Fan Fest Exclusive Interview: Nicholas Gonzalez Talks All Things ‘The Good Doctor’
ABC’s newest mega-hit series The Good Doctor has enamored audiences and captured the hearts of viewers and critics everywhere during its first season.
The series follows Doctor Shaun Murphy (played by Freddie Highmore), a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome who relocates from quiet country life to join a prestigious hospital’s surgical unit. Murphy is entirely alone in the world and experiences several challenges when it comes to his surgical career. He struggles to connect with those around him personally, but Shaun uses his extraordinary medical gifts to save lives and challenge the skepticism of his colleagues.
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with series star Nicholas Gonzalez who plays Dr. Neil Melendez on The Good Doctor. We spoke with him about the show’s impact on its viewers as well as his hopes for the series looking ahead to season 2 and much more!
Denise Caputo: First things first, congratulations on the season two renewal of The Good Doctor! Seems like it was a long time coming.
Nicholas Gonzalez: Thank you! Yeah, it’s so weird and there’s no reason there. Everyone wants to know, “Gosh, were they thinking back and forth?” Then you have others saying, “See, it’s because the politics they were dealing with in one episode and that’s why the ratings dipped and the next week the ratings came back up because they weren’t doing politics.” It’s so funny because it has nothing to do with any of those little things. Everybody knew there was going to be a second season but we’re seasoned professionals and we’ve been around long enough to know that you never celebrate until you’re there shooting.
DC: Before we get into questions about the series, in particular, let’s just talk a little bit about your career. You’ve been in a ton of other amazing series like How To Get Away With Murder, Pretty Little Liars, Being Mary Jane, and now The Good Doctor. Tell me about how you got into acting in the first place, and then how you found your way to a show like The Good Doctor?
NG: I came to a point in college where I was either going to start interviewing for what I thought was going to be my career, which was investment banking/management consulting or to follow a hobby. I wasn’t even doing a lot of acting while I was in Stanford or in high school/middle school other than the school requirements. I never dabbled in acting until college. I strangely found myself interested in improv, just because I thought it was funny and I grew up watching it. I used to watch a local show in San Antonio, a group of guys called the Oxymoron’s, which I thought was a great name, and they were this improv troupe. I wanted to do that. When I went to Stanford, I got into an improv class just for fun.
Then, when I came back after my junior year abroad, I was studying at Oxford and back-packed by myself for four months around Europe, I thought, “You know what? I want to do some more of that improv.” I used to run cross-country and track while in college. I quit running and I said, “I want to do more of that improv.” However, once you took that one improv class that was it so, I found another acting class where the course description included improv exercises. That’s when I got into theater. I was approached about doing a graduate play by Jose Rivera. Another professional actor was in the group. She was studying to get her Ph.D. at Stanford. Her name is Alma Martinez. She happened to be in the audience and saw me. She pulled me aside afterward and said, “You need to continue doing this.”
I honestly just got into it for fun and was introduced to the theater scene by Alma. Then, I just started doing everything I could get my hands on, but again, it was still a hobby. I was a Texas boy who grew up in the 80s. There weren’t acting coaches and headshot studios like there are on every corner in every city in the U.S. now. When it came time to graduate I said, “You know what? Even if I don’t make any money, I think I’d be happy staying with theater.” (laughs) Like an idiot, I moved to LA to do theater and then everything took off from there.
As far as The Good Doctor, they say it takes 20 years to create a professional or to be a professional and this winter is my 20th year in LA. It’s somewhat fortuitous. There was a lot of rejection along the way. There was a lot of acceptance. There was a lot of work that, while I enjoyed it, wasn’t always the most adventurous or that I felt best used my talents but, I was having fun. I learned a lot along the way. I’ve been replaced a number of times. I’ve been sought after a number of times. Some things that were supposed to be big never were. It’s a career with so many ups and downs but it’s one that I’m proud of. This is honestly a dream come true. It really is.
DC: That’s wonderful. It’s all a part of life, right?
NG: It ain’t easy! I tell people if they can see themselves doing anything else, do it because you never know. Right now, I’m remembering to always celebrate these highs and this type of opportunity because they don’t come around all the time. I had a great opportunity like this when Resurrection Boulevard started at the top of my career back in 1999. It was the end of my first year in LA. That’s what this feels like. It’s another beautiful high when the things you want to do and the things you love, all come together in one project. You’ve got to remember that, celebrate it at the time and enjoy it.
DC: Definitely, and this must be a huge high for you and the show. The Good Doctor is a mega-hit with critics and with fans alike. The show is a total breath of fresh air. It’s a perfect marriage of medical drama combined with touching light-heartedness. It’s a one-of-a-kind show and people love it! When you first read the script, did you realize how big of a hit it was going to be or how much it would resonate with the viewership?
NG: I don’t know if I ever knew what a hit it was going to be or how it was going to resonate. My only meter was how it affected me. For one, I saw David Shore was doing the project, who I respect a lot and have enjoyed his past work. Then to read it, I was moved and excited by the prospect of being able to give life to a character like Dr. Melendez. This project, it’s just so good. I was just going to go in and have a lot of fun. I’ve gotten to a place within the last couple of years where I said to myself, “You know what? This isn’t about trying to be right anymore and trying to be what I think the producers or the network executives want. This is now going to be about me enjoying what I do, taking the jobs that I love and being able to do a job that I love the way I want to do it, as opposed to constantly worrying what I think they’re looking for.” That’s when everything changed for me. Everything really took off for me once I stopped trying to be right and just started making interesting choices.
DC: Well, you made the right choice. The Good Doctor is certainly something that fans have fallen in love with. The show’s diverse casting (which includes different ethnicities, genders, and disability inclusion) plus the overarching messages of hope and acceptance add to the series’ success. Now that you know how the show is impacting viewers, what’s it like working on a series like The Good Doctor that’s inspiring so many people and that’s making such an impact on viewers’ lives?
NG: I’m constantly sharing stories with David Shore because he doesn’t get to see everything. Freddie [Highmore] is not on social media, so I’m constantly letting him know some of the special stories that come to light. We really give a shit. That’s the difference. We really care about telling the story. With the amazing crew that we’ve put together and the cast, honestly, everybody just works so hard to put this out.
I’ve heard stories of parents of children with autism that have had breakthroughs with their kids because of their identification with Shaun and them being able to understand each other. There’s a myriad of stories but, I don’t want to sit here and say, “Wow, The Good Doctor changes lives,” but it touches people. To me, that’s all I want to do anyway in my life. If we can have a blast, and we do, and in the process have people touched, affected and hopefully change the way they feel about something, or elevate their mood at a particular moment. I mean, I’m on a gravy train with biscuit wheels! This is great!
To share a story with you – A friend of mine that I went to school with, we had a contentious friendship as you would have with kids that you know growing up. We grew up all the way from preschool through middle school together. She recently told me “I remember, I tell my kids about how you used to kick me in the shins,” or, “I used to run after you on the playground,” you know, “Always bickering.” She has a couple children and one of them was born missing a limb and she needed a tracheotomy. She had the trach tube for her whole life as well as a myriad of other medical issues. Her life had just been dealt so many blows, and because of Facebook, we were brought back into contact with each other. She would message me and say, “Hey, I see you all the time on TV and I tell my kids about how you used to bully me. It’s good to see you’re doing well.” Just very friendly back and forth conversation.
Her daughter, the one with the trach, passed away just a few days ago from complications. She had grown up and lived quite a good, full life, and I could tell there was a lot of love in that home. My friend reached out and I wrote a little message back to her not wanting to do anything other than to share my condolences and step out of the way. She wrote me and she said:
“I wanted you to know that Laney loved The Good Doctor. She was so excited to see someone portrayed with special needs that was doing great things. Being it set in the medical field made it feel like home.
She often wanted a character with a trach and one arm, like her, to be on the show. Heck, she wanted to be on the show to show you all what a true medical kid is like and what they can do. When I told her you used to kick my shins in third grade she laughed and then told me that because I know you so well I could get her on the show. LOL. I kind of wished I’d asked. Not because anything would have happened but because she would have been excited to know that I did. Hold your babies close. We don’t know how many days we have. Only God does and when it’s time to go home, we got to go. Thanks for being a part of a great show that I love too. It made a positive impact on my little girl who looked to Hollywood at times to give her a little escape from reality and a hope for better things in life.”
DC: Wow, you’re going to make me cry! My goodness!
NG: I’m crying reading it. How do I feel about that? It’s beautiful! It’s beautiful. I thank David [Shore]. I thank these producers. I thank our writers and our crew for giving a shit and putting this together every week. They all genuinely do.
DC: That’s amazing. Wow. Okay. No more crying! Switching gears a little bit, let’s talk about your character, Dr. Neil Melendez. He’s the Attending Surgeon at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital. He’s not exactly a “nice guy” when we first meet him but, as the season progresses, you and the writers do a wonderful job of transitioning him ever so slightly into a kinder, gentler Melendez. He’s quickly becoming a fan favorite character on the show. How does it feel to play a character that fans may not have initially loved, but now, everyone is rooting for you?
NG: We’re doing the show out in the suburbs of Vancouver. We’re not out here in LA or even in the United States running around getting feedback. Granted, I know initial reactions because of social media and other things like that but, we’re just doing our job. I believe in the artistic fallacy that you can try to make people feel however you want them to feel but, people are going to feel and react to your work however their own paths dictate based on their own traumas or their past experiences. I can’t try to make people feel a particular way but, I can be honest and truthful to the story.
While it may be hard for people to watch Melendez treat Shaun “badly,” as some people say, for me, Melendez comes from a place of love. Even as an Attending, it doesn’t mean that he’s sitting there rubbing backs and being everyone’s confessor and therapist. We don’t have the time for that. This program needs to weed out the people that need that consistently and leave the people that can actually get the job done. Then, how do we find that balance? Claire [Browne] is a great example. She’s the heart of the show in many ways. Of course, we have The Good Doctor but, she’s that heart for all the emotion that maybe we feel isn’t apparent. We’ve grown to know that Shaun doesn’t lack the emotion. It’s just a different way of communicating it. Claire is basically teaching him that. She is that heart. While people may feel however they feel, I feel like we tell a very honest and true story.
I have to be sure that Shaun is capable of doing the job that he’s going to be called to do when I’m not there. He’s got to be a certain amount of predictable in these situations. Until he isn’t an unknown, he’s going to be under the same scrutiny as everyone else.
I love interesting and real characters. I love real people and we’re not always likable. I think that with Melendez, he does lead with his heart. Sometimes, there’s a passion that comes with that in a manner that isn’t palatable to the general public. People that are in medicine know that manner very well.
DC: Looking a little into the future to season two, what are your hopes for Dr. Melendez and then what do you hope for the show, in general, as well?
NG: We haven’t talked a lot about the future of these characters yet. I know we will in some ways, but there’s going to be so much change and I don’t even know what that is. I’m curious to see how it’s all going to pan out with the residents and who’s going to be around. I genuinely don’t know. What’s different about The Good Doctor and what makes it hard to answer this question is that there’s a real fair balance between procedural surgeries and the private lives of the doctors. We have to find a lot of it out through work because we’re not always following our characters home. We do at times and that titillates the interest more but it will be interesting to see how far we’re going to get.
I would like to see a Melendez that’s navigating the world a little more on his own and outside of that relationship with Jessica Preston. I can see the season going towards a single Melendez. I’d like to see him challenged more. I love to watch and love to play those moments of Melendez growing as a person. When a challenge is offered to him, I like to see him rise to it. I think we’re going to fail too. We can’t always win. I was talking about that with David Shore the other day. These people aren’t the same after going through some of these surgeries. They have their chest cracked and we saved their life but then what happens afterward?
DC: Yeah, definitely. That would all be great to see in season 2! Now, here at Fan Fest News, we celebrate fandoms and all the things that we love and that we are fans of, ourselves, in pop culture whether it’s music, film, television, books, and so on. Right now, in today’s pop culture world, what are some things that you fanboy over? What are you a fan of nowadays?
NG: I’m a fan of the new Queer Eye. I thought I was going to hate it initially but to see a little crossing of the aisles, it’s kind of neat. I’m loving The Crown. It’s always so good! Big Mouth with Nick Kroll was pretty great. It’s actually really well done! We also really loved American Vandal! That seemed like a one-trick pony and just did not seem like something that had legs. Then, once you’re watching, you say “Wow these guys are good!” They were hilarious! Going in we were thinking, “how funny can this continue to be?” The answer, very funny!
DC: We asked your fans on Twitter if they had any questions for you and we got an excellent response. One of the most popular questions submitted is about that mysterious little peek-a-boo deer tattoo that peeks out of your scrubs every so often on The Good Doctor. Your fans are dying to know if it’s real? If it’s not real, does it have a special meaning to Melendez, and will we ever find out what it is?
NG: I will say that it was pretty cool to have David Shore and the producers saying, “we like the idea of a doctor or a surgeon with tattoos, but maybe a little different than normal. Like a neck tattoo possibly,” and I was like, “Yeah!” (laughs) It doesn’t necessarily denote a dark past but, he’s got his reasons. I don’t know if we’re going to see that.
DC: Interesting! Keeping the tattoo mystery alive! Can you tell us about some of the funniest moments that you’ve experienced on set?
NG: (laughing) Some of the funniest moments for us happen when you just get the laughing fits while you’re trying to say these really difficult lines. One of the funnier ones for me was kind of a “you had to be there” type moment, but Richard Schiff and I were doing this boardroom scene where I was trying to fight for my patient named Chuck who was trying to get a liver. He had a drop of alcohol and therefore possibly wasn’t going to be getting his liver and I was fighting for the surgery to go ahead anyway. The line starts with them saying something about, “Well hundreds of patients will want blah, blah, blah.” And my line is, “I don’t have hundreds of patients. I have one and his name is Chuck.” Every time I’d say, “His name is Chuck,” Schiff would just start laughing and go, “Oh yeah? Is his name Chuck?” (laughs) Then, we’d get into it.
There are a lot of little moments like that because it’s such high drama sometimes. There was an actor, just recently, playing the part of a guy who was talking about his life. He was saying something along the lines of, “I’ve been watching over my kids and my wife died not that long ago and all that’s been going on and now you’re telling me I’m going to have to poop in a bag for the rest of my life?” (laughs) It’s horrible! It’s just such a jarring thing for this guy, the colostomy bag, and it is in real life. It’s an awful thing but we could not keep it together. This poor actor, he was so nice and he was giving his all. He was bare and very sincere but, every time he would get to the part, “You’re telling me I have to poop in a bag for the rest of my life,” we just couldn’t keep it together. I don’t know. That’s one of my childish moments. (laughs)
DC: Nice! That’s hilarious! On a slightly more serious note, The Good Doctor has covered several “stop and make you think” type topics, as well as a variety of medical issues. Are there any relevant or current event topics that you would like to see Melendez involved in? Maybe in season two?
NG: I jump back and forth between whether there are topics that Melendez needs to be involved in or if it’s just good that we’re dealing with it but, Immigration is a topic that’s kind of hard to overlook. I love that we’re dealing with sexual harassment and the unequal handling of that. The country is going to dictate that. I’ve noticed the scripts always seem straight out of the headlines. We’re seeing more things that people are dealing with or that we’ve seen happen and less of just what’s the strangest thing that you can come up with. We’re usually dealing with whatever society’s concerned with, which I think is very responsible.
DC: The last thing I have for you is not a question so much as just a comment from your fans. They said, “tell him he’s a great actor and that we love him!” Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know, or that you want to tell your fans?
NG: (laughs) I would just like to say thank you. This honestly is not possible without the love of fans and the interest in watching and sharing your love for The Good Doctor. Honestly, that’s the only way this continues, and for us to be allowed to continue doing this for another season. I’m in heaven. So, a sincere thank you!
Thank you, Nicholas Gonzalez, for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to speak with us here at Fan Fest News and for answering our fan-submitted questions! We can’t wait to see more Melendez in season 2 of The Good Doctor.
In addition to Gonzalez and Highmore, the series also stars Antonia Thomas as Dr. Claire Brown, Chuku Modu as Dr. Jared Kalu, Beau Garrett as Jessica Preston, Hill Harper as Dr. Marcus Andrews, Tamlyn Tomita as Allegra Aoki and Richard Schiff as Dr. Aaron Glassman. The Good Doctor is written by House creator David Shore who also serves as executive producer along with Lost and Hawaii Five-O alum Daniel Dae Kim.
The Good Doctor is just about to wrap up its first season. You can catch new episodes Monday nights at 10 pm EST on ABC or go to ABC.com to watch episodes on demand.