How Tegan and Sara turned their memoir High School into a hit TV show
For the past 25 years, Tegan and Sara Quinn have ruled the music industry as indie-rock stalwarts and beloved openly queer voices. The Canadian-born sisters have released 10 studio albums, performed onstage with Taylor Swift, collaborated with everyone from Tiësto to Beach Bunny, and wrote a memoir detailing their coming-of-age experiences as twins and musicians exploring identity. So it was only natural that the aforementioned memoir, High School, became a TV show.
The experience of it, for Sara, was quite jarring. “The largest group of people we've ever collaborated with, on an album or a tour, for example, would be like maximum 20 people. There were days where I was on set where it was 100-plus people. It was just an absolutely massive enterprise,” she explains.
Created by Clea DuVall and executive produced by Tegan and Sara, the Amazon Freevee series High School follows Tegan and Sara through the era of ‘90s grunge, and as they discover themselves, love, and music. Casting themselves accurately on the series was pivotal. The sisters “cast a pretty wide net” trying to find the right actors to play them on-screen. While they saw dozens of auditions, Tegan was struck by inspiration from a TikTok scroll. “I saw Railey on TikTok and just thought she was so entertaining. She was talking to the camera, giving a tour of her car, and I was like, ‘This is like me in high school,’” she explains. Tegan did a deep dive on her page and there was no doubt: She told Sara that Railey and Seazynn Gilliland needed to play them on-screen.
“We ended up putting up a video on TikTok and asked people to help us get them to follow us, so we could send them a message,” explains Tegan. Within a few hours, Railey replied and the sisters agreed to audition. Fast-forward to a few months later, the duo was calling the TikTok stars on Zoom to tell them they were cast in the series. “There's just something about them,” Tegan says. “They're so raw, they're still figuring out who they are as people, they're still trying to figure out what they're going to do with their lives, and they bring that into their performance.” The fact that Railey and Seazynn Gilliland weren’t seasoned actors or musicians made them all the more alluring to the sisters.
[Photo courtesy of Amazon Freevee]
As executive producers, Tegan and Sara “got to do as much or as little” as they wanted, but they chose to be involved in every element of the show — down to the score, which was perhaps what they considered one of the most crucial parts.
“There was a playlist made at the very beginning of the process where Tegan and I put all the music we listened to when we were actually in high school [together],” Sara explains. It was full of both local bands who released music at the time and some of the artists they discovered in the ‘90s like the Pixies or the Violent Femmes.” But working with the music supervision team, including That Dog's Anna Waronker, was “really special,” and ultimately they were able to build out a soundtrack featuring Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Sinéad O’Connor.
Turning their memoir into a TV show had some emotional challenges. “For me, a memoir is your version of the story. It's your perspective. Everyone goes in knowing that you don't fill in the details of what other people thought and felt. And for the TV show, of course, you have to add that dimension, you have to populate your show full of characters that you know their thoughts and feelings,” explains Tegan. So, fictionalizing their mom or making composites of their closest friends was challenging. “It's complicated because you don't want your mom or your friends to watch it and go, ‘That's not what I was like,’” she adds. While the ownership of writing a book really went to Tegan and Sara, that duty was transferred to [showrunner] Laura [Kittrell] and DuVall as they filled out this world on-screen. Ultimately, the essence of those characters are there, but the sisters also have the excuse of “well, it's not you. It's a composite," Tegan adds playfully.
But the making of High School has been undoubtedly rewarding, allowing the sisters to rethink their approach to what else they’re working on: “I'm excited to see how it changes the way that Tegan and I tell future stories.”