‘Everything’s Gonna Be Okay’: Josh Thomas on Importance of Authenticity in Portrayals of Autism on TV

Everythings Gonna Be Okay Josh Thomas
Courtesy of Freeform

Australian comedian Josh Thomas was just 17 when he won the competition at the Melbourne Intl. Comedy Festival — and just 25 when, in 2013, he created and starred in “Please Like Me,” nominated for five Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts awards during its four-season run. Now he’s back with “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay,” in which he stars as a young man named Nicholas who becomes the guardian to his teenage sisters, one of whom is on the autism spectrum, after the untimely death of their father. The show premieres Jan. 16 on Freeform.

How much are you pulling from your own life for “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay”?

This one is not autobiographical at all, except maybe for some of how I act because that’s just how I would act in those situations.

So then what was the inspiration for the show?

I wanted a show with autism at the center, and I think if you want to do a drama-comedy, teenagers are the best representative of what that is.

What research went into getting into the minds of your teenage characters?

If you were a teenage girl and you came near me during that time, I would engage with you for a very long time. And then with the autism, of course I read a lot of books and went to some classrooms to interview teachers and teenage girls. For me, the really handy thing is you can go on the internet and watch people who are similar to your characters do things and see how they talk. Also, our writers’ room is all female because I’m a boy and the cast doesn’t really have that many boys in it, and I don’t really need help writing my character — I get it, that would have been a waste of everyone’s time. But I needed help writing these teenage girl experiences, so I felt it was better to get people who used to be teenage girls.

Were you adament about finding an actor on the spectrum to portray Matilda?

If you get someone who’s had shared living experiences with the character, it’s going to be better. Obviously if your character is slaying a dragon, then it will be hard to get authentic casting, but if your character is a teenage girl on the spectrum who lives in a nice house in a suburb, you should be able to find that. The good thing about having two kind of big characters on the show who both have autism is they are both really different: The characters, Drea and Matilda, are really different, and the actors are really different. So when you’re an outsider and you don’t know a lot about autism, you may be expecting a cliche or a trope or for them to be written a certain kind of way, but it’s an incredibly vast, broad spectrum, so it’s about finding specificity of character and finding more than one version to represent authentically. And it’s the same with any teenage girl character in general, like Genevieve [Maeve Press]: We try and find teenage girls that exist and lean into just that.

How much did the character of Matilda change once you had Kayla Cromer in the role?

She’s so helpful at helping me know what is realistic for someone with autism and what isn’t. Sometimes she will get dialogue she doesn’t understand and that helps me know that’s something she probably wouldn’t say. She keeps me honest, which I think is really valuable. When you get into more adult territory like sex and touching, it helps to have open conversation. They bring personality, and that’s what you want: You want the writer to bring a suggestion of how to say things, and then the actor takes it and turns it into their own thing.

Speaking of exploring sex with teenage characters, let alone one on the spectrum, how did you run the show to ensure everyone felt informed and comfortable about performing such scenes?

It’s knowing the point of what every beat is when you film it and going in and explaining it. It’s about me being confident so people aren’t out there improvising. Especially with a sex scene, you want clear direction, and these days we have an intimacy coordinator around on set. It’s about shooting options, as well. [As a showrunner] you’re in a tunnel, and you make tiny decisions one after another and after another, and you hope they come together to make something that’s fine. So you make a decision, and you look at it, and if it doesn’t feel right you change it, and if it does feel right you do it again.

This not your first time creating a show you also star in, but the shows are different. What did you learn on “Please Like Me” that you feel informs how you work on “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay”?

“Please Like Me” was my first time on a set. I did a semester of film and television at university, so I knew cameras were going to be there, and I knew they would get different shots and they would be edited together, but you know when you get to an office and you don’t know who you’re meant to ask if the printer ink’s jammed or whatever? I was like that. So I would just go up to any random person, and they would walk me over to the person who’s in charge of that. I didn’t know I was the boss. I worked that out in Season 2. I don’t know who I thought the boss was, but it was lessons learned. Now, I feel more confident that I know how to tell a story that’s sensitive. In “Please Like Me” we had a storyline about a medical abortion, and we did some big stuff, and I felt technical confidence in the fact that we’re all going to be nice people and that will shine through. You don’t want to have episodes like that, or there’s an episode [in “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay”] about consent, if people are going to walk away feeling hurt by it.

Do you feel more confident to embark on riskier storytelling now?

If I’m going to talk about something that’s traumatic or controversial, I want to have some personal connection with it, or it has to be something that I can really research. Obviously when I did an episode about abortion I’d never had an abortion, but I had a lot of female friends who really wanted me to do it, actually — who were like, “It’s never done on television; it’s underserved.” So I was talking with any girl in my life about what abortion means to them. So if I can have personal insight I’m happy to take on any topic, but if it’s none of my business, then it’s none of my business.

How much do you have to compartmentalize so that when you’re acting in a scene, you’re not thinking about anything other than connecting with your scene partner?

If I’m in a scene with someone, I try not to be too critical. I lean on the director to direct them. But if I’m not in the scene, I’ll be back by Video Village and engaged in what’s going on. It’s tricky. You want chemistry and you want magic, and getting chemistry and magic in a weird black box with 40 to 100 people standing in the room staring at you is really hard. And for me, one of the things that’s important as an actor is not bringing in this mood or the weight of the production meeting I just went into. You go on set and you’re in a dark room for 12 hours, and everybody has their day where they go a bit crazy, but basically my job on set is to gently remind people what they’re making.

What was the day you went a bit crazy on set?

There’s one afternoon a week where I just get the sillies. People are trying to work and I’m throwing soft toys at them or whatever. I mean, I would never throw soft toys at anyone these days. But there was one day where I got mad at a girl, but she didn’t notice. I always think I’m being so firm, but then they didn’t notice. And then there are just days where you can’t remember the words, and that’s the worst thing in the world. It’s not a fun story, but it’s a lot of, “Can we start again? I’m sorry.” And then you spiral into shame.

Things you didn’t know about Josh Thomas:
Age: 32
Hometown: Blackwater, Australia
Most recent TV binge: “Seinfeld”
Childhood hero: Shania Twain
How he unwinds on set: “I have a Post-it note that I put on the door that just says ‘No’ and me and my dog lie down for 10 minutes.”