In the first season of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, Justin Foley, played by Brandon Flynn, is a teen from a troubled home, with a mother who has abusive boyfriends and is addicted to drugs. Out of self-preservation, he’s reluctantly aligned himself with the school’s reigning jocks, only later realizing just what kind of people he’s befriended. He walks away, literally into the sunset, and toward an uncertain future.
When the series returns, Justin is living on the streets. In a trajectory that’s all too true to real life, he’s moved from taking prescription opioids to smoking, then shooting, heroin. His friends—just teenagers themselves—try to help him detox, even as he undergoes painful withdrawal. It was a big departure for the character, and for Brandon Flynn. The actor spoke with Tonic about how he prepped for the role, what he found most important about his portrayal, and how it changed his views on addiction.
What did you think when you first learned about the arc your character would be taking this season?
I was super intrigued. At first, as an actor, it scared the shit out of me. I grew up on a couple of different movies that were fueled by drugs and heroin in particular. I really respected the actors and their subtlety within that sort of impediment. My biggest concern was first being truthful and honest to that journey with Justin. But after I'd gone and done proper research and everything, I was really excited because it felt like such a natural continuation of where he left off in the first season. It seemed to all make sense and it was super relevant because, in doing research, I found how prominent this drug issue is within young communities.
I remember being in high school and the Occupy movement was going on, and I remember having a lot of friends who had just left home to join this movement. Not really out of politics but out of, like, a necessity to be on their own and be free. And sometimes that coincided with drugs. I watched a lot of friends get soured because of that experience. And I thought that was really interesting that Justin had that underbelly of a story going on.
What movies did you have in mind when you were researching?
I watched Beyond the Pines. One of my favorite movies is Trainspotting and I watched it numerous times because not only does the acting delve into drug use, but the style of the movie feels like you're almost on drugs. So I watched a lot of that. I watched Requiem For A Dream; I watched The Panic In Needle Park with Al Pacino. There's a ton of movies I was able to pull from—realistically and also stylistically.
And of course I did a bunch of research. What it really led me to was having a proper conversation with the writer in terms of making sure Justin wasn't so serious this season. That he kind of did have a sense of freedom, even though from the outside world we look in and say, Jeez, how fucked up is that? But really, Justin's view toward the outside world is, in a strange way, a little more relaxed. That way his journey is way more arced toward the end where he becomes super involved and concerned and super strong. Even though he still is on drugs, he becomes much more of a man with a drive. And a secret, which I think is super interesting.
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Let's talk a little bit more about that preparation. What kind of conversations did that involve? What did you feel like you had to know about what his character would have gone through?
From an actor's point of view, the emotional life is really there: It's written in the script, and when I, Brandon, hear that Justin is doing all these drugs, then of course the sadness settles in for me.
I immediately understood his emotional journey. But, really, what I wanted to delve into is making sure things like the cadence of how he spoke was correct, that the detoxing was accurate. And physically being alive in that. So I worked a lot with the showrunner, Brian Yorkey, and Netflix as well. They really wanted to make sure I was prepared, to make sure I got what I needed.
Nic Sheff, who's on the writers team, has written a bunch of books about growing up with addiction, so it was very familiar for him. We got to sit down and have a lot of close talks, but we also went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings and needle exchanges and methadone clinics where addicts would go and get their daily fix of methadone, to make sure that they were staying clean and, you know, able to function.
I think that was all really important. I literally sat there and asked the basic questions, like, "how do most of the people who walk in here carry themselves? You know, are they hunched at the back?" A lot of my playing it comes from stomach aches. Kurt Cobain was a huge inspiration for me: If you read about Kurt Cobain, he talks about his constant stomach pain. Separately from from the story line, it was really fun as an actor to find this character and find a different Justin: one with an impediment, and one with something to play physically and emotionally.
Was addiction and the opioid crisis something you'd known much about before going into this season?
I had a very basic idea of of it. In high school I had lost two friends to it. So it was something I was generally aware of, but not to the extent of what it's become. It's been interesting to watch it happen politically as well. Trump has mentioned it a few times—not that anything is being done about it—but it's really interesting to hear people's points of view on it and their point of view on recovery. Because [heroin] is such a strong drug that does take so much away from the person and their personality, but we can't ignore that there are ways to help these people. In some ways that's a very controversial view, when it comes to things like offering needle exchanges.
One of the most interesting things I found out was that we've managed to slow down the AIDS epidemic by providing clean needles. One of the main things with addicts is that we have to understand that cutting them off cold turkey is not helpful. That is what will tend to kill them. And, in fact, offering clean ways to use and offering help alongside that is probably the most beneficial way to get people clean and get them to understand that people are standing by their side.
You mentioned bringing a different sense of physicality to the role. Is there anything else you brought to the role because of the preparation that you've done that maybe people wouldn't be able to see as easily?
I'd come on set and switch up my body—you know, shoulders raised, a little bit more protected than I, myself, am. I'm not cocky or anything, but I stand proud and I stand confident, which is something I've developed through the years. For this work, I had to truly understand that Justin wasn't confident. I went back to thinking how it felt being in middle school and wearing hoodies, making myself hard to see. As a kid who was overweight, I protected myself from from being taken in that way. That was easily transferable to someone who is high.
One of the things we often talk about with people who are using is that they're scared that people know they are using. So they become very into themselves, because any sort of outward projection is like a open invitation to other people knowing that you're high. I think it'll be very interesting for people to watch Justin become this cocky athlete who now all of a sudden is very inward-facing.
You mentioned bringing a sense of humor to Justin, which is something new. It's also a little new for the series to have some more lighthearted moments.
When we started filming I had about a month and a half off because I'm not really in the first two episodes. So that's where Netflix and I set up all this research. That way when I stepped on the set the first day, I'd be fully prepared and ready to keep going on my journey of research, but in a good place to start the series for Justin.
I remember very vividly one of the places I went—to one of the methadone clinics off the strip in Los Angeles. I sat with one of the physicians and asked him, "What would be the one realistic thing that he would want to see from this character?" And his first answer was that they laugh. I'm really happy the doctor told me that, because it changed a lot. It made Justin way more of a three-dimensional, nuanced character. Because yeah, the circumstances are sad, but Justin is able to be this moment of levity and light for Clay sometimes.
I thought that was super important, and actually super realistic. It's like when you're hanging around with your family after a funeral, not everyone sits there and cries the whole time. You talk about the good times and you talk about how funny that person was, or that instance where they said something so ridiculous. And I thought that would be nice to have within Justin. His embarrassment toward puking all over himself, say—it's natural.
What I want for Justin is to be a full-blown character, but ultimately I want the viewer to understand addicts are people, too. They go through all sorts of emotions. The shame experience is real, but the happy moments are real, too.
Do you feel your perspective changed in playing the role this season? Did you learn anything new about people with addiction?
I think the most important takeaway was how important it is to just have one person around, someone who's really in your life. In high school, you hang out with the wrong people sometimes, and you convince yourself that that's what you need. It was really important for Justin to experience a different kind of friend—someone who maybe didn't love him unconditionally, but was actually just physically there for him. I think that's so important and it's so important to be aware of those friends your life.
Are there other things that you think viewers could take away from seeing what Justin goes through? You know, I grew up with addicts in my household. I think it's easy to say they want to fuck up their lives and they want to destroy the good they have. It's much harder to realize that they want to change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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