Tegan and Sara on Going Back to ‘High School’ and the ‘Universally Sh–ty’ Experience of Teen Angst
When Tegan and Sara Quin were pitching publishers on their tell-all memoir High School back in 2019, the pair knew their audience. Even if the people they were meeting with didn’t understand, the Canadian alt-pop duo had a very clear understanding of who their work was for.
“In general, we don’t get a lot of nuanced, layered stories about teen girls, especially queer ones,” Tegan recalls. “I loved that our story included that we were beating the crap out of each other and taking drugs and figuring out who we were as a blended family.”
With that understanding came a thought that Tegan simply couldn’t shake: “There were so many aspects that were just like, ‘God, this would be dope on television.'”
Now, three years after they published their tell-all tale of high school foibles, Tegan’s idea has been manifested into reality. High School, the eight-episode adaptation of their pair’s book, debuts on Amazon Freevee this Friday (Oct. 14). Executive produced by Clea DuVall and starring TikTok’s Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, the new show details the trials and tribulations faced by the twin sisters as they start grade 10 at a new high school in suburban Calgary in the early ’90s.
On first glance, it sounds like a niche story; the coming-of-age stories of two queer twins in the 1990s who would later go on to become internationally recognized indie artists seems like a plotline designed for a highly specified audience. But as the twins themselves tell it, that specificity gives way to a more ubiquitous idea within the first few minutes of the show.
“Yes, things have changed and gotten better, but it’s still very tough to be a queer person,” Tegan explains. “Because 95% of content is not made for us, and doesn’t represent us. Also, it’s just universally sh–ty to be a teenager, and we all go through that and can bond with that.”
DuVall certainly agrees — a long time friend of the duo, the actress-turned-director received an advanced copy of their memoir back in 2019 and was immediately struck by its potential. “It was the first time I had read something that really captured what my coming of age and coming out experience felt like,” she says. “I called Tegan the next day and was like, ‘I loved your book, do not sell the rights to a stranger. Please let me adapt this, that way you can still have a say in how your story is being represented.'”
One of the show’s cleverest achievements is creating a structure that places the focus squarely on the central duo — each 30-minute episode is bifurcated into two sections, each following one of the two twins’ perspectives. Giving both sisters their own time to shine meant finding a pair of actresses who could carry that responsibility comfortably.
Enter Railey and Seazynn Gilliland. Before High School, the TikTok stars were not actresses, nor were they musicians — two factors that, to most casting directors, would quickly disqualify them from starring in their a TV show about twin performers. But Sara says that the sisters had something that they weren’t going to find anywhere else.
“All the other stuff was all right there — to me, the charisma and the chemistry they had together, along with an audience already built in, was the needle in the haystack and we found it,” she explains, grinning. “They bring so much of themselves and their own experience both as siblings and as people in the world.”
Indeed, watching the first three episodes of the show, it’s hard to tell that the Gillilands are not trained actresses — their performances come alive with nuanced emotion and heart-shattering facial expressions that encapsulate everything the show is trying to say about the tortured life of two young women coming to terms with the world around them.
That’s why DuVall is quick to point out the enormity of the task the pair took on with these roles. “They worked their a–es off, by the way,” she says. “They were in acting bootcamp, and music bootcamp; they transformed themselves into people who could take this on. It was no small feat and they nailed it.”
In creating an authentic story of queer teenage drama, DuVall says she was hyper-intentional in making sure that the tone of the show was right. She didn’t want to give way to tropes of queer trauma or simplified queer joy; she wanted to create a simulacrum of the all-encompassing experience of growing up LGBTQ.
“There is something about that very specific kind of pain, loneliness and isolation that is very real and very true to that time, but then there’s always that sense of excitement and discovery and that there’s something on the other side,” she explains. “It’s understanding that feelings are transient.”
It’s also important to Tegan that the show doesn’t attempt to talk down to its audience with simplified messaging only meant for one specific group. “The show is written in a smart-enough way where it never patronizes or condescends to anyone,” she says. “Nobody is a victim of each others’ age, and so it just feels like anyone can watch the show; I do hope, that being said, that young people watch it and see themselves represented.”
Nailing the music was also a key part of getting the show “right.” For DuVall, that meant not only combing through Tegan and Sara’s massive back catalog to find punk-adjacent songs that fit the angst-riddled vibe of the struggling adolescent siblings, but also carefully selecting lesser-known indie rock jams to feature in the background.
“There was a feeling of discovery I wanted to create for kids who are seeing the show now who may only know one song from Nirvana,” she says. “You want to create that feeling of, ‘Oh, this is a song from that band who does that one song I like, here’s another one I haven’t heard of before.'”
In the midst of their new show premiering, Tegan and Sara are also going through a personal change — their new album Crybaby is due out everywhere on Oct. 21 via their new label home, Mom + Pop Records. Sara says that, much like the spirit of High School, the new record feels more “scrappy” than what they’ve done over the last few years.
“This is the first record we’ve made, I think, since our first independent record in 1999 that we just paid for ourselves and made without a label,” she explains. “We pretty much were just doing it solo, putting a bunch of songs together in a room with John Congleton. I just feel like it’s solid — I think we write great songs.”
As for the future of the show, Tegan already has her sights set. “I do hope that we get future seasons, because I think there’s so much exploration to be done of all the characters,” she says. “This is not just about Tegan and Sara — this is about the world around them that made them, that they experienced, where they learned how to be who they are.”