Gerard Kearns, at 20, doesn't look much more than 12 years old. He's best known for playing the gay 15-year-old Ian Gallagher in Shameless, Channel 4's series about a dysfunctional family in Manchester.
The hoodie-wearing youth is talking in the hallway of a studio in east London, where he's rehearsing for his theatre debut in A Thousand Yards, a new play at the Southwark Playhouse. It is an exciting move for the actor, who still lives at home with his parents and sister in Oldham: "I get me washing done and me food cooked at home."
In Shameless, Kearns was originally given the part of the older Gallagher son Lip (short for Philip). Two weeks after filming began, he was switched to Ian. "It was quite hard. I had a lot of anxieties about my friends back at home taking the mick," says Kearns. "At first I found kissing Kash [the married Muslim father of two who runs local shop, and is having a love affair with his underage assistant] pretty weird. In the second series, it was, 'Let's get on with it.'
"The character is treated sensitively. Ian loves Kash. They come to an agreement. Kash's wife allows it as long as he is there for the kids. It is meant to be down-to-earth, not the stereotypical gay you saw in Queer as Folk."
Kearns admits to feeling vulnerable now, especially walking around in Manchester, where he's recognised a lot. "It was filmed in the heart of Manchester and everybody, it seems, watches it there. People come up and congratulate me."
Kearns says that as Ian develops as a character, so he develops as an actor. "It has been my drama-school training," Kearns says. "We are both coming out of our shells at the same time. We know who we are. All I need now is the script."
Kearns auditioned for Shameless at 18, by which time he had five GCSEs and a qualification in computers, and had acted in regional theatre at the Lowry and on the Edinburgh Fringe. In A Thousand Yards, he plays a 17-year-old who is obsessed with blind people and fears going blind himself; he ends up in therapy, trying to discover why. The play, about a national newspaper picture-editor, is the first by AN Zakarian - a former picture-editor. It centres on the editor, Lucy (Susan Vidler, seen in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting and Mike Leigh's Naked), who is slowly going blind, and her relationship with a photo-journalist. Lucy also embarks on an unlikely friendship with Kearns's character, Jeremy (or Kid A, as he insists on being called), who is visiting the same doctor.
"He has lost his sense of self. He is a lost soul at the beginning," Kearns says. "He has always felt like the odd one out. But he has this ability to talk about pictures and see hope in everything. He can even count brushmarks on paintings."
Kearns, who previously could not think of anything more boring than looking at paintings, has been to the National Gallery to research his role. "What is happening to me is really opening my eyes, mind and heart to positive things," he says.
'A Thousand Yards', Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 (020-7620 3494; www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk), 7 to 25 June
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