Chatting With Clea DuVall, Cobie Smulders, and Laura Kittrell About Tegan and Sara’s “High School” TV Show

When Tegan and Sara finished their 2019 memoir, High School, and sent it to their longtime friend Clea DuVall, she called them up and told them: a) she loved it, and b) not to sell the rights to anyone else. She told them if they were ever going to make a TV series or a movie about their lives, they’d want creative control. Tegan and Sara listened — and three years later, they’re getting ready to launch their television show based on their book into the world, written and directed by Clea and queer writer Laura Kittrell.

The series, which lands on Amazon Freevee this Friday, stars newcomers Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, queer twins Tegan discovered on TikTok, as the world’s most famous gay duo. Their mom, Simone, who is heavily featured in their memoir and still a huge part of their lives, is played by Cobie Smulders. The show is jam-packed full of coming of age relatability, ’90s nostalgia, and so much delightful gay teen angst. (I can call it delightful because, like Tegan and Sara, I’m in my 40s now.) I had a chance to chat with Clea and Laura, and also with Cobie and Kyle Bornheimer, who plays stepdad Patrick, about the joys and challenges of making a series about very famous, very gay, very real pop stars.

Clea DuVall and Laura Kittrell

A three-split Zoom screen of Heather Hogan, Clea Duvall, and Laura Kittrell

Heather Hogan: It seems like a daunting task to make a series about these beloved real life human beings, whom you know. Clea, you pitched the show to them, is that right?

Clea DuVall: Yeah, yeah! I read their book and fell in love with it and could just so clearly see it as a television show. Also Tegan and Sara being my friends, I just felt so protective of them and protective of their story and protective of the people in their lives, and didn’t want them to just sign it away to a stranger and have no say in it. I really wanted them to feel good about how their story was being portrayed, but it was daunting. We’ve been friends for 15 years and we could have gone through this experience and they could have been like, “Nope, no more. Sorry, you ruined it! You took our beautiful book and you totally screwed it up. Great job.” But luckily that was not their reaction, but probably a lot because I found Laura.

Heather Hogan: How did you become part of this series, Laura?

Laura Kittrell: I heard about the show when everybody else heard about it. So I was very excited just as a fan of everybody. And then I think maybe a year after that, Clea had already written the first two scripts and she’d outlined the third, and my agents had sent it to me and said that they were looking for somebody to work with Clea on the show. And so I read the scripts and I read the book and I was like, “This is a disaster. They need me. They need me. I got to save it. I got to get in there.” No, I’m obviously kidding. It was incredible. Everything that I already loved about the book and felt so seen by, with the book, Clea just enhanced even more in her scripts. And I just was like, “I’m just thrilled to watch this regardless.” And the fact that I am now working on it is a little surreal still.

Heather Hogan: That’s amazing. What are some things from the book that you knew you needed to bring to the screen? And were there any things that were like, “No, we can’t touch that.” 

Clea DuVall: There were definitely certain things that were in the book that Tegan and Sara did not want in the show. And we wanted to always make sure that what we were portraying, they felt comfortable with. For me, I really wanted to capture how internal their experience is — especially in the ’90s, of coming of age and discovering your sexuality was so nuanced, it was so internal and it was quiet. It was a quieter experience. And just sort navigating all these feelings you’re having. Even as you’re doing things that are very clearly pointing you in a certain direction, how you’re still kind of like, “But what does it mean? What does it really mean?” When I read it in the book, I just felt very seen by it and thought that it would be such a great thing to explore and capture in a television show.

Heather Hogan: Right.

Laura Kittrell: I think the greatest compliment we’ve gotten — I heard it when we screened at the Toronto International Film Festival — was somebody in the audience was saying how happy they were to see a show that wasn’t cynical at all. And I’m happy that’s coming across. Is it, I don’t know if it is obnoxious to repeat your own compliments?

Heather Hogan: It’s absolutely not obnoxious, and I agree with this person. 

Clea DuVall: This is just Laura all the time. She’s like, “Someone said my new shirt was nice. What do you think?”

Heather Hogan: Just reading and quoting those Rotten Tomatoes reviews to herself. 

Clea DuVall: “The guy at Whole Foods loves my shirt!”

Heather Hogan: I think my favorite thing about the show, because I was a teenager in the ’90s too, is that you really found this fascinating balance between getting into the head space of being a queer teen in that time period, but also bringing a real 2022 representation sensibility to the series. It seems impossible, but it works so well. Can you talk about the merging of those two realities? 

Clea DuVall: We really wanted the show to feel timeless. We never wanted it to be winking at the audience and being like “The ’90s? Remember Xena?” We wanted it to feel like a show that could be now, or it could be that 30 years ago. It was purity of story was always what our drive driving force was. I think that’s how that was created.

Heather Hogan: If you need to get into a nineties head space, right this second, what album would you go to?

Clea DuVall: I think Hole’s “Live Through This” or PJ Harvey’s “Dry.”

Heather Hogan: Very nice.

Laura Kittrell: Yeah, my driving around CD was always “Okay Computer” by Radiohead.

Heather Hogan: Oh wow you were so cool so young, Laura. What are you both hoping people connect with most about the series?

Laura Kittrell: I think it’s maybe different for different people. My connection to it was really from a queer lens. This felt like so much my own high school experience was with my friends and my romantic relationships. It made me very excited to put that out there. I grew up in the South as I think you did based on your accent.

Heather Hogan: Yes, this is Georgia you hear. 

Laura Kittrell: I didn’t know any gay people in high school. TV was incredibly important to me because it was where I was meeting gay people for the first time. But then we’ve had friends who watched the show who are middle aged men who love the stepdad and that’s their entry point. I’m happy that we have different entry points for different people.

Heather Hogan: Can you talk a little bit about your casting process? It was a little unconventional. 

Laura Kittrell: Well, Tegan’s algorithm provided her with a video of Railey, who plays Tegan. And so Tegan and Sara sent us some videos that Railey and Seazynn had done together and said, “What do you think?” We had been auditioning people who were great. I think most of them were probably not queer, because I don’t think that finding queer twins was quite as easy as we thought it would be somehow.

And so Railey and Seazynn had no acting experience and we were a little, “I don’t know how this is going to go.” They met with an acting coach for a week, came in, auditioned with us, just like blew us away. It was incredible. Basically went into boot camp, taking acting lessons, taking music lessons, working so hard. I mean, having to carry an entire show on their backs, basically. Coming from working at a pizza place in Fresno, this is not an easy job that we have given them. They’ve just surpassed our expectations and I’m so happy for people to get to see them on the show.

Heather Hogan: That’s amazing.

Clea DuVall: They’re Incredible. I am so proud of them and just love them so much.

Cobie Smulders and Kyle Bornheime

A three-split Zoom screen of Heather Hogan, Cobie Smulders, and Kyle

Heather Hogan: Cobie, It is really important for me to tell you, you’re a lesbian icon. I’ve had like 50 people tell me in the last three days that you didn’t know that.

Cobie Smulders: Maybe you can help me understand this. I found out about this at TIFF a couple weekends ago, and I don’t why. Maybe I just met my husband too early in the game, you know what I mean? And it could’ve been a very different path for me if I had the right woman. It’s very true.

Heather Hogan: And also, you could be married to a man and still be lesbian icon! My friends call Halloween Cobie Smulders Season because you can go as Maria Hill, you can go as Stumptown’s Dax Parios, as Robin Sparkles. Now we’re adding this Mommi gayness to it.

Cobie Smulders: Oh my gosh.

Kyle Bornheimer: Obi Wan.

Cobie Smulders: All you basically need for all of those characters is a pair jeans and a t-shirt.

Heather Hogan: Well, now we’re getting to an answer. 

Cobie Smulders: Amazing.

Heather Hogan: I want to ask you both: How familiar were you with Tegan and Sara before you started working on the show?

Cobie Smulders: Well, I grew up in Canada, so I was very familiar with them, have loved their music for a very long time. And there is a rule in Canada, I’m going to get the percentage wrong, but it’s something like 60% of the music played on the radio has to be Canadian content. So there’s like certain people listening to Tegan and Sara on the radio, Alanis Morissette, all of these people, they’re the biggest musicians in the world. Their songs are literally playing on a loop and then you leave Canada and you’re like, “Oh, they’re still playing” — and people know them, but they’re not like as known as they are to me. I didn’t obviously know them personally, I didn’t know the amazing story that they wrote in their biography. So I discovered that when the show happened. But I find it pretty cool that I have their email addresses.

Heather Hogan: What about you, Kyle?

Kyle Bornheimer: I also find it very cool that I have their email addresses. When you’re an actor and you can find yourself associated with rock stars, you feel very cool. Because as cool as we think we are as actors, we don’t have anything on rock stars. So I feel cool just being in their presence. I was familiar with a lot of their bigger songs and because I have kids that were young when The Lego Movie came out. So Tegan and Sara were able to check a couple cool boxes for me when I took this job on.

And like Cobie said, I did not know their full story. I really read their book in one sitting because it was written in such a revealing way. And they really just opened themselves up. And I found that I was really taken with not only their story: how they didn’t paint themselves as saintly; they were just human beings, struggling like we all do. And sometimes being brats about it and sometimes being their best selves about it. In high school years, where it’s very hard to be your best self. We’re all just brats during that time. And they shared that with us.

Heather Hogan: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things I love about the show is how queer it is — but there are other places for people to get invested. And a lot of that has to do with your characters who have really fulfilling arcs, even outside of Tegan and Sara’s main storyline. Can each of you talk a bit about your characters? 

Cobie Smulders:  I’m playing Simone, who’s the mother of the twins, and I haven’t ever played a mother on a project — and I just jumped right into being a mother of teenagers. Sometimes I think when you come into that role, it’s very one dimensional. It’s very, you’re just nagging. You’re the one who’s like, “Do your laundry” or whatever. And there was certainly that in this as well. But it was wonderful to be given the gift of showing the intricacies of this relationship that Simone and Patrick have together. That Patrick was not the biological father of these girls, he’s a stepfather. So it’s a second relationship for her. Certainly a very stable one. And they’ve been together for a while. What would you say, Kyle? Over ten years, right?

Kyle Bornheimer: In real life it was 14 years, I think.

Cobie Smulders: He came in when they were little babies. So they’ve really created this life together and I think they created that life together out of necessity for Simone. As a 20-year-old woman who has twins, that’s a huge job to take on. So being able to count on a partner like Patrick, who was so caring and so present, was a need she had back then. Now we cut to 14 years later, now the girls are independent, they are doing their own thing. And she’s in this place where she’s looking at her life and going, “What do I want now that I am allowed to ask that question.” And so that’s being presented in this first season and she’s sort of reevaluating her relationship. She’s reevaluating her career and that’s sort of a tough, hard thing to do.

Kyle Bornheimer: I think one of the gifts that Tegan and Sara have that lends to this project is that their parents weren’t typical. There’s so many different stories about people coming out and finding their sexuality and having to communicate that with their parents. And we’ve seen lots of versions of that and they’re all valid. They had mother that was progressive, even for her time with that, but was still a mom. And whether you are queer or straight, whether you have the most progressive parents in the world, adolescence is hard. You’re still dealing with societal pressures and friend pressures and your own sense of self and the media and all that stuff.

Patrick is a little more of a typical dude of the time who wasn’t comfortable talking about that stuff, hadn’t really thought about it. And when he did think about it, he thought about it in of a default, gay panicky kind of way. He’d rather not talk about it, he’d rather it wasn’t a thing he had to deal with. They don’t have to hide it. I mean, they’re hiding it in terms of they still don’t know themselves and they’re not advertising it to anyone, but they can confront him about his own backwards views because they’re at the very least, even if they haven’t come out or they don’t know themselves, they’re at least in line with the 90s progressive ideals. We’re going to see these two evolve a little bit.

Heather Hogan: I just asked Clea and Laura this, so I’ll ask you too: If you needed to get yourself into a quick ’90s head space, what album would you put on?

Cobie Smulders: Anything by Nirvana. We were just talking about this. So there was Nirvana or Green Day. There was that thing that happened, and then Dave Mathews came into my life. Ben Harper, I was like, whoa. I was a new person. Halfway through the school year, new person. And I totally forgot, because Dave Matthews was late 97, 98, right? But I have such nostalgia for Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. But then also there’s Paul Abul is coming up for me. It was kind of a wild time for music, wasn’t it?

Kyle Bornheimer: Yeah. There was a lot of pop. I mean, the alternative stuff was sort of answering pop.

Cobie Smulders: Yeah. And ’90s hip hop. Tupac, Biggie, Puff Daddy, all of that. Busta Rhymes. I mean, it was a wild, it was very eclectic.

Heather Hogan: That is a very chaotic playlist, Cobie Smulders. Kyle, what are we going to do to increase your lesbian icon status before season two?

Kyle Bornheimer: I think this show’s going to help me a lot, that’s really why I did it. It was a very self-serving job in that respect. I needed to check off that box. So please help me all you can.

Heather Hogan: All right. I will.

Kyle Bornheimer: I really need this.

Heather Hogan: What’s your flannel situation?

Kyle Bornheimer: Well, I mean I was pretty flanneled up in the ’90s, but also what I did in the nineties is I dressed like I was in the seventies. We liked to look like we were dressed in 1972. A lot of faux leather jackets and butterfly collars.

Heather Hogan: Oh, that’s great. We can work with that. 

Cobie Smulders: I feel like Patrick is wearing a lot of what we call up north, “the Canadian tuxedo.”

Heather Hogan: “Is it Canadian or is it gay?” is always fun game to play. And then there’s Tegan and Sara, who are both! 

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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.


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