Chris Lilley talks 'Ja'mie' and 'Summer Heights High'
Ja'mie: Private School Girl
Australian comedian Chris Lilley made a giant splash in America when his series Summer Heights High aired on HBO, introducing fans to a trio of incredible characters: bossy drama teacher Mr. G, unruly delinquent Jonah, and vicious exchange student Ja’mie King. Lilley hit again with the follow-up Angry Boys, and now he’s back for another round, but only one character is taking the spotlight this time.
In Ja’mie: Private School Girl (premiering Nov. 24 on HBO at 10:30 p.m. ET), Lilley explores the school, family and romantic life of the offensive teen queen in full detail. EW chatted with Lilley about his celebrity fans, staying in character (perhaps too much) and why Ja’mie is more than just a horrible, horrible person.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Summer Heights High premiered on HBO, when did you get the sense of how successful it had become in America? Was that a big noticeable change for you?
CHRIS LILLEY: It’s still hard for me to gauge. I guess I have fans online, but it’s not until I do these appearances where I get the sense of it. There was a screening of Ja’mie at Berkeley a couple months ago and there were so many people there packed into a hall, and they played the Summer Heights High soundtrack and all the students were singing along. That actually really shocked me. So it’s little moments like that when I think, oh yeah, people really do watch this show. You never can get a sense of how much people love something until you really are amongst it.
I’m sure it must be crazy for you to get to the States and see this support. What is that interaction like with people on the street? Do they recognize you and ask you to do voices?
Yeah, they always ask me to do voices. And I never do — I have done a couple of times — because it’s just so awkward. It’s pretty weird, I feel a wind-up doll. I think they think they’re complimenting me and they want to say, “Oh I love it when you do this, will you please do it?” They’re trying to be nice but it’s so awkward.
Which characters do they ask for the most?
Probably Jonah, Mr. G…Nathan from Angry Boys or S.mouse are really the names I get called out a lot, especially in Australia. I just listed like four characters. [laughs] Jonah or Nathan would be the things that people yell out to me the most. Actually a guy yesterday yelled out “Nathan!” to me in the car from West Hollywood. It’s funny, I think American people are a lot more confident to yell at me. I’m getting yelled at by everyone here.
How did you decide that Ja’mie would be the character to get her own show?
I’ve always just done whatever I was really excited about. I’ve never really taken anyone’s advice on what I should do next. I wanted to try to a series with one character and explore their whole world. It just changes the whole pace and style of it. I don’t know if people in America know the series We Can Be Heroes but Ja’mie was quite featured in that. There’s a lot of stuff about her private school life and her home life and her mom, so it was good to expand on those things that I’d sort of planted in We Can Be Heroes.
How has she evolved since We Can Be Heroes? We hear her say YOLO and Instagram, so it’s clear that her language has evolved. How else has she changed for you?
Whenever I’m shooting, we always make sure that it’s up to date. I want it to feel like a true reflection of society now and give little indicators of that. But Ja’mie’s changed a lot because she was an innocent Year 10 girl in We Can Be Heroes, and she was on her student exchange in Year 11 in Summer Heights High, so she was a bit of a fish out of water, and in this series she’s the boss of the school, the school captain. She’s a lot tougher and stronger in this series, and I find that really funny that she’s dominant over the other girls in this school and her family. It’s sort of like, your worst fears when you first meet her in We Can Be Heroes have been realized in this series. She’s out of control.
Is it a challenge to build a show around someone who is so unlikable? Do you try to make her sympathetic or do you have to just let the beast run wild?
I try to make sure the environment is very real. Yeah, she’s racist and homophobic and really manipulative and nasty to her parents, but the joke’s on her. She’s’= this awful girl that the documentary’s trying to point out, ‘Look at this, we all know these kinds of girls.’ She makes out that she’s this genius person who’s really worldly. I think she really has a very narrow world, and is very naïve. But as the series progresses, people who work on the show have told me they were crying in episodes 4 and 5 and 6, so they’re obviously feeling sympathetic towards her as it goes on. But it’s mostly meant to be really hilarious and a joke. It’s nice that people were crying, but I wanted to be a little less heavy with this series and make it quite light.
Let’s talk about quiche, Ja’mie’s new slang word. Why quiche?
I was thinking about teenage girls and their language. I interviewed a bunch of girls and they were saying things I’d never heard of. One of them was saying, “Oh my God, I went up to this guy and then I TITF.” And I was like, “What’s TITF?” And they were like, “TITF—Took It Too Far.” And they said it all the time about everything and I was thinking, I’d never seen anyone use TITF. And then when I went back to Melbourne and interviewed some girls, and I said “Oh, TITF,” they were like, “What the hell are you talking about it? We’ve never heard that.” And I was like, “Apparently everyone in Sydney’s saying it!” [laughs] It made me realize how original language is with teenagers. Between now and all the current abbreviations of words, I thought it would be cool if Ja’mie and her group decided they had their own little language.
Did you have other words you floated instead of quiche?
Originally the word was “salad.” I kept saying, “Oh my God, this is so salad.” But it sounded a bit, in American, like “solid.” Solid, salad, so I thought people would get confused. But I’ve had an issue with quiche. People think it’s spelled k-e-e-s-h, so I’m kind of like, running with that.
Are you at all like Ja’mie? How are you most like her and most different?
Obviously I’m very different form her, and it’s really funny on set because I have to be myself when I’m directing people and then all of a sudden I just switch to Ja’mie. But I guess I’m very bossy when I’m running things. I mean, I’m also a massive pushover, too. It’s probably most noticeable in the relationship with the girls who play Ja’mie’s prefects. I would hang out with him. Not as any kind of method thing, but I would unintentionally half be a bitch when I’m around them. They’ve kind of gotten to know me as Ja’mie. And then it was funny because at the wrap party for the show, we were all hanging out, and the girls were like, “It’s cool seeing you as yourself, but we really wish Ja’mie was here. It’s just not right that she’s not here.” They really grew to love Ja’mie and were sad to not have her around. It’s so strange!
When you’re shooting, it looks like you have extras who can keep a straight face, but I bet you get a lot of ruined takes.
Yes! It’s hard, and you have to be on to it when you’re shooting because if they start smiling, we have to get them out of the way. It is an issue with editing. But also, I’m one of the biggest culprits of smiling and laughing during takes, so I can’t complain too much. I kind of trigger them off. It’s all scripted but then as soon as we do a take, I’ll throw in an extra line that’ll make the girls laugh, I don’t know why. So it’s not entirely their fault!
Is there a fear that Ja’mie might not work in a large dose?
The complaint I’ve been getting on the show is that people said the episodes are too short. I think that’s a pretty cool compliment that people want more. And I don’t really have that fear with Ja’mie. I do worry about certain things to do with the size, but I have a surplus of ideas for her so I’ve already kind of whittled it down and had to cut things off.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there are commenters on YouTube who actually think Ja’mie is a real person.
Oh, no! I don’t read any of that stuff. I never knew that. That’s hilarious. Back when I first started, people definitely thought she was real, and I used to call radio stations and do interviews and abuse callers and stuff, and they’d be like, “Who are you, who do you think you are?!”
There’s a great video of you calling in to Katy Perry on the radio. She’s a big fan. Have you been surprised by other celebrity fans?
Yeah, I’m always surprised. I feel weird naming celebrities because I feel like a dickhead, but it always surprises me, and some really big-name people have followed me on Twitter or just declared that they love it, and it’s really freaky. I wish I had a list of people but I can’t think of anyone. Katy Perry would be the biggest, the one that really talks about it. She does impersonations of me in her concerts in Australia. And she was really good in that interview because she just knows the series backwards. Oh, the Kardashians. I’ve been contacted by Rob, who was really into Angry Boys, and Kylie Jenner, who was really into Angry Boys as well, and Will Smith’s son, who’s going out with Kylie.
Now that Ja’mie is wrapped, are you working on another spin-off?
There’re always new things in the works. I’m not allowed to say. There’s definitely a new project, but I’ll get in trouble if I say. I think they’re going to announce something soon.
Okay, so since Americans love your show, what American pop culture do you love?
I watch a lot of reality stuff or like… this is weird but I like real estate shows. There’s one called Property Envy [where] they just sit around talking about real estate, and then Million Dollar Decorators. And I love Million Dollar Listing: LA and Million Dollar Listing: New York. I really like Jeff Lewis and Flipping Out and Interior Therapy. I don’t know why I’m obsessed with American real estate and renovation.
Ja’mie: Private School Girl premieres Sunday, Nov. 24 at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.