Perhaps no show—let alone, a high-school centric show—has launched as many debates and online think pieces in recent history as 13 Reasons Why. Aired on Netflix and produced by Selena Gomez, the show, which is based on the novel of the same name and aired its second season in May, deals with the aftermath of a teenage suicide and how it has affected the community around it. At the center of it all is Katherine Langford, the 22 year-old Perth, Australia native who was tapped to play the show's female lead, Hannah Baker, who appears in haunting flashbacks and visions.
Given the show's ubiquity in pop culture, it's hard to imagine that just three years ago, Langford, who also starred in this year's immensely popular film Love, Simon, was a struggling teen actress in Los Angeles who couldn't even afford bags to carry home her groceries. Here, the actress talks about growing up in Australia, auditioning for the show, and why she both loves and fears social media.
What was your first audition?
The first one I did was when I was like seven years old, and it was just a random indie short film. I was super nervous and my dad was in the room and it went horribly. But I had booked it all myself, and I was like, "Dad, I need you take me here at 4:30 p.m. on Friday." The first audition I ever did where I booked the role was for 13 Reasons Why and that was at such a weird point in [my] life. I'd knocked back drama school that I'd tried to get into for three years, and I called and said, "I can't do it," because I'd been asked to test for network for two other projects. I'd flown to London [for a screen test], I didn't get that project, and I was the only person they were testing. Then I flew to L.A and was there for pilot season which I hadn't prepped for. I lost all my money. I stayed with this woman who left the gas stove on at night and there was carbon monoxide poisoning. It was a mess. I was catatonic for like two days. I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and I just felt this wave of heat and I could smell gas. My first thought was "Oh my God, the house is on fire." The gas stove was open with the flame lit behind and there was a pot of water on the stove with the gas. I was like, "This is not good."
This was when you were living in L.A.?
Yeah. That was definitely an experience. I was 19 years old. I was in LA. Overseas, by myself. It was a hot mess and I was running out of money so quickly that I couldn't afford to pay for the bags at the grocery store, so I would grab the clear fruit and vegetable plastic bags and I would wrap them around my fingers and put my groceries in them and then walk home crying because it was just such a hectic time. That's one of the things I look back on and, I don't want to sound cliché, but it's always a very humbling memory and experience where you're like, "Okay you did that. You can do everything else, you're good."
When you read for 13 Reasons Why, did you have a feeling you would get the part?
Sometimes with scripts or auditions, when you read them, it's something you really resonate with and you can see yourself in the role. With 13 Reasons Why, it came at such a weird time in my life and having just been knocked back for two things that I'd tested for that I felt like I was so right for, I didn't even think of myself in the role. I just prepped it and did it. Then they kept calling me back and re-auditioning me. When I tested for it over Skype, that I was like, "Oh, maybe I've got an okay chance of this."
How did you find out that you got the part?
It it was a Thursday. It was two in the morning and I couldn't go to sleep. Part of me was "You're gonna get it." And then the other part of me was like, "No, you're not going to get it." I got a call at five in the morning from my managers and they were like, "Do you want to hear the okay news, or the bad news?" I was like, "Oh my gosh, the bad news, no, no, wait, okay, the okay news. Give me the okay news." They were like, "The okay news is you've got the part. The bad news is you need to get an O-1 visa in ten days." It usually takes six to eight weeks. But I heard I got the visa on a Friday morning and I was flying out 36 hours later. I packed for six months in 36 hours. It was crazy.
When did everything change for you?
I actually think the first time I started noticing people had watched the show, or people started to recognize me, was when I was in Savannah filming Love, Simon. A bunch of the cast went to Savannah for the Easter weekend. The waitress who was serving us was like, "You really look like that girl from that show." I was like, "I am, that's me." She went, "No." I was like, "I am. Why don't you believe me?" But when we left the restaurant, I just hear, "Hey!" And there's this woman running. It's the waitress, and she goes, "Oh my, God I didn't believe you. Can I take a photo? "She'd run three blocks just to take a picture with me. So that's when I first started noticing [change]; when you realize people start recognizing you.
Is that when you joined social media?
I'm trying to pinpoint the exact point. It was after we did New York press.I spoke to Selena [Gomez], and I think I was still private [on Instagram] at the time. She was more like, "Yo, I get where you're coming from... The message of the show is really important and if you want to connect with people it's a good way to do it." So then I did [go public], and I mean, I still don't post that much. I think you go through a wav of "Oh, social media this is really cool." And then—I think we've all done this—the point where you start feeling reliant on social media or what people are saying on social media is when you take a step back. I realized that the more I post, the more valuable I am to paparazzi, the more I'm going to be followed, and I don't like that.
What movie makes you cry?
A few. I remember really being affected by Titanic when I was 11. And Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. I was 13, and I remember watching it on YouTube in 20 minute increments because I was so obsessed with trying to see it, and I was just bawling in the library at school. I watched it three, four, five times, and printed the entire manuscript. Romeo and Juliet really resonated with me as a teenager.
Who was your celebrity crush growing up?
My celebrity crush was more of a character crush, and there were actually two. When I was four years old, I said to my mom that I wanted to marry Christopher Robin from Winnie the Pooh, like the animation. My first human crush was Orlando Bloom as Legolas. I'm a low-key nerd. I really enjoy Star Trek: Voyager with Captain Catherine Janeway, she was a real inspo as a kid. My dad was went to the midnight screening of the first ever Star Wars film, somy favorite films when I was five were like Cinderella and Mars Attacks. That was like my thing.
And you were also a competitive swimmer?
I was. I trained as a swimmer for nearly 10 years. I went to Nationals and Open Nationals and my two strokes were butterfly and breast stroke.
Did you have to cut your hair for that?
No, I just had to fold it to put into a swim cap. I've always had my hair long. I think at one point I was tempted to cut it short, but honestly, even now, I just let my hair do its thing. It wasn't like I was having to style it or do anything. I would honestly go swim at five in the morning and then I would get changed there, eat breakfast in the car on the way to school and just walk up to school with wet hair and smelling of chlorine.
Do you miss it?
There are a lot of things I think that come with swimming that I miss. It's hard because I was training at quite an elite level and I had to stop because I ended up at a gifted and talented school, doing school work and doing music, t was too much to do all together. I haven't been in a pool for probably years, because I trained so hard as a swimmer. But there are definitely things that I miss about it. I miss the athleticism and the camaraderie of being in a group or a squad where you're all going through something together and you're all trying to achieve the same thing.
What is your go-to karaoke song?
Okay, so this year for my birthday, Tommy, one of my friends, bought a karaoke machine. I don't do karaoke because I just end up screaming, and having trained as a vocalist for 10 years, the one thing your singing teacher will tell you is do not scream, and do not wreck your voice, and they just baited me with Lady Gaga the whole night, so "You and I" killed me. But "You and I" and "Born This Way", or a good Janice Joplin. I love Janice. Or a classic, like Queen. "We are the Champions" or "Bohemian Rhapsody." I love an anthem in general.