miles heizer on the 13 reasons why backlash and mental health awareness
With a role in the most talked about TV show of 2017, a desire to open a dialogue about teen mental health on screen, and a collective three million social media followers, Miles Heizer might just change the world.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The Acting Up Issue, no. 349, Fall 2017.
"I'm in San Francisco, somewhere by the water, I'm not sure where exactly to be honest," says 23-year-old Kentucky native Miles Heizer over the phone late one evening. Pinning him down for a chat has been no easy task, but when you're trying to get in touch with an actor who's just been part of this year's most talked-about Netflix show, and has a Hollywood blockbuster in the works, this isn't much of a surprise.
13 Reasons Why, the controversial show in question, is something Miles is incredibly proud to be part of. "I had a feeling it was going to be great. But actually seeing it I was just so blown away." While working on it was like, "Summer camp," the issues it dealt with couldn't be further from light-hearted teenage fun. Examining suicide in a frank, unfiltered way, the series has divided the internet over the way it depicted mental illness in teens. Though you already knew that. Arguably Netflix's biggest show to date, expectation is already at fever pitch for Season 2, out 2018, with the announcement of seven new characters this week sending social media into a frenzy about what's in store.
Clearly looking for roles that start important conversations, Miles's next film, Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, tells the complicated coming out story of a 16-year-old high schooler. Like many of his new gen actor contemporaries, acting for Miles goes beyond mere storytelling. After all, the revolution won't be televised, it'll be streamed.
Tell us a little about your background, Miles.
I'm from Lexington, Kentucky. I got into acting by doing children's plays back there -- which I'm sure are humiliating in hindsight. My mom was really cool with me pursuing acting. Eventually I moved to L.A. and got a manager and started auditioning. Did some crime shows, as we all do.
Classic. You spent a few years working on Parenthood . What was it like spending your formative years on a set?
It's weird because that's all I really know. In hindsight it is kind of interesting that I didn't go to high school. I was home-schooled. I got really lucky. I know a lot of people are surrounded by a lot of negativity at that age, and people are discovering themselves and it comes out in such bizarre ways when you're young. I feel really lucky I was able to grow up with good people around me, that were a little bit older. I think it shaped me a lot. I feel like I could be creative, which I think can be suppressed in public high schools. I was doing something I really like with people I really like. The cast became like my family and I feel very lucky I had that.
"Most of the people I meet who have watched the show typically say that it's allowed them to talk to their families about something they didn't feel comfortable discussing before."
What was filming 13 Reasons Why like, having not gone to high school?
It's so funny, I just thought about this recently. I thought I knew [high school] so well, because on Parenthood I was playing a high school student. So I don't feel I missed out on anything, but I probably should. Filming 13 Reasons Why was like this sort of summer camp. You're all together, working really long hours. Everyone on the show was easy to hang out with and funny and unique, so we had a lot of fun. You hear horror stories where there are, like, horrible people on set, but we never had any of that. I made a lot of good friends. I hadn't worked on much before, other than Parenthood, so it was fun to do something with people who were my age.
Are you happy with how the first season of 13 Reasons Why came out?
I'm so pleased. It's weird, with such an ensemble cast, so you film your stuff and then you're gone for the rest of it. I obviously had a feeling that it'd be great just based on reading the script, but then actually seeing it I was just blown away and so pleased to be a part of it. I think the response people had was amazing -- you almost lose that while you're filming it, you don't think about it -- but then to hear other people's reactions to it is crazy. It's hard to imagine people being affected by something in the same way you're affected by things. It's great to hear young people have such an intense response to it.
How did you feel about the backlash to the show and the way it depicted teen suicide?
I think it causes people to talk about it, and as much as there has been a little bit of a backlash, there's also been overwhelmingly positive feedback. The negative stuff I think gets a bit more attention. Most of the people I meet who have watched the show typically say that it's either helped them a lot or it's allowed them to talk to their families about something they didn't feel comfortable discussing before. I have a lot of family who are in middle school or high school, and their parents were texting me saying "The show is really intense but it's amazing what conversation it ended up opening with my kids," and I think that's really awesome.
Didn't some schools ban it?
That's crazy. I don't know how to tell them this but they probably still watched it.
Sounds like the secret to its success.
I know, it's like Harry Potter.
Did they ban Harry Potter ? I don't think they did in the UK.
You guys are cool. I think some American schools were like "You can't read it because it's witches!"
"I think that it's normal to experience depression and anxiety and things like that, and I have definitely dealt with that in my life."
I watched Home Movies , the gay short film you starred in with your 13 Reasons Why co-star Brandon Flynn. How did you get involved in that and what drew you to it?
Brandon and I had a friend who was making this movie and asked us if we'd be in it. It has an important message, that I think ties into the show too. It's a topic that's handled on 13 Reasons Why, and it's important, especially considering the way people are feeling in the current political climate. I was happy to do it and I think that it turned out really cool. I think it's important to let people know "Hey, we know what's going on and support you."
What other stories do you think are important to tell on screen right now?
Like I said, I think with the political climate right now people are feeling stressed, and nervous, and attacked about their place in the world. I think it's important to portray that feeling, because seeing people experience those things gives you an insight into it, and allows you to see how you can make a change. I'm an idiot on this one but I don't understand why everyone just can't be cool to one another. Showing these other experiences that you have been through is really important. There are so many things that you don't understand that you might be doing yourself. It could be hurting people. Was that vague enough? That was so vague.
So you'd choose characters based on experiences you've been through yourself?
Yeah definitely. I think that it's normal to experience depression and anxiety and things like that, and I have definitely dealt with that in my life. There's something very cathartic about being able to portray that on screen. It's like a weird relief in a way. So I definitely related to my character on 13 Reasons Why and that aspect, and other characters on the show who are experiencing similar things. I know when I was younger, I didn't even really know why I felt that, or what that was, and I certainly wasn't talking to people about it. And this show has started a conversation about it and made more people feel comfortable talking about it.
You have a massive social media following, which I'd imagine is quite young. Do you feel any responsibility towards your three million followers?
A little bit. I wouldn't really call it a responsibility. It's, at the very least, just creating a positive environment for people. Keeping it a safe space. I think it's cool that it's happened, and I'm incredibly grateful. I don't even know what I'm supposed to be posting.
What about the scrutiny you're under now in terms of your personal life, how're you dealing with that?
It feels strange but I feel a little removed from it to be honest. It's amazing that there are people sitting around speculating about me. But I don't really care what anybody says or thinks.
"I make music. That's pretty much all I do in my free time. I put it up on the internet and no one listens to it."
What do you get up to when you're not acting?
I make music. I actually went to school for it briefly, before I got the part in 13 Reasons Why. That's pretty much all I do in my free time. I put it up on the internet and no one listens to it. It's fun for me and it's, like, low stake because no one hears it.
What kind of music is it?
I don't know really. It's kind of like electronic-y. I play guitar, I sing a little. I'm not the best singer. I write songs where I sing and play guitar, but I usually don't put those anywhere. The other half of it is like electronic-y music, some of it's sad hip-hop-y sounding beats. Oh god, sounds so bad.
Surely some of your three million followers will listen to it?
I put it on Twitter and they minimally listen but not too much. I would love to go around and play shows and stuff, but there's also something nice about it not being a career. I would love to do it more in the future. If it happens to catch on, I'll pursue it! Until then I'll just hang out in my house and make music on my computer.
Text Ryan White
Photography Daria Kobayashi Ritch
Styling Henna Koskinen
Grooming Anna Bernabe at Exclusive Artists Management using Leonor Greyl Paris and Glossier. Set design Rudy Grazziani.