Note: Spoilers ahead.
Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” tells the story of a teenage girl’s death by suicide, and the 13 tapes she leaves behind for the people she feels are responsible for her death. The show has been commended and criticized for its handling of graphic scenes depicting sexual assault, abuse and suicide.
At the center of one the show’s darkest plot lines ― the rape of two characters ― is villainous jock Bryce, played by Justin Prentice. We spoke with Prentice about his time on the series, his relationship with the cast and what it’s like to play a wolf in jock’s clothing.
The novel Thirteen Reasons Why deals with some serious issues, from bullying to sexual assault to death by suicide. What are the challenges in portraying those themes?
Obviously, it’s a very dark headspace to get into. On set, when we weren’t filming the dark scenes, we tried to have as much fun as we could and keep things lighthearted for our own sanity. Me specifically, for the character Bryce — not to give too much away for the people who haven’t read the book — but I was kind of terrified because I knew what my character’s arc was and what I was going to have to do at some point. So I did a lot of research to help, but it obviously affects you emotionally. How can it not? These are very relevant issues to all of us. Even reading it on paper — our table reads were intense. Lots of emotion, lots of tears from all of us. At the end of the day, we wanted to make a great project that would hopefully start some important conversations. It was worth any emotional distress.
Your character Bryce is quite the villain in the book. How difficult (or easy) was it to inhabit that role?
Parts of it were easy, especially in the first few episodes — we’re kind of just introducing ourselves. He’s got the standard sort of jock-kind of facade. He takes care of his bros, he’s captain of the football team, the baseball team, he’s an MVP superstar, so he’s got all of that going for him. But as you get further into the depth of the series, it obviously gets more difficult. One of the things I wanted to make sure I portrayed was that [Bryce] is not the Machiavellian villain. I didn’t want Bryce to be that. He’s a teen in high school, which makes it even more terrifying. I wanted it to be a real kid in a high school setting who unfortunately is capable of some monstrous acts.
Does the Netflix adaptation stay true to the book’s message?
I absolutely think so. I think it has the heart of the book in it throughout. I also think, because we’re able to draw it out into 13 episodes, we get to go even deeper with plots and with the characters themselves. For people who love the book, I think they’ll love the series just as much, if not more.
She was very much involved with it. She and her mother, Mandy Teefey, are both executive producers and none of us would be employed if it weren’t for them. They’ve been the strong force behind this from the get-go, propelling it forward. They’re both fantastic. They both met with us about the characters, we talked and had dinners to chat through things and talk about the upcoming episodes.
What do you hope people take away from “13 Reasons Why”?
I hope that they feel like they can talk about certain issues. I think, unfortunately, today a lot of these things aren’t discussed because of stigma. I think all of us hope that they’re going to see how even a small event piled onto an already large load can create a lot of distress for a human being, and how over time that starts to wear and tear you down. If people are having hardships, hopefully their friends can watch a show like this and have a better understanding of what people are going through and offer aid. It’s also beneficial for parents to watch. Bullying has changed a lot through the years. With cyberbullying, one press of a finger on an electronic device can shatter someone’s reputation and what they think is their entire life. It’s scary. I think this show gives parents insight into what their kids might be going through.
In order to tackle these difficult issues, I’m sure you had to be very connected with the rest of the cast. How do you and your castmates connect?
We all became really close through this process. We all became brothers and sisters. We had to be there for each other, to comfort one another and to talk through things. I think, because of those relationships and that rapport, because of all the trust we had for one another, these really hard scenes were a lot easier than they otherwise would have been. They were still very difficult, but because of the level of trust that we all built with each other, I think they’re going to turn out really really well.
Moving away from “13 Reasons Why” for a second, you also had a great character arc as Becky’s boyfriend on “Glee,” in which you did a lot to dispel stigma around Down Syndrome. What was that like?
It was awesome. I was honestly very honored to play the character. I was really pumped when I got it. “Glee” is a great show in terms of tackling social issues. Lauren [Potter] is an absolute sweetheart and the coolest person to work with — they all were, it was fantastic. I was honored to play it. Again, with a lot of these social stigmas, they just don’t need to be in place. Just by talking about them, we can often shatter them. People with Down Syndrome are people. Human beings are human beings, regardless of what makes us different.
What advice do you have for young people trying to break into the acting industry?
Make sure you’re passionate about it. When you know, you know, and you can’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. You’re going to face countless no’s. You get hundreds upon hundreds of no’s, but if you’re really passionate about it, then none of that matters. You see every opportunity as a chance to hone your craft and show people what you’ve learned. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re bettering yourself. Eventually, one day, you’ll better yourself enough to where someone goes, “Hey, you’re perfect for this.” If you’re really passionate about it and you’re always prepared, eventually the right opportunity will come up.
You’re from Tennessee originally. What Southern comfort food do you miss the most?
All of it. It’s all so good. Biscuits and gravy, grits, everything that’s horrible for you. Even when I go to Tennessee, I try not to eat it anyway because it’ll slowly send you to your grave. But you’ll be happy going there, I guess? You’ll die early but happy.
Chick-fil-A, Cook Out or Zaxby’s?
In-N-Out or Shake Shack?
Sweet tooth or salty tooth?
I have both.
Favorite sport to watch vs. favorite sport to play?
Watch? Definitely football. I love playing sports, so really anything — tennis, baseball, basketball, football, golf — I’m just happy being active.
Last TV show you binge-watched?
If you could reboot one old TV show right now, what would it be?
The original “Star Trek.”
Go-to move in rock, paper, scissors?
I can’t give that away, because then I’ll lose every time! What is that “Big Bang Theory” thing — rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock? I’m going to go with Spock.
Pick a dream job that isn’t acting.
I think law, or being a doctor. Also, I would have been super happy in a field of science — theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, anything like that.
Favorite movie right now?
I just started watching “Reign of Fire,” so that.
Do you have a secret talent?
I do balisong knife twirling.
Favorite sports teams, both pro and college?
Tennessee Titans and Tennessee Volunteers.
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