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Interview: Creator-Actor Josh Thomas Of ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’ Talks Autism And Authenticity

Josh Thomas made his debut in comedy at 17-years-old, winning Melbourne’s RAW Comedy competition. After working in stand-up, Thomas switched to television, creating, writing, and starring in shows based on facets of his own life while speaking to marginalized communities. His show, Please Like Me was a coming of age that focused on the character Josh as he navigated what it meant to be an adult while exploring his sexuality.

Thomas’ latest show, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, centers on an autistic girl named Matilda (Kayla Cromer). Matilda is trying to find her footing in high school and going through the growing pains of being a teenager, but she also deals with being neurodivergent. Josh plays Matilda and Genevieve’s older half-brother, who becomes their guardian after their father passes away from pancreatic cancer. At the heart of Thomas’s writing is a unique authenticity that pushes these compelling stories forward. The bonus is that every character is funny in their own way, making it a delight to watch this family go through life. 

Josh’s writing has been praised for its vulnerability and candor, completely avoiding familiar trappings when writing autistic characters. Thomas breaks it down, “The best way to do representation is to not try to do representation, but to do specific characters.” 

Thomas continued, “There’s a balance between not wanting to make autistic people look stupid and not treating that character with kid gloves and letting her be flawed.”

In season 2, Nicholas finally gets diagnosed with autism, a moment that mirrored Josh Thomas’ own life experience when he was diagnosed as an adult. For fans of the show, this feels like relief as its been the quasi-elephant in the room since the pilot episode. For our chat, Josh was on a boat via zoom, and was slightly delayed due to a generator-related problem. Despite, the small delay, it made for a fun start of the conversation. Josh also had a lot to say about his autism diagnosis as well.

For those who haven’t watched season 2 in its entirety, spoilers are below!

Niki Cruz: How long have you been on the boat for? 

Josh Thomas: I’m seeing this boy, and he’s a doctor in this rural town where you can rent these houseboats. I was going to stay for a couple of days, but then the state that I’m in went into COVID lockdown. We just went out into the woods and now I’m back in the town, and he’s back in the town being a doctor. I guess I just live on this boat now. 

NC: It doesn’t sound like a bad life.

JT: I mean, it’s fine. It’s gorgeous out now.

NC: Australia was doing better than the US, and now you guys are, what, on your third lockdown? 

JT: Yeah. Not the whole country, just one city. We had 0 cases for months and months. We had no masks, dancing like drag queens kissing strangers, doing it all.

NC: While the US was looking at those pictures and videos going, wow, this looks like a nice life to live one day. 

JT: Yeah, it was really nice, and now America is pulling ahead. America has all the vaccines, and we don’t have any vaccines. 

NC: It’s wild to hear that Australia doesn’t have vaccines.

JT: It’s really dumb! Just get the vaccines! I guess because we didn’t really have COVID no one was sending us vaccines. Like we had orders in, but everyone was like, “You don’t need these,” and that’s fair enough. We should be making our own.

NC: You got started in the business pretty early. How was it going into public life all those years ago? 

JT: I started when I was 17, and then I started on this big TV show when I was 18. I didn’t really think it through. There’s no way I would get up on stage and start doing stand up at my age. 17-year-olds make stupid choices, some of them drive cars really fast, and some of them do meth, but I started doing stand up, and it went quite well. I was famous here, and I hated it because I don’t like talking to strangers — it’s one of my least favorite things in the world, and they would come up to me and then tweet at me and say, “My mom saw you at Aesop today, and she said you were a cunt.” [Laughs] I was like, “No, I was just buying soap.” But now I think it’s fun. I went to dinner last night, and I got free dessert, and I liked that.

NC: There are perks to every job.  

JT: It’s weird because when you’re in your early 20s, you like attention and want to prove yourself. I wanted people to look at me and think I was good. Then they did and I hated it. Now, I’m 33, and I have no interest in what people think of me, I probably would prefer it if they didn’t look at me and say hi. 

NC: Given that this is your second show, does it get easier running a show?

JT: Yeah, it gets easier definitely! There’s always something broken when you’re making a TV show. Someone is doing something wrong all the time. Things are great 99% of the time, but there’s always that one thing, which creates panic.

This year, we had actors who had to go into quarantine for two weeks, and we just had to figure out how to not shoot that actor for two weeks. It used to be scary, and you think, “Oh no, I’m not going to get a show,” but after doing 50 episodes of TV, I’m like, “I’ve never not had an episode at the end.” No matter what’s happened, there’s always been a show at the end.

NC: What is it like being at the helm of something and wearing so many hats?

JT: [Laughs] I do them all separately but they’re all sort of the same job, aren’t they?

NC: They all have the same end goal in mind which is making a great show which you’ve done.

JT: Thanks! This year we had to figure out how to do a show during COVID, keep our crew safe, and feel safe. That was something we had to figure out how to do.

NC: And how was that? You mentioned shooting around actors who were in quarantine. 

JT: Yeah, you wake up every day and say, “What’s gonna fuck us today?” [Laughs] There was more time looking at schedules and then looking after the crew emotionally, and the cast, which isn’t something I would usually try to make time for because the way I would look after them emotionally before is making sure we had a TV show. We made sure we were super prepared to make changes. We kept all of our scenes really small. I just designed this season that if we had to change tactic, we could change tactic. We shot as quickly as possible because I wanted to make sure we were getting done as much as we could. We were one of the only shows that didn’t shut down.

NC: People have come under fire for portrayals of autism. How did you approach the storytelling?  

JT: I was really worried about it because it hasn’t been done too many times. With Please Like Me there was a gay character, and a character with bipolar, and they were underrepresented, but because they were based on people in my real life, they were very specific people. We’re never talking about bipolar or gayness. Whenever we’re in the writer’s room talking about autism, we’re talking about Matilda and her specific traits. Her autism doesn’t come up at all when we talk about her. We try to be really clear that we’re not trying to represent a whole group; we’re just trying to represent this one specific version of someone in that group. 

NC: It works well for the show, and it doesn’t feel like you’re trying to represent everyone’s experience, which makes for a richer show.

 

JT: There’s a balance between not wanting to make autistic people look stupid and not treating that character with kid gloves and letting her be flawed. Sometimes she’s mean and annoying, and there are lots of great things about her. Like the other characters, I wanted to make sure there were things about her that were terrible, and finding that balance can be challenging, especially when writing someone from an underrepresented group.

NC: And you recently found out you were autistic. Would you be open to talking about that?

JT: Yeah, we can talk about that. I didn’t know I was autistic only because I didn’t know what autism was. I wanted to make this autistic character because I couldn’t believe how little I knew about autism. I watched this documentary called “Autism in Love,” and I remember looking at the title and thinking, “Wait, can autistic people feel love?” Which is such a stupid fucking question. I watched the documentary and I really loved the people in the documentary. I felt really connected to them. I was like, “I like these people. I feel like I really get them. I want them in my show.” Then slowly, I found out the reason why I felt connected to them is because I was them.  

JT: One of the things about being autistic is I don’t have much of a filter, I’m very open, and I’m not prone to feeling shame about things. [Laughs] I’m not prone to keeping secrets. I’ve gone public about every detail of everything in my life. My last Instagram story, I say I had chlamydia a bunch. I have no secrets. I can’t be bothered with them. 

I think it would be insane to be making a show about autism and not tell people about it. I think that would be so bizarre and unkind, and I don’t at all feel embarrassed about it. There are a lot cool autistic people, there’s a lot of cool neurotypical people, just like there’s a lot of autistic people that are douchebags, and there’s a lot of neurotypical people that are douchebags. The diagnosis isn’t the delineation of whether a person is valuable or not.

NC: And Nicholas just got his autistic diagnosis. Did it feel surreal filming that?

JT: For me, it’s such a relief. It’s such a personal story — I wrote that episode with Allison Lyman, and I said, “Oh, I know how to act this!” [Laughs] I’ve lived this, and I’m just delighted because I don’t have to work so hard that day! But writing it is hard; it’s 20 minutes and 50 seconds, and it’s a very big experience of getting diagnosed with autism as an adult and figuring out what’s important and what you want to say about it — that’s hard. This season, I’ve had two stories — the adult autism storyline and the asexual storyline, and people don’t know anything about these two things or what they mean, so we had to sit them down and explain it. Telling stories that haven’t been told before, you have to do that for clarity.

NC: How has the fan response been to those key moments on the show? 

JT: Asexuals are excited. We are the only show on the air that has an asexual character, according to GLAAD. There’s a handful of others — usually in animation like BoJack Horseman and SpongeBob — I thought it was interesting that so often it’s animated characters that are asexual. I only read messages are sent to me. I don’t google anything or go into Reddit or forums. Of course, all I think are the nice things, but people don’t really send you the mean things anymore, people don’t insult you to your face, so all I ever see is compliments, so I think everyone loves it and it was really well received [Laughs]

NC: As you should! What do you hope people take from the show?

JT: I don’t know what people will take from the show because I don’t know how they come to the show. People are always coming up to me and telling me about the bit of the show that they’ve connected with. Some people really want to talk to me about pancreatic cancer because that’s in the first episode, or some people really want to talk to me about asexuality or their asexual kid. I met this lady once that watched the show while she was in labor. You never really know about the experience someone is going to have with this little thing, that’s on this little box, that gets sent all around the world. 

The interesting thing about season 2 was everybody was in lockdown or living in some version of COVID, so I do have a sense of how the audience is going to come to this show. I have a bit of a sense of their mental health and their emotional state is a little more uniform than usual. So, we made it a bit more romantic and tried to make it a lot less stressful than our original season 2 plans. I wanted it to be a bit cuter.  

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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Written by Niki Cruz

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