Katherine Langford (’13 Reasons Why’): A truthful story ‘not dramatized and not romanticized’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

The suicide of Hannah Baker is the essential focal point of the first season for the Netflix drama series “13 Reasons Why.” Katherine Langford, who plays Hannah on the program, recently received her first major awards show nomination of her young career, competing this weekend at the Golden Globes for Best TV Drama Actress.

This past summer, the Australian native joined Gold Derby for a webchat hosted by senior editor Daniel Montgomery and contributor Tony Ruiz. Watch that video above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby (Daniel Montgomery): Katherine Langford, you play Hannah Baker in “13 Reasons Why” and this is a fairly intense role. This is a teenage girl, we meet her in flashbacks at which point she’s already died by suicide. What did you think about tackling this kind of emotional intensity when the show first came to your attention?

Katherine Langford: I think I’ve said this a few times, when I was cast, I actually hadn’t read the book and so it wasn’t really until after I’d been cast and met with Brian Yorkey and Tom McCarthy and a few more of the cast members and had read the book that I understood I think fully the story we were telling, and I think at that point, that was when I really realized the impact that it could have but also what I was gonna have to go through. And so I think from the very beginning, despite how heavy and how deep we get into Hannah’s life and the experiences that she goes through, we never treated it like tackling heavy content. It was always just about trying to tell a story in the most authentic way possible and just trying to make it as real as possible.

Gold Derby (Tony Ruiz): And to say that Hannah is put through the emotional wringer in this series is perhaps a bit of understatement, but as an actor, I’m curious, were there times that the character stuck with you off the set or were you able to really separate playing it on the set and leaving it there?

KL: Particularly with this kind of story, not just because of the intensity but also because of how long we were shooting it, Hannah wasn’t a character that I could just pick up and take off from. I think the further we got into it the more of her stuck with me. I did take time out. I wasn’t in it fully. I don’t think anyone could have been immersed in that character for six months fully, but I definitely did think about her a lot, and a lot of the time. I think the further we went along the more I understood about her and the more I grew to like her and care about her, so by the end of it I was attached ‘cause I see her as a person, and I think particularly with the impact that the show has had and the response that I’ve had from not just an overall kind of reception but particular stories from different people, she feels real and feels like she has more of a purpose than just being a character. So yeah, I feel very connected to her.

GD (Daniel): You had acted in a couple of short films before “13 Reasons Why” came around but, of course, this is a completely different animal, 13 episodes, you’re the leading role of the series. Was this kind of like acting bootcamp in a way?

KL: (Laughs.) Acting bootcamp… I guess you could kind of say that. Prior to “13 Reasons Why” I think I did like two horrendous, free short films like every actor does when you don’t have anything on your resume, and then I also did a crowdfunded short film in Australia which I was proud to be a part of, but as far as jobs go this was kind of the first thing I’ve ever done. It was the first proper casting I’d ever had, the first character I’d ever been in charge of and the first TV show, so to go through it from start to finish, also because it’s a TV show as opposed to a film, it’s six months, and I feel like in that six months I learned so much, so it was very hands-on but I think as hard as this was, it was probably the hardest first job you could possibly ever have, for a lot of reasons it was also the best. I think the people that were behind this I wouldn’t wanted to have told this story with anyone else.

GD (Tony): The series, of course, is obviously very complicated with the narrative perspective jumping back and forth in different time periods. How did you manage to juggle all of those complicated narratives and keep them all straight in your head?

KL: Did they keep straight in my head? (Laughs.) No, I think in many ways actually, my job as Hannah was relatively simplified by the dual storylines because obviously Hannah only really exists in one. In saying that, though, I am quite studious and I think having it as my first job or just the nature of what I’m like, we would get the scripts and then they would have coded flashback dates, so I ended up getting a notepad and writing down every single scene, every single flashback with all the dates so I could just look through it and see the scene beforehand and the scene after, but I think overall it was definitely a group effort. The writers did an incredible job of keeping it straight in their heads and Dylan [Minnette] and Brian were fantastic in keeping that together, ‘cause obviously Clay switches back so much so I’m really glad that we hopefully got it all right and no one picks anything out.

GD (Daniel): You’re an Australian actor, of course, and this is a series set in the United States so you’re working in an American accent. Was there anything difficult about that, the accent, or maybe getting into this American character, this American school that maybe from your perspective was maybe surprising or different?

KL: That’s a really good question. Well obviously ‘cause we’re going back into second season, we start shooting in a week or two, I’ve had to kind of go back and start getting back into the accent again because I’ve been in my Aussie accent for so long. But I think going into it, I’m quite musical, so I’ve got a pretty good ear so I can hear things and pick them up relatively quickly, but I think the real work for me was just speaking in it and embodying it ‘cause I think with accents you can have certain sounds so you can kind of get away with things at a base level, but just like any culture, it was really interesting hearing how different people in America speak, particularly in hanging out with the cast. Hearing how they spoke and different phrases that you’d pick up, things that people say in America that they wouldn’t in Australia, so I think seeing the differences not just in the sound but also in how people talk and what people say was really interesting for me.

GD (Tony): I’m actually a high school teacher as my main job and so I’ve able to see up close how teenagers are responding to the show. Many school districts, including my own, have sent out emails to teachers about how to talk about the show and of course there are some people who have some concerns about the show. I’m just curious, what is your take on how young people should watch this show and how do you come down on some of the more controversial elements of the show?

KL: To be honest, I feel like we shot the show with the vision being to tell the story in the most authentic way possible. Obviously we based the first season on the book written by Jay Asher, and that had such an impact and really resonated with young audiences so I think we just wanted to tell that story but tell it in a way that felt truthful and not dramatized and not romanticized, which I feel like we did, and I think the end result was instigating discussion, which I think, again, we were also really happy about because at the end of the day, it’s a TV show. It’s a piece of entertainment, so I think the discussion part has definitely been the most rewarding part. I think in discussion it’s important for people to voice different concerns and voice their opinions ‘cause that’s where we learn different things. Whether people like the show or don’t like the show, I think it’s a very personal thing so I haven’t told anyone how they should react because we cover so much in there that you’re gonna react to it differently depending on your own experiences and your own context, so I think it is very person to person.

I also wanna say there’s that difference of opinion, which is important because it creates discussion and people start talking about why is it bad, why is it good, why is this helpful? But then there’s people who for themselves, if you have experienced these things and you know for yourself that it may be triggering or painful to watch, there are trigger warnings on several of the episodes and I was also really glad that we were able to shoot that 30-minute “Beyond the Reasons.” It plays straight after Episode 13 but it’s a good place to go after you’ve watched it, ‘cause it is heavy, and I think you need to, like anyone, debrief. So yeah, I’m glad we got to do that.

GD (Daniel): In terms of not just how difficult it must be and upsetting it might be for an audience to watch, as an actor certainly playing those scenes, what kind of preparation did you do going into not just the suicide scene but also Hannah’s sexually assaulted in one episode. What were those preparations like for you as an actor?

KL: Well for me, one of the great things was at the start of production we had like a week of rehearsals with Tom McCarthy, not only to go over the first block, so Episode 1 and 2, but we also were able to kind of get the rough journey of what we would do and I think it was that setup that helped us go through the entire season and have the endurance to go through the entire season without peaking or getting too deep too fast. So we started light, and Tom said, “Start light ‘cause we’ve got a long way to go,” so by the time we got to Episode 9 where things really start to get very dark and very heavy, we had somewhere to go. I think the producers were great and Netflix was great ‘cause also at the beginning of that rehearsal period, we were put in contact with a number of psychiatrists and psychologists and specialists. For me, I talked a lot to Rebecca Kaplan from It’s On Us and I also spoke to a psychiatrist who specializes in adolescent mental ill health so when I was preparing for, say, Episode 9 or Episode 12 and 13, I spoke quite a bit to them to just get an informative experience-based perspective, to add to whatever I was gonna do and whatever I was gonna feel as Hannah.

GD (Tony): I’m just curious, with all this material that you have to deal with, I’m curious as to what the atmosphere on the set was like. Was it really serious or was there ways that they kept it light for you?

KL: I think that’s a really good question and to be honest, I feel like you’re covering serious content but everyone on set and everyone actually in the show was so invested and really wanted to do a good show that it was a fantastic environment, not just because people got along but because were able to have fun where it was appropriate. It wasn’t a somber, painful six months on set and off set, it was definitely balanced by light moments and joking around. I think you need that. You can’t do this kind of show for six months and be fully immersed in it, so yeah, it was a lot lighter than what we see on the show.

GD (Daniel): Your main scene partner through much of the show is Dylan Minnette, who plays Clay, who’s listening to the tapes, of course, and has his flashback scenes with Hannah. You and Dylan Minnette are close to the same age but he’s actually been acting for over 10 years. What was it like working with him?

KL: Brilliant. How much time have we got? Whenever I talk about Dylan I always seem to end up rambling (laughs). So I’m gonna try and choose my words ‘cause he is honestly, I remember it was my first show and he’s been working for quite some time and he was just the best first onscreen partner I could ever imagine working with. We’re very, very dear friends but he was very generous and very supportive and welcoming, not just a person. As a person he’s the nicest, funniest, just the most beautiful person you could ever imagine is Dylan, but then as an actor on top of that, he’s also super, super talented and really cares about the work and again, was extremely generous. I think particularly, we both saw that and acknowledged that in Episode 11, which is Clay’s tape, and it’s kind of where Hannah and Clay, their relationship, it all comes together and all falls apart. We shot that at night and it was 11 o’clock at night and I think after we did that scene it was the moment where we both like… I don’t know. It was such a special scene to shoot because it felt so real and both of us were so invested so yeah, working with Dylan was fantastic and I hope I get to work with him again and for a very, very long time. I also learned a lot from him, which I’m thankful for, ‘cause he is so great in what he does and has such a wonderful presence. I’m gonna stop rambling now but I just wanna say, he’s great. I honestly have only amazing things to say about him (laughs).

GD (Tony): What’s been the response from young people? Have young people come up to you and talked to you? What kind of stories have they shared with you?

KL: I don’t leave the house that much. I do, but the last six months I’ve been traveling so I haven’t had an awful lot of opportunity to meet with lots and lots of fans, but on the occasions that I have, it’s definitely been very, very positive, but I think also, not surprisingly, as in like I was surprised or shocked, but I think I was surprised by how personally it would affect people. Sometimes you’ll have people come up to you and they’ll just want a photo or you’ll have people who are fans of the show, but a lot of the time, a lot of the stories that have stuck with me and resonated with me are ones where people just pulled me aside and quietly said, “Thank you so much, this show really helped my sister.” Or, I had the other day someone come up to me who watched the show and had a friend who died by suicide and it’s hearing those stories and feeling that watching the show was helpful and good to them but also realizing that the stuff we cover in the show happens a lot more than I thought it did, particularly the things like bullying. I’d seen things like sexting, people not knowing how to use consent or bullying and cyberbullying and sexual harassment but I don’t think I ever fully realized the extent to which it was happening, so that’s another reason why I’m glad this show has instigated discussion because it’s allowed people to realize that they’re not the only ones going through it.

GD (Daniel): As you mentioned, the show is coming back for a second season, going back into production soon, and Hannah will be a part of that second season, even though the audience has already heard the tapes that she left behind. What are your thoughts about going beyond the novel and taking the story and character in whatever direction they’re headed in? Not to ask you to reveal any specific spoilers.

KL: Yeah. I’m really excited, and I’m not just saying that ‘cause I’m a part of the show ‘cause in a weird way I also feel not directly involved in the show, ‘cause I appreciate it as an audience member but when I have to work I kind of work. So I get to love it from two points of view, which is really nice. But having read the first few scripts and starting shooting soon, I’m really excited ‘cause I think it will give us the opportunity to continue dialogue on things that are important but it’s also gonna be a different story, but I think in a way that will still carry on the importance of what we did in the first season.

GD (Tony): I have to say one of the most affecting scenes for me, coming from a teaching standpoint, is the scene with you and Derek Luke as the counselor, which was a very, very intense scene. Can you talk about what filming that scene was like and working with Derek?

KL: First of all, Derek is so wise and has such a mellow presence but what he does is so subtle but is very truthful and he really cares about the work he’s doing. I think shooting the scene, it’s funny because we shot that scene, it was the last day that I worked so the day that I wrapped was when we wrapped that scene. Fun fact, we did it not long after Hannah’s final scene in Episode 13 where I had got a cold the night before, so I kind of have a cold when I’m doing it which is what I noticed when I watched it again, which obviously isn’t a big deal because it’s about the content but that’s a fun fact. I sound a little bit nasal ‘cause I have a cold, but it was a really interesting scene to not just only perform but I think to rehearse. Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who directed Episode 5 and 6 and then Episode 13, got Derek and I in a room when we were rehearsing it and it was just one of these scenes where it felt so easy, especially because at that point, coming from Hannah’s point of view, and what she’d gone through, saying this kind of thing, everything she was saying felt real so that was a credit to Brian Yorkie and all the writers in the room, but also the way that Kyle decided to shoot it, he was very specific. I think we had two cameras, so I would be sitting here and Derek Luke would be sitting in front of me and we would have these cameras circling in this cyclical motion so they would get everything, and then the closeups. Sorry, now I’m just diving into how much I love that scene. Kyle was very specific on how he wanted to shoot it and why and I think when you watch it, it’s intricate and you can feel those intricacies even though Derek Luke and I are not really doing very much. We’re just sitting down, it’s all in what’s going on inside.

GD (Daniel): One last thing, with Season 1 as successful as it was, as sparking as much conversation as it has and now going into Season 2, is there anything in particular looking at this show that you want viewers to be able to take away from Hannah, from watching her story and from your performance in it?

KL: I think Season 1, there’s so much that you can take away but I think one of the biggest things is just knowing that you’re never alone, knowing that even if you feel broken or that there’s something wrong with you, so many people are experiencing what you’re experiencing and there’s always help there for you. So I hope when people watch this it’s a way for them to see not only that they are able to talk about different things or maybe identify with what the characters are going through but also in regards to Hannah, see where other people are wrong but also see the opportunities where she could have asked for help or the avenues she could have gone down for help. I think it’s such a tricky thing because it’s no one’s fault. Sorry, I’m mumbling my words, but what I’m trying to say is I think everyone should take something different from the show and they will depending on whatever resonates with them the most but I think with Hannah’s story it’s important to see where she is and see how you can get out of that situation and the avenues you can take. Mainly just, you’re not alone and you’re not broken.

GD (Daniel): I wanna congratulate you again on Season 1 of “13 Reasons Why” and going into Season 2, looking forward to many more “reasons why” as we go along. Thank you so much for talking with us.

KL: Thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited to be on here and I can’t wait for Season 2 to come out.

 

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