Interview originally published in The HERO Winter Annual.
TV’s latest heartthrob could put you under a spell with just a smile, but Brandon Flynn is a little different from most. Genuinely dedicated to using his new-found fame to improve the lives of others, Flynn speaks to his growing audience about social issues; he’s open, honest and refreshingly passionate.
In March last year, 13 Reasons Why premiered on Netflix, Flynn plays Justin Foley, the tormented high school jock. The show itself is no stranger to dealing with hard-hitting issues, and has caused a stir globally, igniting an intense debate over how to create an open and effective conversation about teen suicide and mental health, plus a whole raft of other adolescent issues that are often swept under the carpet.
Alisha Boe, Flynn’s co-star, roommate and BFF, has also experienced first-hand the rapid impact the series has made, and the resulting sense of responsibility. Who better to look back on a crazy year with?
Brandon Flynn: Hey Alisha.
Alisha Boe: Hey Brandon, what a crazy week we’ve had.
BF: Yeah it’s been fun! We started off jumping out of an aeroplane…
AB: Because it was…?
BF: Oh, because it was my birthday!
AB: You turned 24 years old. And on top of that, we’ve known each other over a year now, so I feel like it was very special.
AB: We went skydiving, then went on a sunset boat tour, and then we went to New York and I got to meet all of your friends from College and high school which was amazing.
BF: Yeah that was really special.
AB: It’s been an awesome week. Well let’s just start from the beginning. [laughs] I feel so proper right now.
BF: Alisha, how did we meet?
AB: I remember the first time we met. We were doing a rehearsal scene with Tom McCarthy, and it was the scene when I come up to the door in the second episode, and I’m like, [screaming] “Where have you been? How could you do this to me, you’re such an asshole,” yadda yadda… I remember my first impression of you was like, “OK yeah this guy is a dick.”
AB: I’m not sure if I’m gonna like this guy. What was your first impression of me?
BF: I guess it was kinda similar, I didn’t think that you were interested in getting to know new people. It scared the fuck out of me, because I was like, “Oh great, I’m gonna be here for six months and I think most of my work is with this girl.”
AB: I remember you saying you thought I was very LA.
BF: Yeah whatever that means, I’m still trying to decide what I meant by that.
AB: I think I know.
AB: Ok, you’re very Miami.
BF: I guess yeah. I think the biggest prize for me was after we wrapped last season, we were still talking and hanging out.
AB: I think we’ve developed one of the most special relationships through this show, it’s definitely a process. Working through something so hard together and emotional and important, you really do gain those bonds. Do you remember when you really decided you wanted to start acting?
BF: Yes. There were a couple of moments, but one was when I was in the fifth grade in elementary school and it was tradition for that class to do a play every year. It was Peter Pan, and I was like, “Oh god, I don’t want to be in a play.” My good friend at the time – Ali – said, “I want to be the first female Captain Hook.”
AB: Revolutionary, wow.
BF: Yeah, she was super cool. So she kind of like pressured me – as she did with a lot of things – into auditioning with her. She was like, “You read Mr Smee,” who was Captain Hook’s right hand man.
AB: Did Captain Hook have a right hand?
BF: He might be missing his right hand.
AB: Literally playing Captain Hook’s right hand.
BF: [laughs] I was a little chunky at that time, and so was the cartoon version of Mr Smee, so I put on these glasses and I had a Santa Claus hat, because it was kinda similar to the pirate costume. We went full out for the audition and the teacher was like, “OK everybody, this is real dedication from Brandon Flynn right now,” and I was so embarrassed. I was like, “What do you mean?! No it’s not.” I didn’t understand that I had actually put passion and care into it. So I got cast and then the passion and care went out the window, I didn’t learn the script and on the opening night I didn’t know anything. And I had the hiccups. I was like this frikkin’ crazy kid running around, I ended up trashing the last scene by walking on with the Lost Boys, they come on with Wendy and I was just like, “Fuck it, Mr Smee is going to come on with them.”
BF: I just had the hiccups the whole time, like this drunk pirate. I guess it worked.
AB: I think Rick from Rick and Morty was inspired by you.
BF: So my teacher ended up going up to my dad and was like, “Brandon had no idea what his lines were, but he made that whole show work somehow.” She told him that I should think about going into acting in middle school, because they have electives there. So my dad came home and I bawled, I was like, noooo…
AB: I get teased enough.
BF: Oh yeah. And I did, I got teased a lot for my weight and you know, I was out there as a kid, I remember we had uniform shirts but I would always wear a Hawaiian shirt over the top, I just needed to make a statement all the time. I needed to be seen and heard. I did not want to do drama in middle school, but my dad was like, “Just give it a year.” I always had to do that with sports when I was younger, I always had to give it a year…
AB: Well it obviously lasted longer because you went on to go to a conservatory. When I first started working with you, I really looked up to you. I remember doing our first scene together, I thought, “Wow, this guy is so talented.” I thought you were going to challenge me so much, and you really have taught me a lot about acting. I was so angry because I’m twenty and I have been auditioning since I was fifteen and I’m like, “Wow, I really wish I went to a conservatory of some kind,” because from what you’ve told me about it, you create this community. You lived in London for a year. Can you tell me about that?
BF: I ended up falling in love with acting, and I went onto a very prestigious high school for acting in Miami, and that was kind of the onset of my training.
AB: “The technique.”
BF: Yeah the technique. I can always rely on it and it makes me feel really safe. I look at myself and go, “Oh wait, I do know how to act, I just have to figure things out, it’s like any job.” My mum works in a bank and she’s been doing it for years, she knows what she’s doing but each day it’s a puzzle that needs to be solved and the training just really, really helps with that. But college was amazing, it wasn’t like a typical college experience. I spent most days working about thirteen hours on acting and my body and my voice, and it was a huge pay-off. We got to go to London, I worked at The Globe and I ended up falling in love with Shakespeare which I think is also super helpful with what I’m doing today, because it’s universal, there’s a reason why he’s considered this timeless guy. It was super informative and I stared getting a better understanding of the human condition, Shakespeare was doing that for me, which was odd but great. To live in another place too, that was really something special, and it’s kind of led into my idea of travel being really important today.
AB: It must have worked because you graduated Rutgers when?
BF: Basically last March.
AB: And then in May you booked 13 Reasons Why.
BF: Yeah, in May. [laughs]
AB: Screw you, like I said I’ve been auditioning since I was fifteen and never got a huge series, that is phenomenal. How did it feel when you found out you got it? Walk me through your day.
BF: Well that whole month. I’m getting really teary…
BF: That whole month had been like this weird ball of stress because I started to book two different things, and they were all floating around, I booked Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and then I was in the finals for this other play which I was so fond of called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It was going to be a touring production for a year.
AB: Oh my god…
BF: And Brian Yorkey, who is the showrunner on 13 Reasons Why kept calling my agent and being like, “Please hold on to him, we’re working it out.” And so every day was like, “No answers yet but it looks good!” Of course I’m freaking out, the next year of my life could be this or it could be that.
AB: Or it could be none of them.
BF: [laughs] Yeah. That’s the actor’s life which I was realising really quickly, you could be doing all these things or you could be doing nothing. And I remember, I was walking around that day, I think I had worked, I was catering and I was meant to meet my friend for dinner. I was in the subway and I was told that that day we would find out, so I’m freaking out because there is no reception.
AB: I can totally see you going crazy in there, pacing up and down.
BF: I ended up getting off and I had three missed calls from my agent, so I immediately went weak at the knees and called him, and he was like, “Brandon, what are you doing?” and I was like, “I’m about to meet my friend, what’s going on? Just tell me, just TELL ME Steve!” And he said, “You got it!” I’m in the streets of New York, just screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘WHAAAAT?!!’
BF: So I pretty much just sat on the phone and called all my friends and family. It was really cool.
“I’m in the streets of New York, just screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘WHAAAAT?!!’”
AB: 13 Reasons Why is a great show that gives young actors the platform to actually act. We play well-rounded characters with real problems that are important and very relevant in today’s society, and I’ve learned so much about sexual assault and mental illness, it’s been an educating process for me. How does it feel for you?
BF: I mean, when I read the script I was like, “Fuck, these characters – I can taste them, I can smell them.” They are just so three-dimensional and that has always really attracted me to the project. I didn’t really think about what the show was saying until we started working on it, working with these doctors like Dr Hu, who is amazing, she is one of the people who was on board the whole time advising the show. They worked with different doctors and psychiatrists, people who dealt with suicide, a lot of problems that are very common. I had friends who dealt with depression, and I’ve recently had a few different friends taking their lives. This show’s been really important in multiple ways. I get to work with people who are really fucking acting and writers and directors who just want to make a difference.
AB: People always ask us, “Did you know that the story was going to be that big?” and honestly the feeling I had while filming the first season, I’m never going to have that feeling again.
AB: It was a group of actors, a group of creators and producers literally just there for the same reason and the set felt like a family. Every day was magnetic, because we were there serving this same purpose. And especially after the show came out, I realised how big of a deal it really was, because it touched so many people’s lives. A lot of people that I’ve personally met have genuinely said that this show saved their lives, or this show really gave them the courage to say something about what happened to them. I know that you use your voice a lot for that.
BF: I think a lot of the people on board really have found this beautiful relationship with social media and with viewers, bringing awareness. That’s important to me because when the show blew up, I started having all these followers and all this attention – people would ask, “How has your life changed?” And I’ve said, “Well for one, I’ve managed to somehow change other people’s lives.” I think that’s really big and really important. Honestly, that feeling and that responsibility is something I’m always going to try and navigate because it’s a weird one. Trying to do that and being that kind of person who has a voice, I stay up at night thinking if I’d make a good parent. Because how do you tell people what to do?
BF: It’s something at 24 I never thought I’d be grappling with, but people really do pay attention, they look up to what you give to the world and that is really special. I’ve always wanted to give to the world, just like my friends gave so much to me. Some of my biggest idols are my friends.
AB: Who do you look up to?
BF: Definitely my friend Jean Louis, he’s like this creature who I met in high school who was so open and willing to love, but as an artist has always been this expressive, no fucks-given kind of creator. He makes his own work, and to me, anyone who does that is a fucking genius. Like musicians, those guys just create all this music, meanwhile as an actor I’m just waiting for someone to write something for me [laughs]. Which is also changing, I’m working on a couple of projects right now, and that too is a process.
AB: Definitely, I feel like this has been the craziest year for us. We started as actors wondering if we were going to get a job, and now we’ve been kind of thrown into fame, which we don’t really know how to grapple with. Especially social media, it’s hard to deal with, it’s hard to find your place in the world. To remind yourself of what you love to do, and what you stand for. I think you have a very clear position in that, which is good. I’m glad we didn’t get lost in it. So what’s your favourite book
BF: Ooh… what is my favourite book?
AB: The Prophet, come on.
BF: Yeah it probably is The Prophet honestly.
BF: It’s such a beautiful book, it’s oddly biblical.
AB: Yeah I started reading The Prophet and I brought another one by Kahlil Gibran, it was about love and other poems.
BF: Yeah, he’s got a couple.
AB: It is very biblical.
BF: Well he’s definitely a believer in god, which I think is interesting. Maybe I don’t believe in god per-se, but I believe in something, and it’s kind of beautiful to hear someone talk about it as an expression of love. Sometimes I feel like, even though we say there is a separation of church and state in our country and in our politics, it’s still so
evident. You know, here we are with number 45 in office and things are kind of going to
shit. But I feel like Kahlil Gibran has this wonderful balance, he talks about faith and
belief, and he talks about what it means to be humans amongst humans. I read that book so often, I bought it once in Ireland and decided to make it a point to buy it in every city. It’s just a special book, it’s a lot of special words put together in a way that is beautiful and poetic and 100 percent makes sense.
AB: Yeah, you could go back to that book at any moment and it will relate to how you’re feeling right then.
BF: Growing up I really loved The Catcher in the Rye. I think that book is such a piece of work, I read it at a time when I was feeling lost. In my youth I felt lost a lot. There were a lot of issues in my life that I think every young person deals with, even at 24 I’m still dealing with things. You know, when you think, “Why am I like this, why do I do these things?” At a young age I felt very alienated by those thoughts, and alienated by who I was.
AB: What helped you through that?
BF: Honestly I’m still trying to figure it out, I think I was very self-sabotaging for a while, and I was always interested in altering my brain and altering myself, being under the influence. I think recently I’m realising more and more that that’s not safe and that’s not where clarity comes from. Realising that there is this big duality in life with every person – you can’t always be happy and you won’t always be sad, you can’t always love and sometimes you hate – is beautiful. Fighting for peace within all those feelings and trying to understand them, and why and when they happen. You’ll never have clear answers I don’t think, but to always try to search for light in darkness is what helps the most.
AB: Wow, ok that was beautiful. It’s very true though, I feel like some of the happiest people have gone through a lot of pain – the happiness is something that you’re grateful for every day.
BF: There’s beauty in our tragedy, there’s beauty everywhere.
AB: I feel the most creative when I’m going through something, you just learn so much about yourself and it’s incredibly important to feel those feelings and not to be afraid of them, and not to suppress them by doing a bunch of drugs or alcohol, or with unhealthy habits. You also have to remember that there is going to be light coming at the end…
BF: Yes always. So what are your favourite books?
AB: My favourite books? Well, you said you hated this book… it’s The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I read it when I was fifteen and I was very lonely as an early teen. I just felt like nobody understood me. I had a wonderful group of best friends, but I had a rough childhood and I just didn’t know how to express my feelings. I didn’t understand them at all because I had no one and I didn’t feel safe talking to anyone about them. So my escapism was through movies and books, and not TV shows because it wasn’t as easy to watch back then. Back then! It was five years ago… But still I remember reading The Awakening and it was the first book that made me cry, I remember finishing the last page and I sat there in my bed and just cried because it was such a beautiful, tragic story to me. It spoke to me growing up, discovering all of these feelings of being a girl and being misunderstood, and having so much inside of you that you want to express but other things are telling you that you can’t. But you do have the power within you. So that book is really, really special to me.
BF: I remember The BFG was the first book I cried at.
AB: Really? The BFG?
BF: Yeah and then I read it like ten times. I became so obsessed with it.
“…people really do pay attention, they look up to what you give to the world and that is really special.”
AB: Do you remember the movie Iron Giant? That movie, it’s about death, like it is literally about accepting death.
BF: It’s strange to look back.
AB: My little brother is nine now so I re-watch them with him, and I’m like, “Oh these are kinda dark!”
BF: This shit heavy!
AB: This shit heavy as fuck! Like damn! Yeah, I love cartoons.
BF: I think they’re like my favourite thing ever, we’ve been watching Rick and Morty together non-stop.
AB: How do they write that?! How do they come up with that?
BF: [laughs] I can’t even imagine.
AB: Sometimes if I watch two episodes in a row I will have a headache, because I am trying to focus so hard I have not blinked once.
BF: I know, it’s like a wormhole of brilliance.
AB: Isn’t it the same guy doing both those voices?
BF: Yeah, he does like multiple voices. Ok maybe we should wrap up by saying…
AB: Wait… any fun experiences on set?
AB: Behind the scenes stuff.
AB: People always ask me that and I can’t come up with one thing.
BF: I know it’s really hard to think about. I always just think of stories that are happening while we’re filming, versus actually on set, like our house getting robbed.
AB: Oh let’s talk about that! So we went to Taco Bell and…
BF: Wait, even before that, we were missing something.
AB: Oh yeah, [laughs] ok we need to tell the story better. So we are roommates.
BF: OK. We went to the gym and then we came back – oh that’s another thing, me and Alisha are big on fitness this year.
AB: Yes, fitness!
BF: Fitness and health. So we went to the gym, and on her way Alisha is looking for her keys to lock the door, and she’s like, “I can’t find them.”
AB: Which is pretty normal.
BF: Alisha lost her keys. We come back from the gym and I go to walk my dog Charlie and I can’t find the leash anywhere, anywhere. Whatever, we go on with our day not even realising anything was wrong, and we end up going out because there’s karaoke. So we went to karaoke, and we come back home after Taco Bell.
AB: And you forgot to turn your headlights on. [laughs]
BF: Oh, I forgot to turn my headlights on, so the cops pulled me over.
AB: And then he recognises us.
BF: He’s just like, “Oh my god, my girlfriend loves the show,” and we end up sitting there for thirty minutes, and I’m like, “OK can we go now?” So we go home and I’m looking around the house, I’m looking for my book and it’s not on the table where it always is. I’m like, “Alisha, where’s my book, it’s always there.”
AB: [laughing] And then you go, “Alisha… where’s your laptop?” And I was like, “It should be plugged into the TV.” Then there’s this slow realisation… I go into my room and I’m like, “Oh my god. Somebody’s. Been. In. Our. Home.” And we start laughing. Then, over the span of fifteen minutes, it slowly turns into, “Oh my god, our house got robbed. Oh my god” So we call the police and this lady comes in. She recognises us too.
BF: She’s got a smile on her face the whole time I’m sitting here saying, “This happened and our house was robbed and all the windows are cracked open, like they’re going to come back… they’ve stolen Alisha’s car keys…”
AB: And she’s like, “You guys are from that show riiight?” And we’re like, “When does it end?! When does it end?!” [laughs] And then I have work the next morning and I take all the air out of my tyres, because they have my car keys at this point, I don’t have a spare. So I take out all the air hoping that they won’t come back and steal it. I’m at work for maybe six hours, I had a short day, I come back, my car is gone. My car is gone. [Brandon laughing]. And a week later it shows up a couple of blocks down from our house, and there are just cigarette butts everywhere, My car was trashed.
BF: I’d say that’s behind-the-scenes enough.
AB: We should wrap it up now. We talked about a lot, it feels good.
BF: My mouth hurts.
13 Reasons Why series 2 is out now via Netflix.