Chris Lilley talks about busting taboos on HBO's 'Angry Boys'
The Australian writer and performer Chris Lilley is known for his ability to embody an assortment of oddball characters, from a cancer-stricken Perth housewife to Mr. G., the egomaniacal drama teacher he played on the cult comedy series “Summer Heights High.”
He’s such a chameleon that it’s actually a bit unnerving to see Lilley out of character. At a screening of his new HBO series, “Angry Boys,” at the network’s New York City offices, he is dressed in tight jeans, a gray sweater and a dark wool cap that accentuates his elfin features. Lilley looks like a particularly friendly cat burglar. He isn’t in costume, exactly, but he’s still in something of a disguise.
Like “Summer Heights High,” “Angry Boys” is an irreverent mockumentary in which Lilley plays multiple characters — think Christopher Guest meets Eddie Murphy. Yet the series — which begins its 12-episode run Sunday night on HBO — “also signals a tonal departure for Lilley: It’s an ambitious and, at times, disarmingly serious, dramedy about the dark side of adolescent masculinity.
“I just wanted to do something really surprising,” Lilley acknowledges later in a phone interview. “I could have settled into being Mr. G. for the next 10 years, but that’s not interesting for me or the audience.”
Compared with “Summer Heights High,” shot down the road from Lilley’s Melbourne home, “Angry Boys” is downright epic in scale: A co-production between HBO, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the series takes place on three continents. In addition to playing six characters, Lilley also co-produced, co-directed and wrote most of the music for “Angry Boys.”
At the center of the series are Daniel and Nathan Sims, 17-year-old twins who live in the fictional backwater of Dunt, South Australia. Daniel, a puerile bully, relentlessly mocks his brother, who’s gradually losing his hearing. The wall of their shared bedroom, plastered with pictures of their various heroes, is the conceit that loosely ties Lilley’s characters together.
The heroes includes Blake Oakfield, a washed-up pro surfer, and S.mouse, a posturing SoCal rapper under house arrest. Never one to shy away from cross-dressing, Lilley also plays two female characters in “Angry Boys”: Ruth “Gran” Sims, a guard at a juvenile prison and doting grandmother to Daniel and Nathan, and Jen Okazaki, the overbearing Japanese mother of a skateboarding prodigy.
Even in the era of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “South Park,” “Angry Boys” manages to shock. Between S.mouse, a role that Lilley portrays while wearing a thick layer of brown makeup and a kinky black wig, and Jen Okazaki, a sort of Tiger Mother on crack, Lilley clearly gets a kick out of breaking racial taboos.
“It's barely OK for me to be dressed up as a black guy,” Lilley admits. “But part of me kind of enjoys provoking people.”
“It's a similar thing across all the male characters,” Lilley says. “They want to be these heroes and save the world and be tough and strong.”
As a teenager growing up in the Sydney suburbs, Lilley says he was an unremarkable student with a picture of Kermit the Frog on his wall. After spending his 20s in a string of odd jobs, Lilley created his first series, “We Can Be Heroes,” a 2005 mockumentary in which he played six characters vying for the title of Australian of the Year.
Lilley reprised one of those creations, the ruthless, vapid school girl Ja’Mie King, in “Summer Heights High,” set in a Melbourne high school. Lilley also played Mr. G. and Jonah Takalua, a trouble-making Tongan boy with learning disabilities.
An enormous success in Australia, “Summer Heights High” drew the attention of American TV producers. Unlike fellow mockumentary pioneer Ricky Gervais, Lilley turned down the opportunity to adapt “Summer Heights High” for American audiences. Instead, HBO opted to broadcast the original series, which earned a passionate following stateside when it aired in late 2008.
Lilley remains surprised by the show’s cross-cultural success. “I just stayed at a hotel on Sunset and I walked down the street yesterday and had so many people like ‘High 5, Mr. G!’” “Summer Heights High” worked because high school is an almost universally relatable experience. “Angry Boys,” a series full of Jonah Takaluas, may prove a harder sell.
Lilley has a reputation for being reclusive and press-shy and, though this seems undeserved, he is a tricky interview subject. Not that he is prickly, exactly; if anything, he is too agreeable, offering lots of “yeah, definitelys” but little in the way of specifics. The subject he speaks about most effusively is the mockumentary format. Lilley says he appreciates the formal discipline it requires and, of course, the medium’s rich comic potential.
“A character can be a certain way when they're aware of the camera and then they're different when the cameras capture private moments,” Lilley says. "That juxtaposition is the continuing joke of my shows.”
He draws a distinction between his work and shows like “Modern Family”: “I tend to go for more of a pure documentary thing.” “Angry Boys” finds Lilley experimenting further with various documentary techniques: dramatic recreations, montages of painstakingly aged photos. Professing few hobbies outside of work, he says he prefers nonfictional fare (especially “crappy reality TV” like “The Hills”) to comedy.
In fact, Lilley is already at work on his next project which will be — you guessed it — another mockumentary. “I'm certainly not sick of this style just yet,” he says.
-- Meredith Blake
Photo: Chris Lilley in "Angry Boys." Credit: John Tsiavis / Angry Boys Production