'13 Reasons Why's Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette on the Power of Their New Netflix Show
A lot has been said about the premise of Netflix’s new show 13 Reasons Why, but then again, it’s something we need to talk about, and often.
Starring Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette, the series is about a girl named Hannah who dies by suicide. It’s told in both flashbacks and present-day revelations, as her classmate Clay is sent on a difficult scavenger hunt regarding why Hannah believed she should take her life. He and his classmates are forced to reconcile with themselves and each other as they listen to tapes that Hannah left behind; she narrates a story of bullying and abuse, which the viewers see played out on screen.
Produced by Selena Gomez and her mother Mandy Teefey, it’s based on the book of the same name by Jay Asher. As legend has it, Mandy found the book in a Barnes & Noble one day, and brought it home, maybe as a movie for Selena to star in. But time passed, and it morphed from a film to a TV show, and found its star in Australian newcomer Katherine instead. The result is a dramatized look at a bevy of problems that people face every single day. According to the Jason Foundation, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people, and PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center notes that 20% of students report that they’ve been bullied in some way, based on a 2016 survey from the National Center for Educational Statistics. But the show also aims to speak to the people on the other side — both the bullies, and the ones who maybe stood by and didn’t intervene when they could have.
Teen Vogue talked with Katherine and Dylan about bringing the beloved book to the small screen, how they navigated the heavy subject matter woven through each of the 13 episodes, and what they hope fans take away from Hannah and Clay’s story.
Teen Vogue: This book has been read by so many people, which inherently puts a lot of pressure on you as actors. They’ll be looking to see whether or not you the story in whatever way they saw it in their heads. How did you navigate that legacy?
Katherine Langford: This is such a special project and it’s based on a book that is an international bestseller and that has openly changed and saved people’s lives. I think when you try and emulate what people loved in the book, it can sometimes maybe feel like there’s pressure to do a certain thing.
To be honest, I didn’t feel an enormous amount of pressure, but I did feel a responsibility to do the book justice. We did that by just treating the issues with as much truth as Jay did in the novel. What I really love and what I’m really proud about with this project is that there was so much care and sensitivity taken when we dealt with these issues. That’s really important for me as an actor, but also as someone who’s really passionate about these things being told truthfully and without romanticizing them or hyping them up or trying to sell them as such.
Dylan Minnette: For me, I had a lot of personal pressure on this. I don’t know if this is kind of derailing the question, but the story is being told through Clay listening to the tapes, so the story’s kind of being told through Clay. I’ve never had that kind of pressure on me before, especially as a character in an existing book. I felt a tremendous amount of pressure.
I was a little nervous at first, but once we got into it and Clay started to evolve and the scripts came in and how deep they were becoming and how deep Clay was becoming, it came a lot easier for me. I’m really proud of that. I think everyone’s really proud. I feel like that there was a responsibility and I feel like we’ve achieved it, and I hope everyone else thinks so, too.
TV: Were there any conversations you had on set prior to or while you were acting out these heavy scenes?
DM: Basically everyone had this certain awareness of knowing that we have to make this as real and as truthful and as appropriate as possible. The fans of the book are in love with the story and they keep it as their own and they’re very protective of it, and rightfully so. [We wanted to] please Jay and to do its story justice, but also be mindful of the victims of some of the issues that we touch on in the show, and people who are kind of going through the same struggles that Hannah was going through and all of these characters are going through. It was about making sure that we do it in a real way and that we portray this in a way that doesn’t romanticize anything, that it just feels real and feels appropriate and gets the message across, even if it isn’t pretty.
KL: Teenagers aren’t stupid, they’re a lot smarter than people give them credit for; 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds are going through the stuff that’s on the show, and I think one thing that we really aimed for is to try and make it as truthful as possible; everyone had that goal in mind. We had psychiatrists and people with experience either as counselors or victims. I spoke to Rebecca Kaplan from It’s On Us in preparation for a few of the scenes to understand the information and actual facts behind what we were doing. Because in being truthful and trying to tell a story that we all felt was super important, trying to make it as truthful as possible — that was kind of hard.
Going through Hannah’s life and trying to make it as real as possible was a bit of a shock to the system, really. I took a harder hit than I thought I would physically and mentally, but the conversations were not just factual and in preparation, but also about how we deal with these issues. We had a briefing before we actually started the show which said, “OK, guys, these are the issues we’re going to be covering. Here are your resources, we’ve got psychiatrists here.” Then we talked a little bit about, what are you guys passionate about, how do you feel, what are you guys experiencing? Then to follow that up, we had support talks.
I felt so looked after on set. There were a lot of sensitive issues that we covered in the series and I felt like I was present for quite a lot of those talks because I was involved in them. I always felt that we spoke about it respectfully, but that also we were taken care of and looked after and always kind of nurtured, which was nice.
TV: The book and the show have been highlighted for talking about teen suicide. But there are a lot of layers to this story, and a lot of issues that the characters experience. Was there one issue or episode that really resonated with you?
DM: I mean, they’re all so deserving of their attention, so I try not to focus on one. I mean, obviously, I think the focus of the story is a suicide, and that’s what sets up this entire thing. But then everything that comes with it… I think every issue deserves to be touched on because [otherwise] you’d have a show where it was like, oh, this is really bad, this was kind of bad, but this was really bad. This is touching on life and growing up and going through all the struggles that we go through as young people.
KL: I think we treated all these things equally because they’re all equally horrific and they all contribute to why Hannah ends her life. I think, if anything, the weight of those issues is going to resonate with people differently, depending on who they are and what their life is like, which is kind of the cool thing about the show. It’s not just a show about suicide, it’s not just a show about bullying, it’s kind of like this is a show about life at these ages and what happens in between. I think that’s something that a lot of people gravitate towards is that it’s this truth-telling, but then there’s also all these things that we’re showing that happen.
Everything we covered, I felt, was important and the way we dealt with it inspiring and it was actually just such a privilege to be able to tell those stories individually throughout each episode. Personally, for me, I think I had two that kind of resonated with me the most and kind of made me think a little bit. I think the first one is episode seven is a super surprising episode and it impacts Hannah in a way that, I think, no one really thinks on the surface. And episode nine, because I think it’s something that’s so relevant and happens so often and it was so frightening.
TV: The format of this show is interesting because the viewers know what will happen to Hannah, but in the flashbacks, nobody else does yet. How did you build off of each other as you were figuring out who Clay and Hannah were, and what their relationship was?
DM: Katherine helped me a little bit through the process because she had a whole book. Literally, you’d be like, “What time and place is this scene happening?” “Oh, it’s this date, at this time, this second. This comes before this.” I’m like, oh, my God. She is so much better than me at keeping track of timeline. On a completely just basic standpoint, she really helped me just to know where we were because the story is told in so many different places.
KL: It’s a lot of timeline.
DM: I feel like our evolution made a lot of sense, though, because once you get into a couple of episodes in, it starts to be told in pretty much a chronological order.
KL: Yeah, the evolution of Clay and Hannah, I feel like it happened really naturally. Part of that is casting, but also Dylan’s a sweetheart. I think you fall in love with Clay in the episodes because he’s so kind. Honestly, the further we got into shooting, obviously, [there was an] increase regarding severity of content, and I was doing these really heavy scenes. Pretty much every time we see Hannah, when she’s happy later on, it’s kind of always because of Clay. It’s the same thing with Dylan. Dylan would rock up on set and he would make me smile.
DM: Until we weren’t smiling?
KL: Until we weren’t smiling. [Laughs] I think it’s just a thing, like, the cast is so wonderful and everyone was so wonderful on set. I think Dylan and I, through the process of shooting, the further we got along, the closer we got to our characters, the more intimately we knew them and the more protected and in sync with them we felt. I think being friends outside of the shoot, but then also playing who we did, it just helped make that relationship what it was naturally.
DM: It’s a heartbreaking story. If you were to cut out just the flashbacks and make it its own little movie, it would be the most heartbreaking love story ever. I mean, it doesn’t even come to fruition. It was rough to do. It was fun doing the fun scenes with you, but, by the end, we couldn’t do that anymore. Even lost that in the end. I thought about that when we were filming, I was like, if you just put together a super-cut movie of our scenes in chronological order, it would be just the saddest movie ever. Luckily, with the way we’re telling the story, Clay’s protecting Hannah and defending her and he gets some justice.
KL: I really hope that happens. I would repost that if a fan made a movie about Clay and Hannah. It would be a very sad, but beautiful.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741.