Justin Prentice is the face behind Hannah's now infamous rapist Bryce Walker in Netflix's 13 Reasons Why. While he says he couldn't have anticipated just how swiftly the show would take off, it has since catapulted in a midnight fireworks, off-the-charts, global phenomenon kind of way.
Due in part to 13 Reasons' younger-skewing audience, it's not uncommon for the 23-year-old's socials to be flooded with comments conflating Bryce with Prentice's real-life identity. Naturally, then, it's all the more impressive to hear him speak with such intelligence and passion about minimizing sexual assault in the U.S., doling out stats left and right, and sharing sincere opinions on how we can educate the many, many kids who think just like Bryce.
The role Prentice played was challenging, and while he finds the unfounded backlash more amusing than anything else, it seems unfair. Still, there's a levity in his voice. Prentice is proud of the show, and even prouder of the work it — and he — have done to spread awareness.
"Obviously it's wonderful to be part of a show that's so widespread, but I think it's even cooler to be part of something that's hopefully changing perspectives on very important issues," Prentice told Zimbio Wednesday, April 26.
"At the very least," he went on, "it's starting conversations about these very important issues, which are so frequently swept under the rug. It's amazing, and I'm so honored to be part of a project like this. It sounds cliché, but really and truly, it's wonderful. I couldn't have hand-picked a better thing to be a part of, it blows my mind."
In the week after its March 31 premiere, Fizziology reported the 13-episode drama was the subject of more than 3.5 million tweets — millions more than the second most-tweeted-about Netflix show, Chasing Cameron.
"I had no idea it would have this sort of gravity to it," Prentice admits. "I mean, based on the people attached, I knew it was a talented group. [Executive producer] Selena Gomez is obviously incredibly talented and had huge pull on social media and otherwise. I was hoping that with that, and with the very relevant subject matter we were covering, it would at least hit a few people. I hoped some people would be receptive to it, that it would give them a better perspective on things, maybe change their lives in some way. But this is insane."
"What blows my mind, too," he continues, "is that obviously the key demographic is around high school-ish age to early or mid-20s, even tweens a little younger perhaps. But it exceeds all those demographics, too. Everyone seems to be watching it, which blows my mind. It's wonderful. It's kind of surreal."
With great power, however, comes great responsibility — or in Prentice's case, the burden of weathering the anger Bryce incites. If you've yet to binge, here's your spoiler alert: Bryce rapes Hannah in a harrowing scene, Hannah tragically goes on to kill herself, and by the end of the season, it seems he's gotten away with it. With no other outlet and very little closure, Prentice says he's gotten used to particularly passionate fans using his own social media as a sounding board.
"It's got both facets," he shares. "So it's got the one side of the, you know, 'Burn forever, you rapist,' or something like that, and then half of the fanbase is like, 'He's a character, he's an actor, leave him alone,' and they'll have my back. It's pretty funny. But I get it. I guess from their perspective it's cathartic for them after watching such a traumatizing show, to be able to go directly to Bryce, or the person who portrayed Bryce, and leave their hate comment. I guess that makes them feel some sort of closure, because the show doesn't really give a whole lot of closure. There's a lot of open ends and strings and whatnot for the cliffhanger, which will hopefully tie up in future episodes. So I guess, in their minds, it's closure to be able to go pick on the worst guy in the show. I understand that psychologically."
Prentice says that while playing Bryce "definitely comes with its own set of difficulties," he's had a lot of help along the way. In addition to an on-set psychologist, he worked continuously with sexual assault prevention activist Alexis Jones. Jones, founder of non-profit organization I AM THAT GIRL, educated Prentice, helping him assume the mind-frame of a boy like Bryce. Not a sociopath, Prentice says, because that would be too easy. Instead, a seemingly average high school kid whose upbringing, entitlement, and ignorance damage those around him to the utmost — the sort of kid who exists in every school.
"Sociopathy or anti-social personality disorder don't automatically make you a bad person...at all," Prentice says. "The majority of them are functioning members of society. With this sort of deficit that Bryce seems to have, it was easy to immediately lock him in that wheelhouse. But at the same time, I didn't want people to sweep what he did and his actions under the rug. I think as a society, we're like, 'Oh, well that's just gonna happen because he's this.' We're very good at generalizing. So I also wanted to make him human and relatable enough to make people think, 'Oh, I know this guy. This guy's in my school. I run into this guy all the time, I know exactly who this person is.' Because a large portion of these sexual assaults are date rape. The vast majority of them."
According to stats from the Florida Institute of Technology, women between the ages of 15 and 25 comprise the majority of rape victims and, yet more sobering, one in four college men fully and openly admit to the use of sexual aggression with women. 84 percent of attacks occurring on college campuses were by someone the victim knew, and 57 percent of those took place during dates.
"One in five high school females report being physically and/or sexually assaulted by a dating partner," Prentice cites without skipping a beat. "So the vast majority of this stuff isn't, you know, getting kidnapped and that sort of thing. It's date rape. It's opportunistic rape. It's in the moment. And a lot of that is because of the lack of education on what consent is. So that was kinda my struggle for the character, to get a lock on exactly who he was. To portray him accurately while still raising awareness for the issue."
While Bryce's actions are despicable, his mentality about girls and women is not abnormal. Prentice attributes numbers like those above to a global failure to educate youth on consent.
"It's a mixture of parental upbringing and the environmental circumstances," he says. "I think it's this culture around bros having a scoreboard all about how many women you've slept with, or have been with. It's a lack of education on what consent means. At the end of the day, if a 'yes' isn't given, if they're unable to give one because of alcohol or other circumstances, that's not consent. It's been perpetuated by society continually sweeping it all under the rug that it's okay to just have sex with whoever you want, regardless of the circumstances. That's wrong. You're harming another human being, permanently."
"I think in the case of Bryce," he continues, "as well as a lot of the cases we're seeing around the world right now, it's very much just a lack of talking about the issue, raising awareness. When kids share notes with their bros in the locker room, their bros are doing the same things because they also don't have the education. No one's there to correct them, no one's there to challenge their belief systems, so they start to believe these things as true. That's one of the cool things I think the show does. It starts to chip away at the reason we have this societal norm of sexual assault. It's starting the conversation: 'This is consent, this is not consent, and if you don't get consent, then it's rape. You're raping women, and you need to stop.'"
The story of Bryce is not dissimilar to that of Stanford University student Brock Turner, whose rape of a young woman was largely minimized by Judge Aaron Persky, now famous for handing down a controversially lenient sentence because prison time would have had a "severe impact" on the then 19-year-old. When asked if he thought a lot of boys have similar mentalities to Bryce, Prentice said yes, but stressed that this can be changed.
"I think a lot of them do, yes," he said. "I think that can be avoided, and that gives hope. But it's also kind of soul-crushing that the Bryces could be avoided, you know? It's something that could be nipped in the bud. We have the power to dramatically reduce the numbers of sexual assault just by talking about it. Just by letting these boys know that what they're doing is ruining a person's body and spirit permanently. They don't have to be like Bryce. We just need to start talking about these issues more."
Bryce, a privileged, popular high school jock, is a horrific character, to be sure. But he's also introduced to the story in such a way as to be aspirational. What kid doesn't want to be liked, have lots of friends, succeed in sports and in school? As if having a sincerely good high school experience isn't elusive enough, Bryce is seemingly set up for success in terms of college and beyond. To boys who might envy his character, Prentice reminds us that, indeed, being popular and being a misogynist can and should be mutually exclusive.
"You can have what Bryce has — the fame, the popularity, whatever — without raping people," he stresses. "Bryce's mindset is one of, 'Because I am who I am, I can have whatever I want.' And then he just assumes he can take it. So he's disconnected from humanity in that regard. I think it's okay to aspire to be like him and his positive traits without being everything that's wrong about him, like how he views women and his perception of them as being less than. At the end of the day, respect women. See them as the human beings and equals that they are."