13 Reasons Why star Justin Prentice understood the responsibility of playing the controversial series’ villain, which is why he did an extensive amount of research to prepare for the role.
“I did a lot of research,” Prentice, 23, tells PEOPLE about playing bad boy Bryce Walker. “I had a psychiatrist and a sexual assault expert on speed dial.”
Since the show hit Netflix on March 31, audiences learned throughout the 13 episodes of the drama series why high school sophomore Hannah Baker, who left behind a collection of cassettes for her fellow classmates to listen to after her death, chose to commit suicide. Bryce, who raped Hannah at a party, is one of the subjects of the graphic tapes.
“Like most people, I think it’s very normal when you hear about a case of rape or sexual assault to immediately be angry at the person doing the rape, which of course I still am. And it’s an important thing. But I think it gave me deeper insight into what’s wrong and why these things are happening — having to force myself to get into the mind of these people and how they’re capable of doing what they do,” Prentice tells PEOPLE about taking on the role of a rapist.
“It’s a lack of education,” he explains. “These people, one, they may have a sense of arrogance in that they can get away with whatever they want to due to the sports or money or power or what have you. But then on top of that, they’re not properly educated on what consent is and what sex should look like and what a healthy relationship should look like.”
In the final episode of the inaugural season, viewers witnessed Hannah commit suicide in the bathtub by slitting her wrists and arms. Though the scene was extremely graphic — and raised the question: does the show glamorize suicide? — Prentice stands behind the creators’ decision to detail how Hannah chose to end her life.
“We wanted people to have these conversations because at the end of the day, they decide to take that first step towards changing things,” says Prentice.
“One of the main points of everyone — and the months and months even before we as actors jumped on board locking down script and plot ideas and how certain things would be covered — one of their major key points was: how do we not glamorize this? So I stand by what they all did,” he adds. “I think they made the right choices.”
“It’s dark and it’s brutal and that’s what suicide often is. And so the writers didn’t want to convey this as an easy thing. They don’t want to make suicide look easy. They felt that if they shied away from showing it, it’s not going to resonate with people, like actually watching her do the act in the bathtub,” Prentice admits. “It is hard to watch, it is very difficult, but suicide’s difficult.”
Of the key people behind the scenes who brought the 2007 young adult novel, written by Jay Asher, to the screen was Selena Gomez, who serves as an executive producer. Though Gomez, 24, didn’t appear on-camera, she worked closely with the cast and crew throughout filming to bring it to life.
“She’s so young, but you forget that when you meet her, because she’s a power player in the industry. She’s this huge superstar,” Prentice says of Gomez. “She was fantastic. She and her mother, Mandy Teefey, were there since the get go and talking to us, phone calls, we would go out to dinner, talk about the characters, flesh things out. She’s a really cool person. Very intelligent and super passionate about this project, which is really cool, because we wouldn’t have it without she and her mother.”
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Looking to season 2, which will hit the streaming service next year, Prentice says that justice will be coming for Bryce.
“I know Brian Yorkey talked in an interview that he wants Justice for Bryce, so I’m assuming that means justice is coming for Bryce,” he says of what writer Brian Yorkey has in mind for the continued storyline.
“I’m assuming he’s going to get what’s coming to him, which is great,” he says, and adds, “I think we all want that. I think we’re all on the same page when it comes to Bryce facing consequences for the first time in his life.”
13 Reasons Why season 1 is currently streaming on Netflix, and season 2 is set to hit Netflix in 2018.