You might've done a double-take when you first took a glance at comedian Chris Lilley's photo. He looks familiar, but wait... You just can't place him. That's because chances are the last time you saw him he had long, brunette locks, side-parted to perfection with the help of his (or well, his character Ja'mie King's) signature barette. He could've also been sporting some Jheri curls that would've looked right at home on Prince, or a coif questionably inspired by Janet Reno: The 'dos' owners Jonah Takalua, a Year 8 delinquent with a taste for breakdancing and scrawling penises on things, and Mr. G, the world's most flamboyant drama teacher, comprise Lilley's two additional alter egos that made his show Summer Heights High a blast to watch week after week. A man of many faces, the program's creator alternated seamlessly back and forth between the school mockumentary's three subjects, all of their personalities so distinct that it was easy to forget you were watching the same guy for the entirety of the show. (Adam Sandler could take a lesson from this dude.)
Rather than riding these much-loved characters out for another few seasons for the sake of making continued bank, however, the comic bravely decided to make the show's eigth episode (and finale) its last and start completely anew. After leaving crowds jonesing for a return for close to two years, Lilley will be hitting airwaves at long last with his brand new show Angry Boys on January 1st, bringing with him a whole new entourage (or if you're familiar with his hit Australian series We Can Be Heroes, you might notice a few familiar faces). Among them: Twins Nathan and Daniel Sims, champion surfer Blake Oakfield, juvie guard Ruth "Gran" Sims, tiger mom Jen Okazaki, and secretly street cred-less rapper S. Mouse, hailing from an upper crust family.
While Lilley's lack of filter and depictions of different backgrounds without limits make his programming especially fun to watch, he takes it even further this season, tackling different ethnicities (more specifically going African American and Asian for two roles). Though that decision naturally caught him some flak in his native Oz, he sat down and spoke to us about his reasonings behind his bold choices, the show's surprising successes (like a chart-topping single), and the ways in which Angry Boys might ultimately prove to be twice as addictive as his previous, cherished HBO hit.
Interview by Lauren Otis (@LaurNado)
Welcome to New York. How's our city been treating you so far?
I was standing on the corner the other day, just sort of staring aimlessly, when this car full of guys rolled by yelling, "Summer Heights High! Yeahhh!" I have the most unlikely fans. I really didn't expect it.
Have you grown accustomed to going out and hearing your one-liners quoted back to you by random people?
Yeah! Well, because you guys haven't gotten the new series yet and are still sort of in the mode of the old one, I'll get a lot of "puck you" and all that. The way that Jonah says "Miss," they'll sort of go "Mees! Mees!" I had a bunch of teenagers come up to me yesterday, like a huge crowd, and they were like, "Nathan! Nathan!" I was like, "Ahh, you're English!"
So you can kind of tell where fans are from depending on what they're screaming at you.
Yeah! I can't wait for the new one to start here.
Of course child welfare randomly turned up that day...watching me draw a dick on a child—like the most inappropriate thing you can do.
Speaking of which, what made you opt to create a new series as opposed to continuing the story of Ja'mie, Jonah, and Mr. G from Summer Heights High, characters that everyone loved so much?
Well, I'd already done shows in which I had the idea of playing multiple characters and keeping it a one-off series; it starts and finishes and then I move onto a new one. Summer Heights High felt like it had finished. I always bring characters back, though, so in a way, each show is kind of like a new season—just with a different name. If I was smarter and doing it for the wrong reasons, I probably would do another Summer Heights High and cash in on that, but I've already done it. A school is a bit limiting, so the idea of exploring a whole new area, and new characters, and doing things on a big scale seemed more appealing than repeating what I'd done.
Sure. There are plenty of shows that'll continue to forge on for money's sake even though the plot has clearly taken a dive.
You can see the actors are just so over it by like Season Four. They're like, "Get me out of this show." But when I look back at all the things I was able to do and then compare that to doing more Summer Heights High, which I loved, I'm glad I went for something more exciting.
You've certainly become a king of the mockumentary. What made you opt for this format over other styles?
Well, I love it! I used to do Mr. G as a stand-up comedy character, so I'd get up on stage as him and talk to the audience. And then a good mate of mine said, "Oh, you should make a little video about this. Let's go out to a school and just do something." I was like, "No, no, no, it only works on stage, it's never going to work." Then we went out to a private school on a weekend—we didn't even have permission to be there—and he just walked around with a camera and I started talking as though we were doing a documentary.
I was showing him around and then we did this dance routine. It was ridiculous and went on for like 15 minutes. I sent it off to a TV network, they were making a comedy show at the time, and they said, "We loved everything you did there. We need you to do that on the TV show." It was this dream come true thing because I was suddenly on a real TV sketch show replicating my little video. So it came from that! I really loved the [mockumentary] style from that point.
Out of curiosity, how did Summer Heights High compare to your own high school experience?
It was quite different. I went to a boarding school; it was private and you wore blazers and hats and ties. It was all very strict and old-fashioned. I hadn't realized I'd completely borrowed so many things from the girls there for Ja'mie. I hadn't even thought about it until I went to a school reunion and all the girls came up, like "Who's it based on?! Is it me?? Is it Sarah?!" Everyone's like, "You totally ripped that thing off me where I did the—." I was like, "Yes. It's you girls." It sort of gave them a thrill for me to be like, "Yeah, it's a little bit you, it's a little bit Jess..." She's such a fun character, one of my favorites.
Your documentary-style shows are far more entertaining than similarly filmed reality shows. Are there any you find particularly grating?
I love The City and The Hills. I'm not a big fan of Jersey Shore and those kinds of shows where people are really playing up to the cameras. There's a British one called The Only Way Is Essex which is really cool, sort of taking it to the next level. They're so aware the cameras are there and it's so staged but they're pretending it's real. It's nuts, I think you'd like that one.
How did Angry Boys get its name? Judging from the trailer, none of the characters seem particularly bitter...yet.
Oh, they get angry. They're all pretty angry. For example, we look at the character of Daniel and his situation with the new guy replacing his dad and his brother being taken away: He's just so frustrated with everything that's happening. There's the character of Blake, who has this surf gang thing happening and no real reason to be angry—but he just doesn't want to grow up. S. Mouse is in this frustrating situation where he's at home on house arrest with his dad. Poor Tim has got this tyrant of a mother controlling him, so he's pretty angry about that situation, and Gran has the boys in the prison.
We're exploring this idea of boys and what makes them angry, and after Summer Heights High was about a school, I wanted to do something really surprising, giving it a more broad theme of boys. You meet the twins on the farm and that takes you off into the posters on the wall into these other worlds. It's meant to be unexpected, lots of twists and turns, and less predictable. I didn't want people to think a formula had been worked out.
I knew that doing [blackface] is a taboo thing—it still is in Australia, as well, even though there's a different history. It's just not a thing that you do.
Where did the inspiration stem from for this cast of characters? For example, you mentioned being able to take away from those girls from boarding school for Ja'mie.
I don't know... Most of the things don't come from my own life experience, but I loved the idea of twins and I loved the idea of an interesting dynamic between the two of them, the way they bounce off each other and Daniel dominates Nathan. I went out to the country in Australia and spent a lot of time with teenagers in country towns and got to know them. I researched and explored that world to the point where I was like, "This is a really cool thing. This is going to be really funny and a good story." Most of the characters aren't really familiar to me—they're just ideas. Once I've thought them up, I'll make efforts to find out more.
Plenty of actors have embodied multiple characters in their films, for better or worse, but you really seem to have it down to an art on your shows. How do you go about getting in character for these vastly different individuals? Is there a whole process to it or is it really just solid improvising?
Well, I don't like to overthink it. I don't plan or rehearse, but there's a fair bit of improvising. The characters sort of come to life in the first couple days of shooting. I write the script, I'll have a clear idea about what they're going to be, but I don't really practice how they're going to walk or talk: that comes later. I spend a bit of time working on what wigs I'm going to wear and we talk about the wardrobe. The character of Jen, she wears these very tailored suits and things. Her corsets gave me a bit of a waist, and it all changes the way the character comes to life once you're in that costume with that hair, all of it so immaculate. It's also being in the environment. We set up this house with all these amazing portraits of her all over the walls, and I didn't think about what she was going to be like until those weeks when it all came together.
I always do a long first interview where we talk about general things, and it's always improvised, so that's when the character kind of comes to life. Sometimes it can change: The character of Jonah on the first day was a disaster—at least according to me. I just didn't get it. I'm used to playing very dominant characters who within their group are very bossy and run the show. But with Jonah, he's just one of the boys. He gets dominated by the teachers and doesn't really run his story so much. That was hard at first, but he evolved over the next few days and took shape.
With Jen, I sat down, started doing this interview, and all of a sudden found myself talking in this really quiet, sort of delicate voice. She's just this nasty woman when she gets caught on camera without realizing, but when she's very aware of being filmed, she performs and becomes very soft-spoken.