Everyone knew a Ja'mie King growing up. She's the HBIC with so much confidence that the girl who was actually the most attractive one in school would look like a wallflower next to her. She's the girl who's pretty racist and pretty homophobic, but could talk shit about anyone and walk away unscathed. She's the girl who you loved to hate and hated that you kinda loved. And now that girl's got her own show, premiering tonight at 10:30 on HBO, Ja'mie: Private School Girl.
Created by Australian comedian extraordinaire Chris Lilley, Ja'mie: Private School Girl gives fans a closer look at the life of the Internet's (and Katy Perry's) BFF Ja'mie (played by Lilley, who first introduced the character in We Can Be Heroes) as she finishes high school. It's chock full of gossip, boy drama, and trying to get daddy to do what she wants. Naturally.
Complex got the chance to have a quick chat with Lilley about the inspiration for Ja'mie, the hardest part about playing a female character, and how comedy became a full-time gig for a man who was on track to become a teacher.
What’s the reception to the show been like?
I don’t like to read much reviews on my stuff, so I haven’t read what the press is saying yet. I’ve been hiding just working on the last episode. But when I went out over the weekend, it seemed like everyone’s loving it! I thought straight guys would find it a bit provoking and intimidating, but they’re the main people who come up to me. They love it. I think they’ve been deprived. The show is sort of like making fun of girls. It's doing all the annoying things that our girlfriends do.
You never know what’s going to take off, but the thing about Ja’mie is how she infiltrates the language. She uses the word “quiche” and that is going crazy on Twitter. The Prime Minister even tweeted that he thought he was pretty quiche.
What inspired Ja’mie in the first place?
She came about when I was coming up with characters for Australian of the Year and thinking of different kinds of people from different states. I knew I wanted to do a school girl.
At first, she was going to be an overweight school girl and I was going to wear a fat suit and be an annoying goody goody. But as the series evolved, I imagined she was just the hottest girl in school. I thought that if i just pretend to be hot and tell everybody how hot I am in a confident way, then it’ll work. It turned out she was the standout character that everybody really latched onto.
There are parts of Sydney where all the kids in the area go to that one private school. I grew up in that kind of area and so I was surrounded by girls like that growing up. I really looked at youth culture and the ways they communicate. I certainly did a bit of Facebook stalking of teenage girls to see what kind of stuff they talked about. It’s based on general observations.
What motivated you to give Ja’mie her own show?
The first thing I thought of was doing a one-character shot so I could really expand on that world and not have to weave everything together. And Ja’mie had already been in two shows, so it was worth it to rget back into her family background and see where she was. Now she’s in year 12 and she’s on top of the world. She’s school captain!
You studied education at university. Did that influence you at all?
A little bit, but I didn’t do it for very long and I wasn’t very good at it. And I studied primary school, which is a lot younger.
What got you into comedy then?
When I was in school, I was always writing scripts and dressing up as characters. I'd constantly be that guy who’d get up on stage. I used to write imaginary TV shows, like soap operas, for fun.
After finishing school, you get a reality check. You feel the pressure of going to university because you need a back-up plan, which is why I enrolled. But at the same time, I wrote and put on a musical my first year there. Then I started to do stand-up comedy. I’d go around to comedy venues and do open-mics.
How were you discovered?
I kept entering comedy competitions and I ended up winning some. Through that I got an agent and started getting bigger gigs. Literally, someone sent me an email saying there’s a television network making sketch comedy and they’re looking for submissions, so I just filmed a bunch of characters and sent it off. I didn’t hear anything for about six months and they finally rang me back saying, “We just watched your video, it’s genius and we want you to be in the show.” It was called The Big Bite.
After that got canceled, I got to pitch the We Can Be Heroes concept. It’s finally come full circle. I used to be up on stage in front of school doing my characters, and now I’ve got a school-girl character on TV.
What’s the most uncomfortable part about playing a female character?
We shot in a real girls school so it’s a strange feeling to try to be one of them. And I’m not just acting, I’m directing as well, so I’ll have to communicate things to people as myself, and then all of a sudden I have to become Ja’mie.
In this series, she’s into boys a lot more. There’s a love triangle and those scenes can be pretty awkward. But the actors are really good at dealing with it. The girls just accept me as one of the girls.
I feel so guilty talking to the couple playing my parents because sometimes I expand from the script and say some mean things, sometimes a bit personal, to these poor actors who aren’t even actors. They’re just random people that we found. [Laughs.]
Is it hard to keep a straight face on set?
Definitely. There’s something about Ja’mie that I can’t stop laughing about.
Whenever I watch the show and Ja’mie says something hilarious, I try to look at the other cast members and see if their faces are breaking at all.
Right! There’s one scene where Ja’mie farted in front of a boy and she’s trying to describe how terrible that is to the girls. We could not get through it. I was really nervous about shooting that scene ever since the script stage because I didn’t know how I’d pull it off. The girls were out of control, too.
What do you think about having an huge Internet following?
It’s strange. Ja’mie’s really taken off on Tumblr. The number of people sending GIFs of Ja’mie around are crazy. I have Twitter and Facebook, but I don’t get involved that much, so people don’t think that they're really getting involved with me personally. Some fans obviously don’t think I’m checking my Facebook page because they say some really weird and nasty things about me as well. They’d say things like, “Looking fat” or “Looking old,” but most people are really nice. I’m getting a lot of people dressing up as Ja’mie and posting that.
Do you feel a lot of pressure because you’re everything—director, writer, producer, star—to the show?
I’ve always just liked being in control. There’s a bit of pressure, but I get more enjoyment out of being able to spearhead something and see it through the whole way. It's so thrilling and so simple. It’s just me in a dress. The worst that could happen is people don’t watch and say, “We don’t like you.” But people could really love it. There’s not much to lose.
Do you find it hard for fans to separate you from your characters?
Yeah, but there are so many characters that people tend to have one they identify with. When I see people in public, I can tell that they expect me to be someone that I’m not. Usually they want me to be their favorite character. I can tell by the way they talk to me who they want me to be.
The show is more like an MTV reality show. People accept it. And there’s plenty of uncensored, gender-bending comedy out there so it’s not that weird.
Do you just stay yourself?
Yeah, I get asked all the time to do characters in public, but then I tell them, “Do you realize how awkward that’s going to be?” I’m gonna say it, but I’m not dressed as the character, and that’ll be weird. I’ve done it twice before and it was just so awkward.
Are you worried that people who are just coming to your work will be offended by some of your jokes?
I have always been surprised at how accepting people are of it. I feel like it’s the kind of show that you can just get on board with. It’s all fresh and she explains who she is. You know what you're getting. The show is more like an MTV reality show. People accept it. And there’s plenty of uncensored, gender-bending comedy out there so it’s not that weird.
Are you planning on creating shows for other characters?
For sure. I feel like I have to look after the characters. There are 12 of them now and people are always wondering what they’re up to. I’d love to bring all of them back at some point. If you told me that Ja’mie would still be doing her thing years later, I’d think that was so ridiculous. But it feels exactly like the first day I played her.
So what's the method to your madness then?
I don’t like to analyze what I do too much, but I certainly never meet a single person and say, “You’re the next character.” People think that’s what I do. They also think that I sit down and observe and try to imitate random people. I’ve never done that at all. I think if you overthink it too much it’s become too obviously processed. I just find things in people funny and I try my best to turn that into a story.
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