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Who's That Girl: Meet Katherine Langford

April 16, 2017   |   Written by Russell Dean Stone

Take note because Katherine Langford is officially one to watch. The 20-year-old Australian actress doesn’t do things by halves, diving head first into her first proper acting role as Hannah Baker, the lead character in Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”.

Langford was accepted into the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in 2016 – but moved to LA to start auditioning in the general chaos of “pilot season”  before she even enrolled.  Though she didn’t catch a break in LA during that first visit, back home in Australia, Langford submitted an audition tape for 13 Reasons Why” and had her mind blown when she got “the call” telling her to pack her bags as she had secured the part.

With the shows heavyweight subject matter – including teen suicide – it’s a bold first move for the fresh faced Perth resident. Barely existing online (she only has 1000 twitter followers a week before the show launches) she is starry-eyed but unphased by the big time, even though you get the feeling she’s on the cusp of a life-changing moment. With the cult following behind Jay Asher’s original novel 13 Reasons Why there is no doubt that she is going to be popular.

Currently shooting her first feature film, the pro-LGBTQ Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda – you can expect to see a whole lot more of  in the very near future.

This is your first foray into acting –  as a previously unknown talent, who is Katherine Langford?

I was a really left of centre kid growing up. I was a national swimmer and then I wanted to be a singer and then acting came on in. I’m a Taurus [laughs]. I went to an academic selective school, like a school for the gifted, that’s where all the creativity started to reverberate. I stopped swimming and in my free periods I would go and write music on the piano in the auditorium and was part of the drama kids. After high school I thought ‘I want to give this a crack’ and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Has it been an easy ride? It seems like you’ve fallen into a first job that is also a pretty big break!

When I look at how things have panned out, it does seem like it’s been easy, but I look back and there were bumps in the road. I started [acting] quite late, I think I had my first acting class in March 2015, so I was turning 19. Everything has been by the seat of my pants, you get flung into pilot season or thrown into your first TV show and, even though this show is incredible, it was the hardest but best first job I could have ever had. I’m a very studious, driven, stubborn young person, so when someone told me, ‘You’re 19 there’s no way you’re going to be an actor, you’re starting too late’, my reaction was ‘Just watch me.’ [laughs].

How would you describe your character Hannah?

She’s witty, brave, doesn’t feel the need to conform. She feels the pressure to conform and sometimes she does do things to help her fit in but ultimately she’s someone who was really fixed on being herself and not wanting to let people change her. She has a lot of integrity and believes in people and wants to believe that everyone is good – that’s something I really identified with – which ultimately is her biggest fault. I didn’t have the go to drama school experience, so I’ve been told a lot of my acting is very instinctual.

Do you think working has made you grow up?

I actually feel younger. I’m doing very adult things, which is nice, but playing a 16/17-year-old girl one thing I worried about was coming across too mature but acting and drama inspires the child within you. You have to be open to everything that’s going down, you can’t be like, ‘That’s silly’, it’s more like, ‘Get on the floor and be a monkey.’ So you do it.

Did you draw on your own high school experience for inspiration for the show?

I actually went to three different schools. Two private schools which I just rebelled at, I couldn’t do the naive sheltered girl thing, I was 14-years-old sitting there calling rubbish on it, I hated that feeling of being sheltered and not being truthful. When I went to my third school I was chucked into a group of kids who were like me, who didn’t quite fit into the normal school system and it worked really well for me. I felt that I had the freedom to do what I needed to do and also given the responsibility to make sure I did what I needed.
I don’t feel like I did any super necessary recall to get into the role [of Hannah], the sets that were created, the environment we were in, it was immersive. I mean it, was my first show so I don’t really have much to compare it to. I found myself being really nostalgic about high school, remembering certain aspects of my own high school experience, particular kids who went through huge anxiety or depression, first romances, the joy and the pressures and the feeling you get when you walk into school and it’s you against the world if you’re alone. That feeling of loneliness is fatal.

Even though the novel and the show are billed as young adult it definitely is a story that resonates with older people because of that nostalgia and those themes.

I would call it a show for adults, it’s an unflinching approach and we don’t just deal with what’s happening in high school, we see the views of Hannah’s teachers, what happens to her parents. This is the kind of show that respects the intellect of its audience, it respects that 16-year-olds are having sex, some are doing drugs, they see this in their everyday life but also recognise what parents and teachers go through.

What is the most crucial sense you use when acting or do you think acting heightens your senses?

I didn’t have the go to drama school experience, so I’ve been told a lot of my acting is very instinctual. The most important thing for me is to be present because when you’re present you’re worrying about how something looks or sounds or your lines you’re just thinking about what do I want and I know what you want by looking and listening to you and not only hearing what you’re saying but how you’re saying it.
I want to be able to hear about what people are feeling and make it into something other people can experience.

Would TV and cinema be better if you could smell what you were watching?

That would be way too weird because once you start incorporating all elements of sense it’s no longer something that you’re watching from a safe distance, the you’re in it. If you can watch and hear something and cry and feel then if you could smell it aswell it’s going to be too real and traumatic. If I could smell Titanic I would be dead.

Selena Gomez is executive producer on 13 Reasons Why, did she give you any advice about her interpretation of the show or just acting in general?

Well, she was off doing a world tour, but even though she couldn’t be there physically Selena and her mum Mandy were watching dailies every day and sending emails and supporting us. When Selena could visit she stayed on set all day, took us all out the whole night and gave us a little advice about the show and fans. She’s the one who actually got me onto social media. I was on private for the longest time and Selena literally leaned over during dinner and said “Just go public.” And a few days later I did. With people coming out and saying the shows changed their life, I want to be there for that, I want to be there for the people who are watching and are going through similar things. I don’t think there’s a necessary responsibility but it’s something I’ve taken a little bit upon myself and I want to use the platform that’s been given to me to help, because things like LGBTQI issues, bullying, mental illness these are all issues I’m passionate about and want to make sure the correct information is there and people don’t feel alone and if people can watch the show and identify with Hannah and reach out and identify with me as Katherine then, I’m there.

So, would you say you’re a very empathetic person?

[Laughs] Yeah! I think that’s what helps with acting and music is that I have this thing where if someone is feeling or opening up to me, I’ll listen to what they’re saying but also start feeling what they’re feeling. My mum calls it a super power. I had a woman come up to me after watching the first two episodes and she just looked at me in tears and I was holding onto her hand and I started crying as well. I want to be able to hear about what people are feeling and make it into something other people can experience. It’s also a dangerous thing because you can’t take on all the pain it’s not possible.

13 Reasons Why is available to watch on Netflix now