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Keir Gilchrist: Making the Atypical an Archetype

With all of the anticipation for the new season of Atypical, Keir Gilchrist talks to Jessica Viola about what to expect from season three, his own aspirations, and the influence that the show has had on others.

Photo Credit: SATY+PRATHA

The afternoon was shifting into a stormy evening in Dublin while, in sunny Los Angeles actor Keir Gilchrist was beginning his day with a phone call from overseas. Although, we were eight hours apart, and in different continents, it seemed that this phone interview was more of a friendly conversation than anything else. Keir Gilchrist is currently the lead of the Netflix original, Atypical a comedy-drama show based around the life of the Gardner family. It specifically focuses on the Gardner’s eighteen year old autistic son, Sam, along with the triumphs and struggles that the family face together.

The forthcoming season of Atypical, is highly anticipated for Netflix streamers, and Keir Gilchrist spoke excitedly about the what’s in store for his character. “Sam starts college which is a big deal and he’s sort of furthering his independence that he was getting last season. In season three he is getting further away from the family, he’s starting to experience college life, make new friends.” 

“It would be cool to see more shows tackling the subject matter, I think that this is something that is very common place, and a lot of people have family members with autism, a lot of people have autism or are on the spectrum.”

The actor eagerly continues, “There are a few firsts that a lot of people encounter when they go to college experience that are coming this season.” While starting college is tough enough for anyone, Sam is specifically faced with more adversity because his autism causes him to struggle in social situations. Throughout the series, Sam is trying to navigate himself through these new life experiences, including girlfriends, family issues and change. However, he reassures me that, “Sam all of the sudden starts actually becoming pretty great at coping with a lot of the things that he couldn’t in season one and two.” Having been playing this character for almost three years now, I was eager to ask Gilchrist why he originally took on the role of Sam, “I think when I originally read the script, it wasn’t that I thought that autism hasn’t been portrayed before or hasn’t been done well but, it just seemed to me so much more real and relatable than a lot of the stuff I have seen.” We were chatting  about the importance of representation in the media and the influence that it has on the audience members who are being recognised in both small screen and big screen productions. Keir revealed that “it would be cool to see more shows tackling the subject matter, I think that this is something that is very common place, and a lot of people have family members with autism, a lot of people have autism or are on the spectrum.”Our conversation was proceeding so naturally, and when asked if there was any specific feedback that Gilchrist has had from playing Sam he gushes and proudly tells me, “It has been kind of amazing to see how many people that I already knew through my life come forward and be like, ‘wow this show really meant so much to me and my family.’ Then on top of that as well, having people come up to me who maybe didn’t know much about it at all, or were somewhat unaware of what it’s like to be on the spectrum, say that all the sudden they have really opened their eyes and have become aware.”

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

However, with all of the perks of the job, there are some setbacks for the actor as well. For instance, he reveals that Sam has been the most difficult character to portray because, “there’s just a lot of consideration that goes into playing him and doing it justice. You know, usually I’m playing somebody about my age, similar background, and you know someone that I can kind of flip into more easily at work but with Sam I really have to fake a lot.” The twenty-seven-year-old actor also spoke about how the age gap between himself and Sam, who is nearly ten years younger than Gilchrist in real life, is becoming an issue for him. “I think that it is a bit more challenging the older I get, and I’ve basically been playing high school roles since I was in high school. I think that the further you get away from it, it takes a little more effort to try and really get back into that headspace and remember what it was like. I haven’t stepped foot in a high school in almost ten years now, so it certainly has gotten more difficult.” 

Since Gilchrist has been playing teenage characters for the last decade, he discloses that Sam will be his final role as a high schooler, and confirms, “I basically decided for the most part that this will be my last role playing this young.” He passionately furthers this point by saying that young people should be granted the opportunity to play characters around the same age as them. “There is something beautiful about getting an actor who is much closer to that age. When I did It’s Kind of a Funny Story I was seventeen. The fact that they gave me a chance, I just want to see more people who are maybe are just out of high school or in high school playing those roles.” 

This also explains why the actor has such a soft spot for It’s Kind of a Funny Story, as Gilchrist was the same age as his character that he was portraying and was able to relate to Craig more. This film adaptation is based off of the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini.  It follows the story of a teenager who suffers from severe depression and signs himself into a psychiatric ward only to discover the high jinks that occur inside of the hospital. Gilchrist without hesitation opens up about why he loved playing the role of Craig Gilner so much. “ I read the script and it spoke to me, it was insane. I was struggling with pretty serious depression myself at the time and kind of suicidal thoughts and I think just based on where I was when shooting it, that’s probably the closest to sort of just me being me. That has a very special place in my heart for that reason. I’m really proud of that one for sure.” Whether he is playing a clinically mentally ill teenager or an autistic young adult, Gilchrist does not shy away from playing challenging characters. Similar to Sam in Atypical, the character of Craig in It’s Kind of a Funny Story deals with a lot of coming of age issues too. Gilchrist reflects on his youth and says that filming this type of subject matter is really relatable because, “being a teenager is really hard, it’s just a really difficult time in your life.” 

“Something that I’m interested in doing is bringing people together and getting other people’s visions made.”

The conversation transitions into chatting about Keir Gilchrist’s favourite genre to act on screen and his future aspirations of working behind the camera. “I’m not gonna lie, I guess I do like the horror stuff a little more, I like dark stuff. It’s also the stuff I prefer watching. It’s kind of a little more fun for me and, I love horror films. I love really dark, dark comedies and so, I think I tend to lean more towards that.” Contrasting from this genre, the actor says that his ideal role would be “to do a period piece, like a Western or even something that takes place in the ancient world. I have always been a huge history fan or ‘buff’ or whatever so that has kind of been my dream.” However, Gilchrist says that what he really looks out for in a new project is the quality of writing. He makes it known that he is, “not super picky about genres, if it’s a great script I’m interested. Whatever comes my way, I’ll read it and take a look.” Furthermore, Gilchrist’s love for film goes beyond the camera lens. In addition to acting, he is also getting himself into new projects including producing and even aspires to become a director someday. “I’m working on breaking into producing right now, and I’ve got a couple things that I’m working on. Something that I’m interested in doing is bringing people together and getting other people’s visions made. Definitely one day it would be a dream to get to direct. I’ve spent so much time in front of the camera, the idea of going on set and not being on camera but, still being there and still being part of it is actually really exciting to me. As much as I love acting, I’ve been doing it for 16 almost 17 years so, a little of the magic wears off. I love the work but I really have a hard time with the hours and having to be ‘on’ all of the time is really exhausting.” The Atypical actor opens up about a specific instance that he faced as being the main character of the Netflix original. He confesses that being the lead of a show is difficult because you cannot take any time off during shooting. One day on set he had a  “horrible sore throat and basically progressed throughout the course of the day to be one of the worst colds I’ve ever gotten in my life. We literally had to do like a fourteen hour day and there’s nothing you could do about it. It was pretty miserable I’m not gonna lie.” 

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

On the contrary, Keir Gilchrist says that he has had some of the best laughs on the set of Atypical, especially working alongside Nik Dodani, Sam’s right hand man, Zahid, on the show. In real life, Gilchrist and Dodani are old friends who met each other early in their careers and co-starred The Good Neighbor back in 2016 together. The banter that the two actors share on screen is so palpable, it is no wonder that they are actually friends when the cameras stop rolling.  Funnily enough, Keir tells me that, “I had no idea he was even up for the role. Then shooting the pilot, in walks Nik and I was like ‘Wow dude you didn’t even hit me up at all, or like, call me to put in a good word in,’ and he was like ‘Nah I didn’t need to.’ I was like, ‘I guess you’re right.” Luckily for us viewers, we will be seeing more of Sam and Zahid this upcoming season as Gilchrist confirms that Sam will still be working at Techtropolis with his best friend.

“Exposing people to a different side of life is more than I guess I could’ve ever hoped for as being an actor.”

Coming towards the end of our discussion, Keir and I talk about the release date for the new season which will be available on Netflix on November 1st. It will be fascinating to see how Keir Gilchrist adds another dimension to Sam that we haven’t seen in the previous seasons, as well as with how his character copes with the new challenges that emerge in season three. For Gilchrist, Sam is more than just a character to him because he understands the huge influence that playing someone on the spectrum has had on viewers. He shares that, “exposing people to a different side of life is more than I guess I could’ve ever hoped for as being an actor.”