Keir Gilchrist, 24, has played high schoolers for most of his career, from his first major role on The United States of Tara, as a gay teenager named Marshall, to lovestruck teens in indie films like It’s Kind of a Funny Story and It Follows. In his latest project, Netflix’s Atypical, Gilchrist is Sam Gardner, a high-functioning autistic teenager navigating dating and high school.
The actor says he’s tired of playing high-school students — and that this is the last time he’ll do it — but he wanted the role in Atypical so badly, he met with creator Robia Rashid for over two hours before auditioning. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt, and black nail polish, Gilchrist spoke to Vulture for an hour at a coffee shop in his Echo Park neighborhood about growing up on sets, his toughest acting challenge to date, and why he’d rather be playing metal and working on a farm.
You grew up in Toronto. How did you get into the entertainment business?
I used to go to the Boys and Girls Club around the corner from my house after school. And they had a free acting class that they held. So, I took it, and at one point, they were doing open cast calls for The Series of Unfortunate Events movie. I was 10. And the teacher there told me she thought I should go for it. I didn’t know anything about it, and my mom was okay with it. So she took me to the audition, and obviously I’m not in that movie, but the casting director Millie Tom wanted me to meet with an agent. And my parents were very apprehensive because obviously child acting is usually a danger zone, but my mom was writing her thesis at the time so she had a lot of extra time on her hands. We decided to give it a try, but the rules were: “If your grades slip or your ego gets too big, then you’re done. We’ll decide when it’s over for you.” I just started doing commercials and little guest spots on stuff in Toronto. Eventually I ended up getting a show called The Winner on Fox and that brought me down to the States. I was like 13 or 14.
How did Tara come about? That was an impressive gig.
I had gotten representation in L.A., and it was pilot season. I remember auditioning for a few pilots and I was up for three at the time. I had sent in a self-tape and they flew me down and we did the whole audition process. Surprisingly enough, I booked it. I came down and did three years on that show.
Why do you say it’s surprising?
Just being a kid from Toronto. They took a chance on me is what I feel. I was also 15 years old and they gave me a lot of responsibility. Not to say that it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but for a 15-year-old they were really throwing some stuff at me. In hindsight now, being 24, I really think they did take a chance on me, which is great. It’s what got me to where I am.
You worked with Toni Collette and Brie Larson at 15.
Actually, Brie, I had worked with before, even. We did a movie called Just Peck before that. My character was supposed to be kind of in love with her, but it wasn’t reciprocated. My mom was like,”‘Oh my god, I love Toni Collette. We need to watch Muriel’s Wedding.” But at that the time it didn’t sink in. The weird thing about being a child actor, I think, is your brain’s not developed yet when you’re doing all that stuff. Now that I’m 24, I think I have a better grasp on everything. But at the time I just started going with the flow.
What has Tara meant in the course of your career?
I grew up on the show. I learned so much from the people that I worked with — not just the cast, but the crew. It’s really amazing, people still come up to me and say, “Oh my god you played Marshall. That role meant so much to me.” Especially for a lot of people in the LGBTQ community. I never saw myself as a spokesperson for that cause because I was 15, but it’s great that that role was so dear to a lot of people.
And unique at the time. We were starting to see more gay characters on TV, but Marshall’s wasn’t the typical adolescent coming-out story. When we met him, he was out and confident and not having any kind of personal struggle.
That’s how it was presented to me. Diablo [Cody] said, “He’s not confused. He knows. This is a different kind of thing.” And, I guess, for me, growing up in super-liberal Toronto where I grew up around tons of gay people and my family friends and stuff, maybe what [the producers] liked is that I wasn’t all caught up on that because that didn’t seem to be the most important part of the character. That’s not all there is to him. I think they liked that I took it with such ease at that age.
Did you have any conversations with your parents about that aspect of it before you accepted the role?
No. The way I was raised, that was never a big deal. I know a lot of people grow up with conflicting feelings about it because maybe their parents or the community they grew up in has issues with it. But I grew up in a super-accepting, very liberal city. Toronto is one of my favorite cities for that reason. It’s just so open. I don’t remember growing up with a ton of tension regarding subjects like homophobia, racism. Obviously, those things exist everywhere, but it wasn’t as big of an issue where I grew up as maybe for other people.
A lot of your work has that indie sensibility, and Atypical feels a little indie to me, too. What do you look for your in your projects?
The main things I look for are first and foremost script. If a script doesn’t appeal to me, I’m not going to audition usually, and my agents understand and that’s an important part of our relationship. I’m pretty picky. And then other factors like working with good directors and good actors. It takes so much energy and life force to make any movie or TV show, I don’t want to waste that on stuff that I don’t believe in. I also feel that if I’m on set sitting there, secretly in the back of my head thinking something isn’t good, why should I do it? You should always hire people that are excited to work with you and excited about your project. I do like indie films. I like weird, alternative music and films. I’m not all that interested in mainstream stuff. When I read that script for Atypical, I was hooked immediately. Not a lot of TV necessarily appeals to me, but it did have that indie sensibility.
Did you do a lot of research?
I give most of that credit to Robia. She wrote the script. We talked a ton and I did research and I watched movies and I read books. She gave me a really helpful book called The Journal of Best Practices, which is actually featured on the show. I know Robia used it a lot when writing because it really helps you get into the mind of who is on the autism spectrum. It’s a great book. We also had experts. At no point was this, “Do whatever you want.” I was never willing to just rush into something — if I was unsure, then I wanted to get Robia’s advice. And if we were both unsure then we would call up the experts. We really tried to make sure we never got ahead of ourselves and rushed into something without thinking about whether that was right for Sam, specifically, because Sam is not representative of everybody on the autism spectrum. He’s one person that is on the autism spectrum. He’s a very specific character.
What was the hardest part for you?
It took a lot of energy doing this role because Sam’s mind is going so fast at all times. While everyone else is over here on this plane, he’s up here doing his own thing. While working I was constantly working against my instincts. Didn’t really make much eye contact with people. What I’m used to is engaging with the people that I’m in the scene with. Sam, he engages for sure, but it’s in a different way. It almost took me a while to shake the role off after doing that for so many weeks. I had to get back to me after.
He’s also not excited by the same things as most boys his age. And even when he’s excited about his girlfriend, it doesn’t show.
Sam gets more excited about Antarctica.
And I love that, actually. He sees everything through the prism of nature and animals.
That was one of the things I really liked about Sam, too. I love science and nature and biology and animals, and so I actually enjoyed it. That section of the character was really fun for me. I would legitimately be sitting there and actually reading as much as I could about Arctic foxes or …
Yeah! So that’s one of the main things I relate to Sam on. My girlfriend will even attest that I’ll start reading an article or something about animals and I’ll be lost. And she’ll be like, “Keir, we gotta go do something” and I’m completely gone.
This show is labeled a comedy, and even though it does have humor, you really get the sense of daily living with autism.
I think the thing I worried about is if it’s labeled “comedy” too much, people will think that we are making a straight comedy. That isn’t the case at all. This is a really thought-through, heartfelt drama. I definitely hope that that’s the case. I can only hope people find something in Sam and the story that is inspiring and helps them. I hope for people on the spectrum it’ll be cool to see a main character on a show [who’s autistic]. Hopefully they can relate to a lot of Sam’s experiences, obviously not all of [them], because everyone’s different. In general people need to be better represented on TV, and it’s happening on all ends of it. Even after doing United States of Tara — I think Marshall’s story line was groundbreaking in a lot of ways — but there can always be more. We can keep doing it, and I hope this isn’t the end of it.
Have you experienced caring for anyone who is on the spectrum?
Yeah. It was kind of surprising to me when I was telling people about doing the show, and the amount of people who didn’t even really know what autism is. A lot of people would confuse it with other things. I was surprised that they had never met anyone or never known that they had met anyone who was on the spectrum, because for me — maybe it’s just coincidence — my whole life, my family friends had kids who were on the spectrum. I think it’s actually similar to the whole thing with Marshall, where a gay teenager wasn’t all that surprising to me.
One of the scenes I really loved was the silent dance. It was so moving. Did it feel that way during the filming?
Yeah. It was actually, especially when we were doing the shots of everybody dancing. I was distracted with being super wet and reading my lines and stuff, but seeing it again after watching the show is super moving. Maybe seeing the show, people will realize [that] people shouldn’t be excluded. I understand that the dance is a dance, but there are ways around [excluding others]. I don’t think I went to any dances at school. I wasn’t very involved.
Was it because you were acting and you had such a busy life outside of it?
I went to a special school for kids with outside commitments. It was a public school but it was housed inside a bigger school. In general, I never got into the social aspect in high school. To some degree, I felt like I was forced in with a bunch of people that I really couldn’t relate to, which I think a lot of people feel in high school. I was the weird, only punk kid at school. I had my close friends, but in terms of school dances or extracurricular stuff or any of that, I was not interested. I already had a job. I would get up, go to school, do all my work in school, be reading my sides because then after school I would have to get on a bus and then a subway and go do an audition and then go home and do my homework. I had a second life. It was very time-consuming. It also makes it a little hard to relate to some people in high school when you have such a different experience. I have my close friends from high school that I’m still friends with for sure. But I don’t care if I’m popular. I don’t care about being accepted by the majority of people. It’s not a concern of mine.
And yet you’re in a field where that’s all many actors covet.
I don’t care about being the most famous person ever. I don’t care about getting an Oscar. I want to do good work that people like, and that’s how I make my living. I do music on the side. That’s one of my true passions.
Do you sing?
I do vocals, harsh vocals in a grindcore band and I have another band that I’m starting, but again, even with my music, me and my friends have chosen to make music that is extremely harsh and not amusing to most people because I most prefer to make something where I just don’t care about the popularity. I don’t need to go to the events and get photographed on red carpets. I find it pretty nauseating. I don’t really care about pop culture even, as bad as it is to say. I know I’m in that position, but it’s just not important to me. It’s not why I do this. I love movies and I love TV, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t like pop culture. It’s not interesting. I don’t want to be that person. I always appreciate my privacy. I have to do the bare minimum to help out the projects I’m on, and I have no problem doing that. Press is fine. If it’s something I don’t have to do and it’s not necessary, I’m not going to do it because I don’t care. I don’t want everybody to like me.
That’s a liberating way to go through life.
That’s how I was raised. My parents are very unique, alternative people themselves. My brother and I are both playing in hard-core bands. My parents love movies. I grew up on film noir. My dad and I every Saturday would sit down and watch some film. I love film; I just don’t care to see all of the Oscar-nominated films. I see stuff that appeals to me. I really loved Okja. That movie was really cool and that Netflix put that out is awesome.
So many childhood actors struggle as they enter adulthood, but it doesn’t seem like you have struggled with it too much?
Well, here’s the thing: I think a lot of child actors get all this money and their parents let them do whatever they want and then these older people are bringing them in and giving them drugs. It’s sadly very common that they lose their grasp on reality. They don’t have real friends. All their friends are in the industry. It’s the only way they know how to communicate, talking about the industry. My parents kept me grounded, brought me home, always made sure I realized this isn’t real life. But it makes me sad because even just growing up with a lot of child actors, I’ve seen a lot of people fall through the cracks. Growing up as a child actor, it does warp your perception of the world. It’s undeniable. But I think I’ve been really lucky to have other things in my life, and there have been huge periods in my life where I haven’t worked. I have lots of other interests and hobbies. If this all ended for me tomorrow, I’d be sad but it wouldn’t be the end of the world for me at all. There’s plenty of other stuff I could do, whereas I know some actors who when they don’t have work, they panic. I’m like, “Go learn how to do something else. Go travel. There’s so much out there.”
What have you usually done with your time off?
I do a lot of outdoors stuff. Camping, hiking. Was just in Oregon, love the outdoors. I worked at farms at one point after The United States of Tara. I was feeling really burnt-out so I took the summer. I did the WWOOF program, which is Willing Workers on Organic Farms and they basically, for a low price, hook you up with organic farms and you can go out and stay with them, and live with the families, and you work five days a week and room and board is covered. It was so good to shake everything out. I worked on a bunch of different farms. I worked on a sheep ranch and biodynamic farms, worked in an orchard. It was great. I always recommend the program. Get out and do something else. It’ll be humbling. You won’t think about the industry. It’s a great thing to do. But other than that, music has been a huge part of my life. I’d say passion-wise, it’s more my passion. I love music. I go to a lot of shows. I try to be involved in the scene. I’m just fascinated by it. Most of my friends are more in the music scene. Playing in a band is something I love, and I put a lot of time into that for no money.
Do you think you’ll go more in that direction in the future?
I’d like to, if the opportunity arose. Yeah, I’d like to be in a more serious touring band. There’s also no money in the music I like to play, and it’s fine. That’s why I like it. Playing extreme metal, I guess there are some people who make money, but you’re one in 1,000 who is actually going to make real profits off it, but people do it cause they are passionate about it. That’s what I love about it, my music. I’m not doing it to make money. If I was, I’d be in a pop band or something, and I don’t really like that kind of music. I don’t care about it. To me, music that’s made to make money ends up being this very specific formula. Pop music is a formula that you follow and you make money from it. I don’t like that at all. It’s not interesting. I don’t want to listen to music like that. I don’t listen to the radio.
Do you have a favorite role?
Favorite in terms of learned the most and biggest challenge: It’s Sam on Atypical. But favorite role in terms of just having fun on the shoot and getting to do what I wanted, I think that would be It Follows. I just loved the whole set, the whole look of the movie. And I just love those horror movies, so to me, and working with [director David Robert Mitchell] was amazing. He is insanely talented. He is going to do stuff that is going to blow people away in the coming years.
What’s next? Are you committed to anything?
I’m just figuring out what the next step is. I wanna choose really wisely. I don’t wanna feel like I’m doing the same thing again. I often get offers, or they want me to audition for stuff, and I appreciate they like my work in previous stuff, and that’s why they ask me to do it, but I don’t think people realize they are asking me to repeat myself. I’m much more flattered when somebody offers me a role and it’s something where I go, wow. I often get sent the sweet, innocent high-school kid who’s in love with the girl. I’m pretty over it. I’m 24. I don’t wanna do high-school stuff anymore. This is my last time that I am going down the high-school road. I don’t relate to it anymore. I haven’t been in high school for seven years. If you look at Sam, he’s a high-school kid, but high school wasn’t even a huge factor in the show. And I know I look young and I can play 17, but I don’t relate to 17. I want a challenge. I want to play people in their 20s. I really want to do period pieces. That would be my thing that I’m most interested in doing right now because I love history as well. I’m just waiting to see what that next thing is and focusing on music right now.
Do you prefer movies over TV?
You can explore a character a lot more in TV, but usually I’m a film guy mainly just ’cause I get restless. That’s why I’m saying when I finish doing a character, I want to move on. I don’t wanna keep doing it over and over again. I’ve had to turn down a lot of stuff over the past however many years since United States of Tara because I did it for three seasons. I don’t feel the need to keep putting out the same thing and playing the same person. I’m not good at doing the same thing forever. I don’t like routine that much.
Well, you’re in a good job then.
It is a perfect job. There are a lot of other things I could do if I wasn’t acting, but the 9 to 5 thing is not an option for me. I don’t think I could handle it.
What do you think you would do?
I’d like to work on farms. Own my own farm. That’s my goal, eventually. Play music. Work at odd jobs at record stores. Tour with bands. Manage tours. Something like that. I could do all kinds of odd jobs. I just can’t do the career and white-picket-fence end goal thing. It’s not how my brain works.
This interview has been edited and condensed.