An interview with the Summer Heights High writer/actor, whose latest series starts airing on HBO this weekend
On New Year's Day, Australian comic auteur Chris Lilley returns to HBO with his latest series, Angry Boys, the follow-up to his 2007 hit Summer Heights High. Filmed in Melbourne, Summer Heights High took viewers into the insular world of its eponymous high school, with Lilley playing three very distinct characters: private school transfer student Ja'mie King, megalomaniacal drama teacher Mr. G, and troubled delinquent Jonah Takalua, whose graffiti signature is a symbol of a penis.
Lilley's depth of characterization, his total immersion into characters at the axis of absurd and believable (something also seen in his first series, 2005's We Can Be Heroes), is at the core of the writer/actor's comedy. The 12-episode Angry Boys, which debuted on Australia's ABC1 in May 2011 and also aired this summer in the UK on BBC Three, continues the army-of-Lilley format, but looks outside of Australia, across international waters. If Summer Heights High took on high-schoolers, the new show sends up their idols. There is ficticious Japanese pro-skateboarder Tim Okazaki (Lilley plays Jen, his Tiger Mom-style manager whose marketing plan is centered around forcing her son to pretend to be gay); L.A rapper and Soulja Boy replicate S.mouse (Lilley, again, this time in blackface, which has led to some controversy). Rounding out the one-man-cast is its Australian contingent: testicle-deficient former pro-surfer Blake Oakfield, juvenile prison guard Ruth "Gran" Sims, and from We Can Be Heroes, twins Daniel and Nathan, whose story arc connects this far-flung group.
As Lilley's popularity grows, it follows that the universe of his shows would, too. But in playing characters from beyond Australia, has he overstepped his bounds? Speaking from Melbourne, Lilley discussed Angry Boys' cultural tensions, his creative process, and most famous fans.
This interview has been edited for length and for clarity.
Oh yes, that's true. I don't know. I suppose. It's been really taking off in Australia. People connected with it, and now we're really popular here. In Australia, it's like, people love that I'm local, and that I'm doing things that are about Australians. They don't really like to hear much about the international success. I try to talk about it in interviews but I find that the media here is not as interested in that aspect of it. I'm not sure why that happens. I can't think of any other Australian show that's been on HBO or had this kind of international recognition.
You really inhabit your characters so completely. What goes into developing them?
Well, the development of the characters in Angry Boys was interesting because I'd only played Daniel and Nathan before so I knew they were two of my favorite characters and I really wanted to bring them back. So they were sort of the anchor for the whole show. And then I really wanted to do a show that was on a big scale, like have international characters. And just because I'd already played a lot of characters, already I saw this as a chance to do something where I'm pushing things a little bit further. So for example, Jen is this outrageous, nasty mom, who's basically torturing her son and forcing him to be gay when he's not and all these awful things. A lot of the genesis of the characters was because it's my third series and I wanted to go really huge with it, and surprise people and keep it exciting. So developing the characters, I guess I just research. I try to meet similar types of people when possible. And I read a lot of stuff, I watch a lot of documentaries. I try to make sure their world is as accurate as possible. This show took a long time to write because it's so huge. It's 12 episodes with these five different worlds that were new and foreign to me. It took about a year for me to write the scripts, and then I guess in the writing process, that's when I become really familiar with the characters. By the time we get to shooting, I just know them so well just from having scripted them for so long. And then there's the stage where we develop the look of the characters, and we work with trying that a few weeks with make-up. The costume makes a huge difference. So by the time I go on set, there's been all this thought put into them, and they just kind of come to life, on set.
How was your experience shooting in Tokyo for some of the Jen story?
Yeah, we shot a lot of it in Melbourne and then we went to Tokyo and did some more stuff there, just to make it authentic. It was really cool 'cause we had a little crew and a lot of them are Japanese people and, you know it was funny because I'd already developed the character and we'd already shot some of it, and when we got there, I was thinking, actually Jen is nothing like a Japanese woman. She's quite a heightened version of it. I had this idea that being gay was popular in Japan, or it was like a cool thing, and when I got there, we shot some news footage, where this news reader had to talk about "GayStyle" and Tim taking over the world and stuff, and the translator said, "Oh, he won't say that. He won't talk about people being gay." I said, "What do you mean? That's part of it." And she was like, "Oh, it's a bit taboo in Japan to talk about people being gay. We just sort of ignore it." And she said, "Especially a news reader, he's not going to be able to say that." And somehow, I explained it, like, "Oh, it's not 'gay,' it's 'GayStyle,' like the company is called 'GayStyle,' it's fun." And they were like, "Oh, OK, we get it."
Who is your most popular character?
From Angry Boys, probably S.mouse, or maybe Daniel and Nathan. I just came back from the U.S.A. out of the airport and this guy was yelling out "S.mouse!" across the airport. And a lot of S.mouse songs are have dirty lyrics, and people will say, like, "Oh, can you sing that song, Grandmother Fucker?" But then also people recognize me a lot as the characters from Summer Heights High, and probably Mr. G would be the main one I get.
With S.mouse, you've been criticized for "exploiting the history of race relations for a cheap laugh." Is that a common reaction to your portrayal of S.mouse, who appears in blackface, or Jen?
Well, Australia has a thing where apparently it's fine for me to dress up as an Asian woman. No one has questioned that. But there was—which I totally expected—there was a bit of an outcry about me playing a black person. And also, my shows are meant to be a bit provocative and I like that kind of television that shocks you. But the thing is, I think a lot of people just saw the trailer and then they started writing about it but they didn't sit down and watch the episodes. When you get to know S.mouse, it very quickly becomes not about a guy wearing blackface. It's a character. It's sort of irrelevant that I'm black. It's about him being home on house arrest and lost in the commercial music industry. There's a lot more heart to the character by the end of the series. Yeah, but that stuff just sort of came and went in Australia. It's completely predictable and obvious. And then funnily enough, in the UK there was no issue at all. They just completely got it.
The S.mouse song "Slap My Elbow" is a pretty dead-on Soulja Boy parody.
It ended up getting on the charts here in Australia and doing quite well, and it was really surprising. It's funny because I wrote all of the music myself and recorded it all at home while I was writing the show, in the pre-production period, and it ended up winning this music award we have in Australia called ARIAs and S.mouse's album, which is the soundtrack, won the ARIA. It's really weird because the songs are ridiculous. But that was really cool.
That must have upset some legitimate artists.
I know, I know. All these actual composers and stuff.
You did a promo tour in the UK not long ago. How did it go?
It was really fun. And so weird being on the other side of the world, and hearing people quoting the show. It's just really surreal for me. And it's such an Australian show that I just find it so strange. I got so much recognition walking on the streets in London and stuff. And then I did a live show in London, which was one of the weirdest things I've ever done. It was pretty odd. We got about a thousand people in this venue, but it wasn't like a comedy show, it was like a hip-hop show presented as S.mouse touring London. There were dancers and a DJ. It was ridiculous. And people all over the audience came dressed up as characters. It was all quite ridiculous. The level of intensity of fans in the UK really surprised me. They're much more forward than they are in Australia. Like, I'd have people waiting outside the hotel, or following my taxi back to the hotel. Or they'd find out when the S.mouse rehearsal was and I'd find them at the back door of the venue waiting for me. I think it's just a cultural thing. I think Australian people are probably a bit more polite. British comedy fans go crazy.
Katy Perry is also a fan, right?
That's right. The strangest people. That really surprises me. And these are the people that I've heard about—the South Park guys, Jonah Hill is really into it. And really strange movie star people that you'd never expect. Natalie Portman was a really strange one. Apparently she's been sending people the DVDs and stuff.
Could you see yourself working with any of the people you named?
Maybe. Although it's very strange 'cause I don't really hang out in celebrity circles, not even in Australia. And I don't collaborate with anyone. I'm so independent in writing stuff and controlling what I do. Sometimes I get calls from people asking to be in their movie, but I'm always writing or editing, and I can never get around to doing it. I'm so much more interested in my own stuff. I think I drive my agent crazy.
What is your next project?
I haven't decided, but I love working in the same style. I love the mockumentary theme and characters. I've got about five options of things I'd like to do. Yeah, maybe it's a movie, I don't know. There's all this pressure to come to America and do something about America. But I don't feel qualified to do that. I feel really qualified to write about Australia.
Your career started with stand-up comedy.
Yeah, a lot of people think that I was an actor, like a trained actor or something.
And you were doing characters onstage?
I always had a bit of a quirky thing going on. Sometimes it was just me telling stories. Yeah, more like old stories from the past, and then I used to have a keyboard onstage so I could sing songs. And then I came up with this idea of telling a story, which set up a character. And then I would become the character. And that's how Mr. G evolved—I would tell the story and kind of become a teacher talking to the audience like it was a class. So once I started doing the characters onstage, I realized that was what people really responded to, so I started to make videos, short films about the characters. And then once the TV network saw that, they put me in a sketch comedy show, and I went from there.