'13 Reasons Why' Actress: How the Series Brings Awareness to Sexual Assault

Alisha Boe, who plays Jessica, talks with THR about the show's graphic rape scenes and why it was important to not shy away from telling stories of sexual violence.
Beth Dubber/Netflix

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from season one of Netflix's 13 Reasons Why.] 

13 Reasons Why has sparked a discussion worldwide about the real-life traumas facing teens — and now former Vice President Joe Biden is joining in on the conversation. 

Speaking about the Netflix series, which hails from scribe Brian Yorkey and based on Jay Asher's best-selling YA novel of the same name, Biden was joined Wednesday at George Mason University in Virginia by the show's executive producer Joy Gorman along with one of its stars, Alisha Boe (Jessica).

The trio spoke out as part of the It's On Us campaign about sexual assault, an issue that's explored throughout the series and in particular through Boe's character, a rape victim.

Said Biden to the crowd of college students, "We've got to talk about this. Guys, a woman who is dead drunk cannot consent. You are raping her. Consent requires affirmative consent."  

Throughout the Selena Gomez-produced drama, Jessica is not the only character who's a victim of sexual violence. The show's lead character, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), is also a victim of rape and says later that the traumatic event is one of the reasons she decides to end her life (as revealed in a series of tapes she leaves behind.) The show, however, has been criticized for the graphic rape scenes, along with the vivid depiction of Hannah's suicide.

Below, Boe spoke with The Hollywood Reporter to address the criticisms the series is currently facing as she opens up about the emotional toll the storylines personally had on her. 

How do you respond to criticism that the series glorifies suicide? 

Suicide has a wide range. There's people who are born with pre-conceived mental illness and then there are people like Hannah who are slut-shamed and bullied and feel so depressed that they can't talk to anyone. The show shows that side of a depressed person. In the suicide scene, they show how hard it is and how painful it is, directly followed by the parents finding her and how permanent it is. I watched that scene and I couldn't do anything for an hour because I was so shocked. I couldn't move. I didn't think it was romantic or anything like that. It is shocking material and of course there are going to be people from both sides with opposing opinions. I'm just happy that there is an open conversation about it. We can't just ignore it because it is happening every day. Now that it's at the forefront of concerns, at least parents are more aware and want to talk to their kids. And kids are more self-aware watching the show to make sure they're treating each other better. I was just in Brazil and the suicide hotline went up 100 percent. It is helping people more than it's hurting people. 

Why do you think it was important to show Hannah's suicide and the rape scenes in such detail?

It shouldn't be censored at all. If you just brush over the suicide scene, the audience will think that it was easy. If you brush over the two rape scenes then the audience will think, "Why are these girls freaking out so much?" Because that's already the stigma behind it. We really have to show how ugly it is and how much it can affect a person's life. It's not easy and it shouldn't be easy to watch. 

Knowing the dark themes the show tackled, how did you prepare to shoot the series at the beginning?

Brian Yorkey, Joy Gorman and [executive producer] Kristel [Laiblin] all made sure we had the right resources to fully understand the subject. Specifically, we dealt with acquaintance rape where it's a rape where you know the person or they're in your friend group. I was able to talk to Rebecca Kaplan from It's On Us and Alexis Jones from I Am That Girl and a psychiatrist here in L.A. who is specifically a psychiatrist for survivors of sexual assault and rape. I read a bunch of articles also. One story that I would read over and over was the Brock Turner case where the survivor reads her testimony and talks directly to Brock Turner. It would break my heart a thousand times over. I didn't think it was necessary to reach out to a survivor because that's invasive when I can educate myself on it and talk to people who deal with survivors. I don't want them to go back and think about their rape or sexual assault just for my artistic value. 

For the rape scene, [director] Carl Franklin and me and Justin [Prentice], who plays Bryce, and Brandon Flynn, who plays Justin, rehearsed the weekend before for hours and hours to make sure we were all comfortable. In between scenes, we would all check up on each other and would hug each other. It helped that Justin was so professional and made sure I was comfortable. It's hard to film because you're simulating a rape. Of course it's tough and it's going to hurt. I went home that night and just cried. But at the end of the day it was more about making sure people who have gone through what Jessica has get their story told. 

You recently spoke out about sexual assault with former Vice President Joe Biden. How important is it for you to speak out on these issues after playing Jessica?

It was probably the most inspiring thing I've ever done. I'll remember that for the rest of my life. It was for a rally for It's On Us, which is a foundation that's trying to change the conversation rather than shifting the blame to victims. Me and Joy talked about the survivors and how it's on us to stop victim-blaming and slut-shaming.

That's the most eye-opening thing for me. After the show came out, a bunch of close friends and family members came out to me and admitted what has happened to them, that either they were raped or sexually assaulted. I was so disgusted by the amount of women that I've looked up to that had been raped and haven't been able to speak up about it. We are opening up a conversation about it. People are able to speak up and I'm more than happy to be that person to talk to. Complete strangers have come up to me saying, "I see myself so much in Jessica. I was raped when I was younger. I was raped recently and this is my first time being able to talk about it." It has moved me so much. I knew that playing this character had a responsibility and I'm more than happy to be that person to talk to. 

It's [also] interesting though now that the show has come out to see how some other people react to her. I thought when filming it people would understand her, but some of the audience is slut-shaming her and saying that she deserved to be raped and she should take Justin back and she was a bitch that shouldn't have drank. It makes me realize how important it is to be involved with sexual assault advocacy.

How were you able to relate to these issues tackled on the show?

A family member of mine attempted suicide when I was in elementary school. I didn't really have the most healthy of upbringings. I was depressed a lot as a kid and I was really sad and wouldn't be able to get out of bed. I would get slut-shamed a lot in high school, especially by girls. What's really funny is now they've tried messaging me saying, "Remember me from high school?" And I'm like, "Do you not remember what you would call me?" I'm sure they don't even remember how much it affected me. 

How do you think the show tackles these issues compared to other teen dramas?

What it does differently is it's not afraid to show what kids actually do. We understand what young adults can do and we don't shy away from it. I read 13 Reasons Why in middle school and the message of the book stuck with me to treat people better because you never know what they're going through. If I had this TV show in my middle school and high school, more people as a whole would understand the message.

Do you relate to the stories told throughout the series? Sound off in the comments section, below. The series is now streaming on Netflix. 

 

comments powered by Disqus