'13 Reasons Why' Star Talks Bringing Awareness to Suicide Warning Signs

13 Reasons Why Still 5 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Netflix.

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

Is Alex dead?

That is one of the biggest burning questions to come out of the first season of the Netflix drama, 13 Reasons Why. If in fact the character, played by Parenthood alum Miles Heizer, took his own life, it's sure to further fuel the already divisive conversations spawned by the series.

Many have praised the teen-centered series from writer Brian Yorkey, which is based on Jay Asher's best-selling novel of the same name, for bringing awareness to teenage suicide, bullying and sexual assault, among other traumas facing young adults in the 21st century.

Others have criticized 13 Reasons Why's graphic depiction of lead character Hannah Baker's (Katherine Langford) death and argue that it glorifies suicide and does not offer any alternatives.

As for those critics, Heizer tells The Hollywood Reporter, "I completely disagree with them. That's a really strange position to take on the show. It definitely offers an alternative to suicide."  

To address the debate surrounding the series, THR has recently interviewed castmembers Alisha Boe (Jessica), who talks about how her character's rape onscreen brings awareness to sexual assault, and Brandon Flynn (Justin) who shuts down the idea that the series glorifies suicide.

Joining them in on the conversation is Heizer, who offers his take on the discussions to come out of the series, how his and Langford's characters bring awareness to suicide warnings and opens up about personal struggles he's had with depression. 

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

It doesn't glorify it whatsoever. It's necessary to show the brutal reality of things. I don't think anyone watched Hannah's suicide scene and was thrilled by it. It's a very realistic depiction and shows what a horrifying experience that is. That's not something anyone would want to go through or have anyone go through. After watching it, I was screaming crying. I was so upset by it. Showing it in that way makes it into a reality as opposed to a glorification. She's not dying peacefully in a bath tub, it's painful and brutal. I watched that scene after it came out and watching it, I was not prepared. I was filming [Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens] with Katherine in Atlanta and my immediate reaction was, "Oh my God, I have to see Katherine and know that she's OK." It was hard knowing Katherine and seeing that because it felt so real to me. I'm glad I got to see her the next day. 

Why do you think it was important to show that scene in such graphic detail?

A lot of people shy away from the reality of what that looks like and what people go through when that happens. When you see it, it opens your eyes to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone. It makes you want to help people and make a difference. 

The end of the season alludes to the idea that Alex may have committed suicide. Throughout filming, when did you know he would get to this point and how did you prepare for it?

It was interesting to see similarities between Alex and Hannah because there are a lot of warning signs throughout the season. I knew about three episodes in and it's really dark subject matter. I was able to talk to the writers and clock when he was crying out for help or showing that he's on the same path as Hannah. Brian told me because it's necessary for me to know that throughout the show. I was picking up on the warning signs and was able to know what they were alluding to. You have to get into the mindset of the scenes the day you film because otherwise it's consuming. For certain scenes, I would think about my own life and things that have happened and feelings I've had. There's a scene where I'm walking and I fall into a pool and at that point I knew what that meant. That was intense and a weird mindset to be in. And there's a scene with my fake dad and he comes in and he's talking about me not doing a deposition and I knew what that was foreshadowing. I remember that being really weird and got into the mindset of talking to my mom. If my mom came in and I knew what I was planning that was really emotional for me. I tried to hold it in. 

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

To be completely honest, I had a lot of crazy anxiety and depression and all of these struggles. Going back to that time period of being that age, it's such a strange time and things are really confusing. The show is important because a lot of times people don't talk about that. This is how kids actually talk and behave. I related a lot to Alex so it was about me thinking about things I had gone through. It's a thing that people shut down. I have not. I'm acutely aware of my anxiety. I was always different from people. Especially being from Kentucky, I always got made fun of. Even being on a TV show growing up people say things and they don't even know you [and] it's so mean. Growing up I felt like I couldn't talk about certain things until I had the outlets to do so. Once you're able to be honest and say things as they are, it removes this crazy stigma and fear around it. 

I've gotten a lot of help from other people when I didn't feel like I could talk to my friends or family. I started going to therapy when I was 18 [after] having personal struggles that I didn't feel comfortable talking to my friends or family about. There are just some things you don't want to talk to certain people about. Once I went through therapy it completely changed my life.

How do you respond to critics who say the series doesn't offer an alternative to suicide?

I completely disagree with them. That's a really strange position to take on the show. It definitely offers an alternative to suicide. The whole point is showing that Hannah felt like she didn't have anyone where in fact she did and everybody does. [That's the] same with Alex. It's more so about being able to read people and trying to help as opposed to leaving them alone and making them think that there's no alternative when there are so many alternatives out there. 

What feedback from viewers has been the most meaningful to you?

After I watched it I thought, "Wow, this is really intense." Hearing teenagers [say], "I watched the show!" I'm like, "That's a lot for them to watch." But also I think back to that age and the things I was doing and saying and I realized that it's not that much for them to watch because they see it every single day at school. The most meaningful to me has been my family and parents telling me they were able to talk to their kids about these subjects. That's really important because that's what Hannah didn't have in the show with her parents. If the show allows kids to talk to their mom or dad about these issues that's really important in order to prevent people from choosing the same fate that Hannah did in the show. I still live with [my Parenthood co-star] Mae [Whitman] in her guest house and she texted me while she was watching the show. We've had many conversations about it. Her reaction was very positive. It's weird when your friend is in something and they're gone filming and then you see it. I remember she was doing The Duff and then I saw it and I was weeping. She had a similar reaction. We have a very open relationship and were able to talk about these issues that are scary to talk about. 

How do you relate to the issues addressed in the series? Discuss it in the comments section below. 13 Reasons Why is now streaming on Netflix.