Exclusive Interview: Tegan & Sara on bringing their bestselling memoir High School to the screen “no one delves into what it’s like for women to write music”

One of the LGBTQ+ highlights at last month’s 47th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), was the world premiere of the Amazon Freevee series High School. The eight-episode tender and visceral coming-of-age drama is based on the New York Times best-selling memoir by Grammy-nominated platinum recording artists, and certified queer icons, Tegan and Sara Quin. Discovering your own identity as a teenager can be challenging enough, but that journey is made even more complicated when you have a twin sister whose own struggle and self-discovery so closely resembles your own. Told through a backdrop of 90s grunge and rave culture—with a killer soundtrack featuring the Smashing Pumpkins, Violent Femmes, and Green Day—High School weaves between parallel and discordant memories of sisters growing up down the hall from one another. TikTok creators Railey and Seazynn Gilliland make their impressive television acting debuts as the teenaged Tegan and Sara in the series, executive produced by Clea DuVall (Happiest Season), who directs several episodes as well as serving as co-writer and co-showrunner with Laura Kittrell.

Following High School’s premiere at TIFF, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Tegan and Sara Quin alongside the young actors portraying them, Railey and Seazynn Gilliland.

Sara Quin, Seazynn Gilliland, James Kleinmann, Railey Gilliland, and Tegan Quin at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What was your reaction to Clea DuVall’s suggestion of adapting your memoir and why did you think that you could trust her with your story?

Tegan Quin: “When she called me she said, ‘The book is so beautiful’, but then she used the word ‘cruel’. She was like, ‘You guys love each other so much and you have each other’s backs and you do all these amazing things together, and as your friends I love you and I know you as individuals, but there’s a cruelty there sometimes’. There was something about that description that made me know that the show wouldn’t be just be about twins making music as a band. It was clear that she would be somebody who would fight passionately for the show to have real depth to it and I thought she would interpret the book really beautifully. I messaged Sara and said, ‘Clea wants to work with us on an adaptation for TV.’ Which was so funny, because I’d been joking the whole time we were writing the book that I thought it should be TV show! We both trusted Clea and knew that it was right.”

Railey and Seazynn Gilliland star in High School. Photo credit: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee.

Railey and Seazynn, what was your reaction to the idea of playing Tegan and Sara?

Railey Gilliland: “When they DM’d us I didn’t really think too much about it. I was like, okay, that’s cool, we’ll audition. That was basically it. I was just going with the flow, but it was exciting.”

Sara Quin: “You did seem really very positive, you used an exclamation point. We went back and reread your message, and I was like, ‘They seem very engaged!'”

Although the book is set in the 90s, were there aspects of Tegan and Sara’s experiences that resonated with you?

Seazynn Gilliland: “Yeah, for sure. Reading the script, I thought that their story was was pretty relatable to myself.”

Railey Gilliland as Tegan Quin in High School. Photo credit: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee.

When it comes to TikTok, how supportive an environment is it of LGBTQ+ folks?

Railey: “There are so many different people on TikTok and so you’re able to find people that are like you on there. I’ve made so many friends through TikTok and obviously have had some great opportunities through it, like this one.”

Sara: “I got on to TikTok because it was a cultural phenomenon. I’d read about it during the pandemic, and it’s really funny now to reflect on how confusing it seemed to me back then! Now it’s so integrated into the way that we are talking socially and culturally. I saw Railey’s profile first. Seazynn had a couple profiles, but confusingly she’d erased all of the content. Like an old person, I was like, ‘What are these kids thinking?! Why is she erasing her content when there are so many millions of likes? I don’t understand what’s happening!'”

Railey and Seazynn Gilliland star in High School. Photo credit: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee.

Sara: “One of the things that I really connected with on TikTok were the comments on Railey’s account. It felt the same way that our fans are with us when Tegan and I post things. There was a lot of, ‘You’re so cute Railey’ or ‘I love that shirt you’re wearing’. Here was this natural little community operating in the comments section. I also saw people asking Railey and Seazynn if they knew who Tegan and Sara were. When I reached out to Railey, I was like, ‘I don’t know if you know who we are’. I sent a link to a New York Times article about us, which I’m sure she did not click on, so that might have been a wrong move! They were like, ‘Yeah, we totally know who you are’. But they didn’t know who we were!”

Railey: “We’d heard of you through our TikTok comments, we’d heard your names!”

Sara: “I loved that sense of people coming together in those comments, with people saying things like, ‘Whoa, you guys are really cute, do you know these other twins that are cool and cute and gay and like way older than you?!’ I could see some parallels and connections there between us. So although we didn’t assume that they would necessarily immediately connect with our story, I do think that we’ve discovered through this process that there are certainly similarities growing up as really charming, adorable twins. So there’s that! Also, they’re growing up at a time where they can talk about their identity in a way that I think a lot of people in our age group didn’t get to at that age. So that was very cool to see.”

Esther McGregor, Seazynn Gilliland, Brianne Tju, and Railey Gilliland star in High School. Photo credit: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee.

When it comes to the queer awakening aspect of High School, navigating those feelings, was something that you really wanted to include in this series?

Tegan: “I don’t want that words in their mouths, but I would say that being queer is still hard. When we were writing the book, all the publishers we approached were like, ‘Why should we publish this book?’ Even for those of us in our generation and older, it’s still a story that they haven’t seen or read very often. For young people now it’s still a challenge if you’re queer because you’re different from most people. It felt like this story belonged on television because there are still so few stories about queer people, but also this show feels unique because it’s a show about young women and music. No one delves into what it’s like for women to write music. We’ve had a thousand books on Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and the media is full of Kanye’s genius and Bon Iver’s genius, and this guy’s a genius and that guy’s a genius. We don’t really hear that about women. I think that there was something about what we did that was really magical to people, which is clearly why we can still play music all these years later and pay the bills. We saw that when we saw Railey and Seazynn’s TikTok videos. Which might sound silly, because a lot of people think of TikTok as this stupid thing where everyone dances or whatever, but in their videos we saw that they were funny, they were charming and really sweet with each other. It reminded me of when Sara and I got started.”

Railey and Seazynn Gilliland star in High School. Photo credit: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee.

Tegan: “Being on set, it was really neat to see it all come together and I’d get time with each of them individually. The way that Railey and Seazynn talk about each other and the respect that they have for each other is amazing to see. It’s very overwhelming what they’re doing, to come into a whole new industry and learn not just one skill, but two, and to do it in front of a group of people, while also being their own people. They’re very different from one another, and Sara and I are really different too. Even though Railey was cast to be me, and we’re both really extroverted and similar in a lot of ways, I would also hang out with Seazynn and a lot of her anxieties and her way of processing what was happening to her was really similar to me. You see it on screen and nobody else could have been cast to do that, you can see them finding themselves on the show. The age difference between us doesn’t change the fact that people go through certain things as you come out of adolescence and you’re becoming an adult, and Railey and Seazynn were perfect at capturing that. TikTok didn’t just give them to us, they were so perfect to play us it was like they made them, like they’re AI! Are you real?!”

Railey and Seazynn Gilliland star in High School. Photo credit: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee.

Sara: “How do you tell our story without talking about our sexuality? It’s been something that we’ve spent 20 years navigating because there were certainly times in our career where we were like, do we have to be the gay musicians? Why can’t we just be musicians? While writing the memoir, I realized that in some ways, Tegan and I needed to find something so that we could get girls’ attention that wasn’t dating. The second that I started writing songs it gave me this really safe way to say to girls, ‘Please look at me and pay attention to me and be interested in me’. I really wanted to connect with girls on a deeper level, but I didn’t know if that was acceptable because teenage girls were looking for boyfriends and then all of a sudden I had this thing that, gay or straight, all the girls in our world were interested in. They wanted us to play at their parties and wanted to listen to our music and to talk to us. I wonder if TikTok is like that for Railey and Seazynn a little bit, a way to get a lot of attention from people in a way that doesn’t have to be obvious. It’s not like, ‘Excuse me. I’m interested in finding people who are interested in me.’ Performing is a way of getting attention in a really safe way I think.”

Seazynn Gilliland as Sara Quin in High School. Photo credit: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee.

What do you get out of being on TikTok, why was it somewhere you wanted to spend time?

Seazynn: “I was actually just having fun with it and really disliking the attention! I made five accounts and then one account would blow up, I’d be like, ‘No, I can’t do it!’ So I’d just make another account and make videos being myself and they would always get attention. Eventually, I learned to like it because people would comment things like, ‘I really love that you’re so genuinely yourself and putting yourself out there on the Internet’. I realized that doing that was helping other people to have confidence in themselves as well. So it’s really cool.”

The Price of Salt author Patricia Highsmith. Photo credit: Derek Hudson/Getty Images.

What’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?

Sara: “I really love Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. It was the first time that I’d ever read any classic queer literature and it really inspired me. When I was a young person, I didn’t realize that queer storytelling had been something that I’d actively avoided. I was like, I just want to read, I don’t want to think of it as something specific, but The Price of Salt totally changed my mind. It’s one of my most cherished books. I love the storytelling and I love how it informed a whole new genre; the mystery-road-romance.”

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Todd Haynes’ Carol. Courtesy of StudioCanal.

Did you like Carol, the film adaptation?

Sara: “Yeah, I did, but I love the book so much. I love Cate Blanchett. I would divorce my wife in one second for her!”

Leisha Hailey and Alison Folland in All Over Me (1997) Fine Line Features. Courtesy Everett Collection.

Tegan: “I’m trying to think about when we were teenagers in the 90s and All Over Me with Leisha Hailey was the first movie we saw with queer representation in it. Then the band The Murmurs, which Leisha was in, had that song You Suck. That was the first time we’d seen a queer girl who was in the same age range as us, just a little bit older than us. We rented that movie maybe three times and that would have been the maximum number of times that we could have rented it—which was heartbreaking—because if we’d rented it more than that it would seemed weird and obvious that we were daring to bring home a queer movie. All Over Me was just a queer teen girl movie, but it was really impactful. We met Leisha when we were in our mid-20s and we’re friends now. When I first met Leisha I told her that story and she was like, ‘I remember so many people coming up to me in the 90s and telling me that’. It was like a beacon in the dark to see any sort of young queer person depicted on screen at that time.”

Abbi Jacobson (Carson Shaw) and D’Arcy Carden (Greta Gill) in A League of Their Own. Courtesy of Prime Video/Amazon Studios.

Seazynn: “I recently watched A League of Their Own. I was very happy to see how gay that show was. I was really surprised too and at one point thinking, how is this allowed on TV? Because I don’t watch things on TV, let alone watch things that are gay on TV, so I was so happy to see that. It made me think that hopefully there will be a lot more things like it in the future.”

Tegan and Sara Quin. Photo credit: Michelle Faye/Amazon Freevee.

Railey: “I never saw queer representation on TV. Maybe I was just living under a rock, but I truly never saw something that made me feel more comfortable about being queer. It’s so funny because last night I was going through my phone and I saw a poem that I had written. It’s just me being so sad that I’m gay. Now I have the opportunity to be on television and other people are going to be feeling the same way that I did when I was writing that and it’s just so crazy and surreal to be able to do something that’s going to change people’s lives and make them feel better about themselves. In terms of queer people who are inspiring to me, it’s Tegan and Sara and Clea. It’s so incredible that they’re such powerful queer women doing things in the world. They’re so awesome.”

By James Kleinmann

The first four episodes of High School will premiere in the US and UK on Friday, October 14th 2022, with new episodes available every Friday exclusively on free streaming service Amazon Freevee. The series will be available on Prime Video in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand from Friday, October 28th 2022.

Tegan and Sara’s new album Crybaby is released on Friday, October 21st 2022.

High School | Season 1 Trailer | Coming October 14

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