keir gilchrist is playing tv's first nuanced teen with autism
“I’m not just doing this to play myself and look cool," the star of Netflix's new comedy, "Atypical," says. "I want to feel like I’m doing something I haven’t done before.”
"I have this hang-up where if the script or character doesn't grab me, I find it really hard to go in and audition," 24-year-old actor Keir Gilchrist says with a dash of guilt.
Keir must have a strong intuition, because the characters he decides to play amass fervent online followings. He first hit the mark on the Showtime comedy United States of Tara as openly gay teenager Marshall Gregson. His screen time was brief, but some fans were enamored with Marshall's tragic, brief romance with a Christian boy. Then Keir became a darling of the Tumblr community by starring in the 2010 film It's Kind of a Funny Story, playing an academically gifted teenager struggling with depression and anxiety. (Scroll through Tumblr and you'll find numerous black and white gifs of him captioned with sadboy lines like "My friends look at me like I'm from another planet.") Now, the endearing actor is set to win even more hearts as the lead star of Atypical, Netflix's latest original sitcom.
Sam, a teenager with autism, wants to have his first kiss, his first date, his first, well… everything. For most teenagers, dating is generally accepted and encouraged. But Sam has to plead with his attentive and well-meaning sister and parents to stop interfering with his social life. Sam's search for a girlfriend snowballs into a group effort, with everyone from his behavioral therapist to his computer store co-worker getting involved. Sam has numerous speed bumps, like when he writes a pro and con list about his crush and the girl in question discovers it ("Talks too much" is one of Page's cons).
Over the course of eight episodes, Atypical shows the coming-of-age of a character who falls on the autism spectrum — one of the few depictions on television. Only an actor like Keir, with his comforting smile and down-to-earth persona, could simultaneously make the journey awkward, humorous, and heartwarming.
Keir has been acting since he was a young child living in Canada, but this was his first time leading an ensemble TV show. "It was terrifying. I've never done this much work period," he readily admits. "My last time on TV I'd get a day off here, work a day there. This was full-blown all day, every day just going for it. There were definitely moments where I doubted myself."
He talks to i-D about how he prepared for his biggest role yet and why he'll always have an affinity for playing social outcasts.
What do you hope people will take away from the show?
The biggest thing I hope people take away from it is that no one's normal. It's a coming-of-age story and about the fact that everybody is a bit of an outsider. Sam is an outsider at school, but as the show goes along he just builds up all these other misfit friends and they form their own kind of community. He doesn't accomplish his goals by conforming, he just creates his own world.
What misconceptions surrounding autism spectrum disorder do you hope to clear up with your portrayal of Sam?
Well, one thing, obviously, is that people like to lump the entire spectrum into one thing when, in actuality, it's a very, very varied spectrum. Someone can be high functioning and low functioning and everywhere in-between. The idea that it's all one thing when it's not that simple — at all — I guess that was the biggest misconception.
Yeah, one of my favorite scenes is when Sam's parents are at a support group meeting. There was such a large variance in what each parent considered an accomplishment when they went around and talked about their child's week. It really showed that the neurological condition is not just "one-size-fits-all."
There are a few scenes like that that I think will be really informative for people. When I got the role and was talking to people about doing it, I was really surprised by just how misunderstood autism is. A lot of people just don't have any experience with it or know much about it. Hopefully one thing this show accomplishes is people maybe take a minute to go do some research for themselves and learn more about autism.
This is not your first time playing a teen character that adds to diversity and representation. In It's Kind of a Funny Story you tackled teen depression and in United States of Tara you played a refreshingly multidimensional queer character. How important is taking on characters that spark important dialogues to you?
I think it's just naturally what I'm attracted to when I read scripts. I like stuff that has something to say, that's more than just the same rehashed ideas that you've read a million times. But I don't tell my agents, 'Hey, I want everything I do to be a hot topic issue!' But I'm honored that I've been able to tackle multiple issues on the different projects I've done. I've had people come up to me, especially for my work on United States of Tara and It's Kind of a Funny Story and tell me that it's helped them so much with working through their own stuff, or with becoming comfortable with who they are. It's never something that I thought I would be able to accomplish, but the fact that I've been able to is an honor.
And what attracted you to those roles?
I like playing characters that are outsiders or misfits. People that, like, maybe have struggled in their life beyond what most people usually go through. And again, I like a challenge. I'm not just doing this to play myself and look cool. I want to feel like I'm doing something I haven't done before.
You've been acting since you were a young child. Do you feel like you're approaching the craft differently now that you're older?
Oh yeah. I think it's kind of strange for me to think back. I'm 24 now. Ten years ago I was on TV and movie sets. At the time I didn't think much about what was going on. I think I had a real natural comfort in front of the camera that worked really well when I was a kid. At 15, I didn't realize, 'Hey, this is a really big Showtime show you're on and you should really work hard at this.' Acting was a lot more… easier back then. Now, I spend a lot more time thinking about what I'm doing and the trajectory of my career. Questions like: What is this going to lead to? How is this going to get me where I want to be?
Season 1 of "Atypical" is available to stream on Netflix.