'13 Reasons Why' Actress Katherine Langford: A Role Model is Born
Not since Skins or Degrassi has a young adults show caused as much of a stir as Netflix’s new binge-worthy hit, 13 Reasons Why. If you haven’t heard the chatter already, the nucleus of the story is a teenage girl’s suicide, told through a series of messages she recorded on cassette tapes before ending her life. The messages are directed towards those whom she considers responsible for driving her to suicide, and the effects of their release ripple out into her school and community. The series has provoked a whirlwind of both praise and controversy, with some lauding it for its unflinching honesty and for drawing attention to an under-discussed topic, while others have expressed concern that the subject matter may be psychologically harmful to troubled youths.
At the center of it all is Aussie breakout star Katherine Langford, who plays the show’s main character – Hannah Baker. When I sit down with Langford on a Sunday morning, I quickly sense how invested she is in her role. Not just because of the show’s unique demands (she had to pack her bags in 36 hours and travel across the world for the role) or even because of the caliber of the names attached to the series (Selena Gomez is an executive producer and Oscar-winner Tom McCarthy serves as director) but because she feels that this show can really make a difference.
“We cover a lot of personal issues that are really relevant,” Langford tells me. “As a young adult playing a young adult I’m not ignorant of these issues. These are things so many people go through. It really made me want to tell the story authentically and truthfully to do it justice.”
This is what sets 13 Reasons Why apart: it’s not afraid to speak to the realities of America in 2017 in an authentic fashion. Teenage suicide tends to get glossed over, partly from the fact that the media doesn’t report on it, and also from Hollywood’s often sidestepping, see-no-evil approach to the subject.
The incredibly high volume of teenage suicides has for the most part been ignored, which has done nothing to change the fact that suicide is the nation’s second-leading cause of death for teenagers between the ages of 10-24. Langford was immediately impressed by how everyone involved with the show was dedicated to portraying sensitive topics as truthfully as possible.
“What I found really cool and unique was that the producers at the start provided us with psychiatrists and physiologists who we could go to and talk to about this,” she says. “In the lead up to episodes twelve and thirteen, I was able to speak to Rebecca Kaplan from ‘It’s On Us’ about sexual assault survivors, as well as to a psychologist who deals in adolescent development, to better understand how someone would respond to something like this.”
The final episode of the season is a perfect example of the series’ insistence on unvarnished truth. The searingly raw bathtub suicide scene was designed to be as painful to watch as possible, leaving nothing – not the sickening first cut of the razor blade or the deluge of blood that follows – to the imagination.
“It was a very deliberate choice by everyone involved to make the camera stay on Hannah and not to make it artistic or a beautiful shot in any way. It feels more like a fly-on-the-wall type of thing, in the sense that it is just us watching what is happening,” Langford explains. “It was done to show the truth and to not make it another suicide scene that would enter the realm of ‘a beautiful depression.’ I think why so many people are relating to this or having such a visceral reaction to the show is because of the way we showed it.”
Langford tells me that it was just as difficult for her to watch this scene as it is was to shoot:
With the topic of mental health becoming increasingly destigmatized, 13 Reasons Why is paving the road for our art to earnestly address the epidemics of teen depression and suicide. High schools across the country have used the popularity of the show as a touchstone to broach the sensitive subject of teen suicide.
Langford, understanding the role she plays in all of this, has chosen to become more available to fans by opening up her social media pages to the public.
“I was private before the show and I just became public as the show came out because I wanted to be there and be accessible to people who felt a connection to Hannah.”
Written by: Britton Litow.
Photographer: Graham Dunn.
Stylist: Sara Paulsen for Art Department.
Hair: Jenny Cho for Starworks Group.
Makeup: Stephen Sollitto for Tomlinson Management Group.