When Alisha Boe first auditioned for 13 Reasons Why, she was sure she wasn't right for the part of Jessica Davis, the popular new girl at Liberty High School. "Every time I saw a breakdown for a popular girl [role], they usually went with the blonde, blue-eyed [actors]," Boe tells me over the phone while discussing her newest partnership with Burt's Bees and the brand's Change For Nature campaign, which raised nearly $100,000 in donations for the National Geographic Society. "By the time I auditioned [to play Jessica], I was engineered to believe that I wasn't right for it. But I thought, Why shouldn't I get it?"
Boe, whose father is Somali and her mother Norwegian, is referring to the fact that Hollywood's penchant for stereotypical characters has translated to white-washed roles in both movies and TV shows. So landing the role of Jessica on a Netflix teen drama (think Degrassi meets Pretty Little Liars) was a big deal for the actress.
"Getting this part surprised me, but in the best way possible," says Boe, noting that when she started auditioning at 15, there were no shows that properly portrayed diverse, specifically mixed, families on screen. Now, the industry is making strides to amend that. "I think we deserve to take up the spaces that we haven't been able to fill in the last 40 years. Playing Jessica means I get to be the person someone else sees themselves reflected in on screen. That means more to me than anything else, because I didn't have that growing up." Three years in, and Boe is the series' breakout star.
A major subplot of season 3 involves Jessica grappling with her sexual assault trauma. Not only does she start a club at school for fellow sexual assault survivors, but she rediscovers her confidence through both emotional and physical transformations: She has an empowering solo sex session with a vibrator, and she gives herself a total hair makeover.
While the latter might not seem very significant to the character's journey, Boe disagrees. Jessica may still be coping with the reality of her rape, but she's clearly finished punishing herself for what happened. She embraces several new hairstyles in the third season — all subtle but significant departures from her usual center-parted curls. "Changing Jessica's hair was a very conscious choice," says Boe. "The third season was the first time you see Jessica really take on the role of being a survivor, and we wanted to convey that through her hair." The goal was to show the audience that Jessica was moving forward and taking control of her narrative, empowering her peers in the process (the gold hair cuffs she's seen wearing a few times do feel like her own personal armour).
13 Reasons Why is now heading into its fourth and final season, which Boe and her costars are filming as we speak. Boe explains that wrapping up the series is making her and the rest of the ensemble cast nostalgic, to say the least. "I started this show when I was 19 and I'm about to turn 23. So, it's kind of like my college years," she says. "I've grown up with this character. I've learned so much and I feel like a different person, but in the best way possible." Fittingly enough, season 4 will reportedly tackle the characters' graduation — albeit from high school, not college. Based on Boe's latest performance, we bet she graduates top of the class.