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An audio version of this interview originally appeared on Bullseye, a weekly radio show and podcast hosted by Jesse Thorn. You can listen to it on select public radio stations, at the Maximum Fun website, and via iTunes.
Chris Lilley is a superstar in his native Australia, but he’s only just begun to crack the consciousness of comedy fans here in the States. He started his career as a stand-up, but he made his name on Australian television, first with the series We Can Be Heroes (which ran on Sundance Channel in the United States), then on Summer Heights High (which had a higher-profile run on HBO in 2008). His shows are sprawling ensemble faux-documentaries, with Lilley playing all the leads—male, female, young, and old. Even in drag or when crossing racial boundaries, his performances are disarmingly specific and shockingly funny. His new series, Angry Boys, takes on the pain of male adolescence through a broad swath of characters, ranging from a middle-aged female juvenile C.O. to a teenaged suburban kiddie rapper. The co-production of HBO, the Australian Broadcasting Company, and the BBC recently began its U.S. run on HBO.
The A.V. Club: Angry Boys and Summer Heights High both have these really sensitive portrayals of adolescents. This one’s mostly about boys, but there was plenty of girl stuff the last time around. Were you self-aware enough when you were an adolescent to look around you and see the grandiosity and absurdity of adolescents?
Chris Lilley: Yeah, you’re probably right. I don’t know, it was so long ago. I was a pretty unusual adolescent. I guess I was caught up in fantasyland most of the time, and writing characters and then playing characters, and I guess I must have been observing things.
AVC: Were you a good student?
CL: No, I was terrible. I was capable, but I never like being told what to do, so I was always in the bottom class at school. In Australia, a lot of students study to the end of year 10, but don’t go on to the final year, and I was asked to leave the school because they just thought I wasn’t performing well enough. I used to sneak off to play piano, and defy the rules of the school.
AVC: That isn’t exactly the boldest of teenage rebellions, to sneak out of class and go play piano.
CL: I know, what a dork. Didn’t even leave the school grounds, just was in the music department all by myself on the piano. But it was more about any time I was told to do something, I was not happy. I liked doing my own stuff.
AVC: I’m sort of interested and surprised to hear that you were already interested in making and portraying characters as a teenager. Most of the character comics that I know here in the States, it’s something that you pick up doing improv, or studying at a more comedy-driven center like the Groundlings. What were the first characters that you made for yourself?
CL: Well, even earlier than high school, as far back as I can remember, I used to dress up. There was a couple of wigs around the house, and I was interested in soap operas at the time, so things were based on Australian soaps. Kind of over-the-top female characters, and it was constantly changing. I have a series of photos that my brother took of me, and I’m playing about five different characters. I’m about 11 years old and I’m sitting by the pool as a surf character, leaning against a beach ball, sun-bronzed. And then there’s a dwarf character with my shoes pulled into my knees, so it looked like I had short legs. So many characters, it’s kind of all a blur now.
I do remember there being an American family that moved in across the road, and I was so excited because America was this far-away land, and so I met these two young boys. I was about 8 and they were probably 5, and I told them I had this American cousin who was staying with us, and I went back into the house and dressed up as an American girl with one of my mom’s wigs and her clothes. Walked across the road, put on my best American accent, which sounded Southern, sort of like Tootsie. And pretended to be this American cousin to these two kids who completely fell for it, or according to my 8-year-old self they believed that I was this strange woman from across the road. [Pauses] I got in trouble for that one, my mom got really mad at me.
AVC: This sounds like the greatest triumph ever for an 8-year-old. It’s like having your own detective agency and solving a crime or something.
CL: Yeah, I thought I did pretty well. It was one of my best early performances…
And once I got into high school, any time I had to do a talk or a speech, I just loved being up in front of an audience, it was always a character. And then I discovered that an impersonation of the teacher was a really, really good way to get a laugh, and it would also get you good marks, because the teachers were always bored and loved to be the “teacher-parody.” So that became my little trick at school, and I became known for doing that.
AVC: Were you comfortable being funny as a teenager performing as yourself?
CL: Yeah, I loved doing all that. I guess my performance at school was doing school musicals, so I was a knight as well at the back of the stage in Camelot. It was all those kind of things. It wasn’t the stuff that I wanted to do. The real funny character stuff came out when I was in control of it myself and writing it myself.
AVC: You were a stand-up in your 20s. Was your stand-up character-driven?
CL: Well, not at the start. I started doing it just as myself, because I thought, “This is what’s expected, you’re meant to tell stories and do observations.” And then I started to realize that I wanted to mix it up a bit, so I started to doing songs, and I had a little keyboard onstage and would bring in little props. Then I thought about the idea of talking about a character and becoming the character onstage. So, it sort of morphed into being stand-up that was more character based, and I found that’s the stuff I got the better reaction from and was more exciting for me.
AVC: I’m really interested in the distinction between someone who uses an interest in being funny and a talent for mimicry and acting to, say, become an impressionist or do voices onstage, or someone who is interested in building a whole alternate life onstage. Your characters are so full; they’re not just a voice that sounds like the president. What do you think gave you the depth of commitment to do something that’s more than just some jokes related to a funny voice?
CL: I think it just really excites me, the idea of delving so far into a character that people actually believe it’s real, and I start to believe it’s real. It’s a strange thing to say, but it’s the thrill of getting all the details right and being so absorbed in the character that people go along with the illusion. I think sometimes people become quite emotional about the characters as well, and that’s pretty cool that you can get that emotion out of people. And I think that’s more my motivation than like, “Hey I want to be the funny guy, I want to be that famous funny guy.” That doesn’t sit as well with me as the idea of taking people on this ride and taking them into the illusion of the characters. That’s much more exciting for me. I don’t like to analyze it too much, but I think maybe that’s where it comes from.
AVC: There’s a scene in Angry Boys where Nathan, one of the rural Australian teens, describes all the different ways of doing “Mainies,” which is essentially just walking and driving up and down the one-block main street of their town. He’s so passionate, it’s almost moving. How do you get to know a world like Nathan and his brother’s intimately enough to do this kind of portrayal?
CL: It’s funny because so much of it is from my imagination, and then I think sometimes I’ll go out and research and meet those types of people. Sometimes I’ll just read things or watch documentaries. It comes from all different places. The boys who live on the farm, Daniel and Nathan, I’ve got two older brothers, we used to spend a lot of time on farms, so maybe there’s a little bit of that in there. But then once I started writing the characters, I actually went to country towns in Australia and spent time with teenagers and picked up little things there. But the bulk of it is just imagination and just thinking of a character. I like things to be real. If stuff is funny, real and compelling, then that’s what I’m trying to do.
AVC: It’s interesting, because when you’re trying to create something that’s real, you have surrounded yourself on this show with a faux-documentary-style milieu. You’re working with a lot of non-professional actors, as well as some very naturalistic professional actors. But on the other hand, you are also dressed up like an old lady.
CL: It looks ridiculous, but it’s a weird thing, because I play a Japanese woman as well and I don’t think I look remotely like a Japanese woman, but we do a few things to suggest that. We got the shape of the hair right and the sort of body shape and tailoring of the clothes, and I work with really cool people who can pull all of that stuff together. And then you get into the illusion of it, and it’s not even an accurate accent, it’s just this thing. I spend a lot of time making sure the worlds of the characters are real and accurate, and then surround myself with these other actors who are the real thing. That all helps form the illusion of it.
AVC: There’s a character in Angry Boys called Gran, a counselor at a juvenile detention facility, whose hallmark is her wild inappropriateness. I read a bunch of Australian interviews with you when the show came out a few months ago, and a lot of them focused on the awful things that character says, and she does say wildly inappropriate stuff often, but I found her to be a very sympathetic character.
CL: The idea with her was to think something in the beginning of the first episode and then have your mind completely changed by the end of it. To have this really nasty, harsh woman say racist things and act seemingly uncaring to these boys, and then it’s slowly revealed as the episode progresses that she really cares about these boys and that language that she’s using is to get through to them, like she’s picked up that that’s how they talk to each other. Also, it’s a little bit of a reference to the fact that she’s a 65-year-old woman and she’s sort of from a different generation, and the way she refers to indigenous people is a little inappropriate. I thought it was a really intriguing place to set a comedy show, in a juvenile boys’ prison, and then to find this character who you think is one thing and half an hour later you feel quite differently about her, and you understand where she’s coming from by the end of it.
AVC: Are you attracted to the challenge of taking someone being awful and conveying the humanity within that person?
CL: With that character that was the goal, but I also play very nasty characters where you don’t feel much compassion at all. Like in Summer Heights High, I play a teenage schoolgirl, Ja’mie, who is just this nasty bitch, and Mr. G, the drama teacher, you just really don’t feel much for him, and he’s funny because he’s just so awful. In this series, the Japanese mom Jen, you don’t really feel that much sympathy for her. She sort of fools you in one episode, then you’re like, “No she’s just pure evil.” That was the idea, and certainly there were a few people crying over some later episodes with Gran where things get a bit dramatic. That’s pretty cool to see with a comedy series, so I’m pretty proud of that.
AVC: You mention Ja’mie from Summer Heights High. I don’t know if it’s something about the way that you play her, or just maybe remembering how scary being 13, and 14 and 15 years old is, but I still found myself liking her and thinking about being in that place, how hard it must have been for you to put yourself in that really emotional state of being adolescent.
CL: I think Ja’mie is appealing even though she’s so awful because it’s coming from a place of being really naïve. She’s had this really privileged life and doesn’t really understand the world, so you kind of forgive her a bit for her selfishness and the inappropriate things she says. She’s just a teenager and not that clever, and she thinks she’s got it all worked out, but she hasn’t yet. The other thing with Ja’mie is that she’s got so much confidence. She’s always talking about how hot she is and how attractive [she is], and about how everyone wants to be her friend. Somehow you kind of believe it and fall for it, and you think she’s actually this really amazing and fun girl, and someone who you kind of want to hang out with, and it’s this really strange thing. Even though she’s saying the most awful things, you fall for it.
AVC: It’s funny that you talk about her in the third person and the idea of almost falling for her when you are basically talking about you falling for yourself.
CL: I always do that when I’m cutting the show together. I always talk about the characters as though they’re someone else. I don’t even think about it. So much work goes into making the world of the characters that it does feel like it has its own life and that it takes off, becoming something real. Like, I think about what Ja’mie is up to now, where she’s at. It’s a strange thing to say, but they seem real to me as well.
AVC: The other main kid character in Summer Heights High is called Jonah, and he’s Tongan. You engage race in both that show and Angry Boys, and there are characters who turn up in both shows. You could have set Summer Heights High at the all-white private school and just played with the idea that 14-year-old girls are bitchy. Why did you want to engage that?
CL: I think it’s just something a little different, and probably a little part of me likes to provoke that and do things that are bit naughty, things that are a bit taboo. I get a bit excited about how that makes people feel. Also, I don’t think about it too much. I went out to some of the schools and I met these Pacific Islander kids of which there’s a big population in Australia, and they appealed to me. I liked the energy of them and the little groups I met around the school, they just seemed like a really cool type of person for me to portray. I think I was like “whatever” about the race thing. It’s certainly not a joke about race, and you get over that idea pretty quickly.
AVC: One of the characters in Angry Boys is this teenage rapper sort of in the Soulja Boy mold, named S.Mouse. He’s a sort of manufactured product who’s rebelling against his manufactured-product status, but also doesn’t have any particular talent to speak of. Are you a hip-hop fan?
CL: Yeah, I like that kind of music, and that’s probably what led me to finding these characters really interesting. I think that sometimes people think I’m trying to make a statement about the music industry with S.Mouse, but really it’s more of a setup for an interesting and funny character. To take this guy who has fallen into stardom, who has had these huge hit singles [such as] “Slap My Elbow,” and then it all falls apart because it goes to his head. And then at the point we meet him he ends up on house-arrest, living with his dad and everything has sort of fallen apart. It was an interesting setup and world to explore.
AVC: It’s a super-big version of the kind of fear that you get when you’re 16 and you’re not sure whether you can sell to the world that you’re a badass.
CL: He’s certainly been exposed and spends the rest of the series trying to live up to that expectation, and we see the cracks forming, and the fact that he’s just this nerdy guy and as gangster as he makes out to be.
AVC: Even his arc is something redemptive. I mention Soulja Boy, who was widely derided for making dumb music, and he has committed himself to proving that he is the creative force behind his work in a way that most rappers who aren’t teenagers couldn’t say. There’s something nice and redemptive about the idea of this guy, S. Mouse, who, as untalented as he is, decides to create his own thing.
CL: Yeah, it’s come about because he’s had this massive commercial success and then been criticized for having no talent, so he’s searching for it [through] the album The Real Me that he does, and he’s trying to find the real him, and we find out that it doesn’t turn out so well by the end of the series.
AVC: Was there a series of production meetings where you decided whether to do this character as an African-American and what kind of physical stuff you would do to make yourself look African-American?
CL: It was the one thing I was really nervous about with this character, was that I knew it was so far removed from me physically that I was going to have to rely on some kind of make-up, and I like to do pretty minimal make-up, so most of the characters are pretty much just a wig and pretty subtle stuff, and it’s more about the performance. So with S.Mouse we did a few make-up tests and took it to the extreme and had contacts and a mouth-guard thing, and quite a dark skin tone. But you lose the personality, especially with the eyes. As soon as the eyes change color, I felt like I was lost behind all of it. So we made it quite minimal with a little fake nose, the skin tone, and quite a simple wig. It’s like if you look at a photo it kind of looks like me with a slightly darker skin tone, but I felt that was better for the character if it could come out a little bit more realistically if we didn’t overdo the make-up.
AVC: It’s really hard to disappear into an African-American character, especially with the cultural baggage here in the States, but I imagine anywhere when you’re white. Were you nervous or scared to try that?
CL: I think the appeal to the character was that it was the most challenging one I’ve ever done, and it was the scariest one I’ve ever done. It was quite tricky in lots of ways, even to create the whole backstory of S.Mouse, that he’s this real star. I had to write all of this music and record it, and we had to do photo shoots for posters and CDs and set up this whole illusion that he existed, so it was a lot more detailed than any of the other characters. It was quite a challenge. Part of it was intentional. I feel like audiences probably like to see you pushing yourself and seeing you on your feet. So I’d throw myself into some scenes where I’ve got to have to say some pretty horrendous, racist kind of things to the guy who plays my dad, and it’s really confronting and full-on, but it’s going to be worth it because it’s going to be really interesting. It’s definitely harder when you push yourself like that.
But I could have done a show where I play Summer Heights High characters all over again, and said, “Puck you, miss” for the next 10 years, and instead I thought, “Why not try something really different?” I’ve gotten really used to S.Mouse now because he was probably one of the most standout characters from the show as far as the one that people remember. I’ve done a live S.Mouse show in Melbourne, Australia and over in London, where I’m up onstage for 45 minutes doing the character, so I got really used to playing him, and he’s become one of my favorites.
AVC: Another character from Angry Boys is Blake Oakfield, a former professional surfer in his mid-30s who is the leader of a surf gang. I was shocked to read that there’s an actual gang of surfer dudes, with actual gang tattoos and slight drug connections, going on in Australia right now. Did you just hear about that and need to make a joke about it?
CL: I’d sort of researched a lot about surfing, and I’d always heard about surf gangs and just found it be the most hilarious thing, because it’s guys running around in board-shorts and floating on fiberglass stuff in the water. It just seems so simple, and then for them to be protecting their location, it was a funny idea. The boundaries that you can’t go here or there, and they put up these “Locals Only” signs. I got into surfing myself and experienced a bit of that where I was getting abused for being in the wrong spot. And then I watched a lot of documentaries and found out a lot more about it. I thought it was a funny idea, and the idea being that Blake is this thing he came up with being a 10-year-old kid and he still thinks that it’s the most important thing in his life. He puts it before his family and he doesn’t want to give up on this childhood thing. I though it was a funny setup.
AVC: A lot of performers, especially comedy performers, are self-conscious about the extent to which they are living their adolescent dreams, and I wonder if you relate to that element of Blake’s character? You’re a single dude, you’re not neglecting your family or anything, but that part where you’re wondering whether what you’re doing counts as being a grown-up.
CL: I don’t think about it, and if I did, most of what I do is not very grown-up. It’s all pretty silly. And that’s cool, I’m happy to be like that. Not many guys my age are dressing up as a young black rapper and performing. I put myself into some pretty weird situations, and I think that’s exciting.
AVC: Most people who do characters, especially if they’re switching gender, they protect themselves by being sort of outrageous. If you think of the classic drag-queen persona, because this man is dressed like a woman, he can do anything no matter how outrageous it is. But when you dress up as a woman, or someone of a different race, you seem to almost scale back, find smaller beats and moments. How do you get yourself to the point where you’re comfortable enough in something that is so different from you to not just do a pratfall?
CL: I just know I’ve got a vision of how it’s going to turn out. I love stuff that’s a little more subtle and real, and it is a problem sometimes with the other performers in the show. They try to go quite big, or they’re searching for the funny stuff, and they’re trying to find a way to make the scene funny. I have to say to them, “Just be real and chill out. It will cut together nicely and will be really funny, you don’t need to throw in funny lines or try to be funny.” And same thing with me. I think I probably just hold back from the big stuff.
AVC: Most of the people who you’re working with in the Gran scenes are just regular 14- or 15-year-old boys who aren’t actors at all, and you as the writer/creator/star have to be at least kind of in charge on the set. What was the relationship between as you as the real person, you as Gran, and these kids who are not really actors, having to control them for show-business reasons and also in the scenes?
CL: Well with that story, the Gran character, there were similarities in the ways that I had to control the boys and the way that Gran had to as well. They had the same relationship with me as they did with Gran, which helped. With those boys, we searched all over, from country towns, because I wanted to represent the reality of juvenile prisons in Australia, where there are a lot of indigenous kids and Pacific Islander kids. So we had to find them from all over the place, and a lot of them didn’t know each other, but they formed this connection and there were some really amazing moments. Within the script there’s a couple lines that I need to get, but because it’s a fake documentary, we can expand on those lines and it ends up being a whole big scene. There’s a scene where Gran ends up leaving the prison and she has to give a big farewell speech, and it turned out to be the boys’ final scene of the whole shoot, and they had formed this connection with me and each other. And I’m giving them this speech, and I expanded on a couple sentences giving them this long, lengthy lecture about the rest of their lives about what they should do. It had this reality thing going on. I could see the boys looking at me, and you’ll see it in the show, episode 11, they’re really listening to what I’m saying. It’s like Gran is actually an important adult in their lives who they listen to. It was quite strange that people were really emotional during the shooting of that scene, and it was very unusual.
AVC: Summer Heights High was a really huge hit in Australia. How do you feel about being a famous person?
CL: I just like to create stuff. And for people to see it, of course you want people to see it. So I was really excited so many people tuned into see Summer Heights High and it became this thing people talked about, and still talk about. There have been catchphrases and language that have come out of it that people are still using, and Jonah’s dictation graffiti all over schools and stuff. That side of being able to create something to reach people, I love that.
AVC: You like the part where you inspire juvenile delinquents.
CL: Pretty much, that’s the best part. I don’t like going to awards or red carpets, or walking down the street having people call out your name is sort of weird. I think [for] anyone who creates and puts something out there, you want to reach a lot of people, and it’s pretty cool when you can.
AVC: After the success Summer Heights High, you probably had the opportunity to do something like move to Los Angeles to become the star of a sitcom or get a show on Comedy Central, or do the stuff that Steve Coogan does in the United States right now. Why did you choose not to do that, and instead to do the same thing you were doing before?
CL: Well, I guess I’m really inspired by the process, and I like the idea that you have a certain amount of time to create stuff. And why not create things that you’re really proud of? I certainly take the high road. I write scripts for a long time and edit for a long time and I do things that are pretty risky, but I just think it’s a more interesting achievement in the end. Maybe one day I will get a bit lazier and cope with being in someone else’s thing. I probably wouldn’t cope with being told what to do as well if I was in somebody else’s movie or TV show. I like to be in control of stuff.