Australia’s Chris Lilley has taken on many ages, wigs and even races to play the sprawling range of characters that fill his ensemble, mockumentary-style series, We Could be Heroes, Summer Heights High, and Angry Boys. But rather than gimmicky costumes, his incredibly detailed performances are what really bring the series to life. Lilley portrays his collection of crude, appalling, and self-absorbed creations with such stark candour that their deluded behaviour becomes not only believable, but bizarrely endearing.
After exploring the pains of male adolescence across the globe in Angry Boys, he’s returning to HBO this month with a new comedy set in the only place more frightening than a male prison: an all girls private school. In Ja’mie: Private School Girl, Lilley revisits the shimmering, dark hair and sly smile of his most beloved character: the overachieving, stuck up teenage girl Ja’mie King. As the grade 12 senior organizes perfect prefect parties, measures her friends ‘box’ gaps, and pursues the captain of the rugby team, Lilley once again plays the bitchiest girl in school with such uncompromising sincerity that you almost forget you are watching a thirty-eight year-old man giving a teenage boy a lap dance. At least until you talk to him on the phone.
What made you want to revisit the character Ja’mie?
She’s just a fun character to write for and to play. I explored her world a little bit in We Could be Heroes and Summer Heights High when she went on an exchange to another school and I just wanted to go back and go from where we left off. I just really like playing her and that’s the main reason.
When was the character first conceived?
I came up with her for We Could Be Heroes. That show was about 5 nominees for the Australian of the year, so I had to come up with different types of people. The idea of the Sydney nominee being this rich girl was a really good contrast to the rest of the characters. It sort of evolved, because at first I was thinking she would be a nerdy, over-weight girl and I was gonna do the fat suit thing. But the more I thought about it the more I was like, she should just be this girl who thinks she’s really hot. Then I was thinking, how am I going to pull this off? I thought, well, if I just act hot and pretend to be hot then maybe people will just believe it.
Do you imagine her looking as the audience sees her, or is she actually as hot as she pretends to be in the world of the show?
Yeah, I don’t imagine anything else, I’m so used to seeing her and I’ve done so many photo-shoots with her that I see her as her. It was interesting working with the boys in the show because theres a lot more relationship stuff, and I did say to one of the boys that she ends up hooking up with, just imagine you’ve arrived at this new school and you’ve just met the hottest girl in school. Don’t look at me and see me, just play it that you’ve got the hottest girl.
On Angry Boys and Summer Heights High, you’ve explored the naivety of adolescence. What constantly fascinates you with youth culture and drives you to explore it for comedy?
It’s a funny time of life where you think you know everything but you’re still bound by the institution that you’re in, and by your parents. You’re still a kid, but in the body of an adult. It’s the idea of the irrational brain of a teenager thinking they’re so powerful. Ja’mie is in the ultimate position of power. I think if I just jumped into the future and explored her life when she was 26, it would’ve been nowhere near as interesting as that time in the final few months of school.
How was your high school experience?
I went to a boys private school, so it was not that fun. It was like the male version of Hillford. I just plodded along doing my own weird performance stuff, writing scripts, and dressing up as characters. When I went to a school reunion though, so many of the girls came up and were convinced that Ja’mie was based on them, just so proud of the idea that they may have influenced the character a bit.
How does a grown man get into the head of a teenage girl?
I don’t like to analyze it too much. I just understand their world through research. I’m around girls that age when we’re shooting, so I guess I’m copying them a little bit. I interviewed groups of girls before we started filming just to confirm a few details of what they would drink at a party or things like that.
When you’re writing for her, and coming up with her slang like ‘Quiche’ (a step above hot) and ‘ILY’ (I love you), are you basing these on existing quotes amongst Australian teens or just coming up with the silliest things you can?
What I discovered when I was talking to the girls was that the language varied between those in Sydney and those in Melbourne. There was one thing where the girls kept saying ‘TITIF.’ They were like, “I’m thinking of wearing that dress, but y’know TITIF.” And I was like, What’s TITIF? And they said, “You know, took it too far.” When I mentioned that to the girls in Melbourne, they were like, “What are you saying? No one says that down here.” It made me realize how regional all that language stuff is. That’s when I came up with the Quiche thing. There’s this sort of power that a group has in having their own language. So I thought it would be funny to have Ja’mie come up with a word and love the fact that everyone is saying it. The day after the show went to air in Australia, we just got a new prime minister, but our ex one tweeted with a hashtag of Quiche and claimed he was Quiche. Which is ridiculous. Now TV and radio presenters are all saying Quiche. It’s weird cause Ja’mie really got what she wanted.
Ja’mie is mean without much remorse to other girls on the show. Did you make an effort to explore the effects of bullying with the series?
You’ll see as the series goes along that the tables sort of turn and she starts to be affected. It plots her downfall. She’s on top of the world when it starts and people certainly try to take her down as it goes along. But the joke with Ja’mie is that no matter what she’s faced with she manages to climb her way to the top. There’s certainly some sad moments where you really actually feel for her and she goes through some hard times.
Have you been concerned with younger girls idealizing Ja’mie?
Yeah, I think they probably will, but in the end it’s just a joke and it’s clear I’m not really a teenage girl. But they probably will look up to her because she’s dominant, she puts herself out there, and she’s really fun. As far as her being really racist, homophobic, and a bully, I think it’s clear enough that it’s a comment about those kinds of people and not endorsing that behaviour. The joke’s really on her.
With subject matter like racism and homophobia, you obviously don’t shy away from controversial material. You donned blackface in Angry Boys and had a child with down syndrome as the star of a musical in Summer Heights High. Where do you draw the line for what you can make fun of?
I think you just get a feel of where the line is, but I think my line is a bit further than it should probably be sometimes. It’s all about the context. If it’s designed to be a joke, it’s about if the intention is just to be mean or pick on a certain race or type of person, then that’s not interesting. If there’s a more complex reason for that character to exist, then it’s fine. Part of what I’m doing is pushing the boundaries a bit and trying to be shocking and confronting and make people a bit uncomfortable. It’s just entertainment, and my idea of what’s entertaining is making people cringe, or to make them see their world reflected in the show. It feels very real and that’s what interests me most in creating these shows.
How many characters do you have that haven’t seen the screen? Whose coming after J’amie?
I’ve got lots of ideas, but the problem is I leave my characters behind and then I miss them and I want them to come back. There’s some new ideas of course, so I’m always torn between resurrecting those characters and doing new things.
With your incredible talent as a character actor, have you found yourself receiving offers to work outside your own series?Yeah, but I’m always so busy with my own thing. I go straight into writing after promoting the show and then the shooting and editing takes so long that it’s never the right time. I don’t know if I’d really thrive in someone else’s project. Maybe one day, but I just always think that’s time that I could be spending on my own thing. It maybe a stupid decision but I just love creating these worlds and the characters so much more. I’ve never been like. I’m an actor. I’ve always just wanted to create these shows.