Freddie Highmore may well be trying to make amends. After spending five seasons as Psycho killer Norman Bates on Bates Motel, the British actor is now saving lives as Dr. Shaun Murphy on ABC’s runaway hit The Good Doctor. The medical drama from House creator David Shore is also going out of its way to challenge stigmas around people with autism, as Shaun takes a job as a surgical resident over the protests of higher-ups who are skeptical of his condition, and how it will affect his work. For Highmore, getting to grips with the challenges and opportunities of Shaun’s world was irresistible.
The Good Doctor is a medical procedural in the grand tradition. But the jargon doesn’t get in the way of the character development.
Exactly. Part of the appeal of procedurals, in general, is that there’s a continuity and consistency week after week; that you can come to the show and know what you’re going to get. But I feel like my character, Shaun, breaks that mold a bit because he’s changed so much over the course of this first season. If you skip out a few episodes, I think you miss out on that journey.
But that’s why he’s such an exciting character to play because most networks would have wanted him to stay the same doctor week in, week out. To limit the amount of progression he would be allowed to do. It’s exciting to plot out—and obviously, it’s there in David Shore’s brilliant writing—how each episode affects and changes him.
And it’s not just Shaun; it’s the way others are changed by him, and how he makes the hospital a better place. Hopefully, Dr. Melendez [Nicholas Gonzalez] is getting a little less Dr. Melendez-y the more time he spends with Shaun.
Have you spent much time comparing and contrasting Shaun with Norman Bates, who you played in Bates Motel?
Shaun is very much the opposite [laughs]. Although I could discuss forever the ways in which Norman wasn’t really an antihero; he had his flaws, but Bates was actually this beautiful love story between a lovely young guy and his mom!
But I think what’s been refreshing to people with The Good Doctor is it’s almost a reversal of the tendency to sit down and watch a dark show. It’s comforting to come home at the end of a hard day and watch an episode of The Good Doctor because it’s not hard-hitting. With Bates, I think you’d probably want to balance watching it with watching something that doesn’t make you feel dark and scared as you go to bed.
You had three days to switch gears.
Three days, yeah, between finishing Bates and starting The Good Doctor. It wasn’t really the plan. If you’d have asked me before I got the script, after the relief of finishing a season that took so much from everyone involved, I think I’d have said I was excited about the world of possibility that opens up from not being part of a television show.
But then this script came through, and once I’d gotten over the fact that it could be possible to find such an interesting character three days after finishing with another, I managed to reconcile that I was just so lucky fate had intervened. Saying yes was easy, then, and I was off, back to Vancouver. It felt like it wasn’t just an interesting character, but an important show with an important story to tell.
To what extent TV shows have the power to change the world is always debatable, and ultimately it is just a television show. But I like to think it’s important to portray characters like Shaun on TV in the way this show is doing because I don’t think it’s been done in quite this way before.
What was the power of this character, in your mind?
I think that Shaun, hopefully, speaks not just to people with autism, but to anyone who has felt somewhat different or marginalized by society, or that they haven’t had their fair shot and their chance to prove themselves for whatever reason.
Everyone on the spectrum is different too, and even people with autism aren’t necessarily going to identify with the exact experience Shaun goes through. It’s just the idea of him showing up in that workplace, in the very first episode, and the conversations that are going on about whether they should have someone like Shaun working at the hospital. You’d think society has moved on, but I think the reality is very different.
You’re joining the writers’ room on Season 2 and will be directing an episode. You did that on Bates Motel also. Did you entertain that idea in Season 1, or did you prefer to bed-in with the character first?
It was a discussion that I had, and was very open with David about, from the beginning. I so enjoyed that level of involvement with Bates Motel of getting to contribute beyond acting. When I work on something it becomes all-consuming for me, and so as time went on with Bates, it just seemed odd not to want to be involved in telling those stories. You put so much in for four or five months that it felt disingenuous to go off on holiday and be like, “See you day one and I’ll see what you’ve come up with for Norman.”
So we discussed it from the very beginning with The Good Doctor, and David was very open to that. He’s been a wonderful person to work with and a collaborator. In the first season, as you say, I did very much want to focus on getting the character right and taking my time to do that. But I was involved as a producer from the very beginning.
And just as with Bates Motel, I see it as my role to be as honest as I can as an actor, a writer, and a director on the show in my support of David’s vision. He’s a wonderful leader because he’s very open to collaboration, and at the same time he has a very strong idea of what he wants to do. We’re very much in-sync with what that is, and we have a very similar sensibility and a similar way of approaching Shaun.
You were in LA for two months writing your episode.
Yeah, give or take. It goes so quickly for me. It’s funny how quickly it goes. This time a year ago we were all on tenterhooks having just finished the pilot, and there was debate as to whether we were going to get picked up. I remember reading the early reports on Deadline about what was getting the buzz, and hearing good things about our show, but of course, you always have to take that with a pinch of salt.
How much intensive research did you have to do into autism?
It felt like decisions were going to be made in that pilot that you had to stick with and that the bold decisions about Shaun’s autism, or the way that condition affects his life at the hospital, couldn’t change. So it was a lot to figure out, because those decisions felt more meaningful than, perhaps, on other jobs, where you have a little more time to find your feet.
It was more research than I’ve ever done for a character. We had about a month where I devoted my time to reading books on autism, watching documentaries. We had a consultant who we had discussions with. And then, at the same time, I also had to feel free to give Shaun what makes him an individual in his own right; figure out what his desires and individual quirks are. What kind of people he might fall in love with. The things that might not necessarily have anything to do with the fact that he has autism.
So it was about researching how his condition would manifest itself, but also feeling free to live in the moment when you’re there on set; to do what instinctively felt right. There’s a phrase that is often said in the autism community: once you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. Shaun isn’t able to represent everybody who’s on the spectrum, nor will he ever be able to and that shouldn’t be expected. That felt freeing.
Emotion is such a central language to an actor that the idea of playing a character who speaks a different emotional language seems extremely challenging. But was Shaun all that different from the other characters you’ve taken on?
You kind of feel like, yes, Shaun is different, but all the characters that you play are different, and you’re using the same tools you always use to create a character. Part of it is understanding where the character is at every moment emotionally, and what makes the scene interesting is the way those emotions may change. There’s no point playing a scene if, by the end, everyone’s in the same state they were in at the start.
It quickly became apparent that there was such a misconception around the stereotype of people with autism; that they’re just entirely emotionless. Of course, that’s not true, and Shaun is overflowing with emotions at many points. He has the same full range of emotions that neurotypical people do, they’re just expressed and manifested in different ways. As an actor, you still know the truth of what that emotional place is that he’s at.
There was one documentary, Autism in Love, which was brilliant and so useful to me. One of the things I loved about it, and that we tried to replicate, was that it didn’t focus on the struggle—the day-to-day struggle that people with autism of course face. It just focused on love and their relationships, and the struggles in finding someone and yearning for a partner, or losing a partner. I thought it was so brilliant that it steered away from the traditional way of approaching autism, which is through the struggles and negativity, as opposed to celebrating a different way of viewing the world.
Which is also what Temple Grandin is all about. Shaun isn’t Temple Grandin, but she encourages us to think of celebrating the ways in which people with autism think differently. I guess Shaun has this brilliant visual side to his brain which enables him to solve these certain—but not all—medical cases.
We need to be on the ride with Shaun emotionally, but he can’t change what’s true about himself. He can’t change what’s true in order to get people to understand him. But you hope that it’ll be genuine and help people see through the barriers of neurotypical people trying to understand people with autism.