Chris Lilley Transforms Himself into Australia’s Worst Import for Ja'mie: Private School Girl
Few men wear a dress as meaningfully as comedian Chris Lilley. Since 2005, he has sported the pinstriped schoolgirl uniforms of his native Australia to play Ja'mie King, a perfect little monster created by an ungodly mix of wealth, vapidity, and cheerful cruelty. Ja'mie returns to HBO on November 24 in her latest mockumentary, the six-part half-hour show Ja'mie: Private School Girl, to explain what's "quiche" ("a step above hot") and what's "povo" ("poverty-stricken").
This latest addition to the premium cable network's foreign comedy lineup will be 39-year-old Lilley's third show on HBO, following Summer Heights High and Angry Boys. (Ja'mie's debut, the mockumentary special We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year, is available on HBO Go.) In Summer Heights High, her best-known appearance to date, Ja'mie landed in public school for a semester-long academic exchange and did little to ingratiate herself. At a school meeting, she introduced herself to her peers: "I come from one of the most expensive private girls' schools in the state, but I'm actually really cool. Please don't be intimidated by me. … Studies have shown that students from private schools are more likely to get into uni and end up making a lot more money, while wife-beaters and rapists are nearly all public-school educated. Sorry, no offense, but it's true." (No surprise: Lilley attended public school.)
Ja'mie fans will be pleased to know she hasn't changed a bit. In the pilot of Private School Girl, she shows the camera crew around the Hillford Girls' Grammar campus. "I'm nice to pretty much everyone in school," she declares, while pointing out the groups she'd rather die than say a kind word to: the Asians, the overweight girls, the ones who grew up on farms, and the students she suspects of being lesbians. When one of the supposedly gay girls responds to Ja'mie's bullying by asking her why she has such tiny breasts – Lilley seems to have on a pair of A-cups under the school uniform – our villainess finally reveals a vulnerability: "The reason they're small is because I had an eating disorder, so it's not exactly a laughing matter, OK? So go fucking fist yourself."
Lilley is rare among comic actors in that he's earned his fame and adoration almost exclusively from writing and starring in his own shows. He has utilized his creative control to showcase his talent for mimicry: On Summer Heights High, he played the series' three main characters, and in Angry Boys the core sextet. That he can play the central character in every scene of every episode is a remarkable testament to his impersonation skills. But it can also be a tiring gimmick that highlights the fact that he writes every single one of his jokes for himself while using his co-stars, played by nonprofessional actors, as props. The effect is not unlike watching a version of The Office where Steve Carell goes to work at a real paper company as Michael Scott. (Controversially, Lilley has appeared in brown- and blackface on his shows.)
Though known as a media recluse in Australia, Lilley spoke to the Village Voice about what makes Ja'mie such a singular character, where she is today, and whether he still finds her physically attractive.
Why did you decide to give Ja'mie her own show?
I've done a lot of shows where I play multiple characters, so I had the idea of doing a show about one character. And I was thinking about doing a show about Ja'mie, what she was up to and where she was at. [Private School Girl] expands her world. I added to the cast her dad and her younger sister, and she gets a boyfriend and a love triangle with an African boy she's spending time with. And I wanted her to have a new bunch of friends because I liked the idea that she dumped her old friends and found some other ones.
What was the casting process for the new show like?
We never got agencies. We went around schools and found the real thing, found girls that were kind of like that, but were able to act alongside me and deliver their lines and make it seem like it was really happening. It makes the casting process twice as hard as the normal way. Like, the first person who came on [the show] quit six weeks before they even finished. And we overshoot the scenes. Often people will laugh, and I allow for that. They're not like professional actors who turn up and know their lines. It comes with its challenges, but it's worth it.
What's the difference between professional and nonprofessional actors?
I find actors a little bit too self-conscious. They come a bit too prepared. They've overthought it. Their reactions aren't real. The trained actors, the experienced actors, would just give away the game. I'm just trying really to make it seem real. To me, it's really funny that my character is in a real environment and you think it's a real documentary.
Ja'mie might be the only openly homophobic and racist protagonist on American TV. Why did you decide to make her prejudices such an integral part of her character?
It's just funny to me that she's such a horrible person. That's the whole joke with her. You can't believe you're watching this girl, that this is really happening. And, probably, she's not that far from the truth.
She builds herself up as so powerful: "I'm the school captain and really hot. Everyone worships me." And the series is about watching her downfall. She makes you want to really take her down. As things start to fall apart, it has the audience really cheering that on.
I read in an interview that you were sometimes scared by how attractive you found Ja'mie to be. Is that still the case?
I don't know whether that was taken out of context. Yeah, she's all right. It's funny; she just claims to be so hot, and she tells you how hot she is all the time. She really puts herself out there. I did a photo shoot for Zoo – you guys have Maxim, but it's more trashy than that. This is cheap men's bikini models, and Ja'mie is on the cover of that. She's in a wet school uniform, and she sort of passes. I think she looks very good.
I don't disagree!
It's all about your attitude. She just sells it.
How do you nail the teen-girl mannerisms?
I don't really think too much about it. It's quite instinctive. Maybe it's being around other girls while I'm shooting. I definitely don't study it or anything. I just make it up. Being in the costume and wig helps.
What inspired the change in Ja'mie's hairdo?
No, it's the same wig. It's probably the lighting. I wanted her hair to appear fake. If I were starting the show now, I'd probably want her hair to be a little bit longer. When I first started Ja'mie, that was the style. The style now, in Australia at least, is much longer and the style straighter and with a center part. But I wanted her to have the same look so people weren't confused.
Where had the wig been for the five years since Summer Heights High?
Just at my house. I used to have them all on head blocks, but that seemed creepy. So I just had them wrapped up in a box.
Were you afraid of returning to play Ja'mie and appearing not as attractive in the role five years later?
Um, no? I don't know. I've never been a 16-year-old girl. I play mostly characters that are younger than me and of different races and different ages, and I'm always transforming into something very far removed from myself. It's never been a concern; it's all just part of the joke. I don't really look like any of the characters in real life. I played an African-American. I didn't really look like one. You just get into the illusion of it.
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