Frame Grab: Freddie Highmore grows up a bit in 'The Art of Getting By'
When Freddie Highmore became famous, he was only 10 years old. He was too young, he says now, to comprehend how monumental it was for his first major on-screen role to be opposite Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet in “Finding Neverland.” But his milky innocence endeared him to audiences and helped him land similarly wide-eyed turns in films like 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” (Depp, cast as Willy Wonka, personally requested Highmore in the titular role.)
Now 19, Highmore still has a boyish appearance — dressed in a blazer and pressed shirt for a recent video chat interview, he looked like a kid dressing up in his father’s clothes. But he’s no longer the shy, soft-spoken British kid thrown into the red carpet circuit nearly a decade ago, and his latest role is a reflection of that change.
In “The Art of Getting By,” which debuted over the weekend and collected $700,000 in limited release, Highmore plays George, a high school senior struggling to focus on academics. He’s the kind of kid who ditches class whenever he wants in favor of going to the movies and is more interested in pursuing his artsy classmate (Emma Roberts) than doing his homework.
“As you grow up, you realize you can’t play the kid anymore,” Highmore said of his decision to take on the PG-13 movie, his first with more adult subject matter, including drinking and sexual innuendo. “George is the kind of person who is trying to be nice all the time, but doesn’t get what he wants. Growing up in the last few years, I have learned that myself. You don’t have to be nasty about it, but I think you should stand up for yourself and what you believe in.”
For Highmore, that’s recently meant deciding to put the brakes on his acting career and attend Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College, where he’s studying Spanish and Arabic.
“I always enjoyed doing languages at school, so I wanted to carry on and figured I might take up a new one since I’d already taken French and Spanish,” he said, explaining his choice of major. “Studying another romance language would be great fun, but easily accessible. Arabic has been trickier than other languages, because it works on a different system. The alphabet has been the trickiest."
Highmore is so focused on academia that Gavin Wiesen, who directed “The Art of Getting By,” was worried his schooling might keep him from signing on to the film.
“Getting Freddie to actually step away from the books was a challenge,” laughed Wiesen. “We were trying to schedule production for his spring break, because he was so focused on his exams. He’d already gotten into Cambridge, but your exams determine the specific [college] you get placed in. And that was really important to him.”
Wiesen, a graduate of New York University’s film school, had worked as an assistant to Bruce Paltrow and later developed his own screenplays and television pilots. But “The Art of Getting By” was the first feature film he’d written and directed, so he admitted to being initially intimidated by Highmore’s experience.
“He was like a 50-year-old in a 17-year-old’s body,” said the filmmaker, 35. “Before I got to know him, I was very worried about him coming from mega-productions with seasoned directors. Even the animated movies he’d done were produced by Luc Besson.”
But it was Highmore’s accelerated maturity that helped him land the part, according to Wiesen, who said the script initially attracted a slew of young actors seeking a “meaty role.”
“We were getting the typical Sundance-y American actor kid who was playing a slacker, but you know he's probably hitting the clubs in L.A. at night,” the director said. “Freddie has no attraction to that world at all.”
Indeed, Highmore says he appreciates that he was able to have what he calls a “normal upbringing” in his native London, where he feels he’s “slightly separated from Hollywood.” His father still accompanies him to all of his film sets, and his mother –- who also represents Daniel Radcliffe -- is his agent.
And though it’s been only a couple of weeks since Highmore completed his final exams and his first year of university, he seemed more interested in his pending return to school in the fall than his next acting gig.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do next. I think it’d be possible to combine filming and studies,” he said. “But I like school. At the start, everyone realized I’d done a few films, but after that, it wore off. I’ve been able to slot in like everyone else, really.”
Photos: (Top) Freddie Highmore stars in "The Art of Getting By." His first major role was in "Finding Neverland" (2004), and now he's attending Cambridge. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times. (Bottom) Highmore as Charlie in the 2005 Warner Bros. movie "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. " Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros.