What a treat to speak exclusively to Keir Gilchrist by phone on a recent Friday morning. Gilchrist can currently be seen delivering an incredible performance as Sam Gardner on the series Atypical, which dropped its third season about a month ago on Netflix. While speaking with Brief Take, Gilchrist was refreshingly candid about the series and about his acting journey, as the thespian was born in England, before settling in Toronto for many of his formative years, and he has appeared in a few of our favourite projects over the last decade. But above all, watch Atypical to behold Keir Gilchrist, a transformative actor.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our exclusive one-on-one chat with the deeply engrossing Keir Gilchrist.
Brief Take: Did you know Atypical was going to be a game changer for you?
Keir Gilchrist: I had a pretty good idea from the start that this was a massive challenge and it was going to test my skills in a way that I don’t think that anything I have done has before. I think playing Sam was the biggest stretch from playing…being myself. [chuckles] I basically made all my friends and family swear not to bring up Atypical for the month that I was auditioning for it. And I didn’t want to hear about it, I didn’t want anybody to ask me about it, because there’s a lot of…I just had this a feeling about it, that I could tell that if I did get this, it was going to kind of change things for me and really prove to people that I could really put in the work and do something that is, again, not very similar to playing, to being myself. And I think that I kind of knew in the back of my head, especially because sometimes you do a pilot and it doesn’t get picked up, but we were straight-to-series, so I knew that if I got this one, that I would at least have a first season’s worth of content that I could show to people.
Yeah, I was pretty aware that this was going to be a bit of a game changer. I mean I’m not saying that my career is completely different now, but yeah, I was, I think, right about that. It’s interesting, that even people that I’ve known my whole life who finally see the show, even seeing the way that they looked at me after was kind of cool, because they know who I am and I think it’s a bit of a shock to some people that people who I’ve always… [pauses] This really did prove to a few people I think that I was capable of maybe more than they thought.
BT: How do you feel about the positive reaction to this season of Atypical?
KG: It’s pretty wild, for a show, too, that we don’t have a ton of episodes, we kind of get into the groove right around the time that we have to stop until we can wait and work again in a year. And for that reason, I think that this season we really hit our stride and this show kind of came into its own, not that the other seasons weren’t good at all or anything, but I think that this season we finally had enough time to really hone in and perfect into what the show was always evolving. It’s pretty wild and I’m super proud of this season, it’s my favourite. I love all the side stories as well, even the stuff that I wasn’t involved with, like all the Paige stuff I think was incredible. It was kind of nice to sit back a bit this season, and when I was watching it finally, the finished product, to be like: “Oh cool, look at all of this stuff that I didn’t really see on the day”.
BT: You created a sense of family on The United States of Tara and now, as you’ve gotten ahead in your career, have done so here. What helped to create a family unit that works so well?
KG: That’s interesting. It’s funny, because I did The United States of Tara so long ago that sometimes I try to think back to that and I’m like: “I don’t even..” I mean I was fifteen or something like that. It almost feels like it was a natural thing, but building that family unit again this time around was definitely a different experience. Often when dealing with questions about the show or the inner workings of it, partially I have to throw the credit to Robia [Rashid], because her script, even that first pilot script, she really already had such a great understanding of who was this family and much was already on the page. Then on top of that, it’s easy to get along with people like Jennifer [Jason Leigh], Brigitte [Lundy-Paine], Michael [Rapaport], because I think that when we all kind of came into it, everyone was so warm. I mean it’s always awkward [chuckles] when you’re like: “We’re going to be a family”, but I think that it felt pretty effortless with this one, it just kind of fell into place. And at this point we’ve known each other for three years and it’s pretty easy to feel like a family.
BT: What was that sense of a click between Brigitte Lundy-Paine and you as a brother and sister pairing?
KG: Brigitte, it was interesting, yeah. I remember Jennifer and I had met before that, and we had a meal or something, but Brigitte was one of the first people involved that hit me up right away, to contact me and be like: “Hey! I want to meet up and get to know each other”. They and I had this, I think that we have relatively similar upbringings, kind of a similar background, and we hit it off in a lot of ways, like Brigitte really does feel like my sister to some degree. It’s interesting because you’re talking about how that works, because there’s this ‘push’, everyone needs you to get along, right? And the show needs you to get along, to find some chemistry and some common ground. And I really feel like it’s quite effortless with them. I don’t really remember having to try too hard, we got along great, we still do. I love working with Brigitte, they’re hilarious, and again I think we happen to have a semi-similar family situation and upbringing. Like they’re from Oakland and I’m from Toronto, not exactly the same, but yeah, very effortless and organic.
BT: You talk a lot in interviews about pushing yourself to do things on screen that you have never done before. What do you think that you have accomplished through this role?
KG: Well I think that through this role, as opposed to…you brought up United States of Tara and other previous films that I’ve done, I think that with this show, I finally really got the opportunity to become someone else on camera, like truly. I don’t know who it was, I think my Mum was saying, she was like: “Oh I always somewhat see some Keir in whatever role you play, like Marshall in United States of Tara, or It’s Kind of a Funny Story, I always see some Keir, and this is the first time that I’m…” She’s sitting there watching her kid that she’s like: “I always see Keir and this is the first time I was really like watching someone else on camera”, which I’m proud of myself in that regard, just to have very little trace of…and there’s still obviously like a little part of me in there, but my girlfriend (actress Michelle Farrah Huang) even, too, she’s like “I really don’t see you there when I’m watching”.
BT: What would you be looking to accomplish in the future in terms of going deep into a character?
KG: It’s interesting, because I’m not a method actor. I don’t have any kind of method to it, I’m not into Meisner or any of that stuff and I don’t really vibe with any of those strategies. If that’s your thing, then that’s your thing. It’s not like I want to push myself to the point in which I really embody somebody else, but I guess that I’m pretty open when it comes to my career, but I’d love to play someone who’s not easy to like. I think that I’ve happened to play mostly characters that are not easily relatable, which is difficult in its own way, too. But I think for me, after all that I’ve done, the next challenge for me would be to play somebody that’s quite hard to whom to relate. Just because I think that I’ve had the opportunity to play a lot of relatable characters and I think that would be the next challenge for me, would be to really play someone that makes your skin crawl.
BT: I read that you’re a fan of the series Sharp Objects. Do you tend to enjoy projects that explore the gray areas of humanity?
KG: Yeah, I think that there is totally something that can be said about a character who really is doing awful things, but that the audience is still there rooting for them. A good example of that would be be the movie Good Time, I don’t know if you saw that…
BT: Yeah, I did. It was phenomenal!
KG: …with Robert Pattinson, I love that performance and that film in general. It’s this film in which he’s really on this rampage and really negatively impacting all these people’s lives that he comes across, but you’re still at the end of the day going: “Is he going to get his brother back?”. I think that’s a cool example of the realm into which I would like to get.
BT: For me, It Follows is one of those, a best of the decade type movie. What did you enjoy about being a part of that project?
KG: Last night I was with Olivia Luccardi, who’s in the film as well, and it’s funny that you brought it up because we were reminiscing about the film, and at the time, we were on set and going: “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this movie”. This very strange indie movie, super low budget, we all just packed our bags and went out there and trusted that it was going to see the light of day, but it really was unique to my career, of all the films that I’ve done, because again, we were sitting there like: “Are we going to finish this? Are we going to get all our days? Is this production going to fall apart?”. It was very much down to the wire on that one and definitely thought: “Well, okay, at the end of this, at most we’ll have a watchable movie”, but we did not in any way expect the response that we got, so I think both of us were kind of floored when we saw that not only did we finish the movie, but it’s actually a good movie and people love it and it’s become this kind of…I hesitate to use ‘cult classic’, because I feel like people say that a lot, but I don’t think that it technically counts because it wasn’t that cult, but I think that it was a unique experience to see something that we literally didn’t know if it was going to see the light of day and then all of a sudden it became one of the most iconic things for both of our careers that we’ve done.
I think that it really taught me to trust the director, because I always knew David (Robert Mitchell) was really smart and I realized after that shoot, I was like: Okay, you’ve really got to trust somebody, and even if it looks crazy on the outside, that if they’re talented, then it’s going to work out.
BT: What about the other way, a project that you thought would make an impact and hasn’t yet been discovered?
KG: That’s interesting. I definitely had things that I remember working on and thinking: “Okay, this is really going to make waves” and yeah, just didn’t. I remember I did this movie Hungry Hills, we shot it in Regina and it was like this Canadian Western set in the Great Depression and I really thought that was going to be huge for my career, and for whatever reason…it was at TIFF and it never really took off. And there’s another movie, when I read for It Follows, I did two horror movies back-to-back, I did this movie Dark Summer and then It Follows. I thought that Dark Summer was going to be The Thing that everyone saw and was talking about. It did okay but I definitely feel like that one kind of got…people kind of blew over it. I did another movie called Len and Company, that to this day I think is one of my favourite films of which I am a part, we shot that actually in Ontario too with Rhys Ifans and Juno Temple. That one I feel like again, did fine, it definitely got some recognition, but I still to this day guess that is a bit of a hidden gem.
BT: How do you feel about being recognized and dealing with an increase in popularity from this series?
KG: I mean I’ve had to learn to have a better attitude. I personally do not like being recognized. I really appreciate my privacy, it’s really important to me. That said, if somebody’s cool, I think that it can be a cool experience meeting a fan of yours, if they’re cool about it. But more often than not, they’re not cool about it, especially not in L.A. I think in Toronto it’s kind of fun because every once in a while, I’ll meet somebody in my old neighbourhood and they’ll be like: “Oh my God, what are you doing here in Toronto in this neighbourhood?” And I’m like: “Oh, I’m from up the street”, and it’s kind of cool, it’s like “Really?” And I’m like: “Yeah, I went to Palmerston Public School, you know?” And people in Toronto generally are pretty cool about it. But I think that in L.A. there’s this weird thing, a lot of people get really kind of possessive or weird, like you feel very objectified. Like literally last night, I was in a bar and some random person grabbed me and was squeezing my arm and kind of right in my face. They were clearly intoxicated so I didn’t quite understand what they were saying, but they were about to be like: “What do I know you from?” kind of thing and sort of holding me hostage, and I was like: “Uhhh…what?”, in front of all these people. And of course everybody starts looking at you and looking at their phone, trying to figure out what is it. I don’t appreciate that, I think that’s rude to do to anybody and I don’t know why people do that. I think that I’ve always tried to really tread the line because I like not living in some gated community, because I have friends that are pretty successful or famous or whatever you want to say and they end up having to live in these gated, secret communities up in the mountains, in the hills of L.A., and it seems sort of depressing to me. So I play ball and I’ll do whatever publicity, but I really try to keep my privacy. I appreciate when people…if they’re going to recognize me and talk to me, all good, please also respect my privacy and be cool about it.
BT: Do you think that being a decent person on set is a critical aspect of being a performer?
KG: Yeah, I was raised by Canadians and my parents really drilled it into me that it was really important that I not have an ego. I’ve said this before, my dad would say this to me all the time, that you’re not curing cancer so get real, you know? It’s cool what you’re doing, but you’re not saving lives or anything like that. And it makes my skin crawl when people are rude to the crew or their fellow scene partners or whatever. I literally have a list of people that [chuckles] I’ve even just met casually, that I’m like: “Okay, not working with this person”. I think that there’s really no need for anyone to be rude, and I mean that goes for every industry and every walk of life. There’s no need for it. But I actually think that it’s good when people are rude because I’m like: “Show your true colours and I’ll make a note of it in my head that I don’t like you and I don’t want to work with you again”. Because as I said, there’s no reason for it. I was fateful enough to grow up on United States of Tara, on that set, everybody was so kind – Toni Collette and John Corbett and Brie Larson – they were lovely people and there was no ego on that set. Those were all big role models for me as for how I was going to be professionally when I grew up. Yeah, be polite. [laughs]
Atypical seasons one through three are now streaming on Netflix