The atypical actor marching to the beat of his own drum.
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The gay son of a woman with dissociative personality disorder in United States of Tara; a clinically depressed teenager in It’s Kind of a Funny Story; and, more recently, a high schooler on the autism spectrum in Netflix drama Atypical. At the age of 24, Keir Gilchrist has already made a name for himself as “Hollywood’s Favourite Outsider”. Someone who’s unafraid to throw himself into the kind of roles that get the Academy excited: socially anxious, highly complex individuals navigating their own otherness.
Of all the niches to have found yourself in as an actor, it seems like one of the most artistically rewarding. And, though I’m wary to conflate the performer with his work, when I speak to Gilchrist he readily admits that he’s “always felt like an outsider,” particularly in the film industry. “Here in Hollywood I’m not really like a lot of the other people that I work with,” he continues. “I do what I do. I always march to the beat of my own drum.” You might imagine that Gilchrist would feel right at home in the world of movies by now, given that he’s been acting since he was 10, and was pretty much a child star by any definition of the term – bar, that is, the wayward and drug addled one.
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And, in some ways, the camera’s gaze is a home from home: “Being on set is all I’ve ever known, so it’s probably the most comfortable place for me,” he explains. The parts which Gilchrist doesn’t care about are the ones which fame-hungry reality stars yearn for: red carpets, schmoozing, and, one senses, interviews. “I’ve always felt a little awkward, you know, at entertainment events. I don’t enjoy ‘networking’ or any of that. It’s all kind of bullshit and it all feels very surreal.”
If he feels a kind of distance from the LA circus, that’s probably because – unlike some other painfully saccharine child stars, shoved into the limelight by pushy parents eager to bask in the re ected glory of their kids – Gilchrist “kind of just fell into” acting after going to an open casting call at a local community centre in his native Toronto. In fact, his Mum was “very wary” of letting him get involved at all.
She needn’t have worried. With a punky streak (his nails are often painted black) and plenty of friends outside of acting to keep him grounded, Gilchrist just wants to do his job and make work he’s proud of. “I have kind of an agreement with my agents… They’ve always understood that I like very specific things and not a lot of projects really appeal to me.” That probably explains how he ended up as the lead in Atypical – which, as its name suggests, is hardly your average teen-drama.
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As Sam Gardner, a high functioning teenager on the autism spectrum looking to start dating (something his mother, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is understandably concerned about), Gilchrist set himself quite a challenge. “First and foremost,” he tells me, “it was my first lead on a TV series. On top of that I was playing someone very different from myself: Sam’s brain is moving so fast!”
As well as those performance challenges, there was also the not inconsiderable pressure of authentically portraying someone on the spectrum – characters with autism have typically been either one dimensional or, indeed, invisible in the worlds of mainstream TV and film. “I wanted to get it right and I wanted it to feel real,” he adds. “I was nervous that people were going to hate what I did or find it to be untrue or a misrepresentation. But so far, it seems like people are, for the most part, pretty happy with it.”
And rightly so; it’s a sensitive yet honest portrayal that’s set to entrench Gilchirst’s reputation as one of the industry’s most talented young actors. And one of its most unique. His unusual life dreams include working with England’s foremost cinematic chronicler of the working class, Shane Meadows, owning and running an organic farm, and (of course) thrashing around in his hardcore band. Something tells me he’ll cope with Hollywood’s more “surreal” moments just fine.
Taken from the Autumn/Winter 2017 Issue of Rollacoaster; out now and available to buy here.