Freddie Highmore sheds angelic image for The Art of Getting By
The idea, the young actor says, is “sort of ’70s punk.” This reporter, however, has never seen him look more like an “Alfred” than at this moment.
Given name aside, Freddie Highmore is gracious and friendly as he sits down to chat in a well-appointed Los Angeles home during a break in a magazine photo session. Hence the odd attire: If this is “punk,” it’s the ultra-clean version in immaculate black and white, with pseudo-bowler hat. Not quite Clockwork Orange, but quite not Johnny Rotten.
Highmore is 19 now, but every bit as fresh-faced as he was at 16 or younger; the teddy-bear-tender eyes, the elfin chin. But sadly for some fans, he is, in fact, growing up. When I last spoke with him, for 2008′s The Spiderwick Chronicles, he still wasn’t allowed to see 18-and-older films, even ones starring his friends, such as Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd. Now he can’t even remember the first few such movies he saw. Other coming-of-age landmarks have likewise vanished in his rearview.
“When you’re younger, you think, when I get to a certain age, I’ll be able to do this — drive and all, but when you get older it’s just normal,” he says. “I can’t remember the first time I drove.”
In his new film, The Art of Getting By, he plays sullen teen George, an outsider haunting the concentric circles of New York’s privileged youth, with all the obligatory vices therein. George has skated through his senior year of high school without doing a single homework assignment, focusing instead on his intensely intricate doodling, not yet brave enough to call it art.
It’s a different role for Highmore, he of the angelic screen persona; smoking and drinking and … other things teens do for fun … and not really tuned into the feelings of others. It’s probably the least sympathetic part he has yet played, and he’s in almost every scene.
“It’s interesting to play someone with that level of emotional troubles. A lot of that blanking out comes from the first time you’re in love; it’s pretty blinding,” Highmore says of George’s entanglement with the lovely Sally . “Whatever anyone says to you, it doesn’t really matter – someone says it’s a stupid relationship, you think, ‘No, it’s great! You don’t get it!’ So I think a lot of it is George is dealing with that and closing himself off in a way, and the film portrays that as a dangerous thing.”
In many ways, Art fits the young-person-finding-himself film template: A youth of great potential is angstily squandering it; he falls in love and has to face hard truths about his family and himself, including what he wants to do with his life. There’s plenty of both partying and pity-partying. Where it diverges from the norm, says Highmore, is “it’s a more adult representation” of teenage mores than is usually seen onscreen.
“It’s more real, and I guess that’s what attracted me to it. The fact that they don’t represent it in a stylized or toned-down or emotionally heightened kind of way. It doesn’t say, ‘This is the way to do it! Drinking is great!’ This is just actually what goes on.”
And there was the new frontier of playing someone who is quick with witticisms, but most truthfully expresses himself through visual art.
“I admire people who can take pen and paper and draw someone and you can actually recognize that it’s them. As opposed to me, at best I have one version of a human that can be all right,” says Highmore. “But everyone has one form of expression, the way they deal with things. … I think I’ve been lucky in that I was less alone than George. I had really good friends to discuss things with. Some people express themselves in a more private way.
“Certainly, George is someone who has a lot of acquaintances, but not many friends. So that might lead in that direction.”
All of which stacks up to a different mountain for the young actor to climb than he’d previously scaled.
“I don’t know if it was more challenging than learning guitar or playing two characters . But definitely, the complexity of it was at a different level,” he says.
“Also really interesting was the opportunity to bring more things to the table than I’ve done in other movies, in that since it was more based on the character, you had more input. If it’s a film that’s more about the surroundings you’re in or other characters, you don’t have as much say of where things are going.”
Highmore says first-time feature-writer-director Gavin Wiesen “was always open to new ideas. The film is sort of semiautobiographical for him, but he would never say, ‘This is how it happened, so you can’t do it like this.’ He recognized it was a film rather than a documentary of his life.”
The actor acknowledges that he got through his own angsty high school years with balance, making films but always returning to friends, school and home life in between. Now he’s at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, studying Spanish and Arabic, but isn’t sure where his studies will lead.
“I think in some ways that’s what university is about,” he says, cheerily. “A lot of people, it’s fantastic for them when they know exactly what they want to do at 16 years old and they can make all their choices and become whatever it is they want. For me, it was about studying a language, in Arabic, I wouldn’t get another chance to study later in my life. I figured, why not? Got a great chance to do it now. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it. I’ve got three years left. … I guess I don’t have to choose quite yet.”
The Art of Getting By is playing now.
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