It sounds like an unenviable task: Make a show about suicide that handles the subject matter sensitively, while also being entertaining. Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” strikes that delicate balance, and according to its young stars Dylan Minnette (“Prisoners”) and Katherine Langford, all credit goes to the powerhouse creative team behind this gripping drama.
Based on Jay Asher’s young adult novel and created by Tony-winning playwright Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”), with “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy as executive producer, “13 Reasons Why” tells the story of 16-year-old Hannah Baker (Langford), a vibrant young girl who shocks everyone who knew her when she takes her own life. In lieu of a suicide note, Hannah leaves behind 13 cassette tapes, with each side detailing a reason and person who led her to suicide. As the tapes get passed around to the people named, a shy boy named Clay Jensen (Minnette), who had a crush on Hannah, finds himself engrossed in Hannah’s tale — and potentially implicated in her death.
Like an indie take on “Pretty Little Liars,” the series is equal parts suspenseful and entertaining, as the storytelling switches between flashback and present day. Minnette says the idea to “keep it light” at the start came from McCarthy, whose direction of the first two episodes set the tone for entire series. “He said: ‘Keep it light, ’cause these characters have a long way to go. It’s easy to go in and be dramatic right off the bat, but throughout the season, stuff really gets a lot worse for every character in the show and if you start it off that way, there’s no way to go,'” said Minnette. “He really kept it grounded from the beginning, and it’s kind of timeless thanks to him.”
“He has so much energy,” said Langford. “He gives so much energy and focus to the project at hand, and he keeps everyone up at that pace with him. I think he speaks in an actor’s language, but he says stuff that you can translate into an action.”
The Oscar-winning screenwriter is also an accomplished actor, perhaps best known to television fans as Scott Templeton on “The Wire.” Minnette admits he’s had great luck with directors, having worked with Denis Villeneuve, Fede Alvarez, and Miguel Arteta by the ripe age of 20, but working with a fellow actor like McCarthy was a first.
“I’ve never worked to this extent with a director who was an actor, and he made so much sense,” he said. “Any direction he gave us, any note, you could tell it was coming from an amazing actor. And he’s so funny, he really helps you feel comfortable. If you do something funny, he’ll call you out and laugh about it … There’d be moments where I’d be talking to the other actors and we’d be like, ‘I’m so glad Tom told us this back then, ’cause I’d be playing it so differently now if he hadn’t.'”
McCarthy was not the only renowned director on set: Minnette and Langford also had the pleasure of working with New Queer Cinema fixture Gregg Araki (“Mysterious Skin,” “Kaboom”), Sundance regular Jessica Yu (“In the Realms of the Unreal”), and another celebrated actor/director, Carl Franklin (“Devil In A Blue Dress,” “One False Move”).
When the discussion landed on Araki, the two young actors lit up. “He’s a wizard. So fun and so vibrant and has such an eye,” said Langford.
“He definitely has his own style,” said Minnette. “His episodes were very much experimental and it was cool. It was fresh, it was like, ‘Whoa, he’s doing it like this, okay.’ It felt like a new game and it was really fun.”
Araki came on at the midway point for two episodes, and the shifting directors kept the actors on their toes. “Gregg was really like high and cool for [episodes] seven and eight, and then [episode] nine is really where it hits,” said Langford. “Having Gregg Araki and then going to Carl Franklin, Carl got really real with everyone for those first two heavy episodes.”
In such good hands, Langford could trust that the serious subject matter was being handled with utmost care. While the whole team was prepped with research from on-set experts and psychiatrists, Langford doesn’t see “13 Reasons Why” as being solely about suicide.
“It kind of tackles a lot of issues, all mixed in, especially as the season goes on,” she said. “I don’t like to say issues, because in reality they’re just things that happen to people. I think the big thing with this show is we’re not doing something that’s necessarily groundbreaking, it’s just we’re showing what’s actually going on.”
“13 Reasons Why” is currently streaming on Netflix.