A Friend in Need
Keir Gilchrist, Marshall On Showtime’s United States Of Tara, Has A Yen To Keep His Brothers Safe
by Dann Dulin
Marshall is called into the principal’s office along with his friend, Lionel.
PRINCIPAL: As [AIDS] is still a clear and present danger, the county AIDS awareness program has given the school ten thousand condoms in every color of the beloved rainbow….I know how important safe sex is to your [gay] community, so I thought you might like to head up the effort to distribute them.
MARSHALL: We can do that, sure.
PRINCIPAL: No more than ten per student.
find them warm,
On meeting Keir, it was no surprise to discover that he possesses some of the same qualities as his character, Marshall: charming, likeable, and thoughtful. What I didn’t expect was his fervent interest in HIV prevention. “I always have condoms out wherever I live to try and encourage my friends to use them,” the Canadian actor says from his manager’s office in Beverly Hills. “I advocate safe sex and most of my friends do, too. The friends I have that don’t [use condoms] I find surprising, disturbing, and sad. I try to explain to them why they should be practicing safe sex. AIDS is avoidable.”
Sitting across from him on an ebony couch in a small office beneath a gigantic framed poster of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Keir is smart, quick, and unpretentious. He’s simply dressed in black jeans and a black “Rid The Cancer” MacDonald’s T-shirt.
Watching his character “Moosh” (Marshall’s nickname) on United States of Tara struggle to come of age, I can’t help but want to pat him on the head, put my arms around him, and tell him it will all be okay! The person who plays Marshall seems to be more grounded and experienced.
Several days ago the cast wrapped the third season of United Sates of Tara, which premieres this month. Now Keir basks in his new freedom. (The shooting schedule runs about three months.) Throughout most of our meeting, he holds a small bottled water at his side, which he drinks from frequently. Keir explains that he wanted to do this interview to help spread the word about safe sex.
“When my manager told me that A&U was nonprofit I was much more interested in it than in the other kinds of publications. Since it was HIV/AIDS-related, I thought people might find what I had to say interesting because I’m sure a good number of people who are part of the HIV community also watch the show,” he surmises, briefly looking down at the ivory-colored coffee table between us. “I’m all about power to the people. I don’t like magazines that brainwash people into buying clothes, perfumes, and all that BS. So whenever I see people who are passionate for a cause, I’m more likely to support them.”
Just eighteen, the guy is savvy and nearly an acting veteran. His career began at age eleven playing a politician’s son on Queer As Folk, which was filmed in his current hometown of Toronto. (He spent his early years in London, U.K.) He appeared in the root-for-the-underdog film Saint Ralph, the Fox television series The Winner, and he also lent his voice to the outrageous animated series, Family Guy. In Canada, he appeared on the TV series, Life With Derek, which aired on America’s Disney Channel. In the film Just Peck, he played opposite Marcia Cross and the comedy also introduced him to Brie Larson, the actress who would play his sister on United States of Tara.
Late last year Keir landed his first top billing in a film. It’s Kind of a Funny Story is an offbeat dramedy. His character, Craig, is thrown into a psych ward for a week where he encounters fellow patients Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts. Craig also attends therapy with a psychologist, played by Viola Davis, who guest starred on season two of Tara.
Keir first learned about HIV from his mother who was active in the AIDS community. “Every month mum would ask us [he and his fourteen-year-old brother] to gather our [old] clothes together and she’d donate them to various charities.” Indeed, his mother instilled compassion in him, and she also made sure Keir knew from the beginning about AIDS prevention, especially since she had lost several friends to the epidemic. “Mum always made it a point to talk to me about AIDS,” he notes, fiddling with the top of the bottled water. “She taught me about safe sex when we had the sex talk.” His parents are divorced, and his dad lives in the U.K., but he’s close to both of them.
Keir was also taught HIV prevention in school. “It was early on when I learned and they even had an HIV week,” he remembers. “This is a disease that a lot of people live with!” he strongly remarks. “HIV needs to be constantly talked about in public because it’s not a big scary four-letter word.” Keir is visibly irritated. He crosses his leg and his right foot shakes, which exposes black and white patch socks.
“Though AIDS has been around for thirty years, I think it’s still this faraway thing to a lot of people. They think AIDS is in some [remote] gay community in New York but ‘not where I live.’ I think this is true especially among teens.” He takes a swig of water. “I don’t know if it’s a true statistic, but I recently heard that women in their fifties who are divorced aren’t practicing safe sex and, consequently, they’re contracting the disease. People don’t realize the dangers.”
Keir is correct. The number of cases of HIV/AIDS for women, according to the National Institutes of Health, has, indeed, been growing. InMarch 2009, NIH reported that the rise in the number of cases in women of color age fifty and older has been especially steep. Most got the virus from sex with partners. Many others got HIV through shared needles. Because women may live longer than men, and because of the rising divorce rate, many widowed, divorced, and separated women are dating these days. Like older men, many older women may be at risk because they do not know how HIV/AIDS is spread. Women who no longer worry about getting pregnant may be less likely to use a condom and to practice safe sex. Also, vaginal dryness and thinning often occur as women age. When that happens, sexual activity can lead to small cuts and tears that raise the risk for HIV/AIDS.
Keir charges that the media contributes to the public ignorance, or at least serves up a mixed message. “I find this odd,” he complains, fanning his hands out on his thighs. “You’re watching TV and a PSA comes on explaining the importance of safe sex. Then it’s back to watching this TV program where the main focus is sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.” Kier is stoked. Under his mahogany-colored disheveled hair, his expressive puppy-dog big browns widen. “Everywhere you look nowadays, in the media, in music, on television, in film, it’s about promiscuity. Kids feel that it’s okay to go out and have sex with anyone and everyone. The problem [of safer sex] really isn’t being addressed.”
It’s refreshing to hear this from a younger person. Usually it’s the elders who complain about the younger generation having too many sex partners.
Keir’s cell rings, a soft tinkling sound, but he ignores it.
“There’s this total rush in my generation that’s all about partying and sex. That’s always been true [for youth], but now the media is totally saturated with it. So I feel they’re not helping the cause at all. I’m not saying not to have sex, but there needs to be positive messages about safe sex…” He stops, takes a short breath then adds passionately, “because it’s important…it’s very important to me.”
Keir currently has a girlfriend, who lives in Los Angeles and he admits that he’s never been tested, but he always plays safely. “Many people support safe sex but don’t practice safe sex in their own lives. The main way you can make an impact is to change your own actions.” He briefly stretches out his left arm that sports a rainbow-colored bracelet and concludes, “It’s important to live the way you want others to live.”
UNITED STATES OF KEIR
What do you do to have fun?
I like camping a lot, outdoors type stuff…and live music. I love seeing bands perform.
Name your favorite group.
Dangers. [A Southern California band that he sees the night after our interview at the Glass House in Pomona.]
What’s your take on being an actor?
I think so many actors put their whole life into acting and forget to actually live life and continue to grow as a person. I want to keep being my own person and not get sucked into my career. And I want to keep my personal life separate. It’s important for me to have off times to go places and meet people. I’m not yet who I am fully.
Finish this sentence. The one thing about fame I don’t like is ….
People treating me differently.
What do you believe happens after we die?
I’m not super concerned.
Who’s your favorite actor?
I don’t have any. I don’t follow actors that much.
Do you look up to anyone as a role model?
My mum and also certain teachers I’ve had.
Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you, influenced you, or inspired you the most?
Honestly……my mom and my dad.
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
The director Shane Meadows.
Keir gives a pithy reaction to these people who’ve touched his life.
Mom. She helped me figure out the suit I wore to the prom! We really feel like a family [on the set of United States of Tara].
When asked to describe himself in one word he responds,
“There’s no way.”
Dann Dulin interviewed Janet Jackson for the December 2010 cover story.