I’m opening the vault to some of my past interviews. First up is Chris Lilley, who currently has the outrageous (and twistedly funny) show on Netflix, LUNATICS. Back in 2013, Lilley and I chatted about his return to Ja’mie, a character he made famous in HBO’s SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH.
We’ve seen Ja’mie before in some of your previous shows, WE CAN BE HEROES and SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH, what made you want to come back and tell more of Ja’mie’s story?
Chris Lilley: I just really like her. Whenever I’m doing one show, I’m always thinking about…I’ve always got about five different ideas for what I want to do next, cause I just love making these shows. I love revisiting old characters and she just jumped out at the time I was doing ANGRY BOYS. I just thought, ‘I’d love to see what Ja’mie’s up to right now,’ so she kind of rose to the top of the pile of ideas. I wanted to try a different style – I wanted to have one character instead of trying to weave all the different characters together. I just like her whole world, and I thought the idea of expanding on her family life and seeing her back at school in her element – it just would be the perfect setting for her. I think in SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH, she was kind of a fish out of water seeing as she was stepping into a new world. Let’s put her back in her element and see where she’s at. She’s in year twelve and she’s at the top, she’s school captain, it’s the peak of her power. I thought that was really cool as a starting point
That’s what I was wondering as I was watching the first two episodes – how long it would take Ja’mie after high school to start the fall downward from her pinnacle of success.
The whole series is really kind of plotting her downfall a little bit – her downfall within the world of Ja’mie, which is all pretty trivial stuff. It follows her right through til she finishes school and there’s a shocking ending that she’s kind of alerted to in the first episode. She’s left in a pretty interesting place at the end of it. It’s an exciting journey.
Having been a teenage girl, seemingly forever ago, a lot of what goes on at Hillford feels really familiar to me. How did you get into the mind of a teenage girl?
It’s interesting. So much of the process is really… I don’t get what I’m doing but it just sort of happens. People quite often say, ‘Oh, I heard that you interview girls and copy their mannerisms.’ I’ve never thought about that in my life. A lot of it just kind of seeps in through observation or something. I don’t even like to analyze it too much. I’m just aware of popular culture, teenage culture, and I’m just sort of observing stuff all the time, moving around Facebook, watching reality shows. Usually, I interview a bunch of girls, but it’s once I’ve written the script just to clarify language and just details of the party scene – like what are we going to wear, what are we going to drink, and what music is going to be playing and all the little things that I have to put in to make it seem real.
The problem I have now is when I meet with people, they know that I’m about to make a new show so I have to make sure they’re keeping it a secret because it’s so early in the process. Then they tell me what I should do, cause they think that I’m meeting with them to get ideas for stuff. So, they’re like, ‘Hey, you should play my mom,’ [or] ‘There’s this funny story; this guy at school did this and you should do that.’ That’s not very useful. But, it’s good to just clarify to make sure it’s up to date and language is current.
Do you get feedback from teens that this does feel genuine to them, as well? There is a moment when Ja’mie first meets Mitchell and she says, “How can I make him love me?” That seemed like the exact thing that would be going through a sixteen, seventeen year old girl’s mind. Is that the kind of feedback you get, that this does feel authentic?
That’s what I love about Ja’mie, she puts herself out there and she’s confident like, “I’m so high and so powerful.” It’s so easy to see the insecurity, and she’s actually really down on herself inside. I think that’s a common thing for teenagers. I have lots of teenage girls come up to me and quite proudly say that they identify with the character, ‘I am Ja’mie! I am Ja’mie of my school!’ Which is funny that you would want to identify with her because she’s so horrible. But, somehow I think girls kind of look up to her, which is weird.
That’s got to be equal parts frightening and flattering.
Yeah, it’s funny. Someone said, ‘Do you think you inspire girls to be like you or not be like you because you’re showing her off to be so awful?’ Sadly, I think girls will want to be like this, because she’s so kind of fun and powerful and everybody looks up to her.
The one that I hate is when girls come up and they go, ‘Ah, it sucks! Everyone reckons I look exactly like Ja’mie!’ They’re like really annoyed about it. I’m like, wait, hang on. That’s me – that’s not such a bad thing. And they’re like, ‘I don’t want to look like Ja’mie!’ That’s a bit awkward. She’s not that attractive really, so….
I imagine you’d be a little worried if she was.
Yeah! I did a, we have one of those men’s magazines here called Zoo, like a, kind of…I don’t know what the equivalent is in America. It’s not like Maxim, which is a bit classier. It’s like a trashier magazine. Ja’mie did a cover shoot for that. It’s sort of like – like girlfriends of sports people in Australia will do it, a BIG BROTHER contestant; it’s sort of like the C grade celebrities will do a bikini shoot for the front cover of Zoo. I managed to get the cover of Zoo as Ja’mie, and it’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen. She is completely like – in a wet school uniform – tight – with wet hair; I don’t know how I managed to channel the pose, but it’s pretty funny.
That’s so wrong for so many reasons.
It’s so wrong. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it’s kind of a bit of a badge of honor if you’re a trashy celebrity to get the cover.
There are several scenes usually involving some sort of dancing that tend to be fairly hard to watch because you just feel so embarrassed for Ja’mie. Are those some of the scenes you find to be the most awkward to film?
No, those ones are fun! I love the dancing stuff. It’s so ridiculous that Ja’mie thinks she’s this incredible dancer. Yeah, that’s another observation I’ve made – girls increasingly now, more than when I was in school, are so kind of provocative in their dance moves and outfits, everything is just a little like, ‘Woah.’ I guess it’s like music video influence or something.
So no, they weren’t awkward to shoot. Not that I’m a dancer by any stretch of the imagination, but I love doing those kind of big – like we were doing those in front of big audiences, so it was kind of fun.
But, the scenes that were the most awkward were the stuff with the boys – the relationship stuff. You see that in the episode with the dad and Mitchell. Then Kwame, the African boy, comes in to her life and it’s a bit of a love triangle. That stuff was pretty awkward – it was some pretty uncomfortable stuff to shoot.
It can’t be as awkward though as the boy that Ja’mie fancied in SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH, cause wasn’t he considerably younger?
Yeah, that was awkward. That was awkward [Laughs] But somehow that was – I didn’t find that quite as bad because she wasn’t as… she’s really into the boys in JA’MIE PRIVATE SCHOOL GIRL, she’s really obsessing over them and she’s much more physical with them. Whereas, Sebastian…yeah, that was pretty weird. It’s a weird thing because I’m myself on set. I’m not like – step out of a trailer and I’m swaying around as Ja’mie the whole time. I’m directing, so I have to direct the boys that I’m doing the scene with and then it’s like ‘Action’ and suddenly have got my hands all over them. It’s just really awkward. And the stuff with my dad – the guy who plays my dad…having to bite his shoulder and all of those thing…yeah, pretty weird.
I was dying when I saw that.
I feel so bad because I’m obviously nothing like Ja’mie in real life. But, screaming at my poor mom and even screaming at the [student] boarders is so uncomfortable.
The relationship that Ja’mie has with her parents and her sister – do you think it’s a prerequisite to be a popular girl that you have a very lenient family that doesn’t rein you in at all?
I think that’s a decent reaction on popular girl families. I’ve seen it happen so much that that age group has such a kind of rivalry with the mom – from what I’ve observed. Probably because they just recognize themselves – they seem so similar to their moms that they kind of lash out. I loved the idea that Ja’mie is clinging onto that kind of childhood thing where she is really lovey with the dad and a bit flirty with him. Usually, it’s younger girls, so it’s kind of funny that Ja’mie clung onto that style – that she’s still biting his shoulder. It’s just so wrong. The most wrong thing is that the dad kind of likes it. Like he says in his interview – how flirtatious she is, and she’s got a way with him.
Social media is pretty pervasive in Ja’mie’s world, do you think it’s fuel for her narcissism?
Yeah, it is like [about] having the most friends in school. You’ll see as the series progresses that’s how she finds out a lot of information. There’s a lot of communication going on via Facebook and whatever. There’s a lot of texting. I had to make sure that was [ ] how kids are communicating. Cause I remember in SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH, which to me seems like yesterday but it was a while ago now, Facebook didn’t even exist. MSN Messenger was big in Australia – kids were all like messaging each other at night, and that was the way you communicated. Things like that have to all get updated. But, it’s hard to tell a story via things that are happening on a screen. The style that I’m shooting is like a documentary, so you don’t want to be cutting to close ups of screens to tell what’s happened. So, it’s hard to weave those ideas in. Usually, it’s like they arrive, ‘Oh my god, did you see Facebook this morning?’ It’s that kind of thing. That was a bit of a struggle. There’s a lot of Skype stuff. In ANGRY BOYS, I was Skyping with another character played by me, so that was really tricky to organize.