One of the 13 people mentioned on Hannah Baker’s tapes — the source of the titular 13 Reasons Why — is basketball star Zach Dempsey (Riverdale‘s Ross Butler). Unfortunately for the gifted (and occasionally sweet) jock, his reason for being singled out isn’t as pleasant as one might hope — especially seeing as his stealing the complimentary notes left to Hannah by classmates is one of the indignities she cites as leading to her death by suicide.
But wracked with guilt about the whole situation, Zach finally does come clean, telling the deposition committee the truth about how he and his friends had bullied Hannah — and worse. He even proves a caring friend as seen in his concern for Alex (Miles Heizer). With Zach having slowly grown over the course of the Netflix series 13 episodes, EW spoke to Butler about what transpired.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you read the book before you first actually started working on it?
ROSS BUTLER: When I was driving up to San Francisco, which is where we shot it, I listened to the audiobook the whole way. It’s actually really interesting, it timed out perfectly. When I left L.A. I started it, and when I got to the hotel in San Francisco, right when I parked, the book ended. It just felt like, “Whoa. This is going to be something.”
What did you think of it?
To be honest, it was something I wasn’t expecting. I’d heard what it was about, the subject matter, and I was like, “Okay, this is gonna be typical YA novel.” But I just found myself getting lost in it when I was driving, and by the time I was done, I was so moved by how real it was, I immediately knew that this project was definitely something that we needed to talk about and would also entertain. I was genuinely enraptured. Because the way it’s set up, it’s a mystery but it’s not your traditional mystery, like say Riverdale, where somebody gets killed and throughout the series, you find out who killed them by clues. This is like, you know what happens at the end, and it tells you how. As soon as I read it, I had so much more confidence and so much more drive to tell it the way it needed to be told.
When Zach first approaches Hannah in that diner scene with Marcus, what does he think of her? Does he like her?
The way that I went about creating Zach’s character at that point was, I’d always had a thing for her and I felt bad for her, and there was always something about her that I was attracted to, but because of her reputation and because of how all my friends talked about her, I didn’t have the backbone to stand up to what they thought and go with how I felt. In that scene, after seeing it myself — because everything else that happened was pretty much rumor, or just things that were written on paper — after I actually saw it I felt so bad for her and I had to go with my gut. The rest of the boys walk outside and I tell them, “I’ll see you guys later.” It’s just the moment where I had to stand up and do something because I believe that Zach is a good and decent person. His heart was pulling him too much in that direction to not do anything.
How would you say Hannah’s death affects him?
What happens with Zach is in this moment of adversity where he has the weight and the burden of a girl killing herself basically over something that he did. Zach becomes a man during this time, because he can either grow into somebody who is always gonna be a pushover, which is how you see him in the beginning. All he cares about is being accepted by his friends and doing what they say, which is why he never stood up for himself. But then towards the end of the series, you see him grow into this person who takes a stand and does what he wants and it’s his decision, ultimately, to tell the truth in his deposition and to fight for it. Because he really cared about Hannah, and he really loved her. The old Zach wouldn’t have done that, but the new Zach, starting to question his friendships and what is right for him and stands up for himself and his sister and his family and what that all means for him. Hopefully, towards the end, you can see that.
Considering Zach has heard the tapes, why do you think he still ignores Justin’s calls? Is it because he doesn’t want to face up to what Justin might have done? What’s going through his mind in those moments?
When he ignores the call, he’s with his family and Zach is starting to realize who he is. Justin was his best friend, because they’re on the team together and they have a history, they’ve known each other for a long time, but there’s a line during the scene with almost all the Reasons at Monet’s, and Zach says, “Justin’s my best friend, but do you think he cares about me right now or what I want right now?” And that’s so revealing of what’s going through Zach’s head, because he’s questioning his friendships and who’s going to stand up for him, and when he’s at the table with his sister and with his mom, he knows that those are the people who really care about him. He takes a moment just to step away from his friends’ influence and step away from what they’re saying, and he takes time for himself, to really discover who he is and what he cares about.