Major spoilers for 13 Reasons Why season two ahead.
It’s always the quiet ones. As the goofy, sensitive jock on 13 Reasons Why, Zach Dempsey (Ross Butler) spent much of season one in the background, an outlier in Hannah Baker’s (Katherine Langford) life whose minor role in the events that led her to suicide was still enough to warrant a full tape in his name. In season two, we learn Zach’s deeper significance to Hannah when he drops the courtroom bombshell that they had a full-blown, secret summer romance. Flashbacks reveal happier times: We see Hannah and Zach tenderly lose their virginity to each other, explore their sexuality together, date, and lean on each other for emotional support. It’s the summer that Zach’s father died, and the summer after Hannah endured relentless slut-shaming from her peers.
But like summer, their relationship didn’t last: Fearful of judgement, Zach shunned Hannah when school resumed. His regret continues to haunt him in season two, pushing Zach to become the heart and moral compass of the show. (And further re-upping Butler’s status as your new favorite crush.) Vulture spoke with Butler about filming his first sex scenes, quitting Riverdale, auditioning for Crazy Rich Asians, and what it was like to film this season amid the #MeToo movement.
Can you walk me through your decision to leave Riverdale for 13 Reasons Why? What was the deciding factor?
Before season two was confirmed for 13, I had to make the decision of whether I wanted to focus on one character or split two characters and have a smaller role on both shows. Reggie’s a great character, but it’s a different tone. I connected with Zach on a much more real level where I didn’t have to create so much of a character for him. Reggie’s more outspoken, like that jock archetype. Zach is too, but Zach has more colors, at least from what I saw. I was in this weird floating space where the CW had recast Reggie, but Netflix still hadn’t confirmed that season two of 13 had been picked up. Thankfully, it did. I had lunch with Brian Yorkey, the head writer and executive-producer, and he dropped the news of what was gonna happen with Zach.
You didn’t know Zach and Hannah’s full backstory?
No, and I didn’t know it in season one either. But I had built something along those lines. I had created this relationship between Hannah and Zach as being really strong. It was really ambiguous, but I knew I wanted something very loving about it. I don’t know if it was love or not, but I definitely wanted something there.
Were the scenes of Hannah and Zach losing their virginity to each other your first-ever sex scenes?
Yeah, that was my first actual sex scene. I’d had scenes before where it was leading up to sex or right after sex, but this was the first scene of us actually doing the act.
It’s a hard scene to get right, but it came across as realistic, tender, tasteful, and not skewed either way because both characters are so inexperienced and sexually unaware. Did it feel that way when you were filming with Katherine?
The director Eliza [Hittman] was so great, and one of the reasons they went with her was because she actually had just shot a great feature [Beach Rats] that won at Sundance. That showed a lot of intimate scenes really tastefully, and really real. It was more comedic than the original draft — at one point, Zach started to go under the covers and Hannah’s like, “Well, what are you gonna do down there?” And Zach pops back out like, “Uh, I don’t know.” It was really funny, but we decided that it would be nice to play it more straight. Not really playing into the awkwardness of it, but more into the happiness of it. They’re so happy. Katherine and I have bonded a lot over the past couple of years, so in real life, we get each other’s sense of humor and click really well. When we actually had to do it, I personally didn’t have any awkwardness at all. It was comfortable and sweet. We actually had to do it twice and reshoot because of some technical issue with the camera for the first take. But I have no complaints.
I appreciated that the show didn’t just leave it at the first time. Zach and Hannah care enough to want to really please each other sexually, which isn’t how most teen sex gets portrayed. It added that deeper level of intimacy to their relationship.
I really liked that, too. After the fact, we find out what we like and how to be good to each other. The first time we do it, we weren’t experts. We didn’t know what we wanted to do, we just did what we’ve seen done in movies. The way it’s written is very intimate. It’s finally a nice thing happening on this show.
It almost felt like a mini rom-com tucked into the season. Did it feel that way when you were filming it?
Yeah, it felt like an intermission right in the middle. We get to have livelier music and warmer filters on the camera. Everything is softer and nicer. When we were filming it, me and Katherine were talking about how we actually got to have an emotional break. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone else did.
It’s also what makes the outcome of their relationship all the more tragic. High school isn’t really built to handle a romance like that.
We can all relate to that high-school drama. It’s about what you prioritize and what you feel in your heart, but there’s also social pressures. That’s the through line that’s happening with Zach throughout the season. I think you see his inner conflict through his eyes and how it manifests later in the season.
At one point, he calls himself a coward. Do you agree with that assessment? I’m not sure I do.
I do. It’s a tough question. I actually saw Zach in a little bit of a darker light after the first season because, in this, he had another shot to save her. It was probably her best shot at being saved. He strikes out twice with her and I would say that he’s a coward for not helping the first time during this relationship, then also not helping sooner after she took her own life. I think he’s constantly battling with trying to defy these social cliques and pressures that are trying to define him. Yes, he finally does in the end. But how many times did he have to fail? Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he definitely becomes more of a man by the end of the season. Not to make it gendered, but he grows up this season.
Where I do think he fails is being complicit in the rape culture at his high school. He’s not assaulting people, but he does know about the clubhouse and the pictures and even tips Clay off to them. Should he be more at fault?
He is a part of it, but he’s turning a blind eye rather than speaking up. The thing is, with the culture we’re in and the culture at his high school, popularity and team spirit mean everything to some people. Having your bros. On the playing field, that’s one thing. But when it comes to real life, you have to make that separation. I definitely see him as part of the problem. That’s a lesson we’re trying to teach with Zach: If you feel one way, speak up about it. You don’t need to lose your friends, but you can start a conversation rather than letting it happen without mention. Silence is the worst route.
And all of this is unfolding amid #MeToo. Did what was happening in Hollywood get discussed on set, especially since the season is so focused on sexual assault?
Yeah, it happened right in the middle of our shooting a few months in. Every single day, there were all these new accusations coming out. All these prominent people sharing their stories. Every day we’d come to set and we would all talk about it. It was sad, but it motivated us. We knew that we were on the right track; we’re tapping into something that’s happening in real time. We need to change, starting with the next generation. If we can speak to teens now and reflect reality in our art, I think that’s the best way to teach the lesson. Because this is something that hasn’t been talked about in the history of Hollywood. We feel like we have a responsibility to do so.
This season makes a better effort to address racial dynamics, and it does so more implicitly for Zach, given the way he communicates with his mom. I know from my own experiences that families of color aren’t the best at emotional availability or discussing mental health. Zach’s mom seems in denial that her son might have depression following his dad’s death, probably because she hasn’t dealt with her own grief. Did those scenes feel true to life for you?
That scene played pretty close to home for me because my dad passed away when I was 9. My mom, she’s the Asian one, we never really talked about it that much. She was open to talking about it, but I never felt like I wanted to. I didn’t think it was healthy to talk about it. Just the way that I grew up, emotional conversations were not a thing. I didn’t see the point. I thought I could deal with it on my own, and that affected me for a long time. I wouldn’t even say it’s completely a racial thing, though it is especially with Asian families — emotional conversations are very rare — but I think it’s also a part of athlete culture. People have an expectation of athletes to perform and not worry about their mental health, just worry about their physical ability. Focus on getting the job done, at least from what I saw when I was in high school. I think it comments on both of those cultures, but I definitely drew a lot from personal experiences with that. That’s something I’m personally very proud to bring to light because I wasn’t raised with that, and I would like for there to be more conversations about mental health, feelings, and emotions in ethnic families.
I know it’s a comedy, but that’s actually something I hope comes up in Crazy Rich Asians — a film I’m terribly upset you’re not in, by the way!
I wish! I actually had read for the lead role.
Wait, wait, wait. Constance Wu’s love interest?!
Yeah, but I think I was just too young. I mean, I was still playing a teenager so I can’t be a professor at a college. I don’t think I was anywhere close [to being cast] because I was still playing a 16-year-old! But I figured I’d read for it anyway and see what happens. I can’t wait for that to come out though. It’s gonna show people that there is a culture that wants to see this type of story.
This interview has been edited and condensed.