The stars and creator of '13 Reasons Why' talk about the show's success and the backlash
For a moment, the conversation is light. It’s a blustery spring day on the Paramount lot and Katherine Langford, who just turned 21, and Dylan Minnette, 20, are talking about some of the Internet’s more playful obsessions — the face-transforming software FaceApp and unicorn frappuccinos.
“It looks disgusting,” Langford says, her Australian accent undisguised, of the vibrant, multi-colored Starbucks concoction.
Minnette chimes in: “It looks like the wet dream of frappuccinos.”
Then the conversation gets a bit heavier. It’s been a few weeks since the March 31 release of “13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix drama about a teenage girl’s suicide in which the pair stars, and they are in the thick of it, juggling appearances on “Ellen” with this weekend’s MTV Movie & TV Awards.
And then there’s the other part of it. The part they knew would inevitably take shape given the show’s fraught subject matter: the backlash. The 13-episode adaptation of Jay Asher’s bestselling novel quickly blew up laptops of American teenagers, and one by one, anxious-to-angry headlines followed.
“Does ‘13 Reasons Why’ Glamorize Teen Suicide?”
“Critics say 13 Reasons Why has artistic merit. Suicide prevention experts say it’s dangerous.”
“‘13 Reasons Why’ Is Not the Force for Mental Health Awareness People Say It Is”
As hot takes and think pieces about the show’s merits and flaws began to pile up across the Web, superintendents, teachers and other school officials around the country began issuing warnings to parents: that its content may be inappropriate for young viewers — for its depiction of suicide and sexual assault, among them — and that it might be viewed as glamorizing suicide.
But then too came comments like the ones on Langford and Minnette’s Instagram pages: “I hope that a lot of people will reflect about the consequences that the harassment on the life of somebody can have” and “I watched the whole series with my dad” and “I’m a mother of a 17 year old and i finished watching it today, every parent should watch this show.”
The series chronicles the aftermath of the suicide of 17-year-old Hannah Baker (Langford) and examines issues of slut-shaming, rape and social media harassment in the process. Hannah leaves behind a series of audiotapes to be listened to by the people she holds responsible — including her rapist, her estranged friends and those who bullied her. Clay (Minnette), a classmate and friend of Hannah’s, guides viewers through the various tapes.
Given the nature of Hannah’s story, and the general issues of responsibility that inevitably surround suicide, the controversy is not surprising and Langford and Minnette say they get it.
“I think you always, with anything, need to have different viewpoints,” Langford says, seated inside an office on the studio lot. “Everyone is going to relate and react to [the show] differently depending on their personal context.”
“If you’re making anything that centers around this kind of story and these topics” adds Minnette, “people are going to have issues with it. … Nobody’s opinions or feelings about the show are invalid.”
In a later phone interview, series creator Brian Yorkey adds to the chorus — giving credence to the idea that dialogue, however charged it may get, is beneficial.
“I have tremendous respect for everyone’s point of view,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to tell anyone that they have to watch it. I wouldn’t want to tell anyone that it is panacea for everybody; no piece of film or television is.” But, he adds, “I always believe talking about things is better than silence.”
In response to the growing concerns, Netflix strengthened its advisory warnings. The series has a TV-MA rating and debuted with graphic content warnings on two of its most intense episodes; an additional warning was put on the first episode.
Although groundbreaking in its tone and graphic depiction, “13 Reasons Why” is not operating in a vacuum. Teenage mental health fuels story lines in every arena, including Broadway. The hit musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” which examines themes of bullying, loneliness and suicide, was recently nominated for the best musical Tony award.
“These issues are relevant and real,” says Langford. “Often, when you’re growing up, you don’t know what’s wrong. We don’t talk openly enough about mental illness. How do you know — especially today with the incredibly high stress teens are put under during high school — if you have depression or if you have a mental illness or if you have anxiety? You don’t know, because you’ve never seen it.”
Writers on the series, which touts pop star Selena Gomez as an executive producer, enlisted the guidance of mental health experts to help craft their depictions, and Netflix created a website (13reasonsswhy.info) that offers information and assistance. The series is also accompanied by an after-show, “Beyond the Reasons,” in which the cast, producers and mental health professionals discuss the issues raised in the series.
“What interested me from the get-go was that it sounded like they wanted to address this in a very mature and straightforward way with young females and engage families,” says Dr. Helen Hsu, a clinical psychologist with the city of Fremont who served as a consultant on the show. “I feel like, as adults, we have a tendency to almost infantilize kids — ‘Oh, they can’t see this’ — when they’re usually way ahead of us. I felt this could be an opportunity to start some conversation and provide some tools.”
Precautions were also made to ensure the cast had adequate resources during the grueling production. Therapists who work with suicide survivors were on hand to answer questions. Therapy dogs made a rotation on set.
It made for a safe and comfortable set, the actors say, though each had different experiences.
“I’m lucky,” says Minnette, whose other acting credits include “Goosebumps” and “Scandal.” “I have this ability to really leave set and just cut off from it immediately.”
“Yeah, I was always of the mind-set that you leave work at work,” Langford agrees, noting that she’d watch reruns of “The Office” or play music on a $50 piano she bought when she moved to Northern California to shoot the show.
“But playing this role, it was something I couldn’t completely cut off from,” she adds. “I thought about her a lot. I always kept her very present.”
Langford gets emotional when delving further.
“I am Katherine Langford and Katherine Langford’s life, luckily … is very different from Hannah’s,” she says while fighting back tears.
”It hit me halfway through shooting — I just thought: I get to have a finish date and go on with life,” she recalls. “But there are people out there going through these exact same things that don’t have that.”
While Hannah Baker’s tapes reached an end, there is still room for story, Yorkey says and there has been talk of a second season. Netflix has not yet made a statement, and some wonder where the show could go in Season 2.
“Hannah’s story isn’t over — she has parents who still don’t have the complete story,” he says. “There’s a rapist who hasn’t been brought to justice and there’s a living survivor of that rapist who is just beginning her journey of recovery.
“Part of the problem with our culture is that we say, ‘Oh, the story’s done,’” he adds. “Rapes are treated, at best, as a multi-episode arc within a season, when anyone who’s experienced rape knows it’s a lifelong story. If we left these 13 episodes out in the world with [the rapist] not being brought to justice … It’d be incredibly dissatisfying to me.”
Langford and Minnette too are curious to know the show’s fate and where it goes from here. But for now, they’re taking in the present.
“These two girls came up to me the other day and they were from overseas and they were like, ‘Everyone is watching it. What you guys are doing is incredible.’ To hear in person that people from the other side of the world are watching this and that it’s had an impact — that’s amazing.”
‘13 Reasons Why’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)