The path of Emmy history is littered with many injustices. Take, for example, Steve Carell’s failure, despite five nominations, to earn a trophy for playing Michael Scott on The Office. Or how about The Wire, which somehow, despite becoming one of the definitive exemplars of peak television, only ever mustered a measly pair of writing nominations over its five seasons on the air?
So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a shock, given that rocky history, that Freddie Highmore walked away from last year’s Emmy season without so much as a nod for his work on The Good Doctor. But, at the risk of over-editorializing, a shock is how it felt. After all, David Shore’s series had become one of ABC’s biggest hits almost instantly, and had drawn endless praise for Highmore’s turn as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a brilliant surgical resident with autism, which struck a particularly touching chord with a scarcely represented community. As Shaun struggled to find acceptance with his colleagues at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital, the show not only shone a light on the challenges faced by people with autism, but also felt like a rare moment of validation for anybody who had ever felt unseen or other.
Highmore did come away from Season 1 with a Golden Globe nomination for the role, though, and if the Emmy snub hit him at all, he isn’t letting it show, and neither does it appear to have dulled his work ethic.
At Vancouver’s Bridge Studios in February, Highmore is days away from wrapping The Good Doctor’s second season. Season 2 has provided its own suite of new challenges. He started the year in the writers’ room for the first time, penning the season debut, and this week will mark the broadcast of the first episode he has directed, “Risk and Reward”, which will introduce a new Chief of Surgery, Dr. Jackson Han. The character is played by Daniel Dae Kim, who had been instrumental in finding the original Korean show on which the ABC version is based. “It has been really nice getting to introduce Daniel’s character as a director of the episode,” Highmore says.
For Highmore—also a producer on the show since its inception—the reaction from viewers to The Good Doctor’s first season was enough to inspire a doubling down on his commitment. “You’re encouraged to continue building on what you’ve done,” he tells me. He has heard much positive feedback from people on the spectrum since the show debuted. “And it’s been a constant learning experience for all of us working on the show. You’re constantly learning about Shaun, and the way he would react in certain situations.”
No stranger to episodic television—Highmore, of course, also took the lead as Norman Bates over five seasons of A&E’s Bates Motel—he also feels increasingly more comfortable in his character’s skin. “You become so close to the character that you know them so well, and so intimately. People often wonder if it gets a bit dull to play the same character for so long, but I feel like there’s more and more nuance to bring out as you get to know that character better. So many possibilities, or tiny things to try, or new sides to his personality that maybe you haven’t dug out before.”
Before cameras roll on his first scene of the day, Highmore takes me on a tour of the expansive set. He revels in pointing out the little details of the interior of the hospital (the exterior is played by the modernist city hall building in Surrey, British Columbia) and marvels at how new and high-tech this TV hospital is. “If you were sick you’d want to get better here, wouldn’t you?” he laughs.
The Good Doctor takes up several soundstages at the studios, and has even knocked through the walls adjoining two of the stages to create a large, continuous shooting space. Highmore is used to this sort of scale. He was once, after all, the Charlie of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (“That was sort of like a theme park inside,” he recalls. “We had a real 40-foot chocolate waterfall, with a hydraulic boat on the river. It was incredible.”) But, he says, “Even though the set’s fairly big, and you could, in quotation marks, call The Good Doctor a ‘big show’, it doesn’t feel that way because the stories are so intimate. We don’t have a lot of special effects and explosions. It’s a show that’s at its best when it’s a couple of people in a room telling these emotional stories.”
He tries, anyway, not to think of the scale of the operation he’s working on. “I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, but shutting everything out is probably what acting is about,” he explains. “You can’t think about how many crew are standing around you, or what the dolly’s doing, or how many lights are on you. Ultimately, your job is to shut it all out and just focus on being as truthful as you can to your character and the moment.”
And yet he had to think of all of those things when he stepped up to direct. “I guess that’s different,” he laughs. “You do have to have that other side of you. You switch between two sides of your brain. In the scene, you’re trying to stay in character as best you can. And it got complicated here, because Shaun doesn’t really maintain eye contact with people. It makes it a bit of a struggle to work out what the other actors are doing in a scene in order to offer suggestions from a director’s point of view. You find yourself trying to take a sneaky look over at them.”
Despite the contrasting approaches, Highmore does feel that acting and directing go hand-in-hand. “Especially on a television show, you feel a greater responsibility as an actor to help maintain the tone. Directors come and go, and sometimes maybe you’re working with someone who has never worked on the show before. So it requires a greater sense of leadership, not just in terms of maintaining character arcs, and continuity, but also in the sense of welcoming people who are new to the set. Especially on television, the actors’ relationship with the director becomes incredibly collaborative.”
Bates Motel shot in Vancouver also. Returning to the city for this show—after only one hiatus away—meant largely reuniting with the team he’d spent five years with. “It feels like a family,” he says. And that family dynamic presents itself when Highmore gets called to set. Costumed in a hospital gown, he points to an empty windowsill for me to perch on to watch the crew block the next scene. For the season finale, Shore himself is directing.
Highmore introduces me to the camera team—pals he worked with on Bates Motel—old-school crew with Grateful Dead haircuts and a fondness for the kind of acerbic humor Brits and Canadians do better than anyone. Season 2 DP Chris Faloona, and the A-camera duo of operator Mike Wrinch and focus puller Dean Friss. “You’re about to witness the full range of Freddie’s acting skills,” one of them tells me, with a sly wink.
And indeed, I do. The scene demands that Highmore lay absolutely still—unconscious—in a hospital gurney as his worried colleagues discuss his prognosis—the result of an attack on Shaun in a barroom fight. Aside from a little struggle with a breathing tube he has to keep in place, “Yeah, it’s not exactly the most complex scene I’ve had to shoot this year,” Highmore laughs. “You picked a bad day to visit.”
Still, the drunken fight that led to Shaun’s current predicament came after one of the season’s standout moments, as Shaun confronted Dr. Han for keeping him out of the operating room, and he lost his job at the hospital. We had seen Shaun struggle to keep his cool in the past, but this moment was him at his most frustrated and upset. Tears welled in his eyes as he beseeched Han, “I’m a surgeon. I am a surgeon.”
“Those are the scenes that feel the most momentous, or satisfying,” Highmore recalls. “When you’re doing this many episodes a season, you can’t tell a story that is nothing but those moments. You have to build to that. It only really works because you have that buildup of pressure over many episodes in order to have the breakdown.”
Season 2 ended on a conciliatory note for Shaun, restoring his position at the hospital and dangling the possibility—forever elusive over its first two years—that the young surgeon might be able to find love. “I don’t really know yet where it’ll go,” Highmore tells me a few months into his offseason, when we speak again. “I was in the writers’ room this time last year, writing the first episode of Season 2, but this year I’ve been shooting a film. Hopefully I’ll write an episode later in the year. I’m definitely directing again.”
Still, he suspects, “that idea of Shaun dating will be explored. One of the things David Shore is so brilliant at with the show, and which seems to give it such longevity, is that the small wins for Shaun can feel so momentous. It’s a show that focuses on tiny little nuances, and the emotional beats in life that everyone knows and feels but that sometimes get lost in a quest for a bit of high-concept drama. The idea of finishing a whole season with a character simply asking someone out, and then being happy to have gotten a positive answer, is just so beautiful.”
For now, though, Highmore is robbing a bank. He’s in Madrid, shooting Way Down alongside Sam Riley and Liam Cunningham. Directed by Jaume Balagueró, the film tells the story of “this English guy, who is a recent university graduate, and he’s roped into this international group that is robbing the Bank of Spain,” Highmore says.
It’s the first time he has acted in Spain. As befitting a multi-hyphenate, though, he’s fluent in the language (plus French, and a little Arabic too), and familiar with the city, having spent a year interning at a Madrid law firm when he was younger. The set, he says, feels “very European”. He remembers some time spent making films in France, “where there was a union rule not only that you had to serve wine at lunchtime, but that it had to actually be served, too, with waiters coming around to pour it.”
He has enjoyed having the full run of Madrid on this shoot. “The film, by dint of the way we’re shooting it, feels kind of independent, even though it’s not a small budget,” he says. “We shut down the Spanish equivalent of Piccadilly Circus—the Plaza de Cibeles—the other day, but it still feels like it’s just a few of us making this film.”
He’ll be straight back into production on Season 3 of The Good Doctor once he wraps. For now, though, the pace of shooting a feature film (on which he’s only acting and producing) has felt like a nice summer holiday. “It feels much more luxurious doing a film in general,” he explains. “When you’re used to 18 episodes a year, shooting for eight or nine days each, there’s a lot more pressure to get things done.”
Highmore aspires to one day direct a feature. For now, television is proving the perfect training ground. “Because you’re under a greater amount of time pressure, it stops you from going into self-indulgent artist territory,” he says. “The practical quality of television production gives you a sense of discipline, because if you want to do something ambitious in television, you really have to plan it quite well. There’s no room for, ‘Let’s just get on set and figure it out there.’ You’ve got to think ahead.”