Alisha Boe For (Netflix) Class President
She found her voice as Jessica Davis on 13 Reasons Why. Now Alisha Boe is using it to fight real-life injustice.
Alisha Boe is sitting, looking comfortable and totally at ease, on an emerald green velvet couch. Usually, for a conversation like this, I would be seated right next to her. We’d probably have met in some low-key — but still trendy, obviously — coffee shop in L.A., which 13 Reasons Why star Boe calls home. A “Lowfit Beats to Study/Relax To” playlist would be churning out ambient music, and a cold brew or two would be on the table. But these aren’t usual times. Boe is sheltering-in-place in a location she asks to remain between us, where she is weathering the COVID-19 pandemic with her unnamed boyfriend (they’ve chosen to keep his identity under wraps for reasons Boe tells me are personal). It is from here that she will watch fans devour the final 10 episodes of her controversial, but beloved Netflix YA series 13 Reasons Why, whose fourth and final season premiered on Friday, June 5.
The 23-year-old’s voice has a low, serious quality that 13 Reasons Why fans have come to know intimately — no Liberty High student speaks with more gravity than Boe’s Jessica Davis, a once-carefree cheerleader who becomes a firebrand feminist after surviving a rape at a party. Over the course of the relentlessly tragic drama, class president Jessica expounds on rape culture and sexism in a brutally honest, graphic way unlike any other teen character before her. But when we talk — just a handful of days before 13 Reasons’ swan song season debuts — that voice is being used to respond to the anti-racist protests that have recently commanded the cultural conversation — and will undoubtedly continue to do so moving forward.
“For a long time I was really afraid of voicing any opinion. But I think at some point, you’re just tired. You stop caring [about] whatever will happen in the comments section,” Boe says. Five days earlier, she had posted a lengthy dedication on Instagram to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Kenneth Ross Jr., three of the Black men whose deaths at the hands of law enforcement and white racists sparked the protests that have laid bare the deadly reality of America’s systemic racism. Boe’s use of the platform to tell her 3.9 million followers not only how to demand justice for Floyd from the city of Minneapolis, but also to call out U.S. President Donald Trump for labelling protesters as “thugs” is as inspirational as any fiery and brave monologue that Jessica has given.
“I’m just so tired of being a community of the unheard and pain. It’s personal because I see my father, I see my brother. Those are friends, my family,” Boe says. Boe, whose father is Somali and whose mother is Norwegian, was born in Oslo and moved to L.A. as a 7-year-old, when her mom, Vibeke Boe, married an American. Boe was only 19 when she was cast in 13 Reasons Why in 2016; she has a little brother, Asante, who turned 12 the day of our video chat, and will be going to high school in the not too distant future. She becomes visibly emotional realizing he has six more years of schooling ahead. This feeling makes the stakes of Boe’s high-school set show’s all the more real, something that’s coming into focus even more sharply right now. “It’s even harder to have a president who would rather label certain protesters as terrorists rather than a school shooter,” Boe says. “A school shooter, he would never call a terrorist.”
The omnipresent threat of school shootings lives in the DNA of 13 Reasons Why, a series built on the many traumas plaguing teenagers today. The toll of sexual assault, suicidal depression, and drug abuse are also the foundation of the show, which began Netflix’s era of teen show dominance. Season 4 expands on 13’s meditation on racism — which eventually leads to a protest that law enforcement makes violent. It is in these tumultuous moments that Jessica Davis is at the height of her oratory power. While Boe has now left Jessica behind forever, she’s taken a page out of her character’s playbook and is speaking out on everything from sex positivty to anti-racism to how to keep it together in quarantine — all while looking back on 13 Reasons Why and planning her next act.
“When I started the first season of 13, I learned so much about women’s rights — and feminism, in general — through Jessica,” Boe says. Boe scored the part of Jessica in her second phase of acting; the first came soon after her childhood move to L.A. and ended as she approached adolescence. Beyond 13, she can most recently be seen in women-led features like the religious satire Yes, God, Yes with Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer, and Diane Keaton’s geriatric cheerleading comedy, Poms. Boe admits she’s always had the performing bug, laughing about how she used to recite plays from memory for her parents when she was a kid in Oslo. She doesn’t say it, but it’s safe to assume that those early childhood performances didn’t include what she’s best known for now: giving rousing speeches to large crowds and literally screaming, “Fuck the patriarchy.”
“To be able to stand, literally, in front of 300 people and say these words, is very, very powerful,” Boe says of her most urgent, megaphone-wielding moments. “Because what’s happening is not going to just stop because we choose not to talk about it … I hope, ultimately, what fans will take away from the show is that they need to use their voice, but also take peaceful action.”
It’s clear that fans have taken that message to heart. Boe tells me about the legions of young women who have reached out with messages about how her on-screen work has inspired them to speak out in their own lives, whether that means reaching out to loved ones in crisis or calling out injustice. It’s no surprise that Boe has heard from impassioned viewers, as fandom is the engine that powered the multi-season success of 13 Reasons Why. While the adaptation of Jay Asher’s novel of the same name was originally expected to air for a single season, it instead became the most Tweeted-about series of 2016, and, in its second season, doubled the viewership of Netflix’s awards show darling The Crown. It’s no coincidence that an overwhelmingly large chunk of that audience is young and identifies as women; they doubtlessly see themselves reflected in the series' unblinkingly honest narratives.
Boe gives those viewers one final, inspirational moment in the finale of 13 Reasons Why. In Jessica’s commencement speech, she urges her classmates to choose love over hate, reminding them such a decision is “life or death.” As viewers who have seen the finale know, someone extremely close to Jessica has recently died by the time she gives this speech. Boe, however, had no idea which character she was actually memorializing on the day of production, which came during the second week of filming season 4. The cast hadn’t even wrapped the first episode yet.
“We had to do it [that way], because we wouldn’t have access to the high school where we filmed. So I had no idea what was going on in that scene. I had no idea who passed away,” Boe admits. Showrunner and creator Brian Yorkey only told Boe “someone really close to her had passed,” and she should react accordingly. “We don't get the scripts in advance. So I’m glad that you liked it, because I had no idea what I was talking about,” she adds with a wry chuckle.
The first season of 13 Reasons Why barely conveyed that Jessica would stand in front of her Liberty High classmates as an unstoppable force — or become the obvious femme lead of the drama. In 2018, Boe admitted she’d didn't think the TV powers-that-be would cast someone who looks like her, a biracial immigrant, as the lead of a series. At the time she was chosen to play Jessica — initially a supporting character in the world of Liberty High — Boe had been limited to playing minor or guest parts in series like Teen Wolf, Ray Donovan, and Casual. In 2012, she even played the role of “Pretty Girl” in a single episode of Parenthood, which coincidentally starred Miles Heizer, who would eventually become one of Boe’s most important 13 Reasons scene partners.
Yet by the final season, Boe’s Jessica became the heart of 13 Reasons Why: a girl who not only survived the trauma of being raped by serial offender Bryce Walker (Justin Prentice), but who also found the strength to confront him in court and reclaim her own sexuality. A run of sexual exploits with on-again, off-again boyfriend Justin (Brandon Flynn), a season-long flirtation with new character Diego (Jan Luis Castellanos), and, most importantly, an empowering masturbation scene are some of Jessica’s most revolutionary moments in the latter seasons of 13 Reasons Why.
“It’s a reminder that we’re not defined by any trauma. We have the power to redefine who we want to be and how we want to be,” Boe says of Jessica’s evolution, her hand raising in an arc as she speaks with more and more passion. “It’s also incredibly empowering as a female, because we never get to talk about our sexuality and how we have feelings and we want to express them — especially teenagers. Female masturbation is never talked about and it happens so much.”
“I’m aware that a lot of people have an aversion to seeing a young girl or a young girl of colour speaking her mind, not being quiet, and taking her sexual power. Some people really hate it and will dismiss it. They will be like, ‘She’s bitchy. She’s a know-it-all,’” Boe continues. “But most of the people who are like me or identify with me, who find power in it; you should find power in it. Because you shouldn’t have to quiet yourself down, ever, and you should never have to feel like you need to say ‘I’m sorry for speaking.’ You should be absolutely fearless in this world.”
In her own life, Boe is already living this maxim. “I’ve always been very sex-positive. If anything, [playing Jessica has] just fuelled my fire,” she says. “Ever since I was kid, my mom has always been open to me about any questions I had about female anatomy, periods, whatever. Through that, she’s given me this mindset that it doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable to talk about anything.”
Talking has become Boe’s lifeline while sheltering-in-place. She initially avoided her phone at the beginning of the pandemic, seeing it as a “stressor.” But then she started FaceTiming her friends and found joy and “reconnection” in a time of mass panic. Then, there is her boyfriend, with whom she’s been secluded since February. “Quarantining with a partner has actually been really great, as long as you have boundaries and clear communication skills,” she says with a wide smile. “It actually allows for you to gain more insight on your personalities when there is this specific event happening in the world, like a global pandemic, and the stressors are so high.”
Eventually, Boe will have to leave her quarantine location. She’s already musing on what her 13 Reasons Why-free future looks like. From 13 to Poms and Yes, God, Yes, she has played the popular girl in high school. She is more often than not a cheerleader (the extracurriculars of her God character, Nina, are unclear, save for serving as a universally liked leader at a hypocritically horny Catholic retreat).
“I’m hoping to play not-a-teenager next. We’ll see. I’m hoping to step into young adulthood cinematically,” Boe says. “I don’t think the next thing I want to do is be on a TV show again. For the time being, I think I want to try something different just to see.”
While Boe says she is interested in doing plays (“That’s how you really earn your actor’s stripes, you know?” she jokes) or indie films, don’t be surprised if you see her back on TV in a very specific genre: the Shondaland masterpiece. Boe name-checks two titans of TGIT days gone by when listing her acting heroes. “I really look up to Kerry Washington and Viola Davis,” she says. “Viola said once in an interview, ‘When I decided to take on this role, it’s because I wanted there to be a dark-skinned woman as a lead of a network television show. Because that is important for the next generation of actors.’ I think that’s just incredible.”
Now that 13 Reasons Why has ended, Boe must also reckon with the legacy of her own work as Jessica Davis, the biracial girl who changed one high school forever. Although she initially laughs about the idea of making a “grand proclamation” about her character, soon her voice falls into the serious tones of Jess. “I just hope viewers ultimately take away that you really never have to be alone,” Boe says. “You never have to go through anything alone. To reach out and speak out is always the best option.”