LILLE, France — God, Freddie Highmore’s good at crying. There’s a scene in “Neverland,” screened at his Series Mania masterclass, where he’s acting opposite Johnny Depp. His mother has just died. Highmore sits on a park bench, clutching a notebook, which she helped as tears well in his eyes, and he tries to keep in everything but can’t.
It’s a richly calibrated performance, shame, confusion, deep sorrow all jostling in there, and Depp wisely containing his to give Highmore stage center – despite the fact that he cannot have been much more than 10 when he played the scene.
Many years later, in another excerpt highligh at the French TV festival, Highmore is crying again. It’s another crucial scene, in Ep. 1 of ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” where his central character, Shaun Murphy, makes his pitch to become a surgeon, despite autism, to a skeptical medical team.
First his rabbit was taken away from him, then his brother, he says. He doesn’t want that to happen to other people, Shaun argues, and his eyes fill with tears. And he also wants to earn enough money to buy a TV set, he adds.
“Freddie Highmore is an immensely talented actor, and he brings intelligence and depth to his portrayal of Dr. Shaun Murphy,” Variety wrote in a review. Indeed, his performance won him a Golden Globe nomination.
Yet, asked on stage at Lille what technique he uses to get the eye ducts pumping and he sidesteps any answer. And not everyone’s even heard of Highmore, who stars in one of the most successful U.S. broadcast network shows of the last three years.
That’s in part because he doesn’t do social media. He’s also doesn’t do being famous. British, the words he most used in his masterclass at Lille were “normal,” “grounded” and “Arsenal,” the North London top-five Premiere League soccer club – about which he delivers a shrewd analysis for a Hollywood actor that the current rise of the English national soccer team owes a lot to France and seminal Arsenal players such as Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira.
“I’ve been lucky to have had the distance from a Hollywood upbringing, being able to go back [to London] and wanting to be a footballer and play for Arsenal back in the U.K.,” he said at Series Mania.
He only really decided to become an actor shooting “Bate’s Motel” for five years from the age of 19.
His advice to budding actors? “I’ve been very lucky to have kept a normal life, a reality. I would definitely recommend not deciding this is the only thing you want to do, keep going to school.”
“Also a university degree is a wonderful opportunity to get more life experience,” he added. “I sometimes wonder, and of course people do it brilliantly, but what, if you act as a kid and go straight into acting as an adult, what are those experiences which you have to draw on.”
Going to university – to Cambridge where he took a double First in Spanish and Arabic – may well be the making of Highmore in the future. At Lille, he charmed the pants of the audience, by beginning his masterclass in impeccably accented French, before claiming he hadn’t really spoken it for five years.
He’s certainly not giving up on Hollywood or “The Good Doctor.” He has a “moral responsibility” to play Shaun, he says.
“The Good Doctor” feels “bigger than a TV show,” he argues.
Obviously, it brings awareness to autism. But, he went on, Shaun is not a stereotypical TV show alpha-male. “It’s especially important in today’s world to portray different versions of masculinity, not only the stereotypical ones.”
Highmore has already co-written one episode of “The Good Doctor” and two of “Bates Motel,” and directed episodes of both show. Fielding questions for an hour-and-a-half in Lille, he had some pretty insightful things to say about series. How, for example, U.K. skeins often having fewer episodes, allowing one person – Stephen Poliakoff on “Close to the Enemy,” which he starred in, for instance – to write and direct them all. In U.S. shows, where directors come and go, it’s up to actors to help ensure consistency in character.
Or how live-action diction feels flat if used in animation voice-over.
The major impression left by “Highmore’s” masterclass, however, was his ability to empathize with others, whether the Lille audience, whom he won over with a working knowledge of Lille’s currently high-flying soccer team, or, distances apart, Norman Bates.
One aim, playing Bates, was “to try to find the humanity in Norman,” he said. “He was a lovely guy, loved his mother,” he argues in his defense. Life’s cards simply didn’t stack in his favor.
That empathy suggests Highmore’s career could well go two ways: Into writing and direction, most certainly, but also into leveraging his fame, such as it is, plus fluency in Arabic, French and Spanish into roles in shows from around the world.
He has already signed up for “Way Down,” an English-language heist movie partnering two of Europe’s biggest media corporations, Spain’s Mediaset España and France’s TF1 Group. The world beckons for Freddie Highmore.