As much as 13 Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker and how she came to the decision to end her own life, it’s just as much about Clay Jensen and the effect that Hannah has on him. Their love story is at the center of the series — adapted from Jay Asher’s 2007 novel — and together, they’re also the storytellers. That’s why casting them was so important.
As the show’s central character and narrator, 21-year-old Langford was tasked with bringing Hannah to life and, perhaps more daunting, telling the story of her death. “Hannah was the hardest [to cast],” showrunner Brian Yorkey says. “We imagined Hannah as a girl with a tremendous life force that, bit by bit, got snuffed out. To go on that journey with her and see that life force snuffed out, we had to see it in the first place, and we found it in the last place we looked.”
That place was Perth, Australia, where Langford grew up. She said she never really considering acting as a long-term goal. “My parents are both doctors, and even though they’ve been nothing but supportive, it’s still hard because you grow up thinking there’s a particular path you have to follow,” she says. It wasn’t until Langford attended a Lady Gaga concert when she was 16 that she decided to explore musical theater, which led her to apply to drama school. And when she didn’t get in, she took on three jobs—bartending, ushering, and dressing as the Easter Bunny—so that she could audition for roles while her parents were under the impression that she was in college. It took a year for Langford to get an agent, and 13 Reasons Why wasn’t be far behind. (The true sign she’s made it? Lady Gaga recently retweeted one of her interviews.)
Unlike Langford, Minnette, now 20, knew he wanted to act from a young age. He signed with an agent at age 6 when a convention came through his hometown of Evansville, Indiana looking for models and actors, and by age 8, he’d participated in his first pilot season. “I’m pretty sure that normally those conventions are scams, but somehow it worked for me,” Minnette says.
You might recognize him from Prison Break, Lost, Scandal, or if you’re like Asher, 2015’s Goosebumps. “When I pictured who could play this character, Dylan was the very first person that I thought of who would be absolutely perfect,” Asher says. “When they told me he was playing Clay, I was extremely happy.”
Through Clay, the audience experiences Hannah’s life. Together, their stories form a romance, a tragedy, and a cautionary tale. “The trick with Clay is that he has to be a genuine human being, but he’s also a kid who’s not—especially when the series begins—really in touch with his feelings,” says Yorkey. “We needed to find someone who could be very still and real while also communicating the depth of feeling that was really going on underneath. Dylan had that ability.”