Booking her first lead role with Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, Katherine Langford left her native Australia behind, getting a crash course in screen acting while confronting tremendously dark and challenging material.
Based on the bestselling novel by Jay Asher, the series centers on the suicide of Hannah (Langford), a teenager caught up in a Lynchian high school world where bullying, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are everyday realities. In her first time out, Langford had the opportunity to learn from Oscar-winning director Tom McCarthy and an array of indie stalwarts, among them Gregg Araki and Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
Speaking with Deadline, the actress discusses the conversation the series has generated, acclimating to screen acting, and the possibility for a television series to effect change.
Had you read Jay Asher’s novel prior to your involvement with 13 Reasons Why?
It was after I was cast that I read the book, and I started realizing the kind of story we were going to tell. Jay Asher’s novel, combined with the pedigree of people involved with the project, was something that really excited me, and made it such a special show.
How I got the job is a slightly intricate story. I had just started taking my first screen acting classes the year before when I turned 18, and at the end of that year, I signed with my US managers.
At the time that the audition came through, I had just come back from testing for two network projects, which I didn’t get. I had given up drama school to go and test for them, so I was back home in Perth with no job, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my year.
That’s when the audition came through. I put down a tape, one thing led to another, and they cast me.
Hannah is an interesting character, in that she’s an absence at the heart of the series. What were the challenges associated with that framework?
We shot in blocks. You don’t necessarily shoot scenes chronologically, but we would focus on two episodes at a time. There was the added intricacy of having two timelines—one, prior to Hannah’s death, and one, after Hannah’s death, which at times was tricky to manage or keep tabs on.
Brian Yorkey and the writers did such a phenomenal job of keeping us in the right timeline. I wanted to make sure that I was getting everything at the right moment, so I kept a journal with all of the dates—with all the things that we were shooting—and put them in chronological order, so that I could look at a scene and know what happened before, and what was going to happen.
How did you first meet Dylan Minnette—who portrays the series’ other pivotal character?
Off the bat, I think Dylan’s one of the most talented and generous and wonderful people you could ever work with. He’s a really dear friend, but the start of our friendship was kind of bizarre for the chemistry of the show because so much of the show was based on the chemistry between Hannah and Clay.
Dylan and I didn’t meet until a week before we had to start shooting. I was never flown over for a network test, and we never did a chemistry read. The first time I ever spoke to him was via Skype when I was in Perth and he was in Northern California. We had a really good conversation and hopping off that call, I felt immediately that he was an awesome person I was really excited to work with.
As for the rapport, I felt like it was an easy thing to build. We get along so naturally and so easily.
An impressive array of prestige directors came through the show this season, including Tom McCarthy. What was it like to work with your Season 1 directors?
The more I talk about it, the more I love the show, and the fact that I got to be a part of it. 13 Reasons Why was the first real job that I’ve had, and I think it was the best first show I could have ever done, but also, in a lot of ways, the hardest—purely because of the journey that Hannah goes through, and the magnitude of the show itself. Being a lead for the first time, and moving overseas, and overcoming those hurdles.
In terms of the acting, to be able to work with an Oscar-winning director for your first project is being a bit spoiled, really. Tom McCarthy was really helpful—he’s so intelligent, and has excellent ideas and a wonderful vision for the work that we did.
A lot of the advice that he gave me after Episodes 1 and 2, I found myself carrying throughout the entire season. “Keep it light, because there’s a long way to go” was one thing he said, and that really did stick with me throughout the course of the season, in telling Hannah’s story.
Having the opportunity to work with some phenomenal directors bringing their own unique twist to each episode was such a privilege. Following Tom, we had Helen Shaver, Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Gregg Araki, Carl Franklin and Jessica Yu, and all of them were so intelligent and so thorough and so thoughtful in how they directed things.
I feel like I learned a lot, not just as an actor, but also from a director point of view. It was fascinating to watch.
What has it been like to see 13 Reasons Why hit the zeitgeist, and generate so much buzz on social media?
The special thing for me is that as someone who is in the show, even if I can’t necessarily understand the full scope or magnitude of the response, I get to hear individual responses from fans who come up to me and are able to share their stories. I feel like that’s very special, and I feel very privileged to be in that position.
With the series’ substantial following and the many real-world issues the series addresses head-on, do you feel that 13 Reasons Why can effect positive change in the world?
I think 13 Reasons Why is predominantly a piece of entertainment. For that reason, and also because it’s on Netflix, I feel like it’s acceptable to a really large number of people. I think where it’s been effective is that, yes, it is a piece of entertainment, so it’s not coming across as a PSA, but I feel like the approach to telling the story was to tell it the most authentic way possible.
I think that’s why there have been so many really personal and incredible responses, is because it resonates as something that is true, or feels like something that is real, and is happening.
I think one of the best things that the show has done, from what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen, is it’s started a discussion in a really big way. I think it’s that discussion where I feel like the impact or the change can be made. The show may not necessarily be the change, but if it can be the instigator for that kind of discussion, then that’s where I find that it’s helpful.
13 Reasons Why really pulls no punches, and for that reason, has generated its fair share of controversy and attention in the news. What has your feeling been, witnessing that?
As a young adult, playing a young adult and covering these issues, which are so relevant, I feel proud of the work we’ve done. I’ve seen the thought and the care in making the series, and I feel like we did what we aimed to do, which was to tell the story in the most authentic way possible.
What I’m also proud of is there have been measures in aftercare, which is something that Netflix and the show didn’t need to do. It’s a testament to the vision that the creators had for this show, to tell it in the most authentic way possible, but then also recognize that it could have a significant impact.
To account for that, there are several links that we share. We do a 30-minute Beyond the Reasons, kind of debriefing after Episode 13. There are trigger warnings, and there are articles. Even making the show, we talked to a number of healthcare professionals to get their professional opinions on not just what would be helpful, but also what rings true in the script.
That’s my standpoint. I feel proud of the series, but I also understand that when you do a show that covers really serious, personal and relevant issues, there’s going to be a difference of opinion. I think that difference of opinions and discussion is the important part, and it’s where the show makes a difference, being able to talk about things and share opinions, and the reasons why we think that way.
I think every opinion is valid because we’re all different, and we all watch the show with our different personal context.
Brian Yorkey makes an interesting choice in the season finale, showing the moment of Hannah’s suicide without cutting away. How did you prepare for this visceral, difficult scene?
I think visceral is a really good word to describe it, and to be honest, when we did the table reads, it felt like the right choice. I don’t think there was ever a moment where we didn’t want to show Hannah’s suicide because that wouldn’t have been staying true to the vision of the show. I felt like it would have sugarcoated the severity of the issue. It’s not pretty, it’s not romanticized, it’s not a beautiful tragedy—it’s agonizing, and it’s physically painful to watch.
Going into acting that, I obviously had some considerations a few weeks leading up to it, because it’s such an important moment. It’s an act that has been emulated on screen a few times, but for me, has often rung untrue. I consulted with Brian, and I talked to healthcare professionals. I worked with a psychiatrist who specializes in adolescent mental [illness] to try and understand what someone would be going through at that point in time.
When it got to doing the scene, even though I was prepared for it and felt super supported, there was still a part of me that was really sad for Hannah. It was this moment where you’re playing this girl, but you’re also telling her not to do it, which was a weird feeling because it’s a character.
But I think after six months, she felt so much like a real person that it was real response in doing it.
What were the biggest challenges you faced this season?
I think I grew as an actor because there were so many things to learn, and so many hard parts of life to play out in Hannah’s journey. One of the challenges I overcame on 13 Reasons Why was just knowing the technicalities of what it’s like to be a working actor.
It’s the first thing I’ve done. I moved over to another country and was living by myself for six months, so I felt like I grew a lot as a person. It kind of forced me to learn how to take care of myself.