Interview: Chris Lilley basically is ‘Ja’mie King: Private School Girl’
Fans of Australia’s “We Can Be Heroes” and “Summer Heights High” are on the edge of their seats anticipating the return of TV’s queen bee, Ja’mie King. The ultimate mean girl is now the star of her own Kardashian-style reality series in “Ja’mie King: Private School Girl.” To learn more about the new show, airing Sunday at 10:30 p.m. on HBO, we spoke with comedian Chris Lilley, who created and plays Ja’mie King.
We all know Ja’mie from “We Can Be Heroes” and “Summer Heights High,” but can you tell us what the new series has in store?
So Ja’mie’s always been a private school girl, and in “Summer Heights High” she did a term away — but in this one is just back to her. It’s her last three months of school, she’s the school captain, she’s on top of the world and bossier than ever. It’s sort of put together like a reality show, like she is Kim Kardashian or something. She’s got her own show this time, and it’s all about her school life and family life. And so it sets up in the first episode that it’s about her downfall. It’s narrated by Ja’mie and it’s all teenage drama and friends issues and boy issues and all of the sort of things that happen in the last few months of school. And, yeah, it’s the first time I’ve done a show that is only about one character, so it’s a chance to really get stuck in that world.
If she’s on top of the world right now, does that mean she learned nothing from her visit to public school?
Yeah, she never learns anything, she’s just all about herself. [Laughs] You kinda get the impression at the end of “Summer Heights High” that it’s done nothing; she’s still glad she is a private school girl.
Why do you think she’s your most popular character?
I don’t think she — I don’t know if she is. When I go around in public, I have lots of people come up and recognize me from the shows, and I play lots of characters and probably Jonah [from “Summer Heights High”] and Nathan from “Angry Boys” are the ones that people would call out, they’re more recognizable. I know a lot of people really like Ja’mie — but for a lot of people, she drives them crazy. I don’t know, I don’t analyze it much, I just do it.
So why is she the subject of your first solo show? Is she your favorite?
I really like her. It’s hard, because they are all my favorites. I wanted to do a show about one character, and so it was more like she fit into that idea because she’s been in two other shows. And I’d sort of already set up all of these things about her world. I don’t know. I just decided it would be fun to focus on her. I wasn’t looking at any stats or anything, it was just a fun world. I like to write about all of them, but I was having a moment where I just wanted to write about her.
What does it mean for you that HBO is airing “Ja’mie King” in the U.S. almost at the same time as it airs Australia? Usually we get it much later.
It’s really good that they’re doing that because there is always a six-month delay, and these days it’s one world with all the technology so, yeah, it was always a disappointment that six months later American people got to see the show. Now it’s only about three weeks after Australia, and it’s really great. And they are giving it a great time slot on Sunday nights [at 10:30] and HBO is really excited about this one.
Does it also help reduce online piracy?
Yeah, hopefully. I think I’m supposed to care about that, but I just can’t. When you make a show you just want people to see it. You want people to be affected by it and to love it and experience it. I don’t mind that much, as long as people see it and spread the word. [Pause] I shouldn’t be promoting pirating. [Laughs] I would probably be rich if pirating didn’t exist, but, yeah, as long as people see it.
Do you have to tweak the humor of the show to appeal to an international audience?
No, I learned that pretty early on. HBO was really excited about [“We Can Be Heroes”] and invited me over and said, “We love what you’re doing, can you do an American version? Can you come over and do an American accent?” And then I was like, “Wouldn’t that just take away from what it’s all about? I think what you love about it is that it’s Australian.” And then they kind of agreed with me and said, “We’re gonna buy the next show that you do.” So they bought “Summer Heights High” and they aired that — and that had a huge response for them. So I think we both realized that it’s making the show here and not trying to impress people or trying to second-guess what people like, and just being true to what I like is what’s really working. The new show definitely doesn’t try to be American or anything. Obviously you’re making it for the audience, but the audience is pretty universal.
What was your own high school experience like?
[Laughs] Well, my school was actually a private school, so it was very much like Ja’mie’s school. And I think I always craved going to a public school. I kinda wanted that more “real” experience. So maybe I’m still trying to deal with that thing with the theme of the show. [Laughs] The school I went to was an all-boys school and then the girls come in the last two years. So it’s kind of a weird school. But I certainly went to school with a few Ja’mies. Yeah, there were lots of them there. And I had an older sister who wasn’t like Ja’mie in personality, but kinda looks like Ja’mie. [Laughs]
I did grow up in that world, with those kind of people. And Ja’mie’s so racist and homophobic and really manipulative and nasty and selfish. But at the same time, when you watch the show, for some reason, she’s really appealing and you can kinda imagine that she would be popular and girls would want to hang out with her. I don’t know. She’s fun, she comes up with lots of cool ideas, she’s pretty adventurous, she does brave things. And, yeah, I think back in the day I probably would have wanted to be friends with her — which is a strange thought.