'13 Reasons Why' Actor: The Netflix Drama Doesn't Glorify Suicide

Actor Brandon Flynn (Justin) talks with THR about the responsibility the Netflix drama has to helping at-risk youth.
Courtesy of Netflix

[This story contains spoilers from Netflix's 13 Reasons Why.]

To say the conversation around Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why has been mixed would be an understatement.

The drama, created by Brian Yorkey and based on Jay Asher's best-selling YA novel, revolves around Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), who via 13 cassette tapes she leaves behind, explains why she decided to commit suicide. While the series has been praised for opening up a greater dialogue about teen suicide, the Selena Gomez-produced drama has also been criticized for its graphic depiction of Hannah's suicide.  

In addition to exploring suicide, the series — which features an ensemble of rising stars including Dylan Minnette (Clay), Miles Heizer (Alex), Brandon Flynn (Justin) and Alisha Boe (Jessica) — also explores sexual assault, bullying and other timely subjects that many young adults continue to face.

Below, The Hollywood Reporter talks with Flynn — whose character's girlfriend is the victim of sexual assault — about whether or not the Netflix original glorifies suicide and the lengths to which the series went to send a positive message.

Do you think the show glorifies suicide?

Alisha Boe (who plays rape victim Jessica) and I saw the New York Times article, which mentioned glorifying suicide. That's a very easy way of not talking about it. Television is meant for entertainment, but I don't think suicide is glorified. I'm not sure what they see in someone cutting their wrists as glorification. Alisha and I have talked about the response [the show received] from certain fans who said watching our show saved their life. They have talked about the problems they've had with self-mutilation, self-harm and addiction and how watching the show made them realize they have a life to live and that they mattered. That has really hit me. 

How do you respond to those critics? 

People are talking about it because it's something that isn't talked about. Suicide is a taboo subject, especially suicide among youth. Everyone thinks that their kid lives these quaint and normal lives in school. What I hope people come to realize is that the show is much more than just that one scene. [Hannah's suicide] scene is so graphic, but what the show deals with leads up to that scene — which is really important to talk about. It's the behavior among boys and girls at a young age that still exists in adults. Following the trajectory of that and making sure that that's not going unnoticed. If that scene is too graphic for people, that might be good because people are going to talk about it. 

Some critics have also said that 13 Reasons Why doesn't offer an alternative to suicide. What do you think?

Our show is dealing with suicide, so to offer an alternative would be a problem in storytelling and send a mixed message. I do think there are alternatives. These kids are in a messy situation. Hannah's in a mess, the kids from the tapes are in a mess. They don't have great lives and their futures are in jeopardy. During production, we created websites and relationships with certain [suicide prevention] foundations — the JED Foundation and Crisis Text Line. I don't know how much responsibility a TV show should have in saving people's lives. We offer those tools. The Crisis Text Line has said that since the show came out, their hotline has blown up. People have been calling in and looking for help. That's unbelievable. That says there is an issue going on with young adults around the globe who are in despair and after our show came out, they're now seeking help. That's pretty amazing. 

How did you relate to the issues depicted in the show?

When I was in middle school, I dealt a lot with people not being cool with me being into acting. They thought it was feminine. They thought I should be in sports. I was chunky, so I got made fun of for that. It was hard. It put me in a dark space of not wanting to be myself and trying to be what others wanted me to be. It's a form of self-harm to try and not be yourself and not live your truth. This show has made me look at the world and my relationships and try to be kind and have an open heart to people, because you truly never know what's going on in people's lives. Jessica is the character I relate to the most. The way she dealt with her attack was similar to the way I dealt with things in high school. I numbed myself constantly and ignored the truth of certain things. Jessica uses drugs and alcohol and leans toward promiscuous behavior afterward, and she doesn't address the idea that she was raped. She ignores it even though her character knows it deep in her heart.

I self-medicated a lot; I did a lot of drugs and I chose to quiet my truth and alter my perception to make it easier to be comfortable. You can't keep living the way Jessica lives. I'm happy to not be Justin in my life and speak up against the injustices we are doing as a society. Especially in the country we live in now with our president, we are in a weird place and shows like this and young actors like myself and those on the show are going to have this important voice and this important job. 

Many kids don't know how to turn to their parents because their parents don't offer that outlet. They don't know how to turn to their school because their school doesn't offer that outlet, so they get stuck and feel like everyone and everything is against them. I sure as shit remember feeling that way at that age.

Series creator Brian Yorkey has spoken about making sure everyone on set was comfortable with the heavy scenes throughout the drama. What were the those conversations like? 

When Brian wanted to talk with us, it would always be a private conversation. We would go from talking in a corner to we're on set and everyone is being asked to leave so we can just discuss it. That made the actors feel so comfortable. We were in constant communication about making the show as real and as truthful and honest as possible. Luckily a lot of us on the show are not that far off from that age.

Do you think 13 Reasons Why glorifies suicide? Sound off in the comments section, below. The series is now streaming on Netflix.

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