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Actor Keir Gilchrist on 'Atypical' Season 3, Autism and Mental Health

You’ll most likely recognize actor Keir Gilchrist as the lead in Netflix’s original series “Atypical.” Created by Robia Rashid, the series follows Sam Gardner, a student on the autism spectrum, as he navigates high school and now, in the show’s third season, college. Though he plays an autistic character onscreen, Gilchrist is not on the spectrum.

“Atypical” at first received mixed reviews from the autism community, in large part because Rashid cast a typical actor for the role of Sam and at first only featured one actually autistic actor, Anthony Jacques, in a small recurring role. Autistic viewers, like Mighty contributor Adriana White, found many aspects of “Atypical” relatable, but it was missing the insider lived experience of autism. White wrote:

It now seems obvious to me that the show was envisioned and created by someone who knows someone with autism, perhaps very well, but it is definitely not the same show we would be getting with an autistic person, or several autistic people, working behind the scenes. This is why I hope Netflix takes the autistic community’s concerns to heart, and makes a concerted effort to hire autistic writers, and more autistic actors.

The show has since hired additional autistic cast and crew members to lend more authenticity to its portrayal of people on the spectrum. And as of the third season, autism advocate Kerry Magro felt “Atypical” hit all the right notes, including tackling issues many autistic students face when heading off to college. Magro wrote in his review of “Atypical” season three, “I truly believe that ‘Atypical’ is the best 30-minute show on Netflix right now and continue to recommend this show without reservations.” He added:

I love how I could relate in several ways to Sam’s character. Growing up with autism, I also started college at 19 and it was a dream come true. After years during my adolescence of being told by experts that I would be lucky to graduate from high school one day, I truly saw getting into college as a milestone that I could do anything I wanted in this world.

You may also recognize Gilchrist from two shows that touch on mental health: “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” a 2010 dramedy where Gilchrist plays a 16-year-old Craig who lands in the adult ward of a psychiatric hospital, and as Marshall Gregson, the son of a woman with dissociative identity disorder (DID) in the TV series “United States of Tara.”

The Mighty caught up with Gilchrist to learn more about his role on “Atypical,” how his character Sam has changed over the years and why talking about mental health is so important, among other topics.

Here’s what Gilchrist told us:

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for content and clarity.

Congrats on season three of ‘Atypical’! What has the reception been like for season three? 

I have seen in general people seem to be really receptive to the season and a lot of people have said it’s the best yet and I would agree, personally. Sometimes with a series, it takes till the third season to really get into the groove and the show really comes into its own. I think this season’s gotten a great reception from everybody I’ve talked to. I’m very excited that people have been receiving it so well and my dad sent me something that I guess it’s the number three show in the U.K., or something like that, because he lives there. So it seems like a lot of people are watching it. That’s awesome because it’s a show that’s really relatable and I think strikes a chord with a lot of different people from all walks of life.

How has “Atypical” and your character Sam in particular evolved since the first season?

Well, from season one to season three, Sam’s really gone from somebody that everybody in the family and surrounding Sam feels like they need to take care of to Sam actually becoming the caretaker himself. I think by season three, he’s actually really matured, as people do around that age, and all of a sudden is actually taking care of his friends and his family and sister. His role has really shifted as he’s matured and gained life experience and gotten out of the house more. That’s been a fun change in terms of my character arc to play.

Typical people may think they can’t relate to people on the spectrum because they don’t understand what autism is. Why do you think Sam’s character is so relatable?

That’s a common misconception. People have asked me, “How could you possibly get inside Sam’s head and play a character like that?” And I don’t know that it’s as difficult as people think it is. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the autism spectrum. I’ve even been amazed when I started playing the part that people really had no idea what autism even was. Even if they’ve met people on the spectrum, they don’t understand how it works at all. But it’s very relatable. I’ve even had friends tell me, “Oh, yeah, I am on the spectrum,” and I had no idea before that. Obviously, no two people on the spectrum are the same.

Sam’s just this very relatable person and that’s partly because of his honesty. He’s so honest. Almost brutally honest, at times, I would say. And it’s a lot of where the comedy comes from with his character. But he’s so honest, and especially, I think having the voiceover where you really are in Sam’s head. It makes him very relatable because he says exactly how he feels about the things around him. So, that’s one way he’s so accessible to a lot of people.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the autism community about season three?

Personally speaking, I’ve heard that it’s given a lot of people hope — a lot of young people that are in college, or who think that they can’t go or they wouldn’t be able to complete it. It’s inspired at least a few people that I’ve spoken to, that if they ask for help, and if they’re able to get the help that they need, then they actually could complete college. One of the main points too is that a lot of people on the spectrum could do very well in college.

[A lack of support] seems to be the main reason that a lot of kids end up failing, because there’s really no reason that [drop-out] statistics should be that high. I’ve seen that a lot of different colleges, and in general, lots of places have really started to set up programs to help kids that just need a little bit of a different setting. I’ve seen more and more different institutions try and just put a little extra effort to make it accessible. It seems to have, I really hope, inspired more people to just go out there and get through college and get the education that they definitely have a right to.

You’ve also starred in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and “United States of Tara,” both of which focus on mental health. Can you share a bit about why mental health is an important topic for you?

My own personal mental health has been a struggle, so that’s always been very close to me. And a lot of people in my family have struggled with mental health and I happen to be lucky enough to come from a family where it’s actually talked about and we’re very open about it (struggling with depression, anxiety). I suffer from constant, really bad anxiety and have panic attacks all the time. Even from a young age, just struggled with a lot of depression.

It’s just a natural thing where I could relate to those stories and they struck a chord with me. I guess that’s partially why those have just fascinated me, and I think some part of it is just luck as well. I mean, I don’t know that I ever set out to like, only do projects that deal with mental health. But it’s worked out that way. And those are the stories that I find myself really attracted to. I try to be an open book with that. It’s easy to try and hide those things and pretend they didn’t happen or whatever. But the best thing possible is to talk about them and just open up communication about mental health and end stigma because there are so many people that are struggling.

Maybe that’s even partially why I’ve been attracted to portraying these stories because they’re important and it opens up a conversation that does not happen very often. And like I said, I’m very lucky that in my family, we’re open about it, but I have so many friends that really don’t feel like they can talk to their parents or their siblings or whatever, about their struggle. And that’s often how these things get worse because you’re trying to pretend that they’re not there.

So what’s next for you? 

I don’t have an idea in my head of winning an award or anything like that. I fell into this at a really young age and it’s just become my life and my livelihood. That’s liberating in a way, that I feel like I don’t have a set, I gotta do this, this and this before I turned 30 or whatever. So I just take it as it comes and go script by script and got some really cool projects floating around that may or may not happen in the next year. I end up being attracted to more independent stuff and with that comes a certain level of uncertainty about when or if things are actually ever going to happen.

I am trying to actually break into the other side of the camera. I really want to produce and one day, maybe even direct, so been putting my focus into that more so than acting, and then I do music too. So it ends up taking up a lot of time. But yeah, all exciting stuff, but nothing I can really say for sure.

Season three of “Atypical” is now streaming on Netflix and you can follow Keir Gilchrist on Instagram.

Article updated on Nov. 14, 2019.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Ned Vizzini

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