13 Reasons Why's Brandon Flynn on Justin's tragic ending: 'I'll never ever ever forget Justin Foley'
Warning: This post contains spoilers from the final season of 13 Reasons Why.
You can't have a season of 13 Reasons Why without a mystery, and in its final season, the mystery revolved around a death. After the season 4 premiere set the stage for a funeral, the question became: Which character doesn't make it out alive?
In the end, the answer was Justin Foley, the character we first met as a jock who broke Hannah Baker's heart. But, over the seasons, Justin would become much more than that. He was a struggling addict, Jessica's love, Clay's brother, and all-around just a kind-hearted kid. And that's why his death had such an impact on the series.
EW has the exclusive post-mortem with actor Brandon Flynn to talk about Justin's ending and why he felt it was right.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At what point did you find out that Justin would be the one to die?
BRANDON FLYNN: It definitely wasn't at the beginning [of the season]. We read that first script and we saw that there was the funeral. I think I literally raced to [showrunner] Brian [Yorkey] right after the first table read and was like, "It's Justin isn't it?" Brian was one of those people who was like, "We can't kill off the character who's continually trying to be better." I was like, "Oh, yes we can." [Laughs] Then it was in the middle of shooting that Brian and I went to dinner. I kind of knew when he texted me about dinner, and sure enough, we sat at the table and he's like, "We're gonna put Justin to rest." We both sat there somberly for a second and then we just delved into the storyline and what they had devised and what I could bring to the table. When I found out was timed perfectly because I got the opportunity to play Justin in his rehabilitation without knowing where the story was going. That was such a bonus for me because sometimes it's difficult not to play the ending. And I didn't know the ending so I had nothing to play!
For a lot of actors, dying is one of the easiest things they'll have to do, but it felt like you were handed yet another challenge with those final hospital scenes. With Justin ultimately dying from AIDS, what went into your research process for those scenes?
The writers and researchers and experts that we bring on board, we all collaborated and it evolved into this sort of packet of information. I watched a bunch of movies and read a couple different books that highlighted the stigma behind the disease and different people's experiences. There's an Instagram page actually called The AIDS Memorial that I found and I kept pulling from all the stories. Essentially you're getting bombarded with all this information of how dangerous this virus is. Then I just started researching, like, what does it look like to be on a respirator and what does it look like to be taken off a respirator? Frailty was a really big physical element that I wanted to hit, feeling really tiny in this already small bed. And then it was about, what would it be like to have all these people who have meant the world to you, who have changed your life, to be sitting in the room with you? This whole season, Justin was trying to be so strong for people. Then when he asks Clay, "Will you hold my hand bro," Justin really doesn't know what the f--- is going to happen. As far as narrative and a TV show goes, it was done beautifully for me to go in and follow the stones on the path.
You mentioned asking Brian if it'd be Justin, and I know Dylan [Minnette] mentioned you both thought Justin should be the one to die. What made you feel like that was the right choice?
This season highlighted Dylan in such a way that we were finally understanding Clay's psyche. We were finally getting a deeper look into Clay, and the storyline is about healing. The ethos of this last season is about healing, that we are going to watch the survivors go out into the world and to college and attempt to heal from all the damage. My understanding of healing is that what happens before you start to heal is [hitting] rock bottom. Just to see the evolution of Justin and Clay's relationship, from them being enemies to all of a sudden they are sharing a bedroom, it just made so much sense. They both switch off trying to protect each other, trying to save each other, be there for each other, and it was such a pivotal relationship for Clay to experience that brotherly love. Justin's not an enemy anymore. He's Clay's equal in many ways. Justin was also sometimes a mirror for Clay — Clay got to see what hardship is, what recovery is. Through Justin's death, I think Clay got to understand a little bit of what he needs to do in order to heal.
One way to see Justin's impact is to take a look at the audience's reaction. There's something to be said for killing a beloved character, simply in terms of the effect it has.
It does have much more of this strong, visceral impact when it is this character. I get that Justin's beloved but also, his storyline is so full of ups and downs that you're really rooting for him. So when you get to the finale and you find out that he's the one who's passed away, it really feels like a loss. I applaud the writers in the way they handled the storyline because I think even seeing some of the responses being outrage, it's the actual process of grief. I've had circumstances in my life where I've lost someone and it's inspired anger at first. I think once we move past that first stage of anger in grief, we get to the understanding of life and it sometimes not being fair.
Walking away from this show, what did Justin teach you?
Going back to what I said for Clay, Justin was a mirror for me in a lot of ways, in a lot of things that I needed to heal and recover from personally. It never seemed to fail that I would get to set, dealing with something personal, and it would be the scene that I needed to do to get out or process something within myself. Maybe that's not what I want to keep doing acting-wise, I don't really want every character to feel like therapy, but in some ways, I think Justin was this massive gift. Not only was [13 Reasons Why] a huge introduction and pivotal start to my career but walking away from the show I feel like I graduated from adolescence and at 26 years old, I'm in a place where I'm like, "Okay, so this might be what acting like an adult is like." I've now been able to process college and high school in one character and addiction and loss and all that stuff. I was able to process it through Justin. I don't know if I have all the words to say what I've walked away with but it's definitely something and I'll never ever ever forget Justin Foley.