this 13 reasons why star is dealing with high school drama both on screen and irl
From starring in the most controversial show of 2018, to conjuring up a life-changing lasagne, Ajiona Alexis has a lot on her plate.
Image from 13 Reasons Why, courtesy of Netflix.
Ajiona Alexis makes a great lasagna. “It’s been passed down the family line from my mom to my grandmother to my great-grandmother,” she explains. “Everyone who tells me they hate lasagne and that they don’t want to try it -- they always eat this lasagna, and then say they love lasagne.”
Food helps Ajiona switch off from acting. “I just eat, I go and I just eat, all the time, and listen to music.” Detaching from work is particularly necessary for her, given the intense nature of her latest projects. She stars in both the first and just-released second season of 13 Reasons Why, a show which, as you’ve probably already heard, explores mental health, sexual abuse and teenage suicide.
Ajiona also recently starred in Acrimony, a psychological thriller about a woman seeking revenge on her unfaithful husband, Family Blood -- a gory horror about a woman struggling with addiction -- and Breaking In -- about a mother whose children are taken hostage. So yeah, she deserves a few downtime Pringles (her favourite food).
Acting scared is not easy. Firstly, there’s minimal dialogue in most horror films -- it’s all tension, screaming, flying objects and really, really, really, long suspenseful pauses. “But it’s just as much work as when you have a paragraph to say, because you have to convey emotions through your face,” Ajiona explains, “which a lot of people can’t do.”
Secondly, filming a horror is very different to watching one. “When you’re doing it for the film, it’s totally hilarious, funny and awkward because there’s no music -- there’s no extra stuff going on,” Ajiona explains. “Extra stuff” being the rapid editing, the high-pitched violins and the CGI effects added in post-production. Strip that away, add a room of camera people, soundies, producers and directors, and it’s a very different feel. “I’m always laughing,” Ajiona says, “especially with [Gabrielle Union, her Breaking In co-star] because we’re both goofy people and we have inside jokes. So there’s times when we have to do serious scenes, and we have to do it a hundred times just to get the last line out the way. But I know when to turn it on and turn it off.”
It’s not all shrieks and bloodbaths though -- family’s another strong theme threading through her work. Breaking In, for instance, is as much a celebration of the lengths a mother will go to for her kids as it is a thrillfest. “That was one reason I was really attracted to the film, because it really celebrated women and children in more of a positive, strong light. I think it’s important to show that side, especially when it comes from an African-American woman,” Ajiona says. “There’s not many roles like that out there.”
“Nowadays with social media there’s so much going on online, but nobody’s really addressing because it’s ‘inappropriate’."
While Ajiona’s IMBD page is stacked with horror and a stint on hip-hop musical drama Empire, it’s 13 Reasons Why that she can largely credit for her 1.5 million Instagram followers. Ajiona plays Sheri Holland, a popular cheerleader who defies stereotypes by actually being quite a nice person. The show debuted last year to a thousand think pieces and over 11 million Twitter mentions, following its exploration and explicit depiction of youth suicide. Season two came out earlier this month to similar internet furore -- in the final episode (spoiler), there’s a graphic rape scene that provoked a substantial amount of criticism, with many arguing it was just there for shock value. The show’s creator, Brian Yorkey, defended its inclusion in an interview with Vulture, saying, “We believe that talking about it is so much better than silence.”
His rebuttal highlights the flipside of the debate, with the show being credited for galvanising the conversation around mental health and teenagers. This is the team Ajiona’s quick to bat for: “Nowadays with social media there’s so much going on online -- bullying, suicide,” Ajiona says. “But nobody’s really addressing because it’s ‘inappropriate’. It’s already out there, so why not address it, and help people in a way, instead of ignoring it. It’s important to let people know they’re not the only ones who are going through it. There’s a way out.”
Ajiona doesn’t just act this out on screen. She’s done a lot of volunteer work with Girls Inc., a non-profit in the US and Canada that supports, educates and mentors girls. A strong anti-bullying advocate, Ajiona regularly talks to young women about cultivating self-esteem and worth. In one exercise, she gives them a mirror and asks them what they think when they first look at their reflection. “They have such negative things to say about themselves,” she says. “Some said ugly, some said sad. It was just really sad, they could hardly look in the mirror.” So Ajiona works with them to flip the toxic narrative. It’s probably a bit harder than changing people’s minds about lasagna, but it’s a challenge she’s keen to take on.