How Atypical‘s Keir Gilchrist Became Hollywood’s Favorite Outsider Teen

The 24-year-old actor, who plays a teen with autism in the new Netflix series, on specializing in (and the perils of) portraying mental illness onscreen.

2015 Sundance Film Festival Portraits - Day 2
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

“I’m mostly excited, but I’m obviously a little nervous,” Keir Gilchrist said recently from Los Angeles. With the premiere of Atypical today on Netflix, the 24-year-old actor is making his debut as the lead on a TV series. His feelings are, of course, completely typical for an up-and-coming actor, but his anxieties also fall in line with the everyday mien of his character Sam, the neurotic, know-it-all 18-year-old at the center of the series, whose struggles navigating high school and girls are magnified by the fact that he also happens to be on the autism spectrum.

Gilchrist is not autistic, but he has made it his specialty playing outsiders—and particularly those who have found themselves there in part because of their mental illness, which Gilchrist struggles with himself. When he made his breakthrough as a suicidal teen opposite Emma Roberts and Zach Galifianakis in the 2010 film It’s Kind of a Funny Story, he was in fact seeing a therapist for depression himself—and, in between all that, starring in the United States of Tara, a Showtime series centered on multiple personality disorder, in which he played Toni Collette’s son (and a young Brie Larson’s brother).

On the United States of Tara, Gilchrist’s character also happened to be gay, which is how Atypical handles Sam’s autism—to acknowledge it without letting it completely define him. After all, we can relate to his awkwardness, and everyone has relationship problems. And while it’s at times hard to laugh when much of the humor hinges on Sam’s idiosyncrasies—his death glare when his therapist asks him to try to smile, or his deafening outburst at his mom that he would just like to finally see some boobs—it is something of a step forward to see someone with autism go about his daily life in American Apparel hoodies, Bose headphones, and a leather jacket, rather than the typical other-ing identifiers usually seen onscreen.

As Gilchrist is quick to remind, though, “people don’t really like to talk about it much,” but mental illness is indeed “very common”; it’s his understanding of that, and his commitment to portraying the humanity and, well, typicalness of Sam, that in the end carries the show. Here, the actor talks how he landed the role, got his first-ever girl advice from Brie Larson, and spends his free time screaming in grindcore and death metal bands, here.

Were you ever hesitant about playing someone on the autism spectrum, especially given that you don’t happen to be so yourself?

I mean, I think I was mainly excited. I try do something different with all of my roles; I’m not trying to just rehash the same characters. I read the script and just fell in love with it right away; it just seemed like a new opportunity and challenge for me, and the fact that the lead character was on the autism spectrum actually really attracted me to the series. Both [creator and writer Robia Rashid] and I have had personal experiences with friends and people on the spectrum, which is initially what we talked about with the project and Sam—and initially what we kind of bonded in when we first met.

Once you got the role, how did you go about preparing for it?

Robia had done a really excellent job with all the initial research when writing the pilot, which helped me immensely. From there, it was very much a collaborative effort when we were figuring out who Sam was and where he was on the spectrum, which is obviously very high-functioning. I watched documentaries, but probably the most helpful bit of research I did to get into Sam’s head space was a book called the Journal of Best Practices [A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband], which is actually featured on the show, too. It’s really, really excellent and I definitely recommend it.

Did you watch any other portrayals of people with autism onscreen? Were there any stereotypes or missteps in those past portrayals in particular that you sought to avoid?

It was more documentaries and interviews. I kind of try to avoid watching other performances in general when I’m trying to create a role, because I don’t want to accidentally recreate what someone else has done. I actually haven’t really ever trained with any acting teachers or coaches or anything like that; I’ve always kind of have had my own way of doing things and am wary of letting anyone else affecting the way I do what I do. With every character, I try to make it come from a real place, because I really like the super-natural style of acting. My favorite thing is to watch an actor and, even though you recognize and know the actor, actually believe everything they’re doing. That’s kind of how I like and hope to go about it.

I’ve read a few mixed reactions from people with autism who’d heard about the show—what have you thought of the response to the show so far?

Right now it’s mostly a clip and a trailer that’s out, but so far for the most part it’s seemed quite positive and people have seemed excited to see it. But I try not to get too caught up reading YouTube comments and all of that because, I mean, I’m already somebody who suffers from anxiety, and sometimes that doesn’t help.

Keir Gilchrist as Sam in Netflix’s *Atypical.*

Greg Gayne/Netflix

I imagine that’s only made you more on board with the show’s whole premise—that we all can relate to Sam. Do you identify with him at all?

Oh totally, yeah, I totally identify with Sam. There’s a lot about him I’d say I have similar qualities to. In general, he’s an outsider, and I mean, I’m 24 now and Sam’s 18, but especially at that stage in my life I always felt like quite an outsider, at school. It was obviously for different reasons, but I definitely relate to that feeling. Another thing I really noticed is that Sam gets really obsessive—especially in his case in regards to biology, Antarctica, and animals—and I also will get very fixated on a subject and spend a lot of time researching certain things I find fascinating. So I definitely relate to having these subjects you’re obsessed with that other people don’t understand or find that interesting—all of my friends can attest to the fact that I very often get very excited about things and go on and on about them, and then I’ll realize at some point during the conversation that no one else is all that interested in what I’m talking about.

So what’s your version of penguins and Antarctica?

I’m obsessed with ancient history. But I also love animals as well—I find that subject more specifically quite fascinating. Very often on set, I was going like, “Oh wow, did you guys know this about arctic foxes? They’re pretty crazy.”

Are all those factoids Sam dispenses on the show still in your head?

Yeah, yeah. I have a very—my mom calls it “garbage brain.” My dad and I, we kind of just take in everything about something and remember lots and lots of details. But I’m not so good at remembering stuff like paying bills and other important things.

Speaking of moms, what was it like have Jennifer Jason Leigh play your mom onscreen?

I mean, she’s an incredible actress. That was another huge plus for getting involved with the show. Unfortunately our characters are kind of branching apart, so we kind of have our separate storylines—at least in this season. I’m hoping we get a second season—it’d be great to be back on set with the family.

Keir Gilchrist as Sam in Netflix’s *Atypical.*

Patrick Wymore/Netflix

Did being on the United States of Tara, another show about a family involving mental illness, help you at all in preparing for Atypical, too?

I actually hadn’t thought about it too much, because that was a long time ago now, but in my work over the years I’ve definitely done a few different things that involved mental illness; it’s something that’s very fascinating to me.

You mentioned anxiety before. Do you also have experience with mental illness yourself?

Yeah. Mental illness is very common, and people don’t really like to talk about it much, but I do struggle with anxiety a lot. It’s not as bad right now, but I have in the past and, you know, it’s still a daily thing for me. Depression and anxiety are both very close to home for me and things I definitely struggle with. I’ve seen therapists and done a lot of work to get to where I am so that I’m able to function and get up in the morning and go do what I need to do.

Is that history also partly why you pick the roles you do? I personally find the onscreen depiction of people with depression in particular to be frustrating, usually. Do you agree? And are you hoping to correct that?

I definitely agree with you; I find the portrayals often aren’t true to my experiences. I mean, I definitely didn’t ever say to my agent, “This is something that I want to do, only look for these kinds of roles,” but they send me a lot of stuff and those are usually the roles that interest me. I guess I do gravitate to them, and I want to do the best job possible. It’s Kind of a Funny Story was my first lead in a film, and that was when I really felt like, Oh wow, this could go somewhere if I work at it and take it seriously—and while I was working on that, and I was also seeing a therapist and struggling with my own depression, so it was actually very cathartic. I found that a lot of the work just really helped me work through a lot of issues that it probably would have taken me a lot longer to get my head around.

Keir Gilchrist as Sam in Netflix’s *Atypical.*


On a lighter note, back to the United States of Tara, you must have some memorable memories from having Brie Larson as your sister and Toni Collette as your mom.

Working with them was amazing. Toni Collette is one of my favorite actors, and I learned so much from her. She was so warm; she took me to pick out my suit for prom. Beyond that, just being 15 and being in a room with her watching her acting was a huge influence—and Brie as well. I’m really, really proud of everything she’s accomplished, and to have gotten to work with her at that point was really special. I learned tons from both of them—also just about life. I was a kid on that show, so they would console me about girls and whatever. So they’re both two people I love very dearly and whom I’ve learned tons from; both are obviously very busy and work a lot, and I’ve been very busy, but we do see each other every once in a while.

Speaking of your other roles, it seems like you’re always drawn to darker, outsider characters. Is that on purpose, or are you just typically cast that way?

It’s always that combination—the casting obviously knows your work, and for me I’m sure that’s opened up certain doors in darker subjects. But also in general I’m just very attracted to dark, heavy, and depressing art and music; growing up, I was really into hardcore punk and punk music, so like, Friday nights after finishing work on United States of Tara I’d always go to a punk show in a backyard in east L.A. Now I’m in a grind band and I just started a death metal band, so I’m still very involved with power violence and grind and hardcore and I go to shows all the time. It’s still a huge part of my life; there was one day on Atypical that I left after lunch and drove out to a venue and played a show after work, and I’ve flown out to play shows over the weekend, too. I’ve made it clear to my representation that both need to be accommodated, but at the same time, it’s kind of perfect because when I’m not working, I can really focus on music and getting stuff recorded. I do vocals, so right now, I’ve been doing a bunch of screaming and all that. [Laughs.] But in general, those are just the scripts that really kind of get my attention—it isn’t even necessarily a conscious thing.

I saw you were also at one point set to be in a film called King Dork, and you definitely seem to be typecast a bit that way as well, like in 2014’s It Follows. Or is that also coming from a place of experience—would you call yourself a true nerd?

Oh yeah, definitely no shame on that: I am definitely a very, very nerdy person, and I’ve always felt that way. And I wish I could say I was in King Dork—it was one of my favorite books in high school. I really related to it. They were going to do a film, which at one point Seth Gordon was attached to—but he actually ended up directing some of Atypical, so it was cool because we actually eventually did get to get on set together in the end.

Related: Emma Stone Never Thought She’d Be Able to Move Away From Home Because of Her Anxiety

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