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.
You seem to be comfortable getting decked out as members of the opposite sex. Are there any wardrobe items you've grown to resent?
The character of Gran looks so fun and easy, but it was such a nightmare being in that costume. It was a bodysuit and there was just no air. It was so hot in that prison. We built this big air conditioning pipe thing which came down to a smaller pipe that I had to put down the front of me and fill myself up with air. It was so uncomfortable. I hated that! Jen also had this corset thing. I had to have a break from that. I'd go into the room and there'd be about 20 undergarments for me to put on to be Jen. It all works. You probably are thinking that's just me, but it's a lot of shaping.
Does one character rise above the rest as your favorite to portray?
It always changes. I really like the twins. They're so fun to write for and perform, and I really like how they turned out. I'm having this relationship between two people but I'm playing both myself. So you can imagine, when I'm shooting, I'm not talking to anyone. I have a body double, but I usually get him out of the way because he makes me laugh too much. I love the idea of creating this illusion, this relationship between two people who are never really there. That was really exciting. But I also liked S. Mouse as well because he was so challenging. It was really taking it to another level with what I was comfortable with. He was really uncomfortable to shoot, but then I loved the end result and I've had a really good response to him.
Australia, where the show premiered, and the U.S. obviously have different histories, and it seems like a character such as S. Mouse, which effectively has you in blackface, could have highly different implications between the two. What made you decide to embody an African American rapper? Was there anything about that character that ever gave you pause?
First of all, with this show, I wanted to think on a bigger scale and take the audience to places they hadn't been before. I loved the twins and every teenage boy I'd interviewed and met had this wall of posters in their bedroom, and they all had rappers. So the idea came from, "Let's have the boys have posters on their wall and we'll jump into the posters and it'll take us off from there." And I was like, "Well, I've got to play a rapper." But the idea was this guy's this faker, he's not the real thing. He's this big nerd in a situation where he's trying to be cool, but he's actually trapped at home with his dad.
I knew that doing that 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. I think it would be easy to do some straight-out shocking blackface character thing, but hopefully you get over that quickly with S. Mouse when you find out that it's actually a really interesting, funny, and compelling story, and you'll stay with him for that reason. I got a lot of flak from the press in Australia as well for it. There was a lot of negative stuff about me doing that. I could've done Summer Heights High II, come out with those characters again and done four seasons of that, but isn't it better to just push myself and try something new? Ultimately, people really responded to that character. I released all the music in Australia and it did really well, so people got into it.
"Slap Your Elbow" made it pretty high onto the Australian charts. Was that a proud moment for you?
It was weird because when I recorded the songs, I made them really short. It was only for the purpose of the show, not meant to be a spin-off thing at all. But there wound up being so much interest in that song that I did a full-length version of it and put it out. A lot of these songs are really short because you'll only hear about 10 seconds in the show, so when you buy the album a lot of songs are like 30 seconds long.
Did you find creating the music any easier or more difficult than penning the show's dialogue?
Oh, that was like the treat after working on the scripts for so long. That was the fun bit. And I had to do all the S. Mouse stuff in advance. That was interesting because normally the character evolves when we start shooting, but with S. Mouse I had to think about it before because I had to get all the music done. I was just downstairs in my home studio, sort of like S. Mouse's, with a mattress in a corner and a laptop and stuff, and I wanted to be by myself while doing that so I could just not stress out about other people. I was like pressing record, then running to the other corner of the room and recording the vocals, then running back. It was really fun, I really liked doing all that stuff.
Do you ever work on any other music on the side?
I used to all the time, but it's all kind of show-related these days. Jen's got a song in the show and the boys do some rapping and there's the theme music and all that, but I have to make it funny. I couldn't take myself too seriously with music, though I used to.
Everyone was a big fan of the Annabel Dickson musical in Summer Heights High. Have you ever had thoughts of penning one of your own?
Yeah! It would be cool! Actually, when I was at university I wrote a musical. It was called Heartthrobs and these two girls sort of made up this imaginary soap opera that came to life on stage. You start questioning which parts are real, whether the girls are real, and it becomes this psychological scary thing which also had all this music in it.
Who would you cast as yourself in Chris Lilley: The Musical?
Oh my god. Someone handsome. I get told that I look like the most random people and I usually wind up offended. I always get Elliott Smith or some random German soccer player that people tend to say I look like. But somebody also said that I look like the kid from Hugo the movie, so maybe he can play the young me. I probably would want to be in that musical, though. I'm a little too much of a control freak. I'd have to cast myself!
Angry Boys had you filming in Australia, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. What made you opt to globetrot among the three as opposed to filming everything in one studio?
Just because it was fun and exciting! I'd done a show in a school down the road from my house and just the thought of doing something on a big scale was thrilling. Just to get to see Tokyo. I hadn't been there before so it was really exciting. There were no Jens there, though. All the Japanese women were very polite and nice, nothing like her.
Your characters are all so distinctive and eccentric in their own ways. Are people generally surprised upon meeting you to discover that you're so mellow? What do you think is the biggest misconception about yourself?
They do tend to be. I can tell that people sort of expect a lot more from me when they see me on the street. They're always trying to get me to quote the show or look at me like, "Be funny! Be that thing that you are on TV!" I think people are surprised, but like that there's that contrast. I'm not just some big show-off who's waiting for someone to put the cameras on. I get asked to host things and do funny stuff all the time, like in Australia I get, "Can you do funny stuff on the red carpet? Like, just be funny about people's fashions" and I'm like, "That's not... No."
There's a line where she says, 'I'd rather be a pedophile than a lesbian'... I just couldn't get that line out. That was about 5,000 takes.
You started out in stand-up before you made the switch over to TV. Do you ever still find time to take the stage when you aren't filming?
No, I don't—and I don't miss it. I did this sketch comedy show in Australia and went back to stand-up a few times and it was just horrible. I think I went back thinking, "Oh, everyone will know me now and it'll be so easy." It was just terrifying.
When no one knows you and you're just trying to break into stuff, it's so good because you can write whatever you want and just say it; it's just between you and the audience. There's no process or worrying about anyone else interfering with what you're doing. I used to find it so exciting and you get that instant feedback, which was cool, but now it's too scary. There's way too much expectation.
You've shot your share of awesomely awkward scenes with kids, like Ja'mie and her love interest last season, and what appear to be some ridiculous scenes of Jen Okazaki exploiting her son. What are the reactions like of the parents on set?
Well, the parents love it and they're always into it. They always read the script, so they know exactly what's going to happen, like when Daniel's teaching this 3-year-old to say all these swear words and stuff—they thought it was hilarious.
One of the most awkward things, though, was during Summer Heights High when we were filming the special ed class where Mr. G is teaching them dancing. The parents were like, "We need to be here," and I couldn't really be like, "No, get them out!" So when he's doing the whole "horsey horsey" and everything, those kids had so much fun, they loved it, but the parents were literally just off-camera watching me the whole time as I was saying some pretty severe things to them. It went on for a lot longer than it does on the show, so that was really intimidating. Child welfare people read all the scripts and make sure it's all good, they check with the parents, check that everyone's happy with it.
Sometimes if I'm swearing we have to shoot that seperately, make sure the kid's off set. I remember there was a bit with a little kid where I had to say "fuck," but while he was there I had to change the word to shit. "Oh, you shit of a kid!" I really don't know why that's any better, but the kid himself couldn't stop swearing! The whole morning the kid was like, "When are we fuckin' having lunch, and fucking this, fuck that!" And I was like, "We're doing this whole thing so I don't say the F word in front of you and you're dropping it more than I am!" And then there was this point when I was doing that Jonah scene by the pool, where he's drawing his "dick-tation" on the kids and stuff, and 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.
There are certain scenes of yours that we can't imagine you guys getting through without everyone cracking up. Do tons of retakes come with the territory of filming your shows?
Yeah! Quite often that is the case. For some reason, there are always laughs during Ja'mie. There's a line where she says, "I'd rather be a pedophile than a lesbian," because everyone's calling her a pedophile for dating Sebastian (a younger student) and she's a bit anti-lesbian. I just couldn't get that line out. That was about 5,000 takes.
And then in Angry Boys, it was Jen and her son. There were so many things that she said to him that I just couldn't say. She's trying to encourage him to be gay and she's showing him an underwear catalogue thing and she says, "Check out the balls on that guy." Every time I said it, Jordan, the boy, would just laugh and it was terrible. It's hard on set because the crew doesn't think it's funny. They're just like, "Get on with it. You wrote it! Stop laughing at yourself!"
Interview by Lauren Otis (@LaurNado)