I almost don't recognize Justin Prentice when he walks into the coffee shop. It's not only that the 13 Reasons Why actor isn't wearing his character Bryce's signature baseball jacket (or that he's now sporting stubble, considering he's no longer tasked with playing a high school student). Prentice's whole demeanor is worlds away from the smug, entitled jock he plays on the buzzed-about new Netflix series. Prentice is warm and easy going — 13 Reasons Why creator Brian Yorkey called him "one of the kindest young men you'll ever meet" in a letter to the press. That makes Prentice something else as well: a great actor.
If you've been told that 13 Reasons Why is difficult to stomach, you can thank Prentice. During the course of the series, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) reveals the 13 reasons why she chose to end her life — and Prentice's character, Bryce, is featured prominently in her story. He shares an upskirt photo of Hannah around the school. He gropes Hannah at a liquor store after she is awarded the title of "Best Ass." But his most horrific actions come later in the series: Bryce rapes an incapacitated Jessica (Alisha Boe) at her own party, and, later, does the same to Hannah when she's alone and vulnerable in a hot tub.
For Prentice, the role of a high school rapist was carefully considered — and carefully researched.
"I didn’t hesitate in terms of taking the role because I was initially just very excited to play a character [I could] sink my teeth into," Prentice tells me.
"From a really young age our culture actually programs young men to objectify women."
Prentice's initial reaction, he tells me, was to play Bryce as a true sociopath: "When I first read the character, [I thought] there seems to be a bit of antisocial personality disorder here," says Prentice. It's easy to see why Prentice jumped to the conclusion: Bryce is charming, popular, and an unapologetic serial rapist. However, as Prentice dived deeper into the role, he discovered that Bryce was more complicated:
"I wanted him to be a semi-relatable person," Prentice tells me. "I didn’t want people to just write him off like, ‘Oh, that’s just going to happen because of how he was born [a sociopath],' which is not how sociopathy works, anyway.’"
One person that helped prepare Prentice for the Netflix series was Alexis Jones, the founder of non-profit organization I AM THAT GIRL and, more recently, ProtectHer, a locker room program committed to educating male athletes on the importance of respecting women through reframing "bro code," challenging the idea of "manhood," and encouraging men to speak up for women. The activist acted as a consultant on 13 Reasons Why, and was an integral part in making Bryce a relatable villain.
"It wasn’t one of those 'let’s check the box' kind of things... make sure we bring on consultants and cover our asses," says Jones of working on 13 Reasons Why. "This was a sincerity for wanting to do right by survivors and wanting to put something out there that was actually meaningful and impactful, so these are the kind of projects people like me live for in the activist space.”
Jones told me that she and Prentice discussed Bryce as a sociopathic character and, ultimately, decided on a portrayal that commented on not only Bryce, but how young men are taught to treat women.
"I said, ‘I’m going to challenge you on this,' because I think the reality is that from a really young age our culture actually programs young men to objectify women," says Jones. "The majority of men get their sexual education from porn. That’s a very myopic, specific view on the way in which they’re taught to treat women. They consume 10 hours of media a day, media that [often] glorifies violence against women, that’s inherently disrespectful and sexually objectifying."
Prentice, ultimately, agreed:
"One of the statistics that always sticks in my mind is that one in five women in high school report being sexually and/or physically assaulted by dating partners," he says. "The majority of what's happening in our society is date rape, it’s opportunistic rape. It’s not Ted Bundy kidnapping somebody in the wee hours of the morning... These are everyday kids that are doing the acts that we discussed because they can justify it in their own minds because of lack of education on the subject matter."
Jones hopes that Prentice's portrayal makes the world see that people like Bryce aren't as rare as we might assume.
"If you play a sociopath, it’s easy to disassociate from that character all together and for guys to say, 'Oh I would never do that, I would never be a Bryce,’" explains Jones. "And the reality is that there are thousands of [people like Bryce] on campuses all over the country, because we wouldn’t be having these staggering numbers if there weren’t."
The actor spoke to a psychiatrist about the role as well, in an attempt to understand how someone like Bryce could exist. Sure, he may have been programmed, culturally, to see women a certain way, but what was his "X" factor that led him to commit such terrible acts? Prentice used the fodder from Bryce's teased — but never explicitly discussed — home life in order to create a fuller picture of the show's villain.
"I think [entitlement] is a part of who Bryce is, who Bryce’s father is and the background that he comes from," says Prentice. "When you’re a part of a power family, in their eyes anyway, you’ve gotta do what you need to do to reach the top and stay on top."
And though Bryce is terrible — there's no question of that on the show — painting him as a one-dimensional villain would only to disservice to the character and, more importantly, the very real issues that the series tackles. Though the Jay Asher novel upon which the Netflix series is based came out in 2007, Bryce could be Brock Turner, the Stanford student who sexually assaulted an incapacitated woman behind a dumpster in January of 2015, and showed an appalling lack of empathy for his crime in the press. Turner's father wrote a much maligned letter, in which he spoke of his son's accomplishments on his university's swim team and "bright future." While some fans thought the series was "unrealistic" in the way that Bryce's friends stood by him despite rape accusations, plenty of people stood by Turner.
"That one line where [Bryce] is like, ‘Oh please, if that’s rape then like you know all the girls on campus are asking me to rape them.’ That whole paradigm, that line we worked on," says Jones of the scene in which Clay (Dylan Minnette) finally confronts Bryce about his crimes. "You have this idea that Bryce doesn’t even understand that what he’s doing is wrong. So how do you arrive at a place like that when for [worshipped] athletes [like Bryce] they have that to 'I do no wrong' mentality?"
For Prentice, he hopes that 13 Reasons Why helps illuminate why we need to stop the hero worship of people who commit heinous acts — no matter how well they excel at a sport.
"We [have to] get over this as a society. ‘Well they’re above it because they’re an athlete and they make a lot of money for the school so we should just sweep it under the rug,’ that’s not how this should be seen by any means. No sport is worth the destruction of another human’s life... I hope that [my role on 13 Reasons Why] starts conversations in that sense."
That's not to say playing Bryce was easy for the actor. Prentice admits that he cried during the table read for episode 12 — the heartbreaking episode in which Bryce rapes Hannah.
"I just broke down," said Prentice of that particularly challenging scene. Fortunately, he leaned on the tightknit cast and crew for support:
"We all consoled each other at the end and it was wonderful. That was one of the cool things about that was everyone had each other’s backs. These are dark subject matters and I think they hit close to home for just about all of us, so it brought us all really close together."
13 Reasons Why has been lauded for presenting rape scenes that feel gritty and disturbingly real — but also respectful of victim. The show, devoid of the male gaze, chooses to focus on Hannah face during that grueling hot tub scene:
"I thought it was a really smart move to just focus on that," says Prentice. "I think Katherine did a great job of just breaking down as a human being [during the scene.]"
Such work took careful, considered planning — a challenge for both the crew and the actors alike. While "acting is acting," it's not easy to jump in and out of intense moments. (Prentice tells me that his scene with co-star Boe, who plays Jessica, became understandably emotional for the actors.) For Prentice, his closeness with his co-stars and the show's crew also helped make filming those scenes easier to stomach:
"The producers, directors, they were fantastic in making sure we felt comfortable... We had mock rehearsals and everything before the scenes, on the actual locations. So, in Jessica’s bedroom and the hot tub, [we] blocked out how it was going to be, exactly what was going to be shown, what was going to blurry, what the camera was focused on," said Prentice of how the show prepared for some of the hardest scenes of the season. "With Alisha and with Katherine we had several conversations [during] rehearsals leading up to the scenes... We talked about it and they were like basically like, 'I trust you,' which was helpful... [By this point in the series,] they were like my sisters, which made it a lot easier.”
The result, in Jones' mind, is a powerful, unflinching depiction of sexual assault and rape culture:
"Man did 13 Reasons Why take a leap of faith, because I read the script... and I was in tears. I said, ‘If you actually pull this off, this is going to be revolutionary, and you just gifted some of the best education [teenagers] have ever received on the issues of sexual assault prevention."
Prentice hopes that his portrayal can teach teenagers the impact that sexual assault has on survivors — and can encourage people to call out their friends when they see bad behavior.
"For Bryce specifically, I think it’s important for people to understand that their actions have consequences," says Prentice. "With the way high school [is now], and especially [with certain people] feeling like...sex is theirs for the taking however way they want it. We hope that this is a wakeup call in a sense, one to themselves, and then to their peers around them. [It's time] to step up and say something, and not let this stuff happen."