After Summer Heights High you warned us that you’d “go further” next time? Have you done that with ?
Yes. Angry Boys is bigger, more sophisticated, more challenging. We shot in over 70 locations including Tokyo and Los Angeles. We’ve also pushed the envelope further with the characters and gone deeper into their lives and what drives them.
The opening credits show boys in superhero outfits. What’s the message there?
Young boys grow up wanting to be all-powerful, masculine and to save the world. The characters in Angry Boys are having their masculinity challenged. Daniel has his stepdad taking over and his brother being taken away. Tim Okazaki has an artificial gay thing being forced on him by his mother. S.Mouse is chasing fame but dealing with decline, asking himself if he’s a real artist. The boys in the prison are aggressive, trapped and confused. Blake is 35 but holding onto his boyhood with his surf gang. He’s a character literally with no balls… and what is a boy without his balls?
It’s funny as hell, but Angry Boys is also much darker.
It’s certainly heavier and more dramatic… but I don’t plan that, it just happens. In fact, the longer the series goes the darker the road gets for these characters. There are lots of twists and turns and surprises in store and people will be genuinely shocked by what happens later in the series. It gets pretty full-on.
Luckily we’ve got ‘sneaky nuts’ to cut the tension…
Last series it was [Jonah’s signature graffiti tag] ‘Dicktation’ people went crazy for. Three years on, I still get people – stewardesses, road workers, schoolkids, footballers – asking me to draw giant dicks on their chest! Now it’s ‘sneaky nuts’. In the week after the first Angry Boys trailer aired people were coming up asking me ‘Can you get your balls out?’ for photos. I haven’t partaken. Yet.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room. Are they your balls being flashed?
I’m not allowed to say. There are children involved in those scenes.
So it’s a stunt scrotum?
It’s a surprise.
In the four hours of extras on the Summer Heights DVD was a video mash-up of kids miming and dancing to the Mr G song ‘Naughty Girl’ [“She’s a slut and she knows it”]. Some are just pre-schoolers. That’s a bit wrong isn’t it?
I think it’s cool. And it goes the other way too. I had this 80-year-old guy come up to me last week and say: “I don’t know what’s wrong with you but I hope you get better because I love your work and I can’t wait for the next show.”
Your dad was a chemist on Sydney’s upper North Shore. Is your comedy the result of many hours’ experimentation with pharmaceutical-grade drugs?
I guess it’s a little crazy, dressing up as different people and putting myself in these weird situations. Sometimes I’m so focused on making those moments seem real that it gets a little creepy. Often I’ll improvise to the point where I find myself wondering ‘Is this really happening?’ But I don’t take drugs, never have. And anyway, I’d rather see ‘Chris Lilley’s nuts’ on the internet rather than ‘Chris Lilley is nuts’.
One of your new characters is ‘bubblegum hip-hopper’ S.Mouse, a role for which you ‘black-up’ as ‘gangsta nigga’.
I won’t lie to you. It’s a very intimidating thing to do – wear make-up to appear like a black person and act opposite African-American actors as my dad and girlfriend. I found that personally to be a very confronting situation. I grew up in Turramurra [Kamahl was Lilley’s next-door neighbour – ed] and that is not my world, so while I’ve learned a lot about African-American culture, I had to be brave to try and pull that off… but it’s scary.
HBO are behind Angry Boys but surely S.Mouse courts controversy in the US?
HBO said: “Do whatever you want” so I have. Anyway, it’s only the clever people who want to analyse my stuff and label it ‘inappropriate’. S.Mouse isn’t a stereotype. He’s a character with a family and a story. For me to explore that whole hip-hop scene he had to be black and for me to create the illusion for the viewer that ‘this is real, this is a black kid’, I had to be black too. Yes, the cheap shock factor is a small part of what I’m trying to do, but really it’s much more complex.
So if it doesn’t scare you, it’s not worth doing?
The end result has to be an entertaining, thrilling, challenging thing to watch. And if I’m going to go to this much trouble – audition over 3,500 people, light 850 scenes and use 1,228 extras – I want to make the most of the opportunity. That’s why, after so much set-up, when the cameras get rolling I keep going – expanding, experimenting, taking the characters off the page and keeping the actors with me in the moment. It’s risky and scary but I’m drawn to things out of my comfort zone.
Stuart MacDonald, director of Summer Heights, told me: “Chris has no real interest in acting, it’s all about achieving complicity with an audience.” True?
I write, plan and perform instinctively. Like a documentary, every scene, voiceover and piece of footage is written into the script. Then we break it down and cut it together with the improvised tangents woven in to get the real moments. But yeah, I’m not an actor. I’m not interested in giving Academy Award-winning performances, I’m about the end product, the experience for people watching.
High risk = high pay-off?
People see and feel risk on screen. As a viewer, it’s what excites me, thinking ‘how did they do that?’ But risky stuff is hard work. There’s characters I love – the twins from Dunt, Daniel and Nathan, are my favourites and easy to play – but there’s other characters I find gruelling. Gran is one. So is Jen Okazawa. For them I have to inject the elements of risk and fear. For starters, it’s a hard thing to turn me into a woman – there’s a lot of undergarments and shaping that help that illusion. Also, it’s often just uncomfortable to be a woman in those worlds.
Particularly when those worlds are a real-life juvenile delinquent prison for boys and a gay skateboarding subculture in Japan…
Gran is a tyrannical, racist woman but you grow to love her quickly. Jen is the harshest, most extreme bitch I’ve ever played – she’d eat Ja’mie alive! But those characters only truly come together on the set. Inside the walls of a prison it’s easy to be Gran because her world is right there. And even though I’m not a 65-year-old woman the boys respond to me like I am.
Gran is your oldest character yet. Is she also your saddest?
Even though Daniel and Nathan are our propulsion into the other worlds of Angry Boys, Gran is the heart of the story. She forms a close connection with ‘the Dog Wanker’ played by Taylor, a very quiet kid with whom I shared some weird moments. During some of their scenes together, the crew just lost it. People were crying all over the place. When that happens it’s amazing – much better than when people laugh, which I always find so uncomfortably showy-offy. People crying after a scene though… that’s when I know I’ve done something powerful.
Do the ABC, or even the crew, try to censor you in any way?br/> There’s stuff in this series people were uncomfortable shooting. There’s a scene where Jen’s young daughter, Cindi who’s about six, drinks from one of the big dick-shaped bottles Jen is marketing for Gay Style. The camera crew revolted at that, but I said: “Nah, you’ve got to do it.” “But that’s going too far!” “Nup, leave it in.” “You can’t, Chris – it’s so wrong.” And I had to say: “No. Film it. In fact, zoom in closer.”
But you’re an ex-childcare worker who studied teaching. Surely kids singing about ecstacy and drinking from phalluses is wrong…
Look, I’m making it sound ‘whatever’ but the scripts are approved by welfare and child protection agencies and the parents of the kids are always on set. I might play myself off as a rebel but I know the rules and I go to the edge but no further. Ultimately, I’m grateful the censors are as lenient as they are.
Angry Boys goes to air classified MA15+. Is that a fair rating?
We had the option of being M or MA and I went MA even though I succumbed on a couple of the pornography issues. Balls are OK but erections are a no-no so I had to extend the pixillation in a couple of scenes. I also dropped a couple of the ‘C-words’ to stay on at 9pm as well. Shit, I’m making it sound like I’m not a rebel anymore…
So what’s driving you to always “go further”?
Rebellion has always been a big driving force for me. I like to be a little different. Ultimately I’m just trying to entertain people and what I find entertaining is when I’m challenging status quos, pushing people to the edge. I’m not trying to be provocative and offensive for the sake of it but if you are offended… too bad.
One more question: is Chris Lilley an angry boy?
I get angry but I’m not now, and wasn’t ever, a particularly angry boy. This show is not autobiographical, it’s fiction… but I know the frustration of being a teenage boy, wanting to break free and be a big man… but still being a kid who lives in a bedroom next to his mum. Now I’ve got the ABC chief saying he’s “very, very nervous” about my new show and my mum saying: “Not as nervous as I am.” Poor mum. She saw the Angry Boys trailer and rang me: “Chris, I remember the spitting and farting and swearing but I don’t remember the balls coming out. Tell me I don’t need to check our family photos…”
Angry Boys screens on ABC1 from Wed 11 May, 9pm.