Chris Lilley discusses revival of fan-favorite character

Courtesy of Ben Timony
Courtesy of Ben Timony

“I like weird shows,” Chris Lilley said. “I like things to be a bit unusual.”

There’s no one else in the entertainment world quite like Lilley — certainly not on American television. Perhaps that’s why the Australian comedian has garnered millions of fans across geographic borders ever since his show “Summer Heights High” aired on HBO in 2008.

Lilley’s talent lies in his ability to play a variety of characters ranging in gender, age, race and nationality, and he plays them all with a sincere level of humor and profundity. Only Lilley could play an old woman suffering from Alzheimer’s and not be incredibly offensive — but rather, give one of the most genuine, touching performances portrayed on television.

In an exclusive interview with WSN, Lilley discussed his series “Ja’mie: Private School Girl,” which premieres on HBO Sunday, Nov. 24. In “Ja’mie,” Lilley revives rich, racist, spoiled, bratty Ja’mie King — one of his most popular characters — and follows her through her last year of private school.

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“Maybe I just watch too many reality TV shows. I honestly don’t know where I get the inspiration for her,” Lilley said. “I’m always conscious of youth culture stuff … I have a lot of teen girl fans, so I’m probably always aware of their language and the way they communicate.”

It’s hard to love or identify with a character as awful as Ja’mie — the type of girl who would abandon her best friend for gaining weight or loudly and openly discuss her hatred of other races. But Lilley makes these characters work.

“I think people are drawn to her because she’s so powerful,” he said. “She’s so open about everything.”

“Girls in Australia, they come up to me, and they’re like, ‘I’m Ja’mie. You based it on me. I must be her,’” he said. “So there must be something that makes girls want to be her.”

Like all of Lilley’s shows, “Ja’mie” has a level of sadness and tragedy buried beneath the outrageous humor. Most noticeably, Ja’mie has an emotionally abusive relationship with her mother, and it reflects the type of relationships some girls and their mothers might actually have.

“[My shows] are supposed to be documentaries, and I go to a lot of trouble to make sure everything seems very real,” Lilley said. “There’s a lot of detail, even in just like the art direction, and the casting, and the dialogue. Everything. The way that it all happens is meant to feel real, and then my characters are sort of plumped into this real environment.”

“It’s not just all about laughs,” he said. “It’s about real lives. That’s what sad about it, for people to see things that really happen, and they’re not always great … but it’s not like it’s bad to watch sad stuff.”

Lilley also made it clear that “Ja’mie” was not intended to end the story of Ja’mie King, and that she’ll probably return someday. But not before the return of some of Lilley’s other characters — exactly which ones, however, he wasn’t allowed to say.

“I’ve got like 12 characters now, and I really like them and want them to come back,” Lilley said. “I’d love to work on things where I’m getting to explore the characters I’ve already set up.”

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 20 print edition. Jeremy Grossman is arts editor. Email him at [email protected]

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