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Freddie Highmore keeps it real in music-filled 'August Rush'
Known for on-screen sincerity, the 15-year-old brings it once again, but this time to a beat.
By Mark Salisbury, Special to The Times
IN an acting career that's spanned eight of his 15 years, Freddie Highmore has shared screen time with Johnny Depp (twice), Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Albert Finney, CGI elves, a tiger and a multitude of Oompa Loompas. And yet, whoever or whatever his costar, Highmore always holds his own on screen. As anyone who witnessed his heartbreaking performance in "Finding Neverland" will attest, Highmore is a gifted young actor with an intuitive understanding of, and ability to find, the truth of a moment. When Highmore cries on-screen, audiences feel for him. When he smiles, movie-goers beam too. And yet you never feel manipulated. ¶ "When Freddie came in for the first time and read the part, he just tore my heart out," recalls "Finding Neverland" director Marc Forster. "I was like, 'I can't believe it, he's incredible -- where does he get this from?' " Forster remembers having to reshoot the last shot of the movie, a touching moment between Highmore and Depp, because of a camera problem. "We had to come back two weeks later," he explains. "Freddie's performance was so wonderful I said, 'I feel really bad.' But Freddie said to me, 'I'm glad we're coming back because I can do it better.' I was thinking, 'What can you do better? It was perfect.' We reshot it and he was even better. That last shot where he looks straight into the camera and the tear's just holding there, that was that day. And it happened naturally. He's really special."
Before those two, however, Highmore stars in "August Rush," a contemporary fairy tale directed by Jim Sheridan's daughter, Kirsten, in which he plays a musical prodigy -- and the result of a one-night stand between Keri Russell's concert cellist and Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Irish rocker -- who escapes his orphanage and journeys to New York in search of the parents he's never known. The film opens Nov. 21.
The role required Highmore to learn to play guitar and the church organ and to conduct a 40-piece orchestra onstage in Central Park, all of which he does rather convincingly, even though his only musical experience was playing the clarinet. "We concentrated on learning the songs for the film so I could get those really good," he says. "I wanted to be able to do it myself and I think all of the time it is me -- it's my fingers and stuff."
Highmore also affects a flawless American accent, one honed by reading aloud from his favorite book, "The Catcher in the Rye" (he's read it five times in the last year and a half, although he's scarcely a poster boy for disaffected youth), and which he spoke off-set as well as on.
"Even when I was Freddie, at the end of the day, going out in the evening, I'd still try and do the accent," he says, "so it became second nature."
On a sunny Sunday in early fall, in a park near his North London home and his accent back to its native English, Highmore comes across as a nice, polite teenager, albeit with a maturity that belies his age. He goes to a local school, not a stage one, and after his visitor leaves, he heads home to finish some schoolwork. His taste in music may be the only thing that defies normal.
"I'm not like lots of kids my age in that I'm not so keen into hip-hop and rap," he confesses. "I like things that other people might not like. I listen to Plain White T's, Marc Cohn and sometimes Frank Sinatra, which, I guess, for a 15-year-old isn't the stuff you should be listening to."
"He's very grown up," says Depp. "His brain works well beyond his years. He's really a sharp guy and a sweet, pure soul. He's a real inspiration, a very well-balanced kid, got the right priorities, not wrapped up in himself, not wrapped up in ambition or showbiz, all the trappings of this industry. He's interested in doing his work, connecting with people, watching football and playing football," meaning soccer.
In the family business
HIGHMORE'S first movie role was as one of Helena Bonham Carter's sons in the British comedy "Women Talking Dirty" (his brother, Bertie, who is three years younger, played the other). And although his parents are associated with the business -- his mother is top UK agent Sue Latimer, who represents Daniel Radcliffe, among others; his father, Edward, gave up acting for a time to look after Freddie when he was born and always accompanies his son to the set -- Highmore says he doesn't "really get too much advice from them. They didn't force me into it in any way. It was something I thought would be fun to try out. But they did give me the opportunity to get into it, that's the luckiest thing. Also, they've supported me. The family has split into two for me, which is an amazing thing."
Meaning for the three months Highmore filmed "August Rush" in New York, he lived there with his father, while his mother and brother stayed in England, visiting on weekends and during school holidays. "You do miss them a lot," he reflects. "That's the worst thing about doing films, when you're away."
Even with a heady film career in full swing, it's important to Highmore to concentrate on his schooling. "Because I'm still young, and you've got to keep the other options open. At the moment I'd like to continue acting. It would be fun to do some more, but it might be fun to try something different in the film business.
"There's not really a child who directs, but it would be fun, one day, if you got an opportunity to do that," he says. "But it's funny, me sitting here saying I want to do more films -- you've got to be lucky enough for people to be asking after you."
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