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‘Atypical’ Star Keir Gilchrist on How He Prepared to Play an Autistic Teenager

Born in London and raised in Canada, Keir Gilchrist, who played son Marshall to Toni Collette’s Tara on “United States of Tara,” doesn’t hail from an acting family. “Nobody in my family has ever done this,” he allows. He’s certainly proved he belongs: He’s now starring as lead character Sam Gardner, an autistic high schooler, in Season 2 of critically acclaimed Netflix comedy “Atypical.”

How did you prepare to play Sam?

My rep set me up with Robia [Rashid], the creator of the show, so I got to sit down with her for a couple of hours. It was a very lengthy audition process, and we talked a lot about the various ways in which I could play Sam. The most helpful piece of research was the book “The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband.” The book ended up being a really big contributing factor in creating Sam’s character.

In Season 2, Sam’s relationship with his sister Casey [Brigette Lundy-Paine] evolves. How did you both navigate that change?

I have to give credit to Robia. She had written such a thorough script, and Sam’s relationship with Casey really jumped off the page. It still does. She brings to that character such a sibling vibe, and we have a very natural chemistry.

Sam gets overwhelmed by certain stimuli — people talking, loud music. 

With Sam, his senses spiral all over the place, so we try to incorporate visually what is going on in his brain. We’ll show slow-motion close-ups of people’s mouths moving, fluorescent lights flickering, which is the way people on the [autism] spectrum often describe what’s happening when things become too much. In those kinds of scenes, I try to put myself in positions to which anyone can relate — getting bullied at school or getting overwhelmed with a partner. But with Sam, he becomes a little more frightened.

What are some of the changes for Sam in Season 2?

In Season 1, Sam is struggling to find love and acceptance, and at the end of that season he accomplishes that. Season 2 is more about Sam’s independence. He’s at the end of high school, and now he’s got to decide whether he’s going to go away to college and, if so, where. He’s got to decide whether he’s going to live at home or go away. He takes all the skills from the first season and is trying to forge a path. You can expect lots of misadventures. He’s on a mission to figure out what he’s going to do with his life.

Things You Didn’t Know About Keir Gilchrist

AGE: 25 BIRTHPLACE: London PASSION PROJECT: He’s a vocalist in a pair of bands (“I wouldn’t call it singing. I do screaming. It’s very cathartic”) SECRET TALENT: Spent two years learning how to farm (“I’d like to get back to that at some point”)

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