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When Kate Walsh was given the scripts for Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, she initially balked at the idea of joining the project.
"It was really appealing to me, [but] I really did consider it very seriously because it’s so heavy — my character, what she goes through — that I was like, do I want to put myself in that place for seven months?" Walsh recalls. "But I thought it’s such an important subject, between teen suicide, the LGBTQ issues, bullying, sexual assault, all of it, that I was like, ‘No, I have to be a part of this.’… I feel lucky I have some autonomy and that I can say, I want to be a part of projects that I think are interesting creatively, for sure, but also culturally important."
Her first reaction is an understandable one given that Walsh plays the mother of central character Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), the teenager whose suicide propels the show’s narrative.
13 Reasons Why is an adaptation of Jay Asher’s young adult book of the same name. But unlike the book — which uses the 13 cassette tapes Hannah leaves behind for her classmates to explore the events in her past that led to her suicide — the show expands its scope to also explore what happens in the weeks and months after Hannah’s suicide, to her friends, her classmates, her teachers and, yes, her parents.
It was that aspect of the story that sealed the deal for the Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy alum.
Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why isn’t perfect, but it is must-see TV
"My big question – there were so many questions, but one of them was just how it was going to [deal] with the parents, because it was also a subject that seems like it could have been insular to just high school," Walsh says. "But they were very intent on making the story bigger and really trying to … show this from so many different perspectives and tell the story from lots of different points of views, including the parents, and having them be a part of that."
Both Mr. and Mrs. Baker (Brian D’Arcy James plays Walsh’s husband) play a much more significant role in the show than they do in the novel.
"We’re just regular parents and we love our kid. We want what’s best for her. We’re working hard so that she can have a good life and opportunities, like most parents," Walsh says of the fictional Bakers. "From my point of view, playing Mrs. Baker, is just that, they had a pretty great relationship, a pretty fine parental relationship. It’s not like they fought viciously or had some tempestuous relationship."
We won’t reveal whether the Bakers become privy to the tapes (they don’t in the book), but suffice it to say, it’s only after their daughter’s death that their eyes are opened to the world she experienced every day.
Walsh says she experienced a similar awakening while filming.
"I thought I was pretty hip," she admits. "But you hear about ‘bullying, bullying, bullying.’ I’m like, oh my God, are we just in this hyper PC sensitive culture where everyone’s a helicopter mom and there’s trophies for ninth place so people don’t have their feelings hurt? Is that ‘bullying,’ if you don’t win? And then I realized. In doing this project, part of my education was like, oh my gosh. One picture can change somebody’s life and reputation in a second, and you can’t take it back. And that’s real. We see it as adults, in the bigger culture."
In researching the role, Walsh opted not to read the novel, but spoke with parents who had experienced the loss of a child through suicide. While 13 Reasons Why will undoubtedly appeal to teen viewers, it’s the dynamic between Hannah and her parents and other "grown-ups" that makes the show both a must-watch and an incredibly difficult watch for adults.
"The internet changed the world. We were basically given a gun and bullets and said, ‘Don’t shoot people," Walsh says. "As crazy and difficult and challenging as it is for adults to navigate and learn how to use it and learn how to exercise limitations and some etiquette, we’re making it up as we go along. There’s no instruction manual. And I feel like it’s even more magnified and exacerbated for kids. In a second, their lives can be ruined, or feel like they’re ruined, with a text or a tweet or a picture shared, instantly. I would always say, before I even started the show, ‘I can’t imagine being in high school with the internet.’ It was hard enough with just word of mouth."
13 Reasons Why hammers home the point (but "not in, like, an after-school special kind of way," Walsh correctly notes) that you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life, regardless if that person is your parent, child, friend, classmate, significant other, etc. The show’s timely and not-so-subtle message is that we could all stand to be a little kinder to one another — an idea that resonated with Walsh given the current political climate.
"Even before what’s happening now currently in our culture, I felt like it was hugely important to talk about … just policing ourselves, and also making the changes that we want to see in the culture, making them ourselves, starting with kids," Walsh says. "At a time in high school where kids naturally, developmentally, want to separate from their parents and rebel and become secretive and more distant, how do you bridge that gap enough to communicate about these essential issues?"
All 13 episodes of 13 Reasons Why will be available on Netflix Friday.
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