Becoming ‘Jonah from Tonga’ with Chris Lilley

Chris Lilley is back. His newest show, Jonah from Tonga, premieres on HBO tomorrow night. The six-episode series follows Summer Heights High’s Jonah Takalua as he returns to school in Australia after being expelled from Summer Heights and sent to Tonga.

As in his previous shows Angry Boys, Summer Heights High, and Ja’mie: Private School Girl, Lilley wrote, produced, directed, and stars in Jonah from Tonga. With an all-new cast of supporting characters, the documentary-style series explores rebellious Jonah’s hilarious attempts at being a “good boy,” which take him both to prison and a singing competition.

I got to talk to Lilley about Jonah from Tonga, why he likesmaking documentary-style comedies, and the popularity of “quiche.”

What made you want to return to Jonah as a character?

I just love the character. I really missed him. The last time he appeared was in Summer Heights High, so it was the idea of being able to expand on the story, learn more about his family, his life, just to extend on it. In Summer Heights High I was a bit bound by the idea that it was all set in one place. I wanted to just see more.

Did you always plan to start the first episode in Tonga and pick up where Summer Heights High left off?

Yeah, I thought that was where people last saw him so it was a nice situation. I wanted for the series to connect, to leap from one to the other.

Was that actually shot in Tonga?

No, film tricks. We did go out of Australia to do it because I wanted it to be quite authentic, real Tongan people. A lot of them didn’t really speak English that well. That was a fun part of the shoot, trying to do all those things.

Did you do any sort of research for the show?

Yeah, always I try to make my shows really accurate. I’ve always been interested in that part of the culture in Australia. I know a lot of people that have been to Tonga. We’ll start writing with lots of people and I sort of do the casting and writing process at the same time. I get to know the families and I think if they watch it and see how accurate it is, then it’s going to be funny for everyone. It was fun researching all the music and the way a family would behave and stuff. I love all that stuff.

How did you approach creating and casting all the new characters, especially Jonah’s family?

Well, it’s hard to find Pacific Islander people in Australia who are really willing to get involved. Not that they’re not willing, but you don’t go to the local agency and find a bunch of Tongan people. They’re just not in that scene so much. So I had a really cool casting director Kate Leonard who started on it really early and went to a lot of Pacific Islander events and community groups and started to meet people which was great because then she had a bunch of contacts whenever I needed. Tiny little things, language and music and all the hymns I sing are really accurate. And then dressing the house, we found that house empty, and we had to refer to all the people we met to find out what kinds of things they’d have on the wall, on the floor. Details, I love all that, making sure it’s realistic.

You’ve talked in the past about working with non-actors. The characters of Kool Kris and Mr. Joseph are real standouts. Did they have acting experience? How did you find them?

Yeah, not a lot, they’d done a little bit of stuff. With those two characters, the setup to Jonah is always that the adults around him are trying to fix him and stuff. So I wanted him to have relationships with adults that were really different than what he had in Summer Heights High so I’m not repeating myself. So I wrote the Mr. Joseph character and then it was really hard to find someone who could naturally be like that becuase he’s so extreme, the things he says, and so tough. I ended up getting a guy, he was actually a policeman, but he had a bit of acting experience, had done a few appearances and things. Doug Bowles, it was quite an experience. He was good with all the physical stuff, like pushing down the desk. It’s hard to find – I went to a lot of teachers, men in authority but they seem to have it but when you put the camera on them, they can’t maintain it. It was the hardest character to cast.

And Kool Kris, I really wanted a Tongan guy who had a soft side to him. That guy [Uli Latukefu] had done a bit of acting training. He didn’t really need anything. He was great.

You kind of play back and forth with Jonah’s evolution: you think he’s reforming, then he’s not, then he is. What decisions went into building his character arc for the show?

I guess it was the idea that he’s always been a documentary subject that hasn’t been that willing to participate in a documentary. He’s kind of just been there and he’s happy for the cameras be on him but he’s not going to say too much. Like a lot of my characters, Ja’mie for example, would sit down and tell you everything, she’ll tell her story. So I have to kind of have all the adults and teachers and everyone trying to tell his story. A lot of Pacific Islander kids are in prison in Australia for some reason, I don’t know why, but it’s a problem so I thought it would be cool to explore that idea that he was probably going to end up going to jail. And it seems extreme, the mentality, but it’s how it is in a lot of prisons in Australia with a lot of Pacific Islanders. So it was just that thing that you know at the end of every episode that no matter what steps they take forward with him he’s still the same kid and he’s not going to fit into the system. And it’s kind of funny how serious everyone takes him. They’re just trying so hard but he’s just an ADD kid who’s not listening and wants to show off.

Yeah, how he interacts with the documentary is really interesting. Why do you prefer the mockumentary format?

I guess I just started doing that. I used to do a sketch show before my first series on my own and all my sketches I’d always write them in that [format]. I think it’s the idea that I can create a character and put them in a real environment. When the audience is watching, that’s a huge part of the jokes: he’s in this real world, everyone’s believing that he’s real. I feel like the audience is comfortable having that sort of strict world around it. You justify everything by how a documentary would have covered it. When you’re telling cameras where to go and stuff it’s always about, “Well, what would the documentary capture here?” I just think it’s really funny to watch. I just like it.

Do you edit the show at all differently for HBO versus the original version?

No, it’s exactly the same. HBO is really good, they don’t have a lot of input because they want to let me just do whatever my vision is. That was part of the deal, “You can do what you want.” So they don’t make any changes.

How do you think high school has changed the most since you were in high school? What stays the same that you’re still able to create relevant shows about high schoolers?

I don’t think it’s changed all that much. I went to a really different school than Jonah. Apart from kids walking around with Facebook and stuff it seems like the situations are really similar. It’s a certain stage in life that seems to be the same no matter when it happens. I haven’t noticed huge differences. When I went to school there were a bunch of girls just like Ja’mie and it was really easy to replicate that. And there were boys, I didn’t go to school with Tongan kids, but there were boys just like Jonah in my classes. I don’t think it’s changed all that much. Subtle things, maybe. Like kids swear a lot more than they used to. I get people who say I swear too much, but we’ll go into any playground in Australia and that’s what I’m hearing. I’m replicating exactly what I’m hearing, and that’s how they speak.  

Ja’mie: Private School Girl was your first show where you only played one character. How did your experience with that influence this show?

Yeah, I kind of had the idea at the same time that I wanted to do both shows. It was really fun because there’s so many challenges of trying to link all the characters and trying to mix them up. So doing one is really great because you can just get into the character. The show starts and you know you’re not going anywhere else. I thought it was going to be a breeze, like one character’s easy, you don’t have to write any others, but you still have to fill that amount of screen time with one character. And you don’t have the luxury of being able to jump to another environment and go suddenly, “Meanwhile…” and go somewhere else. You have to keep moving and driving along, so it was trickier than I expected for both shows.

I hear people use povo and quiche all the time now. Have you noticed that at all, whether in the US or Australia?

Yeah, the quiche thing has been huge, particularly in the US. The US is where all the t-shirts and hoodies are. I think Lindsay Lohan was pushing the quiche thing. I’ve seen it everywhere. Even in England I saw it, in some markets they had t-shirts. It’s funny because you never know what’s going to take off and for some reason that was something that connected. It’s so ridiculous but it’s really cool.

You’ve spoken in the past about not being concerned with political correctness. Why do you think the reaction to Jonah from Tonga has been different than the reaction to the character in Summer Heights High?

Maybe there’s just more attention on it, I don’t know. Maybe it’s more focused on one character so they’re trying to find something to say. I just focus on what the fans think, and I try to make it as much about directly between me and the fans. Any other opinions, any negative things that are said are usually media-driven, just trying to think of something to say. I don’t get that from the real people that watch the show. I’ve gotten great reactions. I’m not sure, maybe it’s also the more you’re around the more people are like, “What are you doing now?” They want to find something. When you’re the fresh new thing everyone’s like, “Oh wow, he’s doing something cool.” But then they’re like, “Oh, well what’s he doing now?” Even if it might be just as great or even better they want to rip it apart. But mostly I don’t read much stuff, the fan reaction’s been really great.

You’ve definitely created a bit of a niche for yourself. What has influenced that? Are you inspired by other comedians at all?

Yeah, I like a lot of stuff but I’m never like, “I want to be that person.” I’m striving to do something really unique most of the time so I don’t have certain comedy heroes but I do appreciate other people’s stuff. I think the stuff that I appreciate the most is when I can see that it’s really creative-driven and someone’s had a vision for something. Like I was watching Ricky Gervais’ Derek the other day. I love that he had an idea and saw it through and directed it. I’m interested in those kinds of creative people. They’re not trying to please a network executive that’s like, “Cool, we’re into dwarves this year, let’s make a show about dwarves.” It’s not trying to guess what an audience wants, it’s someone’s vision. That’s the stuff that’s the best.

Totally, the best stuff comes from what individuals want to do. And so far what you’ve done is miniseries, one-off seasons, do you have a desire to do longer stuff or maybe film at all?

Yeah, I really like the freedom of being able to jump to another thing. They’re all connected anyway, so I think of everything I do as the next season. They’re all connected, they’re all woven together. So it’s kind of like I’ve done five seasons. It’s also a different system in Australia, it’s a little bit more like the UK system where the one-off series is quite common. You guys are more into trying to get a long-running series. It’s also more challenging because I write it all by myself so it’s not like I can be shooting while a team of people put it together. I think I’m really still very interested in the handcrafted, small things where you don’t have to please too many people. But I’m open to new ideas, so maybe one day I would be interested in doing something in a longer format. I’ve thought about films, but I love having people reached with television and the nature of it, that you can watch 25 minutes and then wait for the next week. You can have a break and come back, I like that format a bit more than film.

What’s next for you otherwise? Fans are always asking if there’s a Mr. G spin-off coming…

I was thinking about ideas and stuff. I’ve thought about something new and I haven’t committed to anything. The Jonah show was really hectic and I’m just having little break, thinking about what’s next. Maybe Mr. G. I love Mr. G, but I don’t want to rush into something just because it’s sort of expected of me. So I might just hold out for something new, if some other exciting plot comes along.

Becoming ‘Jonah from Tonga’ with Chris Lilley