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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?
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