that feel that they’re overwhelmed by certain challenges and feel like they’re outsiders. And I think the show speaks to them, and in fact, I think that all of us, at some point in our lives, feel like that, you know? And I think that’s one of the reasons this show has hit a nerve with people, and that we can have a positive effect I think is great. And I like being a part of a positive effect on the world, instead of like a slasher movie.