In 2019, Canadian alternative music duo Tegan and Sara released their New York Times best-selling memoir titled “High School,” which detailed their experiences not in their musical success, but in growing up as queer teens in the ‘90s. Now, three years later, they have teamed up with long-time collaborator Clea DuVall to bring those stories to the screen with Amazon’s Freevee in their new series, High School.
During a press junket last month, Tegan and Sara, as well as their mini-me’s Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, sat down to discuss the making of High School, the legacy of the band, and creating a positive experience on such a queer set.
High School follows Tegan (Railey Gilliland) and Sara (Seazynn Gilliland) as they navigate sexuality, sisterhood, and music, all while trying to survive high school in the mid-1990s. Kicking off in the aftermath of a particularly transformative summer, High School finds Tegan and Sara at odds, growing apart as they face major life challenges alone. However, that all changes when they discover a guitar in their basement, jump starting a journey of musical development as they find their way back to each other. It’s an extremely intimate look at the two sisters, but still feels grounded and universal.
“I think our story is really unique, but there’s so many universals about it. Everyone’s an adolescent, everyone struggles [...] and I’m just glad we got to tell our story, and that people are relating,” Tegan said of adapting their story for TV. The universal aspect of the series even aided in the performances of High School’s stars, who are new to television, “I had a little bit of myself [in the role] and that made it easier [...] I related to Tegan,” said Railey. “It doesn’t feel as if it’s just Sara’s experiences, they could be anybody else’s,” added Seazynn, “It really just felt as if I was, for the most part, playing things that I had gone through.”
While most biopics favor the glamor of the most successful parts of a musician’s life, High School explores the humble origins of this band, spending numerous episodes on their lives before writing music is even a factor. “It’s like, ‘Why would we want to go back and look at how Tegan and Sara became Tegan and Sara? That’s boring, let’s talk about them when they became successful,’” Sara joked of the limited scope of the series, “Getting to work on this project has allowed us to go back and really honor the young versions of ourselves that were so confident and charismatic. I really learned to find young Tegan and Sara awesome.”
When DuVall came to the duo with the idea to adapt their memoir into a series, the answer was easy. “It was super important to Sara and I that it be a woman to develop the show with us, and the fact that it ended up being a friend, and someone who grew up in the ‘90s and was queer was like icing on the cake,” Tegan said of working with DuVall. “For me and Tegan, we really are surrendering a lot of control to Clea [...] there’s a lot of trust that’s required,” Sara said. “I can’t even imagine having worked on the show with anybody else.” DuVall acts as executive producer, co-showrunner, co-writer, and director of 6 of 8 episodes, and in wearing all those hats, Tegan remarked, “I’ve done a lot with her, but never like this [...] she’s been incredible, she’s a powerhouse, and I’m so proud of her.”
High School, even removed from the Tegan and Sara name, is an incredibly unique show, especially in its queer representation—in front of and behind the camera. The series is written by, starring, and about queer women. In discussing the experience of working on a show so steeped in queerness in nearly every facet, Railey gushed about her time on set, “It was so awesome just to feel so comfortable around all of these people [...] we’re all so similar, and I just felt so lucky to be able to work with everyone.” Though Railey also acknowledged that a set like High School’s was likely not the norm, “People have mentioned to me that it’s not always the way that we got to have it, and I feel so lucky for the environment that we had.”
On the other side of the camera, Tegan and Sara themselves made it their goal to ensure everyone had a fulfilling and enjoyable experience while making High School. ”Tegan and I, when we started out, we had lots of really good experiences, but we also had a lot of bad experiences, and part of the mission we’ve had in our career, as we’ve become more successful and gained more power in our job, was to help build spaces and communities that are welcoming and safe [...] Even if the show was terrible—it’s not, it’s amazing—all I really cared about was that Seazynn and Railey had a good first experience in this environment,” Sara said, “It would break my heart to think that anyone didn’t enjoy their time.”
Elaborating on the on-set environment, Tegan added, “I found it super moving, it was incredible—there were so many women on set, there were so many people who identify as LGBTQ, which was really cool [...] It was super important to us that the leads of the show identify somewhere on the spectrum in terms of LGBTQ, that felt important to us. It wasn’t like it had to be that way—in the early days, we were like ‘we hope that they’re twins!’” Tegan continued, “It helps when you have a ton of people who have had a similar experience developing a show based on your life about that experience, so that you don’t accidentally do something that doesn’t feel real and genuine, so it felt really true to life.”
Whether you’re new to Tegan and Sara, or have been a lifelong fan, High School is a unique and heartfelt take on the high school drama, showcasing queerness, connection, and teenage girlhood on a backdrop of a ‘90s that feels free from the confines of rose-colored nostalgia. “What, to me, always felt like a story that wasn’t worth sharing or telling people has become so integral and important to the legacy of our band,” Sara shares. On finally putting this project out into the world, Tegan said, “I’m proud of the whole cast, everybody just brought their best everyday. The crew was incredible, shooting in Calgary was amazing, it’s all positives.”
High School airs its first four episodes Friday, October 14th on Amazon Freevee, with subsequent episodes airing weekly.
Anna Govert is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and the wonderful insanity of Riverdale, you can follow her @annagovert.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.