Keir Gilchrist is used to playing complicated, standout characters. His previous roles include the son of a woman with dissociative identity disorder on Showtime’s United States of Tara and a 16-year-old staying at a psychiatric ward in It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Now, he’s starring in Netflix’s Atypical as Sam, a teenage boy on the autism spectrum who is dating for the first time.
“I have moments in the middle of the night where I’m going, ‘What am I doing? Am I doing the right thing? Am I pushing myself too far?'” Gilchrist, 24, tells EW. “I guess it’s just sort of who I am though. I’m not all that interested in easy characters or playing the same thing over and over. I want to be challenged.”
And he wants to help people. Gilchrist recalls people coming up to him and thanking him for his performances in United States of Tara and It’s Kind of a Funny Story, people who say his work has touched them, that they feel understood. “I don’t really care if the majority of people see my work, but if my work actually positively affects someone’s life and helps them through something, then I think that’s probably about the most you can ask for as an actor,” he says.
Atypical, created by How I Met Your Mother and The Goldbergs producer Robia Rashid, could be one of those pieces of work, too. According to the CDC’s estimates, 1 in 68 children currently have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. That is, obviously, an extremely high ratio, yet despite its prevalence, autism is something rarely represented on television. That’s gotten better in recent years: There was Max on Parenthood, Julia on Sesame Street, and a new show centering on a doctor with autism titled The Good Doctor premieres this fall on ABC. But here is a show almost entirely devoted to the experience of having autism — and while that’s a positive in many ways, it’s also risky: What if viewers — especially viewers who have experience with autism, who love someone with autism, who have autism — see it as taking the condition lightly, as mocking it, as turning it into a cartoon?
“That’s always a concern and definitely something that we fought hard to make sure that didn’t happen and we didn’t cross over into that, especially given that it’s, to some degree, a comedy,” Gilchrist explains. “I trusted Robia. There was really nothing that felt cartoonish to me at all, even on the page. If it did, I wouldn’t have been interested in the project.”
Aside from talking to Rashid about character traits and behaviors, Gilchrist prepared for the role by watching documentaries and reading David Finch’s The Journal of Best Practices, a memoir by a man who discovers he has Asperger syndrome five years into his marriage. “That book was super helpful, super well-written, and really pushes you in the headspace of a high-functioning person who’s on the spectrum,” Gilchrist says, adding that he didn’t look to any movies or shows about someone with autism for inspiration. “I think if you do that, it’s easy to start mimicking someone else, and that’s not how I approach acting.”
Plus, he could draw from his own experiences for the character. Although Gilchrist doesn’t have autism, he can relate to the typical high school struggles Sam encounters throughout the first season, like the anxiety of crushes and the discomfort of feeling different.
“I feel like being an outsider is something a lot of people can relate to,” Gilchrist says, going on to explain that he was “the only punk kid” at his high school and didn’t really enter the dating world until after. “I was the one who came to school wearing bondage pants and a studded jacket. I always stood out and kids always would yell at me in the halls and whatever and just thought I was weird. A lot of people can feel that way in high school.”
His fictional sibling included. Newcomer Brigette Lundy-Paine costars as Sam’s little sister, a tough-as-nails track star who is teasing her brother one second and threatening anyone who messes with him the next. Outside of the high school bubble, their mom and dad are feeling like outsiders in a different way. His dad (Michael Rapaport) wants to bond with his son but doesn’t understand how to connect with someone who doesn’t love baseball and other Typical Boy Things; his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is lovingly protective and, without even knowing it, in need of an outlet for her pent-up stress.
“I think everyone on this show is a bit of a misfit,” Gilchrist says. “A lot of times with family dramas or comedies, there’s a lot of tropes — the whole sitcom trope of, like, the dumb dad and the mother who’s too good for him but is beaten down by life. I think this show breaks a lot of stereotypes in a lot of ways. Everybody’s kind of odd.”
Atypical begins streaming on Netflix Friday, Aug. 11.