From the first episode of 13 Reasons Why, the audience knows how Hannah Baker’s story ends. The Netflix show, based on the book by Jay Asher, tells the story of Hannah’s suicide and the 13 tapes she recorded before her death to explain her decision. But for Katherine Langford, 20, portraying Hannah Baker is only the start of her story.
Just a few years ago, Langford was a national swimmer at her high school whose top three job preferences were medicine, politics, and musical theater, in that order. Well, at least until she went to a Lady Gaga concert when she was 16. “I went to see Born This Way,” says the Australian actress. “I don’t know what happened. It was like a spiritual experience, and I was so moved by her performance that I went home and that week I taught myself how to play piano.”
From that point on, a flip had been switched. For her final year of high school, Langford stopped swimming and started getting more into music and performance. She received a diploma of musical theater, at which point she decided to pursue acting. “The next year, I got an agent,” she says. “I actually told my parents I was at university and I just worked and auditioned.”
And when the audition for 13 Reasons Why came her way, she read for the roles of Hannah and Jessica before eventually landing the lead. “Luckily I think my high school experience was far better than Hannah Baker’s, but I think she’s a character that goes through so many things that I feel like all of us have felt,” she says. “In that way, I find her really personable.”
With each episode, the show digs deeper into the story of Hannah’s emotional undoing, which leads to her tragic end. And along the way, Langford had to film a number of intense scenes, which is where her love of music came back into her life: She’d often play the piano to help herself unwind. “I don’t play professionally or very well for that matter,” she says. “It’s more of a comfort. The first thing that I bought in San Rafael, [California], because we were going to be there for six months filming, was a bed and a piano. And on set, we would sometimes have green rooms, which were houses, and those houses would have pianos and so I would play in between takes.”
Suffice it to say that she’d be more than willing to partake in a 13 Reasons Why musical, but until that’s an option — a girl can dream — Langford doesn’t know for sure what her future holds. “It’s a weird point in my life right now because I just finished the most incredible show with the most incredible people and I kind of don’t know what to do with myself,” she says. “I just want to keep doing good projects with good people. I love the opportunity to affect change in people’s lives. That’s one of the greatest gifts of this industry and this job.”