Actor Justin Prentice lives his dream, which is one of the most beautiful things any human being can be doing. First impression: it’s not Bryce Walker. Second impression: it’s Justin - a considerate, ardent young man who persists for curating persuasive characters, and so his person could not be farther from his on-screen '13 Reasons Why' persona Bryce. Photographer Monroe Alvarez assigns Justin a plot in which he can play anything but Bryce, and explore the character he speaks of the least: himself.
Imagine a line, a spectrum of sort. Then situate Bryce on the far right and Justin on the far left. Picture turning a light switch on and off: they are like night and day. Bryce required acting, adopting a mask, something which Justin achieved with merit. With this antagonist, he erected a universal someone many have, sadly, encountered at some point in their lives, and as he points out; “It was too easy to find material, unfortunately.” The show delivered blow after blow to its audience; a conscious choice to portray the unfairness that plays out every day, everywhere.
A show such as '13 Reasons Why' comes with responsibility and a maturity that is enforced overnight. Topics such as rape, suicide and bullying require an empathetic actor - a performer who can comprehend the severity of these states. Stylist Rima Vaidila tackles Justin’s obligation by reaching for tailoring in mature materials, a look pocketed from a bygone era. Justin unveils new layers within himself with each character he confronts, permanently building upon his intellectual and emotional foundation.
A philosophical question, considering you being an actor and also, playing a very recognisable role, who is the real Justin Prentice?
Not Bryce - just to start off. Yeah, let’s start with that. Definitely not Bryce. I don’t know - I’m kind of an easy-going guy. I love adventure, I love nature, I love exploring and travelling. I’m pretty self-deprecating at times… That’s a good question. I don’t like talking about myself.
Why is that?
I don’t know - it just seems odd. I don’t want to be supercilious or conceited.
I was thinking… Since you don’t like talking about yourself, do you think that’s why you enjoy acting?
It could be, because I get to explore different sides of myself through characters and what not. Maybe? If we go very deep, I’m trying to hide from myself by playing characters. I don’t know, haha.
I’m psychoanalysing you, haha.
It’s good - it’s like a therapy session.
What have you discovered about yourself through acting?
With the role of Bryce specifically, I think there was lots to learn: just the fact of learning about the world around me. Through acting you get a deeper understanding of characters. I think that because of acting I’m not as quick to judge. I like to analyse and think before making decisions and judgements, because I’ve played different characters with various mindsets. I would say that is a big one for me.
What makes you happy?
Friends and family. Interactions. Connections with other people I think are a big part of happiness. Having goals, dreams and then achieving those - that leads to happiness. I’m very grateful; I have a good bit on my side. I’m very fortunate.
You said, “to not judge” earlier. Bryce is a difficult role to take on because it’s hard not to judge him and his actions, how did you manage to justify Bryce’s actions for the purpose of you playing him?
It took a little bit. When I first read it - it was a very visceral reaction. He does some monstrous acts, but yes, as you said, Bryce doesn’t see what he’s doing as atrocious, so to get into his mindset, I began by building his backstory. The key was to figure out what his home life was like, which we got to see a lot more of in season two. For season one, I tried piecing his family together and making it all make sense for why it is he is the way he is and how he views certain things. He as a person justifies all of this. I think from Bryce’s perspective, he thinks people should be lucky to be with him because of who he is, his power and status. He sees himself as this great individual. It’s interesting but hard to jump into the mindset of, because, of course, as a human being, you see that this guy is awful. It’s definitely one of the hardest characters I’ve played to date.
Well, you did an amazing job. We all hated you. I yelled at the television quite a few times…
Haha, thank you so much. Right on!
Did you have a real person in mind when preparing for Bryce?
A lot of it was my own creation, but we also did want Bryce to be very relatable. Not relatable as a person, but relatable in the sense of: “Oh I recognise that type of person in my own life” or “I went to school with him.” I did a lot of research and the Brock Turner case was going on I think when the auditions came out. It was very fresh, so I studied that case quite a bit. We see it in season two with the sentencing at the very end - he gets off easy. Brock Turner got off easy. They are athletic, rich white guys and they sort of have the world at their fingertips and they get off way to easy. Unfortunately, there are a lot of similarities - and in America especially right now - there are a lot of Bryces out there. It was too easy to find material, unfortunately.
Do you feel sorry for Bryce in any way? Considering his absent parents.
You know? It’s always really sad when a human being is so lost in that way. It’s sad and it’s unfortunate. I love when we have the flashback scene to when Bryce was a kid. It shows that he has humanity deep down and that he wasn’t always a monster. He could have had a different path if things had gone differently. But it’s difficult, he is a rapist, and it’s difficult to see his side. At the same time, looking at him as a human being, it’s very sad that he turned out this way.
How did you mentally cope with taking on a character such as Bryce?
On the darker days, it definitely took a bit out of me. And also flipping it on and off and jumping in and out of character, it’s like night and day. But on the very heavy days, such as a rape scene, we would shoot for a little bit and then decompress. I’ve been very lucky with our cast and crew – they’re all super supportive. We’ve got each other’s back - no one is alone shooting this. In the end, it is acting and I know that.
There were two scenes I found particularly difficult to watch in season 2 of 13 Reasons Why. The first one being when Bryce forces himself on his girlfriend Chloe, tell me about the experience of filming that.
I’m happy they added a different facet of rape, namely date rape. Our producers and directors have always been fantastic when it comes to making sure the cast is very comfortable. Everything is blocked out and we know what we will be filming. It’s still within the spectrum of rape, but there are people who might watch that scene and say that because they’re in a relationship she could have walked away. If someone doesn’t want to partake in sex, then it’s not consent. The rape scenes are always difficult, but by the time season 2 happened I was better prepared for them.
The second scene is the one where Tyler is raped by the jocks with the back-end of a mop. The Internet reacted heavily to this scene and some even called for the show to be cancelled. At Boys By Girls we think it was a very important scene to show, even though it was incredibly painful to watch, because it is so rare to see one man raping another man on screen. Why are people reacting more to this scene than the first scene I mentioned or when Bryce raped Hannah in the pool?
I think it’s to do with the brutality of it. Just reading the script showed the brutality of the scene. Then we talked to Brian Yorkey and he said they’d just found out how this is happening in schools. It shocked all of us that something like this is going on at high schools. I think there is always going to be controversy in the topics that the show brings up, but I stand by the way its done - talk about issues the way we talk about them. It’s going to upset some, but by showing this, it’s a stepping-stone toward having a conversation.
It’s so important that these things are shown, even though they’re incredibly hard to watch. What’s it like playing such a significant role in the #metoo era?
There is a certain responsibility that comes with that. I think we’re all very proud of what the show has done and being on the frontline. It’s an honour. As an actor you audition for so many projects and you never know what’s going to launch your career. I think we’re all very honoured and humbled that this is the project that we get to play a part in. We get a lot of positive feedback from fans about how we portray these issues.
On top of all of this, '13 Reasons Why' also tackles the theme of teenage suicide. As a TV show, it really isn't afraid to talk about some really key issues which other TV-shows shy away from. Personally, we admire the bravery of the show. How do you feel about making such topics so accessible to young people?
I think since kids are already dealing with these things in high school, we shouldn’t undermine their maturity, I suppose. When they’re already dealing with these things in their real life, then seeing that with their parents, that can be a good thing. Oftentimes, parents aren’t aware of what’s going on in their kid’s life. One of the great things we’ve heard from a lot of people is that parents watch the show with their kids. I think that’s fantastic because it sort of breaks the generational gap. It’s a good way of opening up about the things that are hard to talk about with parents, and even friends sometimes. About having suicidal thoughts or “I’ve been raped” or “I’m dealing with this issue.” I think that by watching the show with friends and family, it makes it easier to talk about the topics: “I felt like Hannah when this happened” or “I felt powerless in this situation.” I think it can be very helpful. If someone is in the middle of going through some of these issues, maybe now is not the best time to watch it because it has a very dark plot and tackles some very dark issues. There is a lot of stigma around mental health and suicidal thoughts. At the end of the day, I think it has helped more people than it has harmed.
I agree. It’s opening up a conversation - especially between parent and child. You mentioned mental health, what is your own relationship with mental health?
I try to take care of myself. I have a good team behind me - which is fantastic. In this industry, it’s very easy to lose yourself, but I have a very good support system. I’m kind of a perfectionist so I’m very particular and that comes with a lot of stress and anxiety, and it’s something I’ve dealt with a lot through the school system, and that lead to some depression and suicidal thoughts as well. One of my buddies, he took his life in high school. It’s an honour to be a part of a show that addresses these issues. I think all of the writers, producers, directors, and cast, I think we’ve all dealt with these issues in our lives, so it is interesting to be a part of it.
Do you think the show has helped you in terms of the things you’ve experienced in the past?
Yes, I think so. I think it’s a lot easier to talk about. This is one of the great things that this show does - it starts a conversation. We’ve had a lot of people come forth, like family members. The whole cast has experienced people coming forth with rape. People have come forth saying; “I was raped,” and none of us had any idea. Having sort of a talking point that starts that conversation - I think that’s amazing.
One of our readers said this about the show: "This show adds so much need of conversation to such taboo topics". Another said that: "...they made me think more about how fucked up this world is, and that we all should do something to make this world a better place." How do you feel about this kind of reaction?
I think that’s the kind of reaction we’re working for. We try to spotlight these issues and hit a nerve in society, and say; “Hey, these are the problems.” These things shouldn’t be going on, and I think by doing that in an intellectual way, people will want to change things.
Season 3 of '13 Reasons Why' was announced and I’m excited, what is the future of Bryce you think (if you were to attempt to enter into the minds of the show writers)?
I don’t know - it’s difficult to say. I don’t know if he will finally wake up to his actions and realise that what he is doing is so wrong. He has a child coming now, Chloe is pregnant, and so I don’t know if that will influence the way he acts and his perspective on the world. Whether or not Bryce changes, I have no idea.
I was very impressed with the progression from season one to season two. I think the whole cast really grew as actors.
Thank you. I think the writers did a great job giving all the characters even more depth. In season two, we got to go even further. And as an actor, having more backstory and such always helps. That makes the character more three-dimensional.
Over the years you’ve done a lot of guest roles on television series shows such as 'Awkward', 'Preacher', 'Glee' and so on, how did you get into acting in the first place? And what have some of your other favourite roles been?
I got into acting through my local drama club. There I did improv classes, which was my initial love. I did some local theatre in Nashville – there wasn’t really a big market for acting, but during that time I fell absolutely head over heels in love with acting and playing characters. And so I moved out to Los Angeles to try my hand at Hollywood. I’ve been smitten ever since, I suppose. Some of my favourite characters to play I would say is… First Bryce - he is the most complex character that I’ve played to date. I’m a fan of the Preacher graphic novel, so that was fun to be a part of - also quite a dark story. iCarly was one of my first sort of bigger roles - that was an absolute ball. iZombie is a fun character. I was on ABC’s Malibu Country for a season, so that one for me was very much a confidence boost. That was fantastic and kind of instrumental in climbing the latter to where I am now. I’ve been very fortunate with all the characters that I’ve had the opportunity to play.
Every character becomes a new milestone almost, with the role of Bryce, you sort of hit the jackpot. From what I’ve learnt in other interviews, no one wants to play the good guy.
I’m a pretty direct person in my day-to-day life - I like to think so. As an actor I definitely have to act more as the villain, which is rewarding.
Do you think masculinity is changing?
I think a lot of it depends on where you live. Certain places you don’t have the same access to what’s going on and movements. But I do definitely think it is changing. It’s okay to be masculine in the same way that it’s okay to be feminine. Just be you because it is time for that. I think masculinity has previously been that you have to be a certain way or you have to portray yourself in a certain light. As a guy you’re not supposed to be emotional and open up, and over time, being cut off from this sacred humility can be very damaging. Don’t be afraid to be you. At the end of the day, if you have emotions, show emotions. We know we all have them, so it is nothing to be ashamed of.
Would you say you’re an emotional person?
Oh yes, absolutely! For instance, with Bryce - he is not very emotional. His emotional spectrum is more within anger and what not. You don’t really see him be vulnerable all that much. You do see some in season two, which is great. It’s an interesting balance being an emotional person and then playing him. I think emotions are a great connector of humanity. It’s how we relate with one another and the world around us. Absolutely, it’s important.
Do you think the world is making it easier for young men to be vulnerable?
I think so - little by little. But Hollywood is sort of on the forefront, so I don’t know if I can say that about other places, but definitely in my community here. There is a lot of support in being vulnerable, regardless of gender. It’s about love and support - having each other’s back.
Have you ever been in love?
Yes, I’m in love right now! I’ve been in a relationship for two years. I think that love comes in so many shapes and forms - it just depends. Love can be found anywhere. You’re in tune with it and being open to receiving it and finding it. Even in the day-to-day life. Love can be grand gestures, but I think love is also the little moments: for instance, excited when that person comes home from work.
When did you know you loved your girlfriend?
Very quick into the relationship. We were friends for a bit first, and then we took the first romantic step and then I locked that down immediately; “I’m in love, we’re doing this! You’re mine, you can’t go anywhere.” It was pretty immediate, yes.
That’s really sweet. Who do you admire?
Any human being who is bettering himself or herself. Anyone who is working every day to be a better person and challenge the way we do certain things. I obviously look up to my parents, they are fantastic - I wouldn’t be out here if it weren’t for them. They’ve been incredibly supportive. I look up to quite a lot of people, I think. Despite the dark times and the challenges that come with that, I think there are a lot of amazing people on the frontline of change that I aspire to be like.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I think everything is sort of in flux. I don’t know if everything will change in the long run necessarily. What we can do to create change is absolutely up to us. Sometimes backgrounds don’t align or religion doesn’t align, so I don’t know if we’ll ever get past that completely. But from my perspective, there are actions being taken to create change, which is a beautiful thing. Hopefully more of that will come, but I don’t know if we’ll ever reach a point where there are no issues, but I do definitely think things can change for the better.
Did you know when you started filming 13 Reasons Why that you were going to have this much impact?
We were definitively hoping that when someone watched it they would walk away with something positive, but I certainly had no idea that it was going to have this sort of impact and significance. I think we felt it was a good project, but we didn’t know how many people were going to watch it.
What’s your dream?
You know what’s interesting? I think I’m living my dream. The fact that I’m able to create and bring art and characters to life - I’m getting to that, which is absolutely amazing. I just wake up every morning and go; “hey, I’m following my dream! I’m living my dream.” It’s a beautiful thing and I highly recommend it to other people to, you know - reach for your goals. At least give them a shot, so that you never have to wonder; “what if?” We all have different callings and those callings can change. Just because you’re chasing one dream now, doesn’t mean it’s always going to be your dream. Certainly, go for it, so you don’t ask; “what if?” That’s what my dad always told me when I was a kid; “Never ask: what if?” When you’re old and can’t get around easily anymore, you don’t want to go; “what if I had done this?” My parents have always been supportive, and now I’m living my dream.
You’re a lucky bastard.
I am a lucky bastard haha. I’m very aware that I’m a lucky bastard.
You can watch Justin in '13 Reasons Why' on Netflix.