Freddie Highmore stresses the word authenticity when talking about Dr. Shaun Murphy, the brilliant surgical resident/autistic savant he plays on ABCs breakout hit The Good Doctor, TVs top-rated new drama.
You really cant hide away behind other people and not come up with something that feels authentic, Highmore says. I feel a great sense of responsibility to portray Sean as authentically as possible. Im aware of the fact that he cant nor should we try to make him represent people who live with autism.
In the series, which snared over 16.1 million viewers last week, Shaun is starting his surgical residency at a major hospital in San Jose under the tutelage of his mentor, Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff), whos known Shaun since his teen years (when Shauns big brother/protector died in a freak accident). Shauns autism manifests itself via his extraordinary skills he can visualize things other people cant and has encyclopedic knowledge but he has difficulty picking up on social cues and rarely makes eye contact (he cant detect sarcasm, anger, etc.). So far, its been a rocky road for Shaun in dealing with his new co-workers, though hes now beginning to win acceptance with his earnest, quirky personality and occasional flashes of humor. (Oh yeah hes also saved a few lives along the way.)
Shaun isnt a stereotypical person with autism. Hes not emotionless, and I think thats how people with autism have unfortunately been portrayed at times.
I think it was important, in building out Sean as a character, to focus on his very real struggle in having autism and being thrown into this new environment and bringing out his hopeful side what makes him laugh, tick, etc., says the British-born Highmore, coming off a five-season run as Norman Bates on A&Es Bates Motel.
Its nice to have a character whos refreshingly upbeat and optimistic and his honesty is refreshing, too, Highmore says. Were finding out more about him every single week, through his backstory and in the present, how hes reacting to his new surroundings and trying to understand the world hes fitting into. Its still a learning process for him this early on; the codes and rules of the new life he has to learn and attempt to live by.
The other issue [on the show] thats already been raised is the idea of whether Shaun needs a helping hand [an in-home aide] at times, Highmore says, and whether hes able to cope with this huge amount of pressure he faces at the hospital while maintaining a happy and healthy existence in his home life.
Highmore says he knows someone with autism, but that Shaun isnt based on one particular person. I did research and watched documentaries [on autism] and we have a full-time consultant on-board, he says. You learn as much as you can, and I try to see whats right for Shaun and how Im coming up with his idiosyncracies.
Im building him as an individual hes only defined in part by his autism, he says. Its a big story worth telling beyond the personal satisfaction [in playing the role]. I think its more than that I think its because Shaun isnt a stereotypical person with autism. Hes not emotionless, and I think thats how people with autism have unfortunately been portrayed at times.
Hopefully this show is about coming up with nuances and not focusing only on Shauns struggles, but the positive ways he can contribute to the hospital.
The Good Doctor 10 p.m. Monday on ABC