Talking to the '13 Reasons Why' Cast About Stigmas, Storytelling, and Selena

Talking to the '13 Reasons Why' Cast About Stigmas, Storytelling, and Selena

Brandon Flynn, Alisha Boe, Michele Selene Ang, and Tommy Dorfman open up to V about what it was like working on Netflix's groundbreaking show.

Brandon Flynn, Alisha Boe, Michele Selene Ang, and Tommy Dorfman open up to V about what it was like working on Netflix's groundbreaking show.

Photography: Mitchell McCormack

Text: Adair Smith

Alisha Boe

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How did you hear about the project and why were you drawn to it?

I read 13 Reasons Why in middle school and the story really resonated with me. It made me realize that there's a domino effect to everything. When I got the audition for the show, I was so excited to have the opportunity to be a part of an important story.

Selena Gomez is someone who has been so open about her mental health journey. How was it working with her as a producer on the project?

I admire Selena for being transparent about her mental health issues and how she uses her platform to start a conversation and lift the stigma on mental health. She's genuinely passionate about 13 Reasons Why and she believes in the message behind the show. It's been a pleasure working with her.

What are some of the biggest similarities and differences between you and your character?

I relate the most to Jessica's resilience. I would say our biggest difference is that I never had a boyfriend in high school.

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What was your favorite part of the show to film?

My first day on set was with Katherine [Langford] and Miles [Heizer] doing our FML scenes. It's probably my favorite memory because it was such a good introduction to filming 13 Reasons Why.

As soon as the show came out everyone was talking about it. Were you surprised at the response?

I knew the show was going to be popular because of the huge following the book already has, but I had no idea it was going to be this huge! It was definitely exciting to see how quickly people responded to it.

Was the prep any different for this role versus other projects you’ve been a part of, and if so, why?

I did a lot of research when prepping for Jessica. The producers made sure I had enough resources to educate myself on rape survivors. I was able to consult with Rebecca Kaplan from It's On Us and a psychiatrist that deals specifically with rape survivors.

What would you like to see from season two?

I would love to see Jessica's road to recovery and justice for Hannah.

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Brandon Flynn

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How did you hear about the project and why were you drawn to it?

My agents sent me the script for the first episode. I was fresh out of undergrad, maybe two or three months. I thought the story was really important and Brian Yorkey's dramatization of the book was written so well.

13 Reasons Why addresses teen suicide in such a head-on way—not to mention drug abuse, depression, and sexual assault. What was it like tackling such heavy subject matter?

The show deals with a lot of content that I think we consider taboo in conversation, I think it gets even more taboo when we discuss a younger generation tackling situations like drug abuse, rape, and suicide. It's a responsibility to deal with these subjects in any form of art; we tell stories to hopefully begin a conversation amongst society. The parts were written really well, and the difficulty was making sure we took care of ourselves in the process of filming. But overall, these stories were so familiar to my experiences as a young person. I saw a lot of the same stuff happening to people I knew very well.

What was it like working with [executive producer] Selena Gomez?

Selena Gomez is a beautiful person. She shares so much of herself and I think it helps a lot of people out there dealing with the same things. She is very busy, so my interactions with her during filming were limited, but her generosity and passion are very alive in the project, and that was really important to a lot of us!

What are some of the biggest similarities and differences between you and your character?

Justin Foley and I have many similarities and many differences. I think that is my favorite part of being an actor, you get to see yourself in so many types of people. Justin is an actor too, he wears a mask at school that is very different from the one he has to wear at home. That was a really powerful connection between us, I think a lot of people would connect to that. The biggest difference between us, and something that was really tricky to play in the scene, [is that] I would never let Jessica be raped. I began to understand Justin's motives, but I will always hold that against him.

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What was your favorite part of the show to film?

The first episode was so much fun to film! There was a great, new and vibrant energy amongst everyone. Because it was the beginning of Hannah's story, it was bright and playful and young. Tom McCarthy had amazing ideas and a great eye for the story we were telling and I'm amazed at the journey the show goes on—the way it started and the darkness it ends in.

What did you think about how the show was received?

I am so grateful to be a part of a show like this... I don't think I expected the response to happen so quick, but hey, I'm not complaining. I know there is controversy behind our show and I think that's great, just as great as the love people have for it. I think you know you're doing something important when people have problems with it.

How did you prepare for your role?

My preparation evolves with how I evolve as a person, but also with each individual project. It's art, not science... there are so many ways and no formula for perfection! The work that went into 13 Reasons Why was a lot more personal than some other projects because the story was so powerful and I felt like I had nothing else to do but dive in with all my personal experiences.

Why do you think this is an important story to tell?

I think this story is ugly, and that makes people question it. But we live in an ugly story. What happens amongst these kids is something incredibly common at (I dare say) every high school. This is an important mirror we are holding up and not only for young people to look back at it, but for adults to reflect on as well. We have to know that the things we do can impact a lot of lives around us, and we have to do better things to impact people in better ways.

What would you like to see from season two?

I want to see justice for Hannah and Jessica. I want to see how these young people grow up.

 

Tommy Dorfman

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How did you hear about the project and why were you drawn to it?

My roommate actually came home with the audition first. I read the pilot, and immediately called my reps to be seen. I was blown away by how truthfully the show portrayed teenagers and knew, after reading the book, that I wanted to be a part of the show in some capacity. I was particularly drawn to Ryan because I’d never seen a show with an LGBTQ character so confident and comfortable with themselves in High School. The story as a whole explores the painful issues I was faced with as a teenager—suicide, sexual abuse, bullying, addiction—and I knew that it was going to be a meaningful project.

What was it like tackling such heavy subject matter?

It was cathartic in a way because, when I was in High School, I didn’t have the language or the courage to face these issues that were rampant in my school and amongst my peers. Having the opportunity as an adult, and an actor, to tell this story was extremely meaningful. I think because I knew how important the subject matter of our show was I didn’t find it too challenging to tackle, I just went into it, with the rest of the cast and creative team, to tell this story, knowing that it might help viewers who are struggling or going through the same things characters in the show experience.

How was it working with Selena?

Selena was, and is, a huge inspiration for me. She challenges me to be more truthful both on set and off. Her courage encouraged me to be open publicly about my own issues with mental health and addiction, knowing that being open about that might help someone else.

What are some of the biggest similarities and differences between you and your character?

I was that gay kid in high school who didn’t have a lot of close friends but circulated amongst groups of people when necessary. I also used a façade to hide my pain. However, I wasn’t nearly as outspoken or truly confident as Ryan is… and I’m a terrible poet! But I do write screenplays. I also wasn’t as comfortable with my sexuality as he is.

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What was your favorite part of the show to film?

Probably, looking back on it, my scenes in episode eight where Hannah and Ryan’s friendship starts developing. It was really sweet shooting that with Katherine and bringing these characters, who really needed a friend, together in those moments. It made it even more painful to see their relationship deteriorate because of Ryan’s actions.

How did you prep for the role?

13 Reasons Why was my first professional job out of college, so I don’t have much to compare it to. I will say, I used the skills I learned in school to prepare as much as possible for this show, to create the character, Ryan.

Why do you think this is an important story to tell?

It’s important for teenagers, young adults, parents, teachers, really everyone to see what the true High School experience is. It’s important to start the dialogue and de-stigmatize suicide, rape, bullying, and addiction to hopefully save lives, help those who are suffering, and better understand each other.

What would you like to see from season two?

I’d love to see what happens with the trial, Bryce’s fate, if Jessica gets justice, more about Tony and Ryan, and if Alex survives and how the school possibly learns from Hannah.

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Michele Selene Ang

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Why were you drawn to this project?

I heard about it through an open call notice, in my last few weeks of college. When I saw that I had a callback, I delved deeper into my research, and read the book. I was intrigued by how Jay spun his story, and by the complexity of the sides I had to read for my callback.

How did you handle the difficult issues the story deals with?

We all knew from the start what we had to deal with, so because of that we were all able to approach it as a united front. Our producers made sure we had resources, professionals to talk to, research materials on the pressing issues addressed in the show. It really was a team effort.

And what about Selena?

Selena has been a benevolent presence since day one on this project. She came to visit set on the last day of filming for Season 1 and it made an emotional day all the more poignant. I’m personally thankful for her advocacy, because it’s not only a big part of why I have my job, but because I think we are starting to see a shift in how we talk about depression and anxiety. She leads by example.

What was your favorite part of the show to film?

Probably the dance sequence, pretty much the whole crew was there, so we would just hang out between takes. I think everyone was enjoying the scenery and basking in the nostalgia high school dances inevitably bring up.

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What are some of the biggest similarities and differences between you and your character?

I could write a fucking book on this. Especially given how most people are reacting to my character. I think a big similarity between me and her is that we both want things to be nice, smooth, beautiful, flawless, perfect. I remember trying to maintain this image in high school, and I still feel the remnants of this tendency today. I’m still learning how to stand up for myself, if someone says something that makes me uncomfortable, I still struggle to point it out because I am afraid that if I do, they’ll judge me or say I’m being too sensitive. With Courtney, I think she presents only her best self to everyone around her, including her dads, because she is not brave enough to confront the ugly parts, because this is the only way she knows how to live, and because she desperately needs to be liked and to belong. I want people to think about where her actions stem from: a deep well of insecurity and a keenly developed sense of self protection at all costs. I don’t think she does anything with malicious intent, but from a place of cowardice. She’s denying her true self. She has many friends, but not one true friend. I think she sees, in Hannah, the possibility of a start towards self discovery and empowerment, because here is a girl who is genuine and who does have the courage to be herself. But in the end, it all threatens to overcome this image she worked so hard to build, then she deals with it the best way she knows how.

In a way, I don’t see many differences between me and her. Because I have been her at one point in my life, and she still lives within me. I’ve grown past her now, but that’s a big reason why I get so irritated when fans of the show say, “I hate Courtney, but I love Michele,” or “If everyone hates you because of your role, it’s because you’re such a good actress, so good job!” No. If anything, it makes me feel like I should have been a lot better at my job to get you all to empathize with my character, and understand why she does what she does. We’ve all been Courtney at one point in our lives, and I hope we’ll get a chance to see her confront her demons.

Were you surprised by how immediately popular it was?

It was just a weird experience the first few days for me, because it’s hard to separate work from art. In other words, I was so filled with these memories of working through this or that scene and feeling so pressured to do a good job that I couldn’t simply watch the show the first time I saw it. I knew we had created something special and of course I believed in our efforts... but I don’t think any of us were prepared for the explosion of enthusiasm. So yes, I was surprised at first, but now since I’ve had time to consider everything, I’m just glad to see the entire spectrum of reactions to it. We’re talking, which means we’ve done our jobs.

Why do you think this is an important story to tell?

It is important because people need to realize that words hurt, that high school really can be traumatic for some kids, and that everyone processes things differently. I really believe it’s helping to alleviate the stigma attached to mental health issues, sexual assault, coming out, and I’m grateful to be able to partake in and observe the movement.

What would you like to see from season two?

Well, I’d definitely want to see how Courtney’s relationship with her parents develop, and how she will grow into her own self. There were so many cliffhangers. I think each “reason” will have the opportunity to explore newer facets of themselves and their lives outside of the tapes. Will Jessica and Justin ever get back together? Will Bryce own up to his actions? Will Jessica tell the truth about that night at the party? What does Tyler plan to do with all of that ammunition? What will happen to Alex? It goes on and on.

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Go behind the scenes of our shoot with the cast of 13 Reasons Why:

Credits: FLYNN, Dorfman, and Ang: styling suzi rezler  hair and makeup elie maalouf Boe: styling alexa r. green  Makeup Jeffery Baum at Artists Co. using TOM FORD BEAUTY  Hair Sascha Breuer using Bumble & bumble. at Starworks Artists

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