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13 Reasons Why parents on navigating their sensitive story

Brian d’Arcy James and Kate Walsh discuss the ‘great respect’ paid to the tragic situation: We all ‘cared deeply about this piece’

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13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker and why she decided to end her life. But it also captures the impact of her actions and how they affect various people in Hannah’s life — especially those who knew and loved her, like her parents. Both are mourning her loss, searching for answers when the show begins.

“Tragically there are many people for whom it’s not only unimaginable, but it is their story,” says Brian d’Arcy James, who plays Hannah’s father, about approaching the role. “So first and foremost you want to honor that and be true to what you’ve learned, the research you’ve done, and the goals that you have for your character to represent this tragic thing.”

However, the show doesn’t just capture the Bakers’ grief. Through Hannah’s tapes — which neither parent knows about — the series flashes back to happier moments in their lives when they spent time together as a family, amidst worries about finances and having to downsize the family store. It’s what makes both Mr. and Mrs. Baker missing the signs of Hannah being depressed and suicidal so heartbreaking to watch.

“That’s a very common thing in families,” notes Kate Walsh, who plays Hannah’s mother. “It was really important for them to show that the Bakers are basically a regular family and they had regular issues that people go through. They were doing what they thought was the best that they could. So it can be missed.”

Walsh also notes that this can be a tricky time in both parents’ and kids’ lives, as it’s when teenagers start to rebel and become more private about what’s going on in their lives. “The more education you can have around it in terms of looking for signs, the better. It’s not just on the parents. [Suicide] is a community issue. It’s the responsibility of everyone to look out for each other.”

While there are those who laud the show and its depiction of some of the many issues teenagers face during their high school careers, there have been many concerns about the actual portrayal of Hannah’s suicide on screen — Netflix has even added warnings on episodes. That wasn’t the only tough scene to film, though. Walsh and d’Arcy James both had to play the scene after, where the Bakers find Hannah’s dead body.

“We were keenly aware of what the scene was and what it represented,” says d’Arcy James. “There was a somber quality of just quietly getting the job done, ever efficiently and with great respect.” 

Walsh, who considers it one of the most difficult scenes of the series to shoot, agrees. “It was one of the last scenes we shot, and everybody who signed on to do this show, from the studio to producers to the cast and the crew, every single person, all the writers, were hugely sensitive and cared deeply about this piece and about the subject matter.”

In preparation for the role, Walsh spoke to a psychiatrist who specialized in dealing with families that have experienced a member dying by suicide.

“Talking to other people when people have suicidal feelings is so essential and important because it’s not all the time that someone feels suicidal,” says Walsh of what she learned during the research process. “It comes and goes in waves and can last about 10 or 20 minutes. If they can talk to someone or reach out during that time, then it can actually be prevented, which makes a lot of sense in why hotlines and reaching out and talking to people, and why that conversation in the culture is very important in terms of the parents in the series.”

She adds, “[Series creator] Brian [Yorkey] really wanted this to be not an insulated high school show. It was really about the broader effects of depression and sexual assault and all of these things that are happening in high school in the community, and to actually have a dialogue between parents and kids, and teachers and kids, and have real language around [suicide].”

Additional reporting by Jessica Derschowitz

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Find more information about suicide here.