“Wearing a wig can be gross,” says Chris Lilley. He should know — the Australian comedian has been wearing the same one since 2005 to play Ja’mie King, the decidedly un-P.C. 17-year-old girl from his shows We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High, and, now, HBO’s Ja’mie: Private School Girl.
Like a straight-A Valley girl on bath salts, Ja’mie (that’s “Juh-MAY”) is jealous, shallow, and fond of comebacks like “Go fucking fist yourself!” She’s also racist, classist, and paranoid (a pillow between her and a friend becomes a “lesbian prevention guard”). Ja’mie roams the halls of Hillford Grammar, flanked by six lip-glossed harpies, drunk on popularity. But for how long? “It’s really about her downfall, which somehow makes her more appealing,” says Lilley, who also wrote and directed each episode. “But really, she’s still the same bitch.”
Here, Chris Lilley dishes on dick pics, teenage girls, lesbian tendencies, and the problems with spray-tanning.
Out: Not that I would really question the decision to give her an entire show, but why Ja’mie?
I just really liked the character. I could imagine her world and had hinted at the idea of her home life and dad and sister in We Can Be Heroes. I thought it would be fun to go and expand on all of those little things that I had dropped in earlier. Some characters I really struggle to write for, but Ja'mie just flows through me easily.
Has the experience of being a private school girl changed much since you first wrote Ja’mie?
Maybe on the technology side of things—it changes every time Ja'mie makes an appearance. There’s a new set of technology out there, and a new way of communicating. I think she had a BlackBerry in Summer Heights High—I don't think Facebook even existed when we were shooting it.
Ja’mie definitely upgraded. You had her “gramming” everything and screaming “Snapchat me!” at her friends, not to mention the dick pic she gets.
Technology moves so quickly that you say something and it's just dated really quickly. I noticed with Australian teenage girls, the ones that I interviewed, that Snapchat was huge. That’s the one they really were into.
So did you interview a lot of girls for the show?
The problem I have now is the teenage girls know I'm making a comedy show, and they like to just tell me what they think I should do. So these days I usually write first my own feeling of the world that teenage girls live in, just from television and Facebook stalking and stuff. Then I started to interview the girls just to clarify a few things: language, what happens at parties, etc.
What did you learn?
I'm mostly living in Melbourne but I've also got a house and still got family back in Sydney, and I interviewed a bunch of girls from Sydney, including my nieces. And they’d say something really outrageous, and then go “TITF” at the end of it. And I was like, “What is that?” And they were like, “Aw, TITF stands for Took It Too Far.” And then when I came to Melbourne I was like “Blah blah blah—TITF.” And the girls were like, “What are you talking about?” I was like “Have you heard of TITF?” And they were like, “No one’s heard that here.”
Do you and the teenage actresses who play Ja’mie’s BFFs spend a lot of time together to get into character?
We definitely do. We had a lot of rehearsals before the show, and we all bonded and became besties during the shoot. And then I was on Facebook at night, chatting with them like I was a teenage girl.
So you really got into it.
Yeah, but it wasn't like some big snitch plan to try and bond; it just naturally happened. They're all really cool girls. One thing that was weird is that they bonded with Ja'mie and never saw me as myself apart from those rehearsals. So at the end of the shoot, I came up to them and said, “How are you doing?” And they were like, “We just really miss Ja'mie! We like you, but we wish Ja'mie was here at the wrap party. We feel like we've lost her, like she isn’t here anymore.” And then, for some reason we scheduled the final scene for the girls to be—I don't want to give away too much—but it's sort of this moment where Ja'mie is leaving them for a long time, and that was the final scene for the girls. So they're all crying and upset, and I'm hugging all of them, and it was kind of genuine. I was upset by the scene, too. And we cut and and they all burst into tears.
That's really touching, but it's sort of strange, too, because Ja’mie’s not someone that you would expect people to care for, unless it were some form of Stockholm Syndrome.
I know, she's so awful. But at the same time, I think girls are going to want to be her because she's so fun and she's a leader and she's always coming up with great ideas. She claims to be so hot, and somehow you come out believing that she might be hot. There is something about her that's appealing even though she's so awful.
Aside from appealing, could she possibly become a sympathetic character?
She starts off on top at the beginning, and it's really about her downfall. It somehow makes her more appealing—you feel for her a little bit more as it goes along.
That’s a bit of a change for her. We’ve never really seen a nuanced Ja’mie finding redemption. She’s always just been a huge bitch.
I'm sure that's going to be the opening paragraph of every review I get. She’s funny because she is like that. And I think a lot of people will be disappointed if she’s suddenly this different person.
It’s true—and without that, you wouldn’t get to see in Summer Heights High just how adept she is at establishing a social hierarchy around herself.
Yeah, and the thing is, I don't have any kind of formal writing training or anything, but I think there are story rules: that you're supposed to set something up and then the characters go through something and they end up changed by the end of the story. But I kind of like stories where the characters are just always the same, so by the end of it they're doing the thing that you know they're going to do. Ja'mie goes through Summer Heights High as just this bitch, and she kind of manipulates everything to make herself in charge, and by the end of it, she hasn't changed, she's still the same bitch.
Still the same bitch, with the same wig, of course. How does the physical transformation into Ja’mie work? Are you used to it by now?
Well, wearing a wig can still be gross.
Does the wig get cleaned regularly?
I have a few, but it's the same batch that we got initially. It's not even an expensive wig—it's just a cheap, factory-made synthetic wig. It's actually really annoying when it touches your face. I was just trying to keep everything really simple, and that's why the makeup is pretty minimal and I haven’t gone crazy plucking my eyebrows and stuff. And then all the girls in the group were fake-tanning every day, so I decided to copy that. I only did the legs and arms.
Was it the first time you'd been spray-tanned?
It was actually, yeah. That was really weird.
It’s not that fun—it’s kind of cold and a bit awkward.
It seems like it would feel slimy.
Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend it. But the legs are the main thing, and Ja'mie has a facial hair situation, so I had to apply extra makeup by the end of the day.
Were there any scenes where you didn’t think you’d pulled it off?
I was really nervous because I wanted to have this party scene where she’s out of uniform. It's a weird illusion because, for the school uniform, we get a really big one because I have much more broad shoulders than the other girls, then we have to tailor it all in. The waist has to go much higher than a normal girl’s because I don't have a high waist, then the pleats have to go up in the back. The temptation is to exaggerate things and go a bit drag with it, like lots of makeup or lots of cleavage and stuff, but it's better to keep things really subtle. It's really easy to put on girls clothes and obviously look like a man, so it's all in the planning. And the tailors—everything is tailored.
What’s the most difficult part of acting like Ja’mie?
In the show, there’s a lot of boy stuff, like she has a boyfriend and there is a bit of a love triangle going on. Shooting scenes with those boys was tough, really awkward. It's just hard because I'll talk to them normally and I'm directing them and saying, “I'm going to put my hand on your leg, and the I'll do this...” Then all of a sudden, “Action!” and I'm this outrageous girl who's, like, all over them. If I was like that all the time, it wouldn’t be weird. But changing it up makes it weird.
The last time we talked, you described filming the scene where she is hitting on Sebastian, the Year Seven boy, and it was just you guys hanging out alone for 20 minutes while the crew filmed from afar.
With this show it's even more intense. You'll see it all unfold and there is this thing with boys, like the Sebastian thing, but worse. And Ja'mie with her dad—she's really flirty, she's all over him and biting his shoulder, and that's hard to do. But it’s unique and quite confrontational.
I remember watching the scenes with her dad and laughing the entire time, but also thinking to myself, This is so sick.
You know, the other thing that's uncomfortable is just the yelling, her abuse. She's just so nasty to her mom and her friends and her sister especially. All of that is out of character for me to do, just screaming and shouting at these poor women. And none of them are actors—just random people that we've hired. I'm just so nasty to them, and swearing, and saying things that aren’t in the script. Like when I'm screaming at my mom—she’s just this nice lady.
She wasn’t a trained actress?
No, no. She was working in a shop, and someone went in and said, “This woman is really interesting,” and we asked her to get involved. She hadn't even read for the role.
Do you tell her that you would be screaming obscenities at her?
Well, she was cast the day before we got on set and we were struggling to find someone. And we were like, “She's great, get her in.” She didn’t have time to work it out, so the first thing we film was me screaming my head off at her and throwing things around the house and just abusing her. So she was really in shock for awhile after that. Now she's a little more used to it. I mean, it's all in the script, but it's always a lot worse than what's in the script.
In this show, Ja’mie has a hatred for The Boarders, a group of girls who live on campus and come from rural areas. Where did the idea for this group come from?
I wanted her to have a rival group at the school, but one that she hates for no particular reason. She’s convinced they're lesbians, which probably says something about Ja'mie's own lesbian tendencies, which she's kind of dabbled in. Maybe she's picking up on something she finds a little bit threatening herself.
She also finds weight gain threatening.
She's obsessed with weight issues—whose fat and whose not fat—that’s why I intentionally cast girls [for The Boarders] who actually aren’t particularly fat. But just in her mind they are. And the girl who’s the biggest threat to her, the girl that does the dance at the end [of episode two] and is just this goody-goody girl—the only thing Ja'mie has on her is that she's fat and probably a lesbian. When I went around to schools and interviewed groups of girls and had them answer, “Who don't you get along with?” so many of them said, “Ugh, there's a bunch of lesbians at my school, and it's really bad.” And I would say, “Well, it's not that bad.” And then they would say, “Yeah, they’re always trying to hit on us.” It was pretty common for teenage girls to have problems with lesbians.
I’m sure it has a lot to do with a perceived threat to the strict social order of high school.
I agree. And I like the idea of the girls Ja’mie really fixated on as being just completely normal and nice, that there’s nothing bad about them. Ja'mie is just pointing out these groups around the school and saying, “I like everyone at school except the Asians and the Boarders,” and no one else is doing that. There’s this scene where she talks about the [quad] at lunch time and the closer you are to the [quad], the higher and more important you are—and no Asians are allowed on the [quad]. She's really caught up in that teenage class thing, but no one else is.
Watch the trailer below: