Mental illness hits home for Thomas

Mental illness is generally no laughing matter but it provides new material and characters in the second season of Josh Thomas' acclaimed comedy drama, Please Like Me.

In the semi-autobiographical series, Rose, mother of Thomas' character Josh, is hospitalised because of her bipolar disorder.

It's in the courtyard of a decommissioned Melbourne aged-care facility transformed to be a private psychiatric hospital that I sit down to chat with Thomas, who is feeling a little worse for wear. He was up at 3.30am cleaning because his beloved cavoodle John - also a star of the show - had the runs after people fed him too much on set.

Thomas' real mum has experienced mental health issues in the past but he is quick to point out that Rose, played with the right mix of humour and pathos by Debra Lawrence, is not supposed to be his actual mum.

"It's hard, some bits are a bit real and some bits are fake," Thomas says.

"Then there's all the stuff I made up that people think she did, which she didn't do.

"She was worried about it of course but she signed the contract saying it was OK, which she doesn't have to do.

"We talk about it a lot before the stuff goes in. She has to be fine with it for us to be able to make the show.

"She had a few psychiatrists she ran into say they thought it was a really good show, a really good portrayal and that made her like it."

As society has become more comfortable talking about mental illness, it has also become more acceptable to show it on screen, with the days of mentally ill characters being confined to straitjackets long gone.

"That's sort of the point, that's sort of why I don't think it should be this big a deal," Thomas says of showing mental health issues and facilities on screen.

"It seems to be becoming a part of a lot of people's lives.

"I don't know many people who haven't had to visit one, been in one or known someone that's been in one but it's not that thoroughly explored on TV. Often when it is it is really quite extreme, whereas ours is quite gentle."

Rose's new friends are played by veteran TV personality Denise Drysdale and comedian Hannah Gadsby.

Thomas and Drysdale became friends while they were contestants on Seven's reality series Celebrity Splash.

"She is a pretty big character - I think she is so funny," Thomas laughs.

"You have never seen her do anything like this. She came back and said 'I would really like to do this show but I won't swear. I have been on television for 50 years and I haven't sworn for 50 years, is it OK if I do the audition and you know I won't swear?'

"And I said 'No, sorry'."

Once Drysdale accepted it was Ginger who was uttering expletives, not her, Thomas says she started swearing like a trucker.

When not visiting and supporting Rose, Josh starts to bond with his new baby half-sister Grace, daughter of his dad Alan (David Roberts) and his girlfriend Mae (Perth-raised doctor/actor/presenter Renee Lim), who have not moved to Thailand as planned.

"I have really enjoyed filming with the baby," he admits.

"Everyone told me not to do it. They said it would be really difficult but it has been fine, we watch the rushes back and it's just really cute, because there's a baby.

"My sister just had a kid so I was really happy I got to practise with like, not my niece, before I met my niece, so I know how to hold a baby."

Josh, who realised he was gay in the show's first episode, is back living with his best friend Tom (Thomas' real life best friend Thomas Ward), looking for a boyfriend and still trying to explain to his dad what a creative industries degree will qualify him to do.

"I don't think he really has a journey, I really didn't want the characters to change that much," Thomas says.

"There are moments where you think maybe they have grown as a person or something but actually I don't think people learn that many lessons."

Season one of Please Like Me won awards at home and abroad and the second season, a co-production with cable and satellite network Pivot TV, was launched in the US on Friday. A third season has already been commissioned.

The slightly awkward stand-up comedian with the funny accent who became a household name as the Gen Y captain on Ten's Talkin' 'Bout Your Generation says he didn't feel anxious or under pressure writing, acting in and executive-producing the new season.

Looking back at his early 20s, Thomas thinks Josh the character is doing better than he was. "I don't think I was nailing it by any means. I am a bit worse at life than Josh in the show; I think he is actually a bit better, he is often quite good and I don't know why that's happened.

"I guess because we have to resolve the story in 25 minutes, so every so often Josh has to step up which I would never do.

"Am I completely delusional thinking he is quite capable? Is that me being too close to the character because I am so similar . . . I think he is making good choices."

Please Like Me airs tomorrow at 9.30pm on ABC2.

The West Australian

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