Three years ago in his mockumentary "Summer Heights High," Chris Lilley played a trio of characters at an Australian high school, including a flamboyant drama teacher and a mean society girl named Ja'mie.
Now Lilley is back with the even more ambitious "Angry Boys," a 12-episode showcase where he tackles a half-dozen personalities in an examination of boys and men who are misunderstood, self-deluding and typically at odds with the opposite sex. By turns painful, bitterly funny and illuminating, the series premieres on HBO on Sunday at 10 p.m. EST, with two half-hour episodes airing weekly.
Lilley's pantheon includes identical twins Nathan and Daniel Sims, an angry, constantly bird-flipping pair of 17-year-olds. They have a troubled dynamic: Nathan was left deaf and mentally addled by an accident, and Daniel, who loves him yet hates him for being disabled, teases Nathan cruelly while defending him against the rest of the world.
Lilley is also the boys' grandmother, Gran, a devoted but often inappropriate prison officer at the Sydney Garingal Juvenile Justice Center for teenage boys. To keep the mood light, Gran likes to play mean jokes, such as telling a young inmate his sentence has been cut by nine months, then yelping, "Gotcha!"
Another of Lilley's characters is S.mouse, a rich-kid rapper in Los Angeles who scores with an embarrassingly stupid novelty song and dance, "Slap My Elbow" ("You do it like thiiiiis," he raps on his video: "Slap my el, slap my bow, slap my elllllbooooooow"), but is bitter at his father's derision and, worse, his lack of hip-hop outlaw cred.
Lilley is Jen Okazaki, the soft-spoken and almost psychotically exploitative mother of an aspiring skateboarding champion whom she is bullying into the big time. And he is also a 38-year-old burned-out championship who lost his testicles to a stray bullet in a gang fight.
This spectrum of characters — and the geographic range they represent — speaks to the higher stakes for which Lilley (who created, wrote, co-produced and co-directed the series) is playing this time around.
Declaring "Summer Heights High" to be " contained and small," Lilley speculates his fans "figured they'd worked out my formula — find a work environment and throw in some characters — and expected my next series should be in a hospital or a police station. But a part of me wanted to rebel against that. I wanted to do something on a massive scale with a story that was woven together in a trickier way."
With its documentary format, "Angry Boys" seems to unfold spontaneously, but Lilley says it was tightly scripted, even storyboarded, before shooting started.
Lilley spent a year writing the series while scouting locations. Filming consumed seven months, and editing took a year after that.
"I don't make things easy for myself," he says, "but why give myself limitations? I don't need a deadline. I just work until it's ready."
On a recent visit to Manhattan from his native Melbourne, the 37-year-old Lilley is in T-shirt and jeans, with a day-old stubble on a cherubic face that can readily adapt to playing women as well as men, and youngsters as well as adults.
Unlike a chameleonic performer such as Tracey Ullman, who wildly transforms her appearance with makeup and costumes, Lilley keeps disguises to a minimum.
"A big part of the show is that it has the same person playing a number of the characters, so I don't want to be too disguised and made up," he says. "More important, I think you lose the expressive qualities of your face if you're covering it too much."
Bottom line: Lilley doesn't transform himself into his characters so much as channel them.
"People go, 'You're a great mimic,' which I sort of hate to hear because it's never my motivation," he says. "I'm not even that fussy about accents. I love writing the characters, I think about them a lot, and then they're just there."
Stepping into fantasy identities began early for him. He and a childhood friend would act out scenes when they were walking around.
"All of a sudden I'd launch into a character, my friend would go along with it, and the story would sort of evolve," recalls Lilley. "Or we would exchange long letters as the characters, so we could rely less on improv and really think the story through.
"It's exactly what I'm doing now."
Lilley, who had early success playing five characters on his 2005 series, "We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year," claims to have no interest in roles that don't inhabit a universe he masterminded.
"Most of what I'm doing is on the writing and producing side," claims Lilley, apparently a social anthropologist as much as entertainer. "I don't think of myself as an actor-for-hire."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier