The 13-part series, based on the best-selling young-adult novel, starts streaming Friday, March 31.
In 2008, Mandy Teefey, the mother of pop star and actress Selena Gomez, was browsing at a Barnes & Noble when she spotted “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher. The best-selling young-adult novel tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high- school girl who kills herself, leaving behind cassette tapes detailing the 13 people she blames for driving her to suicide.
It’s no surprise that, standing in the bookstore, Teefey was compelled to read it: Woven into Hannah’s dark account of isolation, adolescent betrayal and sexual stigmatizing are messages of acceptance and compassion, yet it unfolds like an emotional thriller. Not much later, Teefey and Gomez were eating sushi with Asher, negotiating for the rights.
When the option expired for “Thirteen Reasons” — the original idea was a movie vehicle for Gomez — the production company Anonymous Content introduced them to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Brian Yorkey (“Next to Normal”), who wrote the adaptation. “We were all so nervous,” said Gomez of pitching the project as a 13-part (naturally) television series. “I think Netflix bought it because they could see how passionate we were about it.” The series, which stars newcomer Katherine Langford, begins on March 31.
Right before production, Gomez, an executive producer on the series alongside her mother, took a 90-day career sabbatical for her health. “It felt like” the show “was mirroring what was going on in my life,” said Gomez, who has lupus and struggles with anxiety and depression. “But my mom would send me really horrible-quality versions of the dailies on my phone saying, ‘This is such a beautiful scene.’”
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Gomez is also back on the pop charts with the song “It Ain’t Me,” with Kygo. Preceding her arrival at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif., a hotel employee and her security guard were hashing out a route that Gomez, always a tabloid target, could take through the empty lobby and up to a suite where she’d meet Teefey and Yorkey to discuss “Thirteen Reasons.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Selena, you were 15 and a major teen star when you optioned the rights to “Thirteen Reasons.” How did you and your mother convey your interest to Jay Asher?
SELENA GOMEZ: I think he understood that I knew what it meant to be bullied. I went to the biggest high school in the world, which is the Disney Channel. And my mom had a lot of history dealing with [bullying]. I heard her stories growing up. She’s very open about it.
MANDY TEEFEY: When I was growing up, I was always bullied because I was the outsider, the weird girl with the purple hair and combat boots. Then I was a teen mom. You get really judged. I had counselors telling me how I’d ruined my life, [Selena’s] life and how I ruined the father’s life, even though he participated.
Q: Selena, has social media changed since you’ve been in the public eye?
GOMEZ: When I was on “Wizards of Waverly Place,” we didn’t have social media really. Twitter had just begun. Every Friday, I’d get to do a live taping in front of all these little kids and make their life. That’s when I was the happiest. Then, as I got older, I watched it go from zero to a hundred. So I’m actually glad it took us this long to create this project because it’s so relevant now.
Q: Do you read the comments on your 114 million-strong Instagram feed?
GOMEZ: You can’t avoid it sometimes. I delete the app from my phone at least once a week [brittle laugh]. You fixate on the [negative] ones. They’re not like, ‘You’re ugly.’ It’s like they want to cut to your soul. Imagine all the insecurities that you already feel about yourself and having someone write a paragraph pointing out every little thing — even if it’s just physical.
Q: Is the book better suited to be episodic than told in one film?
TEEFEY: One of the reasons it didn’t work as a feature was that there wasn’t enough time to tell the stories of the other characters and why they were making the decisions they were making. [Brian] was able to make them three-dimensional so that, at some point, you felt badly for them, too. That’s why the feature [script] didn’t work. Hannah just seemed mean.
YORKEY: The book takes place in one night and spends most of the time telling the story of Hannah in the past. So we expanded the present-day story. Part of it was figuring out the best way to be very faithful to the book but at the same time to reinvent it as television.
Q: What conversations did you have about the tone?
YORKEY: We talked a lot about “True Detective,” “Mad Men,” about “Breaking Bad.” Not that “Thirteen Reasons” is anything like those shows. But they’re very adult shows that tons of kids are watching. [“Thirteen Reasons”] is not just for kids — it’s for everybody, we hope. First and foremost, it was about taking kids seriously.