Freddie Highmore was only 9 years old when he started filming his role as the emotionally traumatized Peter Llewelyn Davies in Finding Neverland. So how on earth did he come up with his astonishingly powerful performance? ''Well, you just sort of think about what the character's thinking,'' he says, ''and then you're in the character.''
Kids. They make it all seem so easy.
Exhibiting a vulnerability and focus unlike any child actor since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, Highmore provides an unforgettable portrait of an introverted young boy drawn further inward by the death of his father and the worsening illness of his mother. ''When there were scenes with Freddie,'' says Depp, ''Kate and I just stood back and let him go. It's unbelievably compelling.'' Seconds Winslet: ''He has the most terrifying instincts, they're just bang-on. And he has no idea that he has that.''
Neither did his costars at first. So director Marc Forster decided to schedule one of Highmore's toughest scenes where he tears up a book and demolishes a playhouse on his second day of filming. ''I did that on purpose because I felt when Kate and Johnny observe that child act, it will change their attitude towards working with him,'' Forster explains. ''I have never witnessed anything like it.''
Highmore, who's now 12, remembers that day a bit differently. ''Smashing up the playhouse, that was really great,'' says the actor, a rabid soccer fan whose mother is a talent agent in London (representing the likes of Imelda Staunton). ''Sometimes they'd say, 'Oh, sorry, there was a problem with the sound or the lights.' And I'd say, 'Yes! I get to smash it up again!'''
Depp and Winslet were so impressed with Highmore that they each recommended him for the title role in Tim Burton's forthcoming update of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, also starring Depp. So Highmore, who insists he's nowhere near as moody as Peter, did find he had something in common with Charlie. ''When I left the set of Finding Neverland, I was quite upset, because I thought I wouldn't see Johnny again,'' he says. ''And Charlie wants to go back to the chocolate factory. We both got our wishes.''