In Netflix’s Atypical, Keir Gilchrist plays Sam Gardner, a 19-year-old on the autism spectrum. Season 3, which dropped on November 1, sees Sam trying to cope with his freshman year of college, his now long-distance relationship, and a falling out with his best friend, all while he continues his quest for independence.
Atypical is hilarious, heartwarming, and utterly unique. Do not let this delightful, important show get lost in your Netflix queue.
I talked to Gilchrist all about this season and what it’s like playing the show’s lovable lead. Be aware, this interview contains minor spoilers for season 3.
Awards Daily: As an actor what was it like coming into your third season of Atypical?
Keir Gilchrist: I’d say to some degree, I played into it a little easier this time around. At that point, we’d already done 18 episodes so getting into the headspace for Sam was a little more familiar than it had been the previous seasons. But also, it’s always stressful and always daunting when you start the season and you realize you have all these weeks of work ahead of you.
AD: Was it difficult to find new ways to keep things fresh?
KG: Playing any character for that amount of time, it’s always, of course, naturally going to be less fresh. But, it’s always such a challenge playing Sam that I don’t know it’s ever dull or anything like that. It’s always a unique challenge every scene that you have to approach and figuring out, with the help of everybody involved, how we’re going to have Sam tackle all these obstacles. But this season was kind of fun because Sam’s role really shifts from everyone always taking care of him to Sam kind of taking care of everyone else this season. That was an interesting challenge.
AD: That was one of the things I wanted to ask you about. In the show, Casey (Gilchrist’s TV sister, played by the wonderful Brigette Lundy-Paine) agrees to be Sam’s “support human,” but in many ways he’s sort of her support human in everything she goes through this season. What was it like playing that and supporting the other characters this season?
KG: Yeah definitely! There’s been this ark over the last two seasons of Sam constantly looking to other people for help in his life and needing his family and his friends. But it was satisfying, even for me, to see Sam really maturing. I think people forget that he is actually Casey’s big brother. I loved all that stuff. And I was proud of Sam as well, even from my weird perspective, which is that, I am him and not him, which is kind of confusing.
AD: You mentioned earlier getting in the headspace for Sam. What is that like? What does that require?
KG: I think playing Sam is, more than any other role that I’ve done in my career, just having to think a little harder about everything. There are roles where some days you’re like “yeah, I basically hung out all day and was myself in the background of a scene,” but with Sam there’s never really an easy moment. It’s just having to really consider all the different aspects that I wouldn’t normally [consider]. How is Sam going to say all of these lines? There’s a lot of physicality that goes into it. And thinking about how Sam would react as opposed to how I would react.
I also get a lot of help from people. If I’m unsure, I’ll just see if Robia (Rashid, Atypical’s creator and executive producer) can come down to set or any of our writers, we have consultants as well, so it’s just a lot more consideration that goes into every single scene, trying to figure out all the different quirks that Sam has. And that goes along with if he’s feeling stressed and how stressed, so it’s a lot.
AD: How much of that is on the page and how much that is you deciding what you want Sam to do? Is it written for you or is it a collaborative process?
KG: For the most part it is written in a very detailed way. Especially in the beginning, in the first season and in the pilot, so much of that was on the page, Robia definitely deserves the credit with the vast majority of that. As we’ve gone on, I’ve taken the reigns a little bit more and I’ve proven that I can do it so I think they trust me a little more now and let me figure out some of it. But a lot of it is still on the page. Sometimes we have disagreements about that or I’ll be like, “I don’t think this is right for this scene” and I think more and more they’re like, “okay cool, we trust you to know Sam.” It’s definitely a collaborative effort.
AD: One of the things I appreciated about this season was that the show used Sam and his girlfriend Paige (Jenna Boyd)’s characters to explore college and how difficult that transition can be. We see how Sam’s Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects him as he struggles to adjust to freshman year. Can you talk more about that?
KG: I was excited for all the college stuff going into it. For me too, I didn’t go to college, so I guess, in a weird way, it was my first year of college as well. Even though I’ve gotten so deeply embedded in the Autism community, I still hadn’t thought of what unique challenges a student with ASD faces going to college. So that was really interesting and fun.
I’ve heard this from a lot of people I’ve met on the spectrum through the show and even just in life, that college is actually really where they found their friend groups, and in fact. it’s sometimes much easier than high school because kids in high school are pretty awful and mean. You can get a more specialized friend group in college and meet other people that are like-minded. It was fun to explore Sam making new friends and meeting people that are like him. That was the most fun part with the college [storyline], he’s no longer stuck with all these kids that don’t get him. All of a sudden Sam’s actually pretty cool in college.
AD: Something else I really loved about this season and wanted to be sure to ask you about was Sam’s relationship with Zahid (Nik Dodani) and portraying a sort of friend breakup, which is not something you see as often. We’re used to seeing romantic breakups all the time on TV, but this was unique. How was it playing that storyline?
KG: I loved that whole storyline. A lot of people who have watched it have told me that it hurts [to see] and brings up memories. I think everyone by a certain age has had a friend breakup, and like you’re saying, it’s not talked about that much or portrayed, but it hurts just as much. I’ve had lots of friends who were important to me and something gets between us, and sometimes we work it out and sometimes we don’t. But, thankfully [Sam and Zahid] do obviously, because they really are soul mates. All of that was really fun and really touching. Me and Nik are really close friends in real life so whenever we get new stuff to do together, I just get really excited because he’s been a friend of mine for a long time.
AD: Atypical has so much empathy for Sam and for all of its characters. How do you all work to accomplish that?
KG: It comes pretty naturally just because you can’t help loving all the characters yourself. They’re all really layered and Robia and the rest of the writers have created these interesting characters, its not that hard to empathize with them. They’re all very unique, but all fleshed out. So for us it’s all pretty natural, it’s easy, it’s like, “I like all these people,” so it’s not a huge stretch to get into their heads
And in general too, we are all actually friends so that helps as well. Allie Rae [ Treharne, who plays Dodani’s love interest] came in this season and blew all of our minds playing Gretchen. On paper she’s this awful girl, somehow Allie Rae really just did this amazing job with her. And she’s still awful, don’t get me wrong, but in a way too is kind of relatable as well.
AD: I’m curious, how has playing someone with ASD impacted the way you interact in your own day-to-day life or changed the way you think about communication?
KG: Oh, interesting! One main thing that I’ve realized is how much more like Sam I am than I ever really expected. The more I play the part the more I relate to him. I also can get very obsessive over a certain topic, and sometimes I lack some of the social niceties, I can be a little blunt and harsh. When I’m playing Sam I find that I actually, even in my personal life, I’m a lot more honest. Which is both a good and bad thing, I guess. If anything, again, I realized how much more like Sam I am than I thought I was before I played the part.
AD: Have you heard anything about a potential fourth season?
KG: I know we want one. And I know other people are in the process of, I believe, trying to make that happen. But I haven’t heard anything yet, but I’m hoping it’ll be soon.
AD: What do you hope is in store for Sam? What would you want a fourth season to tackle?
KG: I think it’ll be fun to see Sam and Zahid as roommates and what they are like together, because that would be a lot of fun and there’s a lot of new stuff there. I want to see more of Sam and Paige together too. I think their relationship is really interesting and complex. I really like too, that by the end of season 3, these people from different worlds that didn’t usually work together, and existed in different parts of Sam’s life, all end up on that road trip together. And I loved seeing all those characters coming together and interacting so more stuff like that for sure. Even for me, there were some people that I have worked with for two years now and I realized, “oh you guys have never actually been in a scene together.” All these great dynamics were created, so [I want to] keep pushing in the direction.
AD: Lastly, what do you hope people take away from watching season three?
The biggest thing that I hope people realize from watching the show is that if you can ask for a little help and push yourself out of your comfort zone, you can really do anything. A big part of this season is the “four out of five students with ASD don’t graduate college,” it’s a real statistic.
One of my biggest hopes is that people with ASD at home watch this show, and maybe they are on the fence about quitting college or on the edge of failing themselves, and they see Sam’s story and they go, “You know what? I can do this. If I get a little extra help and use my resources, use the people who care about me and bring them in, then I can get through it
AD: Thank you so much for your time. I really loved this show and was really moved by it. It was such a treat getting to talk to you.
KG: Thank you so much! I really appreciate that, and I appreciate the help getting the word out about our show.
Atypical Season 3 is available now on Netflix.