When betrayal and heartache strike an amateur actress, pretending to be normal will be her greatest performance.

Sex & Death (AUS) writer-director and actor Kathleen Lee spoke to Melbourne Webfest to share with us how her experiences were key to the web series, which provides an engagingly honest perspective on relationships.

What inspired your series?

Sex and Death was inspired by my own experiences learning how to be authentic. I was recently diagnosed with ASD. Like many girls on the spectrum, I learnt from a very young age to hide all my impulses and personality traits that were not neurotypical. I was fascinated by other people and how they always knew how they were meant to behave and react to things; I especially loved loud outgoing people because they would usually tell you how they were feeling.

So I discovered that the easiest way for me to exist was to be really passive – a pushover – and gravitate towards extroverted people that wouldn’t notice the imbalance in our relationship. That way no one could tell that I was different and I would constantly have someone I could study whilst I tried to figure out how to be “normal”. This is what I have played in the story. Charlie, whilst she may appear to be a bit of a victim, is not being honest with her friends. She needs to overcome her fear of being herself in order to have an authentic connection with her friends, allowing them the opportunity to be kind to her.

What was your release strategy? Did you have to alternate from the original release strategy due to the pandemic?

We had planned to have a big screening at the John Curtain to kick off the release but we had to cancel the day before. It was the week when events began to be cancelled and just a few days before the first restrictions were put in place. Otherwise, our online release went ahead as scheduled. This was potentially not the best idea because everyone was in panic mode and we were trying to get them to watch a romantic comedy. If we had to do it again we would wait until a few weeks into lockdown when the panic had settled a bit. Having said that we were still happy with the results! I was sad not to have a screening. I had worked on the project for so many years – and spent so much time crafting it alone, I really wanted to feel peoples reactions to it – see if they loved the same bits I did – especially the cast. But having no physical screening meant that a lot of people wrote their reactions to it, to me. And maybe that was better.

Sex & Death Trailer

Are any of the relationship dynamics based on real life situations you have observed?

Yes definitely. My characters are usually a mixture of different elements of people I know. I have always been deeply obsessed with other people. I love studying them, seeing patterns in the way they work and categorising them. I spend months creating my characters and figuring out the rules of their personalities – it’s bliss and I adore each of them. I particularly love having characters that have deeply ingrained inconsistencies that somehow make perfect sense and that they are completely oblivious of – like Tanya, who is so over men that she is ‘totally ready to date again’.

Has the end product strayed far from your initial vision?

No. Although it’s hard to tell because as I write the characters my vision develops along with them and we were so lucky with our cast that the same thing happened in the filming process and editing process. So it feels like it is exactly how I imagined it to be. Initially, I had a very different ending planned for the series but as I wrote it it became clear which parts were really important and it was fun to do something drastic with the other parts.

If they only took one thing, one message, what would you like the audience to take away from the series? 

I suppose it would be that people are complex and have an unexpected and beautiful capacity to show kindness and accept what is different to them. Charlie hides who she really is from her friends and, whilst this results in her friends often unintentionally doing things that hurt her. We discover that it’s actually Charlie who is being unkind by not believing her friends have the capacity to accept her for who she is. My own experience over the past few years has been that even some of the most staunchly “normal” people have been able to accept and love parts of me that I had thought was so wrong and weird I had hidden them my whole life. 

Throughout the series we find ourselves cheering Charlie on, what is planned for her and the future of Sex & Death?

Nothing at this stage. However I am developing another, much longer show, that explores very, very similar characters. Once again, this show is based on my own experiences. This time it will be about me discovering that I am on the spectrum through a beautiful, absurd and disastrous relationship with and autistic man. The character may not be called Charlie but it will essentially be Charlie. There will also be a character very reminiscent of Damian and one in the vein of Pat.

In Charlie’s view what is more valuable? Friendships or romantic relationships?

I suppose in Sex and Death Charlie learns the importance of friendship. I think at the beginning she believes romantic relationships are more valuable. She is attracted to Pat because she can be herself around him and therefore feels seen by him. However, this is revealed to not be quite what it seemed and the thing that endures is her friendships. However selfish her friends initially appear to be, they stick by her and challenge her to grow. Once she overcomes her fear of being open she is able to feel the value and depth of these friendships.