On Tuesday evening, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at UCLA regarding “Please Like Me” and its depictions of mental health issues. Josh Thomas and Thomas Ward were panelists, along with Juliette Virzi from the UCLA Chapter of Active Minds (activeminds.org) and Peter Kassel, a psychologist and professor at UCLA. The conversation was lively and engaging, and the topics ranged from Thomas Ward’s self-proclaimed chubby cheeks to resources for college students dealing with mental illness. Unfortunately I do not have audio or video from the panel.
Thankfully, the good folks at Pivot and Participant Media gave me a one-on-one interview with Josh Thomas that same night. It is a rare treat to talk face-to-face with a celebrity that you admire, so I took all the precautions to keep my fanaticism to the bare minimum.
/bent: Season 2 began about a year or two years after the events of Season 1. What made you start Season 3 immediately after the finale?
Josh Thomas: I just thought that’s where the story was. I just feel like there was stuff to do straightaway. Last time I feel like Season 1 finished and all the story that would lead on immediately afterward would be a bit of a drag. I don’t want to see people talking more about Peg dying or anything like that. Also I wanted to give Mum and her mental illness some time so it’s settled in. By the time we filmed Season 1 then went on to film Season 2, I just felt like I was getting pretty old and I wanted the characters to be a bit older, whereas this season, I felt like the story was “What happened with Josh and Arnold?” and could lead on pretty easily.
/bent: Along with the Josh-Arnold plotline, were there any lingering questions or lingering plotlines that you wanted to address?
Josh Thomas: The two big things were Josh and Arnold, and Josh and Dad. I feel like they didn’t spend much time together, I put so much time into Josh and Mum, and it’s so central. Josh and Dad have always been a bit weird to each other, so I wanted to make them chat.
/bent: One of the biggest questions – I’m sure you still get this all the time – is John still the star of the show and is his ego out of proportion?
Josh Thomas: He’s gotten really grumpy. He’s getting older – he’s 9 or something even though he doesn’t look a day over 3, but he’s pretty old. His work in Episode 1 is stunning, just a really beautiful performance when Arnold walks away and a really beautiful performance in the bath. He really brings it, that guy, His performance is inspiring in how honest it is. His continuity is incredible, better than mine. He’s learned rolling over, the slate and everything – he’s learned that now, so he started acting a bit weird after “Action” because he knows that’s about to happen. He learned “Cut,” like he knows that means everyone is going to start talking again, so often when the director yells, “Cut,” he’ll start barking. It’s really weird. Because it has happened so many times, he’s learned “Action” and “Cut,” and in the middle he’s a bit weird.
/bent: Like motor memory.
Josh Thomas: Yeah, like dogs if you do things over and over again, that’s just what they learn. There were a few weeks where he was annoying during “Action,” then he sorta realized he needed to do what he was told.
/bent: It’s like a Pavlovian thing
Josh Thomas: Yeah, he does that with “Action” and “Cut,” so he seems like an actor.
/bent: With the show, do you have more autonomy at the network? Do you have more power than before?
Josh Thomas: I mean I have always had a lot, I don’t think I could have more. I think we were at peak autonomy. They are pretty happy to let me do what I like. They just intervene when they think something’s offensive, and then we have big arguments about whether or not something is offensive.
/bent: In terms of language or content?
Josh Thomas: Like I wanted my character to use the word “fag,” and they said, “You can’t use the word, ‘fag.’” That’s a big ethical discussion. I’ve had to compromise, it’s the only times, otherwise they’re pretty cool. Both networks are pretty happy to let me do whatever. They’re taking risks.
/bent: In this season do you have a bigger budget? It seems like you have a lot more songs you’re using, like Sia’s “Chandelier.”
Josh Thomas: It’s the same budget as Season 1, it never changed. It’s surprising what things cost, you can never really tell from watching something how much it will cost. Last season, there were all these things that were so expensive, so I didn’t realize that this season wasn’t that expensive. So we had the money to spend on songs.
/bent: So we’re going to expect more renditions of T Swift and Sia?
Josh Thomas: I think there’s an Adele sing-a-long coming, and then I think we might be out for the season. There’s three, I think: Sixpence None the Richer, Sia, and Adele.
/bent: Yeah the last time I asked you a question about royalty free music and you said T Swift and Sia would be you ideal songs.
Josh Thomas: Yeah, we rarely use their actual tracks, so it’s a lot cheaper.
/bent: You’re just paying them for writing the song.
Josh Thomas: It’s half price.
/bent: Now in terms of Tom’s character…he got pretty dark toward the end of Season 2 following certain events. It seems like in Season 3, some of that is bubbling over like with him building the cardboard city and not knowing why. Are we going to explore more of Tom’s psyche and his emotions?
Josh Thomas: Not really. He was just in a bad mood that night. He’s there and he’s evolved, but he doesn’t have a huge arc. You’ll see.
/bent: I do appreciate the structure of the show thus far where – not to take away from you – but your character sometimes falls to the background and sometimes becomes the middleman between other stories. Does that mean that this season we are going to explore a lot more of the characters like Hannah and Arnold?
Josh Thomas: In Season 1, I was in almost every scene and now we’re spreading it out. Yeah, it’s always weird how little my character has going on. We try to give him things to do that are his problem, but it doesn’t always work that way. I don’t really think he’s that interesting of a character.
/bent: I do think he’s interesting, but looking from my perspective of looking at queer characters, you always get that narrative where the gayness has to be the narrative catalyst. Either they’re coming out or they’re coming to terms with their sexuality or they’re doing something.
Josh Thomas: Like finding a boy that just doesn’t want sex. Like, “Why is a gay scene like this and why is it doing this to me?”
/bent: With this show, it’s like the sexuality is accepted in the First Season, then afterward it’s just universal problems.
Josh Thomas: It’s just not that interesting to do, you know? It doesn’t come up that much in my day-to-day life that I’m gay. People don’t mention it that much, so it’s not mentioned that much in the show. I think it’s okay to have shows where gayness is a big thing. I think there are people where being gay is a big part of their life, it’s just not – for me – that way.
/bent: The last time I interviewed you, you said that one of your hopes was to write an episode where it was just a flashback to high school with no warning or anything. Did you still want to write that episode, or are there any other story goals you have?
Josh Thomas: Everyone thinks it’s a bad idea. I think it would be fun. I think it would be fun to write, but it would be impossible to film. If we could find a way to do it, it would be fun.
/bent: Are there any other types of stories you want to write? Like a themed episode or guest stars you want to have on the show?
Josh Thomas: No…do you have any ideas?
/bent: An episode with a bunch of silly hats.
Josh Thomas: I think we actually did that one. Claire has a silly hat, I think it was a costume episode. I’ve done a lot, you know?
/bent: Yeah, I’ve been reliving the episodes with friends who have never seen it. It’s getting a gaggle of gays together with a bunch of wine to watch the show.
Josh Thomas: That’s good.
/bent: With the depictions of mental health, what I appreciate is that there is a lot more nuance and– like with the gay characters – not making their mental health issues a narrative catalyst, but exploring them. With Arnold, there’s his anxiety, with Rose, her manic episodes, with Hannah, there are these spurts of trying to get close to her, and with Ginger, her whole character arc and her preparation. In this season, since we are going to explore a lot more characters, have you done more research on mental illness?
Josh Thomas: No. We did a little into anxiety because of Arnold, but we did a lot the last time around to set up his character. I feel like we have a pretty good understanding of it. And Hannah writes her own character because she’s depressed. I think she’s done a ton of research. With Mum, I had my mum so we didn’t do extra research. But there isn’t much story about it. They’re not in a psychiatric hospital anymore, so there’s not as much plot about mental health. They’re just living now. I mean Hannah hitting herself is a pretty big deal.
/bent: Let’s see…
Josh Thomas: You have nice handwriting.
/bent: Yeah, I got complaints because I took a “Diversity Training Course” that separated us into “Millennials,” “Baby Boomers,” and “Generation X.” And so everyone was complaining that my generation has terrible handwriting because we don’t know cursive and we don’t know anything about anything.
Josh Thomas: So it was making fun of young people.
/bent: Pretty much, but back to the show. Have you received good feedback from viewers and advocacy groups regarding what you are trying to do with the show?
Josh Thomas: Yeah it’s been really positive. Sometimes I get letters from people asking for help with their mental health, and I’m just like, “Oh no, I’m the wrong guy. You need to not ask me because that character in the show is not doing a very good job and he is based on me.” I think mostly people have responded to the fact that it feels quite real, which is what we are trying to do. There’s an episode with me and Mum where we talk about why she attempted suicide and I feel like, for a lot of people, that was a really interesting conversation to hear. A lot of have had someone attempt suicide and they have got quite angry. This showed a different point of view, which I’m really happy because that’s what I wanted to do.
/bent: Have you accomplished most of the goals you set out for creating the show? Are there still things you’re looking to accomplish?
Josh Thomas: No. I think I’ve done everything I wanted to do…I always wish it was a bit funnier.
/bent: Have you seen a difference in reception from American audiences and Australian audience? And now it’s going to be in Canada.
Josh Thomas: Yeah, it’s been in Canada. It’s been so remarkably similar in every country, which I don’t know that there’s anything in the show that’s specifically Australian or specifically American or specifically Canadian. It played in Israel and it played in Germany. Everyone seems to take the same things away from it, which has kinda surprised me. I didn’t think the stuff was universal, I thought it was a lot more centric. I thought I was a lot more centric, but everyone’s been a lot more comfortable with it.
/bent: With the universal, the more specific you get – rather than generalized – the more you tap into issues and themes that people can all relate to. One of my favorite movies, Weekend from 2011, is so specific to those two characters rather than trying to say, “Here’s Gay Man 1 and here’s Gay Man 2 in a generic plot line.” It becomes more real. I wanted to claim ownership and say, “This is my movie and this is my experience,” but everyone had a similar experience.
Josh Thomas: Yeah, that’s interesting.
/bent: Have you been enjoying your time in LA?
Josh Thomas: I’ve had the best fun. I’ve been here with my mum. This is the first time I’ve not been standing next to my mum for like a week. She’s had the craziest time. She vomited off the Empire State Building. The other night at ink Restaurant, she did CPR on a man…and it worked. So crazy! It’s been the craziest trip.
/bent: I’m expecting that’s going be a storyline in the show.
Josh Thomas: I don’t think either of those would be a good storyline in the show. They’re fun things to happen, like vomiting off the Empire State Building is a glorious thing to watch, but I don’t think it’s a particularly interesting storyline. You wouldn’t really believe it. Would you?
/bent: I don’t believe half of the things my family does, but somehow they happen.
Josh Thomas: Sometimes these cool things happen.
/bent: The clichéd question: Have you been to West Hollywood?
Josh Thomas: Yeah, I know West Hollywood very well. My mum knows West Hollywood very well. She spent a lot of dollar bills at the Abbey. That’s where we always stay. I love that there’s a Starbucks there where there are just homosexual men. I’ve never seen a café where there are just homosexuals. I’ve been in bars, but I’ve never seen a café like that. I saw one pregnant woman there and I presumed she was a surrogate. There was no way else she would have been in that Starbucks. There are – on the street – there are people who aren’t gay, but everyone in that Starbucks, everyone is a homosexual man.
/bent: From Thursday evening to Monday early morning, it’s pretty much all gay people.
Josh Thomas: Except for the Abbey. The Abbey is filled with straight people. Gentrifying.
/bent: Anything you want to tell your fans. Any tidbits?
Josh Thomas: Do people ever say anything to this question? I always get asked, “Is there anything you want to add?”
/bent: It’s usually like a job interview question, like “Do you have any questions for me?”
Josh Thomas: Yeah, it’s all about manners. Do people say, like, “The show’s on at this time and this and this.”
/bent: It’s usually when you do a panel that people do that.
Josh Thomas: Yeah, I’ve never had anything I want to add. Maybe I’ll start finding things to add.
Please Like Me airs at 10 PM ET/PT on Pivot. Watch a clip from tonight’s episode here: