13 Reasons Why Star Justin Prentice on Making a ‘Realistic’ Villain for the #MeToo Era

Justin Prentice as Bryce Walker in 13 Reasons Why. Photo: Beth Dubber/Netflix

Spoilers for 13 Reasons Why season two ahead.

Netflix’s teen drama 13 Reasons Why started off as a show about suicide, but has since spiraled into a tangled web of deeper tragedy. The main source of that pain is Bryce Walker, Liberty High School’s star athlete. Walker, played by Justin Prentice, is a villain for the #MeToo era: He’s the Harvey Weinstein–in-waiting of his small California suburb who, over the course of the show’s two seasons, has sexually assaulted nearly every woman he’s come in contact with, totaling in the dozens. The second season explores the man behind the monster, introducing his previously absent parents Nora (Brenda Strong) and Barry (Jake Weber), as well as his girlfriend Chloe (Anne Winters), who challenges him to consider what a healthy relationship looks like.

But at the end of the season, Bryce ultimately can’t hide from his crimes. He is convicted for raping a fellow student, though he’s given the punishment of the privileged — a mere three months probation and a chance to start over at another school. Vulture spoke to Prentice about playing a sexual predator in the age of #MeToo, what it took to make him seem believable, and whether or not 13 Reasons Why wants to humanize his character.

What kinds of research did you do to get inside Bryce’s head? I imagine Brock Turner was a name that came up, especially since he was given a similarly light sentence.
It absolutely was. That case was going on right around the audition time for season one, so that was fresh on my mind. I also watched a lot of TV movies and took real-life examples whenever possible. I talked to Alexis Jones of the I Am That Girl Foundation — she actually travels the world talking to boys in locker rooms and educating them on consent and the definitions of sexual assault and rape. She helped me quite a bit. I also talked to a psychiatrist, Dr. Rebecca Hendrick. Between all of them, we pieced together the fragments of who Bryce is to make him as realistic and relatable as possible. We wanted people to watch this show and go, “Oh my gosh, I know that person.”

That’s the thing about Bryce: He’s not an anomaly. There are Bryces in every high school, college, even workplace.
Exactly. Unfortunately, it’s all too prevalent. This whole Weinstein case broke while we were filming the second season and it was just another reminder of how relevant these issues are.

Bryce represents some of the worst parts of male toxicity. How do you get into a character like that?
It helps to have such a great group of co-workers. All of our producers, writers, and cast have been so trusting of me, which is awesome. It gives me the safety net to really go for things and not second-guess myself in the moment. I try to do the work ahead of time so that when we’re actually filming the scenes, I can just become Bryce and give it my all, and then pull back out of it as soon as possible once we’re done so I can keep a healthy mind-set.

What was most challenging to film this season?
The sports rehearsals on the technical side of things. You have this very, very expensive camera rig sitting right next to the home plate and it’s my job to throw a ball as fast as I can right next to it. Having not played baseball in many, many years, that was nerve-racking. But emotionally, there were some good scenes with Brandon [Flynn, who plays Justin Foley] and there’s an intense moment with Tyler up against the lockers. All of the courtroom stuff was very intense, but also fun as an actor. One of my favorite scenes was actually with his mom, Brenda Strong, the scene where she slaps me.

That was one of the most uncomfortable bits of dialogues I’ve ever watched. What was it like to crudely describe how Bryce raped Hannah to his own mother?
Oh my gosh, it’s awful. You know, it’s an interesting glimpse into their dynamic. His mother hasn’t been there for him and now, all of a sudden, she sees what Bryce has become and wants to be involved. From Bryce’s point of view, they’ve never been there, so why are they here now? You get to see this unique moment where he snaps and drops all sense of façade. He really shows the monster that he is, or the monstrous side of him. He still has that human layer deep down. But it’s interesting to see him shed this façade he wears to the world and just be the grotesque, horrid monster in that moment.

How many takes did you do of the slap?
I think we did a few more takes than necessary just because the crew enjoyed watching it so much. “Yes, Bryce getting slapped! Let’s shoot this scene all day long!”

You mentioned Bryce’s humanity. I imagine it would be difficult to commit to any character if he were all evil.
That’s the thing, too. With a lot of these sexual-assault cases, a lot of these kids aren’t monsters. They do monstrous acts, but statistically, the vast majority are people that are already known to the survivor. A lot of the time it’s a dating partner, or someone you’ve let into your circle of trust, so it was important to have that humanity for a realistic portrayal. This is what’s going on out there — it can be a friend, it can be someone who is capable of being loving and charming, but they lack the correct education on consent and what it means to respect another human being. Over time, if no one steps up and says no to them, that develops into someone akin to Bryce. There’s definitely humanity in him, which we get to see in the flashbacks to Bryce and Justin’s younger selves. They were young and innocent at one time, but life took them down different paths. But I think there is hope for people like Bryce. It doesn’t have to be as much of an epidemic as it currently is if we just start talking about these things.

It makes me wonder what kind of father Bryce will be if his girlfriend decides to keep their child.
I think it could go several ways. It could be an awakening that potentially snaps him out of this behavior and gives him more of a reason to come from a place of love. I could also see it being the complete opposite, where it becomes a hindrance to him and his goals. The family might try to end it before it happens. I don’t know if we’ll do a third season, but I’m excited to see what our writers come up with. If there is humanity in Bryce, it’d be interesting to see if a child would bring that out of him — but I don’t know that it would.

Has playing Bryce made you reexamine your own ideas about consent and brought about conversations with other men in your life? Prior to this season, there was a black-and-white definition of rape with Hannah and Jessica. But with Chloe, there’s a scene where consent is a much grayer area. It’s very reminiscent of the Aziz Ansari story.
It absolutely has. I think, if anything, I’m more attuned to it now. It’s something I look out for more than I ever have. I try to speak when I can. I’ve worked with Katie Koestner and her foundation Take Back the Night and Respect My Red, just to better educate myself on sexual assault and shed any light that I can in terms of how we portray it on the show. I’ve been fortunate that the people I hang out with all respect women and men, so there’s hasn’t been a scenario where I’ve had to step in and say, “Hey, this isn’t cool.” But I certainly am capable, competent, and ready to do so if that need arises now. It’s something that we all are talking about. The cast is very conscious of it. It pops up in our everyday lives. A lot of the cast has talked about how we’ve had friends and family members come forward and tell us that they’ve been survivors of sexual assault, and we never even knew it. It’s much more prevalent than I think any of us realized.

It’s changed the way that I do things and how I view what sexual assault and rape are. Before this show, I, like a lot of people, had a tendency to box it into this back-alley incident that rarely happens, where it’s a freak scenario. But in doing all this research and playing Bryce, I’ve realized that, no, this is happening very frequently and the issue isn’t just an outlier. This is happening with people close to the survivors. It’s something we can change if we start talking, campaigning, and educating young boys on what consent looks like.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

13 Reasons Why’s Justin Prentice on Making a #MeToo Villain