Freddie Highmore

'Finding Neverland'

“Five Children and It,” directed by John Stephenson, co-starring Kenneth Branagh.
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” directed by Tim Burton, co-starring Johnny Depp.

Freddie Highmore probably has more in common with the average Little Leaguer than other thesps in the spotlight this awards season. The 12-year-old talks as eagerly about his favorite sport, soccer, as he does about working with Johnny Depp in “Finding Neverland.”

If Highmore receives a supporting actor nod, he’ll be the fourth-youngest actor to be nominated, and if he wins he’ll be the youngest. (While the youngest supporting actress was Tatum O’Neal at 10, no actor younger than 20 has taken home the supporting actor trophy.) But Highmore probably doesn’t even know it’s a possibility.

Reporters are asked not to discuss the awards possibilities with Highmore as he is that rare actor who is a child first, actor second.

Though Highmore lacks the precociousness often found in young thesps, he speaks about his character in “Neverland” in a mature and articulate way.

“Peter isn’t really like ‘Peter Pan’ because he’s ready to grow up,” he says, referring to his character’s decidedly un-childlike somber and introspective behavior.

Highmore believes playwright J.M. Barrie was the boy who never grew up.

“He was always taking the boys off and playing pirates and cowboys and stuff. No matter what he says, Barrie is the real Peter.”

Highmore says co-star Depp kept things light on the set, even when a scene had serious overtones.

“He was really funny as well,” he recalls. “There was one scene at the dinner table and he hid an electric whoopee cushion under the table and it set us all off laughing.”

Producer Richard Gladstein says the discovery of Highmore was central to the film’s success.

“I think Freddie is pure magic,” he says. “He was the first actor that read for Marc and I, and he defined the character. We went on to see a few others but by the end of the day we knew we found our Peter.”

Co-stars Radha Mitchell and Kate Winslet both used the term “scary” in describing Highmore’s scene when Peter cries while on a park bench talking to Barrie about his mother’s death.

The emotional exchange has brought a river of tears from auds. Highmore brought up the tears just by “thinking sad thoughts.”

Gladstein speaks of Highmore’s natural abilities.

“He’s created the role the way an adult actor would in a really mysterious, rich and emotional way.”