Plucked from obscurity, Aussie actor KATHERINE LANGFORD is riding the fame rollercoaster after her debut role, in cult Netflix smash 13 Reasons Why, put her on the hotly-watched list in Hollywood.
The road to fame can be a bumpy one. Alternatively, one can hit the casting jackpot, score a debut role as the lead in a runaway Netflix hit and have every teen and critic swooning over you — go to whoa in just under three months. It is the latter, somewhat surreal scenario that has played out for 21-year-old Perth-born actor Katherine Langford, who blazed her way into the public consciousness after executive producer Selena Gomez and Spotlight director Tom McCarthy cast her as teenager Hannah Baker in the drama series 13 Reasons Why. The first season of the show, which is based on the 2007 novel by Jay Asher, premiered worldwide in March and follows the aftermath of a beautiful high-school student taking her own life, slitting her wrists in the bath, having been cyberbullied, slut-shamed and raped. Before her death, she records 13 cassette tapes (the 13 reasons of the title) detailing who is to blame. The dark subject matter, coupled with the cast’s success in authentically portraying what it feels like to be young, lost and fragile, has meant almost every tween, teen and their frazzled parents have binge-watched the entire series by now. Cue Langford’s stratospheric rise to fame, which includes 6.7 million Instragram followers; an upcoming studio film co-starring Jennifer Garner; rumours that she’s the lead contender to bag the highly coveted Batgirl role; and a second season of 13 Reasons Why scheduled to be released in 2018, in which her character will appear in flashbacks.
It’s 8.30 on a grey Thursday morning when I bump into Langford in a distinctly unglamorous rain-slick carpark in Sydney’s industrial hub Alexandria, courier trucks rattling by at regular intervals. She’s looking for the entrance to the photo studio where our shoot will take place, her hair long, wavy and loose, slightly damp from the half-hearted drizzle and chilly winter air. “Hello,” she cheerfully squeals, her velvety, airbrushed-looking complexion the first thing that mesmerises you.
Langford introduces herself to the crew with a head-prefect-style firm handshake, then plonks herself in the makeup artist’s chair. There’s a crazy schedule to keep, for tomorrow she flies back to San Francisco for 13 Reasons ‘base camp’ (industry speak for the cast regrouping to go over the season two script). As someone experiencing a ridiculous level of fame right now, is her hectic timetable wearing her down? “I don’t identify as a famous person,” she says with a shrug, clearly still in the novelty phase. “I love the job because of the work. Nothing else. [But] when you first start getting recognised, it’s actually great! People asked me before the show, ‘Are you ready for your life to change?’ But I’m still going to be me, no matter what. Life right now is about flying by the seat of my pants.”
Yet interviews with Ellen and Jimmy Fallon, traipsing down red carpets, having Lady Gaga personally tweet you with a love heart — isn’t that palpitation-inducing stuff? Wouldn’t she have preferred a slow burn? “This show was the best first-show experience to have,” she says. “And also the hardest. The support, the vision, the investment put into it … But the storyline also presented challenges. Hannah was a girl who was full of life but went to someone diminished to a point where she feels she doesn’t have anything to live for. That kind of content is really hard to shoot.”
Hearing Langford recall growing up in Perth, you’d be forgiven for thinking she has a textbook case of millennial cockiness. But this unfailing belief in her abilities, this unwavering confidence, is apparently innate and likely nurtured by the fact she’s the daughter of “incredibly hardworking” doctors, the can-do attitude coming from the confidence they instilled in her that anything is possible. (If I’m making her sound a tad grating, the optimism radiating from her is genuinely endearing.) “I started out swimming, became a national champion, but was always interested in music and drama,” she rattles off. Accepted into Subiaco’s Perth Modern — a high school for the gifted — she attended a Gaga concert when she was 16 and, using her as a role model, learnt piano and started to write songs. “I auditioned for drama school but didn’t get in because I was 17 and lacked life experience,” she explains. “So I did a diploma in musical theatre and got three jobs: a bartender in a nightclub, an usherette and I’d gig where I’d dress up as characters like the Easter bunny.”
Despite never working in Australia “apart from some horrendous uni films that everyone does for free”, she was left with a seriously strong impression by one particular Perth actor. “At school I was in the same year as Heath Ledger’s half sister, and I grew up knowing her brother was famous, without comprehending the significance of everything he did.” Her eyes brim with tears. “When I was cast in 13 Reasons, one of the people who helped me was his father, Kim. Kim and [Heath’s sister] Kate invited me to the screening of I Am Heath Ledger in LA — why am I crying?” she interrupts herself, half laughing. “I can only aspire to have the same integrity, creativity and freedom [Heath] did.”
Langford swears she doesn’t deliberately pick roles with a social agenda. “I’m hardly at the stage of my career when I can be picky about roles,” she insists: cue eye-roll. But her first major studio film, released next year, is Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, based on the popular young-adult novel by Becky Albertalli. “I play the character Leah, the best friend of 17-year-old Simon, who is gay and has a classmate threaten to out him,” she says. The concept of identity clearly fascinates her. Another book she mentions that she’d love to one day turn into a movie is Tranny, a memoir by Laura Jane Grace, the trans lead singer of punk group Against Me!
The surreal and “off-centre” is what truly consumes her, though. “I grew up watching Mars Attacks! and Cinderella side by side,” says the diehard Trekkie, whose father even owns a boat named Voyager. “My love of science fiction was instigated in me as a child by my dad. I’m also obsessed with history — the 1800s and the Victorian era, especially when it comes to fashion.” Although the concept of red carpet dressing is relatively new to her, Langford still very happily recalls the premiere of 13 Reasons Why — her first official event — when she wore a “dreamlike” Alexander McQueen black lace gown she describes as a “mix of majestic and regal, edgy and sharp”.
Which is probably why her huge eyes widen even more when BAZAAR fashion director Naomi Smith dresses her in a flamboyant oversized Miu Miu coat for the final look of our shoot. She’s tired now, but buries her face in the yellow faux fur for the camera — an eagerness to please only outshone by her ability to do so.
Langford was in the right place at the right time, no doubt. But it’s only hard work, networking and passion that’s going to keep her hogging that limelight. And she knows it.
Photography: Pierre Toussaint
Stylist: Naomi Smith
Manicurist: Jocelyn Petroni for CHANEL
Words by Eugenie Kelly for Harper’s BAZAAR Australia