NEW YORK CITY–You don't see a lot of poppies in America. A day before Remembrance Day (Veteran's Day in the United States), there is just one in the crowded ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. It's being worn by 15-year-old Freddie Highmore, who says he pinned it to his lapel five days earlier when he left his native England. Asked about it, he says, "We wear it as a symbol of remembrance for the people who sacrificed their lives for us in the wars. It's important."
It's another sign of the maturity of a teen actor known for his performances in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Good Year, and Finding Neverland. He plays the title character in his latest film, August Rush, which tells the story of an orphan who believes that his parents are searching for him and that if he plays his music, they will hear it.
However, his birth parents don't know he exists. His mother (Keri Russell) was told by her father that her baby died, but senses that something is missing from her life. Meanwhile, his father (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) still pines for the beautiful cello player with whom he had a memorable one-night stand. The film opens Wednesday (November 21) in Vancouver.
Rhys Meyers is a fan. He says Highmore's maturity went a long way toward helping the cast and crew tell the story. "If Freddie doesn't work, then the movie doesn't work," Rhys Meyers explained. "He is August Rush. We are just there to support his story. But we were fortunate because he just happens to be one of these kids who can sit in a room of adults and there is equality there. He is smart. There is a good reason why a great actor like Johnny Depp (who starred in Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) takes to this kid so much. He saw something inside him that is different from other kids, but not better or worse. He has great empathy for people, and that is very attractive both as an actor and as a human being. I think that quality makes him very watchable."
Highmore spent six months learning how to play the guitar for the role, which he completed 18 months ago. He also learned to talk with an American accent and to conduct an orchestra. He says that while none of it was easy, he was looking for a challenge and found it playing August.
"The most important thing with the guitar was to get it to look right so that it always appeared that I was playing it," Highmore said. "I learned all the songs I had to play so it wouldn't just look like I was faking it, and most of the time what you hear was the song I played. The harder thing was conducting. It was a normal piece of conducting, but longer than the guitar pieces. I wanted to make it look real. I didn't just want to wave my arms around. I wanted to do it properly because I felt people could tell if you didn't look as though you knew what you were doing."
Highmore's own gift, which has led to winning several child-acting awards, will not be on view much longer, he says. The actor has continually told reporters that he will not attempt to be an adult actor, preferring to find other ways to make a living when he gets older.
Asked if his success at such a young age had led to him being called a "freak" like the character in August Rush, Highmore says that he has managed to keep life simple: "My best friends from school have been the ones that I have known since before filming and I go to a normal school so I am not home schooled. I try to be [as] normal as I can."