“13 Reasons Why” landed with a bang heard round the internet: The series, about a high school girl who commits suicide, became the most tweeted-about show of 2017 just one month after its premiere, and made overnight stars out of its two leads, Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette.
It also sparked a national conversation about suicide — and what’s appropriate to be shown on TV.
The actors, who were thrust into the spotlight, faced a crash course in the power and pressure of social media.
“You have an idea of what fame is and what celebrities are like and what acting is like, and you think you can just focus on the work, but in reality, you can’t just necessarily focus on the work because it comes with the privilege and responsibility of having a larger platform,” says Langford. “That’s something that I’ve tried to deal with in a very levelheaded way.”
|SHAYAN ASGHARNIA for Variety|
She points to her Instagram account: It was private at the time the show premiered; now that she’s made it public, the number of followers has jumped to nearly 7 million.
“I like to have moments and periods of life that are expressive and where you can be creative, and I think that’s harder when you have more people that are more aware of you and watching you because if they don’t understand the context and they see a picture of you doing something crazy, then it can get taken the wrong way,” she says. “I don’t think it’s ever something that feels normal, especially as a 21-year-old.”
Minnette had nearly 40 roles to his credit when he was cast in the Netflix hit — he’s been acting since he was six. But Langford hadn’t acted professionally at all when she auditioned for the role. Born and raised in Australia, she didn’t take her first acting class until she was 18 and had just a handful of international auditions under her belt before she sent in a tape for “13 Reasons Why.” She jokes that her only prior acting work was a few “horrendous” student films.
“To be honest, I came into the audition at a really weird time,” Langford says. “I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t have drama school, and I was wondering what I was going to be doing with my life, and that’s about the time that the audition for ‘13 Reasons Why’ came around.”
She did her callback over Skype with director and executive producer Tom McCarthy. “The one thing I remember him saying was ‘I think we’re done,’” Langford recalls. “And in my mind I was like, ‘OK, that’s either a really good thing or a really bad thing.’”
It was a good thing.
“It was tricky and very, very challenging casting Hannah,” showrunner Brian Yorkey says of Langford’s character. “We saw many talented, wonderful actresses, but we just needed the person that brought that very special luminosity. We needed that, and that came via a self-tape from Perth, Australia, in the form of Katherine Langford.”
When Minnette came in for the role of Clay, he captured the character perfectly, reports Yorkey. “We very much wanted someone who would be believable as an average kid who has some depth of thoughts in him that most people have not seen yet,” the showrunner says. “We believed him in everything he did and found him incredibly compelling when he took the character to those deeper places.”
Like Langford, Minnette says the show has brought a new sense of pressure. “There are a lot of ups and downs to how life has changed,” he says.
Though the co-stars say the transition has been challenging, both understand that their newfound fame is a necessary byproduct of an uber-successful show. Helping them navigate is no less than the queen of Young Hollywood, Selena Gomez, who is an executive producer on the show — and the most-followed person on Instagram.
Langford was reluctant to make her Instagram account public, but Gomez convinced her that with a mass following at her fingertips, she would be able to interact with her young fans — something that has proved to be especially important given the show’s explicit coverage of teen suicide. Cognizant of the power of addressing millions of teenagers directly, Langford has included links to suicide prevention hotlines and The Trevor Project across her platforms.
|“Overall, I think it was a good thing. You need there to be opinions in order for there to be discussions, and that’s really what the show is about — talking about issues that are taboo or that people wouldn’t usually discuss with parents or teachers.”|
“I wanted to be there for fans who wanted to reach out or connect after the show,” Langford explains. But, she adds, “I also think there’s a point where if you’re looking to [social media] for affirmation, that’s where it can be overwhelming because you’re relying on other people’s opinions to feel good about yourself.”
Minnette, who has a reach of nearly 5 million across Twitter and Instagram, is less of a fan of being plugged in. “I get real anxiety when it comes to social media. I never want to do or say the wrong thing,” he says. “For the most part, I try not to touch social media, but I hope I can do good when I do. I don’t know how to handle that type of pressure.”
That pressure has been immense because of the intense backlash the show received, given its vivid portrayal of Hannah’s suicide (she slit her wrists in the bathtub), as well as two on-screen rapes of intoxicated high school students. The graphic footage prompted parents to slam Netflix for glorifying suicide, and pushed Canadian schools to ban any discussion of the series in classrooms. The show had trigger warnings ahead of each episode; Netflix then added links to a mental health resource website. And on July 31, a medical study was released that found that online searches about suicide have skyrocketed since the debut of “13 Reasons Why,” including searches for suicide awareness.
“When you make a show like this, we expected controversy. What surprised me was how long it took,” says Langford, who points out that the storm didn’t reach a fever pitch until three weeks after the show’s debut.
But, she says, the discussion it sparked was ultimately for the best. “Overall, I think it was a good thing,” she says. “You need there to be opinions in order for there to be discussions, and that’s really what the show is about — talking about issues that are taboo or that people wouldn’t usually discuss with parents or teachers.”
|SHAYAN ASGHARNIA for Variety|
That said, Langford believes the trigger warnings should have been on the show from the start.
While Minnette agrees that the opposing opinions about the show are healthy and necessary, he feels that some of the backlash was unfounded.
“What bothers me is that I noticed most of the people who had negative things to say, they didn’t see it. They would say, ‘I’m not going to watch this because this glorifies suicide.’ Well, how would you know unless you watched the season? You’re judging the series and what we’ve done based entirely off of something that you’ve heard or read,” Minnette says. “I think anyone in their right mind would be able to watch and process what we did and put together the piece that we laid out and be able to see exactly why we did what we did, and know our real intentions, because everybody behind this had the greatest intentions and the best heart and cared so much about this.”
Langford acknowledges that her character’s suicide scene was difficult to film — even talking about it brings her to tears. But she says the graphic nature of the show was needed to get across the anti-bullying message.
“We show Hannah’s suicide not to glorify it. We show the rape not to glorify it,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable when you watch it. So we made decisions creatively, acting-wise and writing-wise, that contributed to us wanting to show this in a way that felt truthful and authentic. Personally, I don’t feel like it glorifies it at all. When I watch those scenes, I get a visceral response — it makes me sick, and it makes me sad.”
Both point out that the show has had a positive impact as well.
|SHAYAN ASGHARNIA for Variety|
“The people who are yelling about it are always going to be louder, but I think there’s an overwhelmingly larger amount of people that it helped, more than people that it hurt,” Minnette says.
Langford shares the story of a recent fan encounter. “I was in L.A. going to a dinner, and a girl walked past me and tapped me really quietly and was like, ‘I don’t want to draw attention, but your show really helped my sister. Thank you,’” she says. “Those are moments where I’m like, that’s why I do this.”
And they’re not backing down. To continue generating conversation, the co-stars reveal, the upcoming season — which is in production — will not be toned down. “It’s evident from the get-go that we’re not pulling any punches this year,” Minnette teases, adding that the new episodes explore the recovery process for rape victim Jessica (Alisha Boe) in the aftermath of last season’s graphic scenes between her and Bryce (Justin Prentice).
While he won’t give any details, Yorkey assures that the intense scrutiny on the show — good and bad — won’t affect the intent of the storytelling in the upcoming season.
“If I worried about anything coming into season two, it would be that the successes of the show and the attention on the actors would be a distraction from what it is that we’re trying to do, and that has not been the case at all,” he says. “If anything, everyone has come back to the show even more deeply committed to doing something that we’re all proud of.”
See behind-the-scenes footage of Variety‘s shoot with Langford and Minnette below as part of “Uncovered” presented by H&M.