Spoilers for 13 Reasons Why season two ahead.
Liberty High School’s guidance counselor Mr. Porter (Derek Luke) could be viewed as the lowly scapegoat of 13 Reasons Why. He was the last person who had a meaningful conversation with Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) on the day she took her own life, when she came to him for help only to be let down by school protocol. But in season two of the Netflix teen drama, while Mr. Porter is prepared to bear the brunt of the blame for Hannah’s suicide, he won’t go quietly.
Rather than play the passive school puppet he was employed to be, Mr. Porter has gone rogue: In season two, he physically threatens the school rapist, throws punches at Justin’s drug-dealing stepdad and the school’s baseball coach, and exposes the school’s negligence in a tear-soaked testimony from the stand — and is ultimately fired for it. Vulture spoke to Derek Luke about the guidance counselor who inspired his performance as Mr. Porter, how Courtney B. Vance’s advice helped him prepare for his big courtroom scene, and those emotional scenes with Katherine Langford.
I understand you haven’t seen the season yet.
You know what, I have a ritual when it comes to film. Usually, I go to a theater and I pick a particular showtime. But with the whole streaming culture, I have to wait until the house is quiet because if my friends, family, or my wife says, “Hey, let’s watch 13 Reasons Why,” I give them 13 reasons why I don’t want to watch it with them. [Laughs.] I can feel everything in everybody and I know where I was when that scene was shot, so I need it to be very quiet in my atmosphere when I watch it.
To be fair, the intensity of your many crying and fight scenes make them best watched alone. Between seasons, it seems like Mr. Porter had thrown the rule book out the window. I imagine it’s because he knows he’ll be fired no matter the outcome of the lawsuit, so there’s nothing left to lose. Is that the frame of mind you played him in?
Many times, they say art repeats itself or is parallel to life. For me, throwing the rule book out of the window for Mr. Porter represents a very layered look. The first season was challenging, in a sense, because Mr. Porter was feeling what I was feeling. I had never done a Netflix show. There was a new set of rules. Acting is learning how to be natural in an uncomfortable situation. I always like to walk into an environment as a student and throw away what I know so I can employ what others know. I felt like I was experiencing Mr. Porter internally.
When you were filming this season, did you know Mr. Porter’s punishment all along?
I did not know. That’s one of the mysteries of building television. You don’t have the beginning, middle, and end in front of you. You have bits of the writers’ brain. You’ll have the first two episodes, but they’re barely perfecting three and four. The next script informs you of where you are as a character, so I didn’t get the [final] script until the very end. I was like, “Whoa.”
You went to a performing arts high school in New Jersey. Have you seen a difference in the way schools handle mental health since then? I’m wondering if you were close with any of your guidance counselors.
Outside of acting, I work with a lot of school programs to bridge the gap between teachers and students. Guidance counseling, maybe eight to ten years ago, was all an academic approach. As our culture began to change, there became more of a need for psychological evaluations of academics. It’s interesting to play Mr. Porter because the things I was finding out in the field, I couldn’t apply in this character. I went back to visit my old stomping grounds. I found out that in certain sections of where I grew up, special education was very high, especially among urban youth. What we’re finding out is what we thought was trauma — a blow to the head, a gunshot wound — is not the only form of trauma. Other forms of trauma are living in a dysfunctional society, let alone a dysfunctional home. It’s really shown me where I was [at that age].
My guidance counselor, her name was Ms. Morrison, had this open-door policy. And she had an issue with Mr. Porter! You know when people are talking to the screen? She was like, “Derek, I don’t understand. Why didn’t you ask her?” I’m thinking, “Oh my God, what’s going on?” I found out that mental health was always there, but it was always very coded.
You had to reshoot some of your most difficult scenes with Katherine Langford so that Hannah’s final conversation with Mr. Porter could have an alternate outcome. At one point, you’re both sobbing in front of each other. What is it like to rely on such a young co-star as your main scene partner for these heavy moments?
The first season, obviously, I’m getting to know her and there’s a lot of similarities that are true for the characters that are also true for the cast. But in the second season, all I can say is there was just a very honest vulnerability that affected both of us. I appreciate Katherine as an actress being present. It doesn’t matter whether she’s young or older, she was so giving. It made the scene even more powerful. She’s so truthful. A lot of the times when I would watch her do scenes, it seems so effortless. I applaud her for that.
How did you mentally prepare for your big courtroom scene where Mr. Porter breaks down on the stand? Where does your head go on a day of filming like that?
I was invited to a function last year, and I happened to be in the same room as Courtney B. Vance, who played Johnnie Cochran [on The People v. O.J. Simpson]. I remember him talking about sacrifice. The scenes were so dialogue heavy for him that he really had to lock himself in his trailer. And I remembered that. As a dad, I’m full-on. I had to tell my wife that this scene was going to require some very secluded space, which was difficult. I checked myself into the Westin Hotel and I spent about two-and-a-half days just being quiet, thinking about it, and finding other ways to say the dialogue. I called a couple acting friends — which I haven’t done since I started my career — because I didn’t want to get it wrong. I wanted them to debate me, debate the script, debate my take on it. I needed to debate Mr. Porter. That was my process. Because I wanted to be emotionally free, free from technique, and present on the stand.
Between this show and Antwone Fisher, I’m wondering what keeps motivating you, as an actor, to take on these roles where abuse is so central to the narrative?
A lot of us men of color have similar traumas. It can stem from our fathers, forms of education, many different things. Many of us look okay on the outside, but we’re broken on the inside. I find that these roles choose me, I don’t choose them. I love movies like Bourne Identity, Stars Wars, action movies. A lot of movies that I watch are not necessarily what I play. I learned a long time ago that you have to make sure your heart is steering your art, not the other way around. I believe I’m drawn to this because I’m allowing my heart to do that, but I’m also meeting men on a daily basis that have experienced some form of abuse or trauma.
Since Antwone Fisher until now, I’ll have guys tell me that that was their story. They’ll get emotional. They’ll say with their eyes, “I’m sharing something very secretive with you because I trust you.” I took it as a responsibility. Movies come and go, but I usually go in the direction where men have been traumatized and don’t want to talk about it. My desire as an actor is to be available so that guys who don’t talk about it, can talk about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.