Freddie Highmore: 'When you're eighteen, you can't act the kid any more'

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Johnny Depp loves him, but Freddie Highmore still isn't sure about acting. With a BBC blockbuster on the way, he tells Gerard Gilbert how he's avoided becoming another child-star casualty

Show business is infamously littered with child stars gone bad. The transition from cute little popsy to spotty teenager and beyond is rarely easy, but for the Macaulay Culkins and Lindsay Lohans of this world, their cuteness enlarged and projected on to countless multiplex screens, growing pains can lead to some equally public off-the-rails behaviour.

More common than those sensational downhill trajectories into rehab or prison, however, are the child stars who quietly fade away as adulthood encroaches, fodder for endless "Where are they now?" articles – the Fred Savages, Mark Lesters and Peter Ostrums. Peter Ostrum? As a lad he played Charlie Bucket in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but is now a successful equine vet working in upstate New York. Ostrum is particularly relevant to the 18-year-old actor I am on my way to meet, for Freddie Highmore, who had his big break at the age of 12 opposite Johnny Depp in the JM Barrie biopic Finding Neverland, has also portrayed Charlie Bucket on film, in Tim Burton's 2005 take on the Roald Dahl children's classic.

"When you're 18 you can't play the kid from Finding Neverland any more," is Highmore's sensible assessment of his situation. "People have different expectations when you're younger – it's less about changing yourself into a character; they want a more natural thing. And they just want you to be able to turn up every day and carry on working. They have a horrible fear of 10- or 11-year-olds, that they're going to say 'I don't want to play today.'"

That never happened with Highmore. He never sulked or threw his toys out of the pram, and he has worked steadily through puberty and adolescence. His latest transitional, not-quite-adult role will be screened on BBC1 over Christmas. In Toast, an adaptation by the Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall of Nigel Slater's memoir of family and food in the West Midlands of the 1960s, Highmore plays the future cookery writer from his mid-teens through to catering college.

Slater's enjoyable autobiography is almost Proustian, if you substitute Jammie Dodgers for madeleines; it tells, through the cooking and confectionery of the era, the story of his mother's premature death and the takeover of the family home by the cleaner – and soon-to-be stepmother – the hostile Mrs Potter. It's a not-altogether-lost world of what are now no doubt retro-chic victuals – salad cream, beetroot in vinegar, Angel Delight, Spangles, Sherbet Fountains and bars of Caramac.

Playing the obsessively house-proud Mrs Potter, polishing and cooking her way into the marital bed, is Helena Bonham Carter – the third time the actress has portrayed Highmore's mother. "She's my stepmum this time," corrects Highmore, who had filial roles opposite Bonham Carter in his debut film, Women Talking Dirty, aged seven, and again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "It is very funny to go through your life with her as your mum every so often. This time she's the nasty stepmum. It was a bit of a change. Obviously, when you get on so well with someone and then you have to dislike them on set..."

Bonham Carter is part of a tight web of associations for Highmore. The actress is married to Tim Burton, who is supposed to have cast Highmore in Charlie... on the say-so of Johnny Depp, Highmore's co-star in Finding Neverland. "He put in a good word, yes; perhaps it came down to that in some way," says Highmore. "People build up a picture of Johnny Depp as being some sort of weird pirate character. In reality he's incredibly nice... one of the nicest people I've ever met. We meet up whenever we're in the same country."

If Highmore seems so unfazed by celebrity and the whole business of movie-making, it might have something to do with his heritage. His father, Edward, is an actor best known for his role in the BBC's answer to Dynasty, the Thatcherite soap Howard's Way, while his mother, Sue Latimer, is a talent agent whose clients include Imelda Staunton and Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. "He's a few years older than me, but our families have known each other for ages, not just through acting," says Highmore. "Even before Dan and I had done our first film, we were playing together on the beach. I think there are photos of us somewhere. So it's funny that we've grown up and both ended up doing films.

"It's very nice having my mum as my agent," he adds. "You know that she's always doing what's best for you. And the roles I take have always been family decisions. That might change a bit now with me leaving home, but before, it would affect the whole family: my brother, my mum and my dad – we'd all discuss it. It was not just about what I wanted to do, because four months away in Montreal, for example, for The Spiderwick Chronicles [the 2008 fantasy in which Highmore played twins], it does affect everyone. My dad usually comes out with me and my mum usually stays with my brother, so it's quite a long time to split up the family."

Indeed, the Highmores are a close-knit family – they share an Arsenal family season ticket – but with the limelight firmly on his older brother, is 15-year-old Bertie Highmore just a tiny bit, well, jealous? "No, he's very happy playing football, carrying on with music, piano and violin," says Highmore the elder. "He's very happy not to have been involved in all of it. It's the best thing that he's been so accepting and encouraging of me doing this – he hasn't wanted to do it, which I think is great. He's doing his own thing."

In fact, Bertie and Freddie made their debut together – in Women Talking Dirty – but from then on it was Freddie all the way, with small parts in the TV dramas Happy Birthday Shakespeare, I Saw You and Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story, in which he acted alongside his father. "It ' was through friends, I guess. They'd say, 'There's a small part for a boy to walk along with his dad; would Freddie like to come over for the afternoon?' It would start off like that," he says of the casual nature of his early work.

Things became a good deal more serious with Finding Neverland. The story of JM Barrie's friendship with the family which inspired Peter Pan, it was an international hit, and the 12-year-old Highmore had cinema-goers worldwide blubbing in their seats and award-givers lining up to honour him.

"That was a while back," he says now, as if reviewing a long-distant youth instead of a mere six years ago. "Finding Neverland was, I guess, the big break. It definitely made things a bit easier. It came out two years after we'd filmed it so there was this break, and perhaps that helped as well."

In the meantime, young Freddie got on with his schooling – at a primary school in Hampstead Garden Suburb in north London, then at the fee-paying Highgate School. "I went to the same [secondary] school all the way though," he says. "It was nice to keep the same friends. You spend a few months away every year, but when you go back it would be the same people, rather than having to make new friends. They didn't really see you differently; it was like you'd gone away on holiday or something."

Highmore was a hard-working scholar, unlike the character he plays in his next film, Homework, which was shot earlier this year in New York, where he shared a rented apartment with father. ("We had cooked meals instead of room service, which was great," he says, a sentiment I suspect few chaps his age would share.) In this coming-of-age drama co-starring Emma Roberts (Julia's niece), Highmore plays a high-school slacker who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a girl he has admired from afar. "It should definitely be different to other things I've done, so I'm excited about that," he says. "It's definitely older."

He has also been in South Africa filming Master Harold and the Boys, a drama set in the Apartheid era, co-starring Ving Rhames. Then there is the small matter of university. Highmore did well enough in his A-levels to win a place at Cambridge, and he is currently nearing the end of his first term studying Spanish and Arabic at Emmanuel College. Did he envisage a potential clash with the college authorities over filming commitments?

"I'm not sure how well they'll take to me going away," he says. "But with the subjects I'm doing, Spanish and Arabic, if I'm in those countries speaking the language, I'm sure they won't object too much. And the holidays seem incredibly long. Even with school, I managed to fit filming into holiday time. I imagine that if I am able to keep up with my studies and get good grades, that's the main thing they're concerned about. So, yes, I'm still looking to combine the two."

That last comment belies something Highmore said last year, which translated into headlines of the "I want to give up acting" variety. "Every chat I have with a journalist, they mention that I've almost quit," he says. "What I was trying to say is, I'm not totally sure what I'd like to settle on for the rest of my life. So definitely no plans at the moment to stop."

Some of the more well-adjusted former child stars have chosen to either sit out the transition from teenage to adult roles on campus, or broaden their interests and options through higher education. Jodie Foster, for instance, went from the notoriety of playing a prostitute when just 14 in Taxi Driver and the nightmare of John Hinckley Jr's assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan (Hinckley shot the president in an attempt to impress the actress) to fully grown leading lady after three years at Yale, where she majored in literature; while Emma Watson has chosen another Ivy League establishment, Brown University in Rhode Island, while the Harry Potter franchise winds down.

"I'll spend the next however many years just at Cambridge, and if I'm lucky enough to get something else then I'll still be having a great time," says Highmore. "Definitely afterwards there's going to be a point where I'll have to decide to do that or something else full-time."

And what about that essential life skill: cooking? Did Nigel Slater, whom he met on set several times during the filming of Toast, pass on any tips that will stand him in good stead while he's in digs? "Not really, but I guess I'll have to learn now I'm at university. I've never been a great cook. I can put something on a grill, or pasta on to boil, but I could never bake a cake on my own without following the recipes. I like to be told exactly what to do." Come to think of it, that's not a bad recipe for getting on in show business.

'Toast' is on BBC1 later this month

Three child stars who made the leap....

Jodie Foster Starring in ads from the age of three, her big-screen breakthrough came in Taxi Driver in 1976, when Foster was 14, for which she won an Oscar nomination. She's since scooped Academy Awards for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs.

Christian Bale Steven Spielberg cast the 12-year-old Welsh-born Bale in 1987's Empire of the Sun. He graduated to weighty roles, from Patrick Bateman in American Psycho to Christopher Nolan's Batman.

Drew Barrymore After instant success as a seven-year-old in ET came a drink- and drug-fuelled meltdown. But Barrymore managed a successful comeback in the 1990s, and made her directorial debut last year with the acclaimed Whip It.

...and three who struggled

Jack Wild Playing the Artful Dodger in 1968's Oliver! shot the 16-year-old to fame and an Oscar nomination. But he failed to repeat the success and, after years of heavy drinking and smoking, he contracted cancer in 2000 and passed away in 2006.

Corey Haim The Lost Boys made Haim a star in 1987 – but the actor also had his first joint on set, beginning a spiral of drug abuse. He slipped from the limelight, and was found dead of a suspected overdose, aged 38, in March.

Lindsay Lohan Lohan's cinematic debut came aged 11 in The Parent Trap, but her career stalled as she pinballed between rehab and jail. Though still in rehab, she appears in Robert Rodriguez's Machete, out this week. Holly Williams

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