Actress Paige Spara is a breath of fresh air. She’s best known for her role as Lea Dillalo in The Good Doctor, and after watching her on the show for 6 seasons now (and counting), it’s hard to imagine that there was a time where her character wasn’t supposed to be a series regular. Lea is the love interest of the show’s protagonist, Dr. Shaun Murphy, played by Freddie Highmore, but originally she was written to just be a friend and neighbor for Shaun. However, Spara’s on-screen chemistry with Highmore quickly made the creators realize this was the spark the show needed, as it is undeniably one of the highlights of the show. Whether they are navigating the complexities of their relationship or facing personal challenges, Spara infuses every scene with sincerity and vulnerability.
Spara’s versatility shines through in her ability to seamlessly transition between moments of lightheartedness and intense emotional depth– just in the last two seasons, her multidimensional character has experienced so much love and loss, and her range as an actress allows her to explore a wide spectrum of emotions. She effortlessly balances Lea’s sense of humor and playfulness with her character’s moments of vulnerability and introspection. From her initial appearances as a close friend to her blossoming romance with Shaun, Spara’s portrayal showcases the evolution of Lea as a character. Her ability to subtly convey Lea’s growth, maturity, and inner strength is a testament to her talent and dedication as an actress.
Just after the finale of season 6 of The Good Doctor, Spara sits down with 1883 Magazine to chat about her connection to Lea, one of her first “acting jobs” leading a NYC Gossip Girl bus tour, and her plans for her career in the future.
You acted in your first short film in 2010, what was your life like before landing that first role?
Oh, that’s so funny you even saw that. That was in high school, I think. I grew up in Washington, PA which if you’re not familiar, is 30 minutes South from Pittsburgh, and life was pretty normal! I have a brother and a sister, mom and a dad, and I tried all the sports, all the instruments, and quit everything. The one thing I never quit was theater! My mom really encouraged me to follow my love for it so I even did theater camp at one point. I did community theater, and then I ended up really auditioning for a theater conservatory in Pittsburgh. My parents made me give them two years in Pittsburgh to see if I really wanted to do this, and after the two year period I was able to do whatever I wanted!
I think that’s a fair compromise!
Yeah. You know, looking back and the older I get, I mean, even when I visit New York City now at 33, and when I moved there, I was 20. I wasn’t even 21 yet. I cannot believe what I did there. The energy you must have and the naivety you have to have to romanticize living the way I lived and commuted to even get to school and work for jobs. I mean, I couldn’t even walk to my subway stop now at 33 without getting a little bit of anxiety. You know what I mean? It’s crazy.
I definitely understand that. Especially after you’re so used to living in a very comfortable place, NYC can be a lot.
Yeah, I love how you said that. It’s a different kind of comfortable too. I love that. That was so well said. That’s exactly what it is.
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I have to ask you about something– I read that before acting, you worked as a Gossip Girl bus tour guide in NYC. I’m a huge Gossip Girl fan. How was that job?
Right, that is insane. Oh my gosh. I was a junior in college at Marymount Manhattan College and I really needed to make more money than what I was getting waiting tables at that time. And a friend of mine from Pittsburgh was actually a tour guide and told me he made around $30 an hour, plus tips. And I’m like, “holy shit, where?” So I applied for the job and it was like auditioning for a job, really. And the owner told me that being a young woman with my personality, I could do Gossip Girl.
At that time I never watched an episode of Gossip Girl. I didn’t have enough money for that Netflix account when it first became a streaming service. So I borrowed my sister’s account login and I binged all of Gossip Girl in a week, memorized a 30 page script during finals, and then next thing you know, I’m on this bus with tourists from all over the world. I think it was usually 50 people on a tour and it was a three hour long bus tour. And I would also have to direct the bus driver, and yes, they’ve done these routes before, but we would always get a new bus driver– I never really worked with the same person more than twice. So we would stop along these sites in New York City and I would have to improv and go along with the script and show people what scenes filmed where.
I offered insight into how a film production would film in New York all while kind of navigating traffic with my bus driver. Then there were two stops at Henri Bendel and Dylan’s Candy Bar. So then I would have to park this charter bus and then allow people to go shopping and kind of keep tabs on everyone and get them back on the bus and not leave anyone behind, but also do it within three hours. Let me tell you, when I also did the Central Park TV movie walking tour, the adults that paid money for that tour and then saw me, a 21 year old, and at the time I looked like I was probably 16, they were not happy. So I had to win over an audience and prove to them that this is going to be worth their time here in New York. It helped me overcome my stutter when I speak. I get really nervous in interviews and at that time when I was in college, when I would have to do any kind of speaking in front of the classroom, I would stutter. I would second guess myself and would almost shut down, which I know is strange because I love acting. But acting you get to memorize someone else’s words, so you get to practice how they feel in your mouth. That job really helped me gain some self-esteem and helped with my confidence when speaking in front of people.
What a great exercise to help you for future auditions, and obviously you ended up landing the role of your career. What a great memory!
Oh, thank you. That’s exactly what it was because I realized that it helped me get more comfortable just interacting one-on-one with people, and that’s my favourite time of pastime anyway. I love one-on-one– ask any one of my friends, it’s usually just one or two of us on a balcony somewhere talking. That really helped me carry confidence in rooms for instance, like in LA, I never really got nervous because I just zeroed in with whoever was in front of me and just allowed myself to show up and have that humility and grace that you get living in New York. Then also being honest with these people, like, I know I don’t look like your average tour guide and I may fumble through this, but let’s have fun please.
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What originally drew you to the role of Lea in The Good Doctor?
When I originally got this breakdown, I hadn’t worked in quite some time. You know, my last big thing was for Kevin From Work for ABC family. What I loved about this was that at first, it wasn’t the romantic female lead with Freddie Highmore. I love that it offered friendship. Originally in the breakdown, I was supposed to be his neighbour and a friend to him, and I loved wanting to show that friendship and relationship dynamic with someone who’s neurotypical and then someone who has autism. Especially working with Freddie Highmore, that really excited me and I just thought that would be amazing to get to learn such challenging material and such a challenging storyline that, at the time, assumed David Shore would be breaching given what the show was about. So I was really excited for the challenge and to learn alongside Freddie really.
Lea was obviously just supposed to be a recurring role, but your chemistry with Freddie Highmore was so magnetic that they brought you on as a main role. At that point did you realize how much your life and career were going to change?
I would say after that sixth episode that Bill D’Elia directed with Freddie. It was our road trip episode and there were certain moments of validation I got from Bill; how he encouraged me to kind of make this material into my voice. Then I was like, okay, that’s really interesting that you’re trusting me enough to kind of shape this a little bit here. Then Fred goes to me, “alright, Paige, well good luck during pilot season, I hope no one books you too soon because I really hope I get to work with you soon.” I said, “yeah, thanks, because this is it for me. Pretty sure I won’t work for another two years, but that’s nice of you.” I got back to LA and pilot season, I got very close to certain things and I was about to take another job and Freddie the night before had texted me being like, “how’s pilot season going?” I told him about this potential job and then a couple of days later we got the phone call from Sony offering me the series regular job. So I think that’s when I started to piece together when Freddie was checking in and telling me he hopes we get to work together soon. That really surprised me!
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At that moment when you were getting those like subtle hints, I’m sure you were very passionate about the script, the show and everything that you had done with it so far, but did you know or were you able to grasp on to like how big the show would end up becoming and how long it would end up going for?
Oh my God, not at all. I mean, at that time in my career, I was just so happy to be getting into the rooms to even audition. You know, I love auditioning so much because of that hope that that kind of provides. At that time, I mean, even in season two, even in season three, I never knew if I was ever going to be a part of this show, especially because Leah is a non-doctor on a medical procedural show. So I really had no kind of hopes or understanding of where my character will actually land, especially in season three when they introduced another love interest character. I didn’t really know David Shore and the showrunners, they don’t talk to us about where our storylines are going. I think the only person that really ever knows is Freddie because he’s the producer.
So I kind of was just along for the ride, and then I think in season four and five, Fred was like, “okay, we’re in this, we’re going to take this to the end.” Then when it got picked up for seasons five and six, I just thought that was such a privilege and honour to be a part of TV history in a way, especially in an age of like streamers and season ones and twos and mini-series and the cancellations that can happen because there’s so much content, I grew up watching Network TV and Shonda Rhimes in Grey’s Anatomy changed my life when I was in high school when I watched that. So, I couldn’t believe we’re all kind of a part of this now. I had no idea. That was a very long-winded answer [laughs].
No, it was great! Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s really cool that it has gotten picked up for so many seasons because so much has happened with every character, not just Lea and not just Shaun. But specifically for Lea, she has gone through so much– from losing a child, getting married, getting pregnant again. How do you think you’ve grown as an actress with Lea since starting the role in 2017?
Oh, wow. That’s a great question. I think I’ve grown so much professionally and personally on this show with this crew, especially. This Canadian crew are some of the most hardworking, kind people I have ever met. Them showing up every single day and the hours that they work on a 10 month production schedule, and they just give it their best every day, I mean, I really feed off of that and they taught me how to continuously show up with kindness and professionalism and this excitement we all get that we still collaborate. I mean, it’s not just the director directing us. We’re working with Michael Wrinch, our camera A operator, and Russell Hawkes, our B camera operator, Chris Faloona, our DP, who’s also from Pittsburgh. So that’s been really fun.
It’s taught me to constantly think about everyone involved making this vision a reality and how best I can serve that on top of being extremely prepared and then on top of finding the humanity in every single interaction my character has on the show without any judgment, without always remaining in that curiosity state. So you don’t sound like a sound bite, but you don’t sound like you’re just saying the words off the script. I really try my hardest to kind of go even against what emotion or what is really being literally set on the page to try to bring more dimension and humanity to these characters, especially going into season seven. I mean, you hear her voice in your head reading them to memorize, and it’s a challenge to not just go on autopilot to react. I really challenge myself to have an emotional response to drive the scenes, if that makes sense. I feel like I’m so long-winded!
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No. Oh my gosh, I love your answers. Just so you’re aware, I’ve been watching this show with my mom since it came out. I’m a huge fan of The Good Doctor! I love this show, both my mom and I, so I’m very much enjoying this conversation. So, No, your answers are perfect!
Okay. Thank you, Rachel. That’s so sweet. Thank you so much for that and thank your mom for watching!
I’ll tell her and she’ll be so excited to hear! We both connect with Lea, and you have some pretty emotional scenes, especially in the later seasons of the show. How do you approach a shoot day when you know you’re going to have a scene like that?
Oh, that’s a great question. Our crew on this show, and Fred, they really, again, have my back. I mean, they really have served me lessons I will carry with me to every job after this, personally and professionally, like I said. But on a day that’s personal, I just get quiet, I get present, I don’t put pressure on myself or those around me to act a different way. I just try to surrender to how I’m feeling, how everyone’s feeling around me. I acknowledge it and we just get to work. And then it’s just, again, revisiting the words on the page. I go over my script and I remind myself, what is the emotional arc that we want to share today?
It reminded myself that understanding of what those emotions kind of bring up for me in this character and just allow myself to be open, allow myself to connect and just get quiet and yeah, I get very, very present. I don’t ask for anything different, I don’t want anything different. I just kind of want to be and react and respond and see what happens and see what makes people feel moved. What I love about our crew is that the camera operators, I mean, they’re so freaking amazing, supportive, even Chris, who’s our sound guy. Every single one of them will tell me if that moved them in a certain way and that’s what I look forward to hearing and then I feel like I can move on. So that’s kind of what we do, a lot of freedom, but we just all show up and try to be there for one another really. So I think that really helps.
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One of my favourite storylines for Lea is her close relationship with Dr. Glassman. What is it like working with Richard Schiff?
Oh, I call him Schiffy. I actually love working with Richard Schiff. I love hearing his stories personally and professionally, that he has lived in this industry, along with this industry, and outside of this industry. I’ve pulled a lot of lessons from hearing him speak and how he behaves and he really challenges me to do my best job. And when I am acting with him, it’s such a great feeling as an actor because he shows up so presently with so many ideas and I love reacting to his ideas because you never know what Richard Schiff is going to do in this scene, you never really know his opinions and his take on the scene because, again, he is also someone that takes the lines on the page and does pretty much the opposite to add dimension and not the opposite in a way of he doesn’t like what’s written, the opposite to digest it in his Glassman perspective and our perspective, especially with Lea and Glassman relationships.
So I enjoy seeing the freedom in that because as a newer actor, sometimes you feel scared to do that. I feel scared that I’m going to upset someone or I’m going to not really digest it properly. But I’m realizing the more ideas you come forth with to understand what is being written on the page, I feel like the more emotion we get to kind of explore in the scene. So, he’s really taught me how to go against punctuation, for example, and kind of rewrite them in my own kind of cadence. So maybe it actually makes more sense when I say these lines, because again, our show is word perfect. We are not allowed to improv, we are not allowed to rewrite. It’s a real challenge and a real skill that I’ve had to learn from everyone around me, how to make this sound comfortable, right? But we’re not really allowed to do any umm, no hands in pockets. You know, it’s a skill, really. It was really challenging. I love watching him because he makes it look so easy. He makes it look so effortless. I guess that’s our job too.
Well, and that also makes it more authentic, especially, because you know your characters more than anyone else.
Right, absolutely. It’s like, how do we make each moment feel lived in? Especially with network TV, we have a short amount of time to kind of say a beginning, middle, and end in a stream. That’s just how they are written. It’s usually a page or two. So it’s like, how do we do that without looking like we’re an emotional rollercoaster of just, you know, generalizing. It’s so hard. I didn’t realize until, you know, you really get into it. So the respect I have for that just keeps growing.
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The Good Doctor does a great job at championing not only representation in every sense of the word, but also raising mental health awareness. How important is that for you, and what does it mean for you to be on a show that isn’t afraid to be a little controversial?
Oh, it’s so important to me because I feel like growing up, you know, I’m 33 and I know social media is a double-edged sword, but the verbiage that we have now today surrounding mental health, if I had that growing up, I think I would be able to inform my decision making a bit differently and not abandon myself for as much as I had or judge myself as much as I had. And so it is an honor and a privilege to be on a show that represents mental health in that way and that doesn’t veer away from those types of conversations because I feel like the more we normalize those conversations, the more change that we get to be a part of. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a show, I mean, that’s why I love acting and I’ve always wanted to be a part of that type of tough realism.
I love stories that explore dynamics within that. Mental health is so important to me because I’m still learning about my mental health and how to take care of it, just like we all are. So I love being a part of that kind of conversation for sure. It makes me feel like I’m doing something with this platform and this job. Without it, how do people know how to dream? How do people know how to maybe do better and survive and be there for themselves and to be the best version of themselves, not feel alone. That’s the main thing we can kind of offer one another so I love being a part of that medium for sure.
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We’ve seen Lea has some great music taste in a few of the episodes–
Thank you! Tommy Moran’s a big music junkie in our show.
Do you have a playlist for her?
I actually don’t have a playlist for Lea, which is the most boring answer ever.
Well, if you did have one, what do you think would be on it?
Okay – Talking Heads, Queen, Florence + The Machine, a little bit of Lizzo. I think that’s what’s coming to my head. I’ve been listening to a lot of Talking Heads lately. And I guess I have lasted a few of their songs before getting into certain scenes, so yeah, that would be it.
I love it. Well, you should make a playlist for her!
I know, I actually love that idea.
She’s so dynamic. I feel like you could put a lot of good stuff in. You could probably make a playlist for every episode.
Oh, truly. My friends always jagged me. Like Noah, who plays Asher Wolke on the show, is always like “God, Paige, you have the taste of a 40 year old dad,” because that’s what I do love to do. I love to dance to Bruce Springsteen, and I even got Freddie into Bruce Springsteen now, and Queen!
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So fun! Well, obviously you’ve been on this show for quite some time now, but is there a specific type of role that you haven’t had the chance to play yet, but you would like to?
I’m so hopeful and excited after I wrap my Good Doctor time up because there’s so many roles I would like to play. I would love to continue on with complex female characters, but I would love to delve into something that has to do with mental illness or domestic abuse. I would love to continue to raise awareness around issues that I care about. Like most recently I was so moved by the film To Leslie starring Andrea Riseborough. Again, I love that tough realism that they explored an addiction and motherhood and your relationship to self, your relationship to not abandoning yourself, what that looks like and what it looks like in small towns as well, not just this big medium of social media platforms and echo chambers around that. So I would love to do something along the lines of that. And a romcom. I’ve dreamt of being in a romcom since I’ve little, so I would love to do a classic romcom. I’m talking like Drew Barrymore and Julie Roberts romcom back in the day. So hopefully something like that.
I love that you said that because I feel like we’re really missing good romcoms these days!
And like the classic structures, right? That literally just makes you feel good, that also makes sense, that’s the sign of the times, but without over-stamping the sign of time, you know?
Yes! Not everything has to be a blockbuster summer action film. Give me My Best Friend’s Wedding. Give me a sequel to The Holiday!
Have you watched My Best Friend’s Wedding recently? I have and I have got to say, Goddamn it, that makes more sense to me now at 33 than I ever did in my teens and twenties. Wow.
One million percent!
Chasing love, the push and pull dynamic, been there so many times.
All of those films hold up and we need some new, feel-good romcoms. So Paige, I am counting on you to go get us a good romcom!
Please put it out there because I have been saying romcom for the past five years and I’m praying for one.
You deserve it. It’s going to happen. We’re going to manifest this. But also, for selfish reasons, I need it to happen.
Oh, thank you. I believe in that, so thank you
Good, because I believe in it too. I look forward to hopefully speaking with you again when you land romcom!
Love that! We will, Rachel. We will.
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Season 6 of The Good Doctor is streaming now on Hulu.
Interview Rachel Martin
Photography and Creative Direction Gustavo Chams
Styling Jason Pillay
Talent Paige Spara
Hair and Make up Rio Translado
Making of Videography Sharleen
Photography Assistant Lope Trujillo
Set Assistant Mackenzie Downey
Retouch Helena Colliny
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