In every other gay teen drama, Marshall being out at such a young age would likely involve a great deal of internal angst, a battle with the parents struggling to come to terms with and accept their gay son, and problems at school. There is zero of that on this show.
But when your mother suffers from DID (dissociative identity disorder), meaning your nuclear family includes not only mom but your mom’s alters – including an out-of-control sixteen-year-old girl named T, a Leave it to Beaver mom named Alice, and the sexist, macho, and very male Buck – being gay just isn’t that big a deal in the overall scheme of things.
In person, Gilchrist is soft-spoken and thoughtful, two characteristics he shares with the teen he plays, but he's also enthusiastic about video games and sports.
Being in a show where an actor as well known as Collette gets to play four such eclectic, scene-stealing parts might not leave room for the other actors to really perform, but that hasn’t been a problem for Gilchrist, who has been singled out by television critics as giving the show’s breakout performance.
So what made the born in England, Canadian actor want to play the part of Marshall? Says Keir, “One, it’s a combination of a great show and then just a really fun part, so it was something else I hadn’t done before. I never really get to play a cool, suave character. I usually play nerds, so it was cool to do that.”
Marshall is out to his friends at school and family from the very start of the show, something that was in the initial breakdown for the character. When Gilchrist auditioned, a process he described as grueling, he was told the character was “gay, but not like stereotypical whatever, just like a normal guy.”
Keir appreciated the fact that Marshall was out and free of angst without any explanation as to why. “It is kind of like you’re dropped right in. All the characters are already formed when it starts. It was kind of like, out, gay, just kind of set up the character for you. I talked with Diablo Cody, writer and executive producer, about it a little bit. I talked with the director, Craig Gillespie, a lot and we just formed the character.”
As for Keir’s take on his character, he says, “I always thought he’d just always been gay… like maybe when he was six years old, he was like, ‘Ah, I like Jimmy,’ or something and from that point on it was never really questioned. So that’s how I think about it.” As to whether his family’s easy-going acceptance of his being gay has to do with his mother’s DID, Keir says, “I think maybe because it does take place in Kansas, so it’s not like – maybe it might be a little harder for the parents if they weren’t already dealing with this other thing, but … Toni and John’s characters are very accepting people.”
While Tara is accepting of her son’s sexuality, going so far as to encourage Marshall to pursue the young man at school on whom he has a crush, not all of the alters are so progressive. “Buck, Tara's male alter, doesn’t really agree with Marshall being gay, but I think in a way he at least likes Marshall, so it’s fine with him, I think.
As for Max his dad and Kate his sister, Keir says, “Other characters like, I think Max – it was funny, John in real life didn’t realize my character was gay until we had already shot the pilot and we got it and he went, ‘Marshall’s gay?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it says so!’ He’s like, ‘Oh, really, I didn’t even know.’ So that was kind of funny. So I guess his character sort of just kind of shrugs the shoulders and I think there is actually a really nice moment in one of the episodes in which he does sit down with Marshall and it’s kind of – not come out, but it’s like, lay it on the table, ‘I’m gay.’ Kate is fine with it, but she does poke fun at Marshall every once in a while.”
Unlike most gay boys on television, Marshall is also allowed a love life of sorts. He has a crush on a classmate named Jason (Andrew Lawrence) who also happens to be a born again Christian, a fact that Marshall ignores in a typical school crush fashion. But when asked about what might happen between the two, Keir is cagey. “I do get a crush on a guy and like the character has a boyfriend and then it’s kind of out on the table and it’s like, all right. We don’t want to give away too much. … I don’t think it ever becomes boyfriend and boyfriend, but there’s romance going on.”
When asked if he turned to any gay teenagers for advice on how to play Marshall, the young actor says, “I don’t really have any gay friends, at least who are out yet. I find, I don’t know if it’s as much other places as where I live, it’s more open, but at my school it wouldn’t be very easy to be openly gay.”
Keir says he does get some clowning from friends for playing Marshall, but he knows they aren’t homophobic and doesn’t take offense. “My friends will make jokes, but they’re all very accepting. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be friends with them. If they were like, ‘Oh, you’re playing gay. I have a big problem with that,’ that wouldn’t be cool.”
Asked if he’s aware that his character is rather groundbreaking, Keir says, “I’m hearing it more and more, which is interesting because I never thought it would be such a big deal, but hearing stuff like, ‘Wow. You’re being openly gay on a show is a big deal because that hasn’t happened,’ kind of surprised me. I don’t really watch that much television, I guess, but I never really thought about it, so it’s pretty cool. I’m kind of excited actually about doing something.”
Told he is in fact going to be a role model for gay teens, Keir considers, then says, “That, to me, was really – I kind of started thinking about that and that made me feel really happy. If I can make anybody feel more comfortable about themselves, that’s, you know, that’s extra. I’m actually kind of excited about it.”