Taken from the summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
“I can measure my childhood through the popularity, and then the deaths of, different forms of social media,” says Alisha Boe, deadly serious. “We’re more jaded as a generation because we know everything; we’re in the age of information, so we can Google anything. We’re not shocked by most things because we’ve been exposed to too much on the internet. Then we get sad or bored or anxious because we want something more, but we can’t really get it.” Point made, the actress cheerily dives into a jackfruit taco.
As a breakout star on Netflix’s cultish – and highly controversial – series 13 Reasons Why, 22-year-old Boe is tasked with navigating this digital age not only as a member of her generation, but also as Jessica Davis, the high-schooler she plays most months out of the year. “It’s been three seasons, almost three years now, and it’s weird switching on and off, filming for six months and going back home, then going back again,” she says of her busy schedule on the show, which returns for a third series this year. “It’s kind of like Jessica and I are intertwined, and I can’t really escape it. I’m playing her more than I’m not.”
“You wanna see my tooth?” asks Boe, switching gears to show off a silver healing cap. We’re sitting in a Mexican restaurant in the middle of West Hollywood, laughing about a tooth that Boe had removed last year, when the California wildfires forced the show into a production hiatus. “People are gonna wonder what happened to Jessica’s tooth!”
In fact, says Boe, when fans recognise her, it doesn’t exactly feel like it’s her they’re excited to meet. “It’s Jessica,” she says, smiling. Boe seems to be totally fine with that; as a child in Norway (she moved to the States with her mum at the age of seven), she was raised to follow janteloven, a set of Scandinavian social norms which praises humility while shunning envy and narcissism. Three seasons in, the actress understands it’s what Jessica has survived – losing a close friend to suicide, sexual assault – that stays with viewers. “The people that come up to me, if they are fans of the show, they literally...” she hesitates, trying to find words that capture the gravity of the experience. “They tell me that it’s saved their life.”
In spite of the acclaim, Boe jokes that her family back in Norway have scarcely batted an eyelid at her newfound fame. While the show has won her leagues of dedicated fans, 13 Reasons Why has drawn equally ardent criticism for its suicide-centric storyline. Since the first season premiere in 2017, Boe has endured attacks in the media accusing the cast and creators of glamourising self-harm, as well as the act of taking one’s life. As this piece is being written, top-line publications are circulating a study that seems to correlate the show’s release with a nearly 30-per-cent spike in teen and young adult suicides; a news story about a British mum who blames 13 Reasons Why for her 12-year-old daughter’s death trails closely behind. Netflix addressed the concern by agreeing to add extra warnings about the graphic nature of the show.
It’s worth noting that blaming literature, television, music and films for corrupting impressionable youth is a tale as old as time, from the censorship trial of Twisted Sister to the goth-hunt that put away the West Memphis Three. “I’m not uncomfortable talking about it,” says Boe of the show’s impact. “I think people are upset because they are uncomfortable seeing young people go through real emotions. Especially parents, because what parent wants to see someone their kids’ age feel those feelings?” The show has depicted drug and alcohol abuse, several sexual assaults and cyber-bullying as well as suicide, to name just a few themes.
“(13 Reasons Why) opened up that communication between parents and kids, where it’s like, ‘Well, you know that TV show? That’s how I feel.’ We made (the choices that we did) because we didn’t want to make it look pretty” – Alisha Boe
“Love it or hate it, (it got people) talking about (suicide) and that’s all we really wanted,” Boe continues, stressing the series’ importance in breaking down these taboos. “It opened up that communication between parents and kids, where it’s like, ‘Well, you know that TV show? That’s how I feel.’ We made (the choices that we did) because we didn’t want to make it look pretty, you know?”
Since wrapping season three of 13 Reasons Why in February, Boe has been busy preparing for the release of two upcoming films – both of which also share stories often deemed unfit for mass consumption. First up, Poms brings more grey hairs and wrinkles to the so-called silver screen than we’re used to seeing in films for young people. In it, Boe plays Chloe, a stuck-up cheerleader who ends up teaching an all-star routine to a squad of seniors played by Diane Keaton, Jacki Weaver, Pam Grier and Rhea Perlman. “I thought it was a heartwarming story with a good message, and I thought that it was funny,” says Boe, explaining how, at the time she auditioned, she’d been seeking out a comedy – something a little more lighthearted than playing Jessica. “When I saw the people who were attached at the time, which was Diane and Jacki, I was like, ‘Woah, this is a dream come true.’”
In the film, Chloe, who has never had a grandmother, adopts the crew of pensioners as her own. For Boe, whose own grandma is far away in Norway, it was a thrill to receive the mentorship of the star-studded, nearly all-female cast. “People say don’t meet your idols,” she says, “but, honestly, it was worth it. It was so much fun being on set with legends, and I learned so much from these ladies.”
In Yes, God, Yes, meanwhile – a film following Alice (played by Stranger Things’ Natalia Dyer) on her journey from God-fearing good girl to masturbation maestro – Boe plays a Jesus-loving camp counsellor who’s too scared to sin. The story takes place at a Christian camp in early-00s Iowa, but Boe says it speaks to the unbalanced expectations we put upon young women and their sexualities to this day.
“Guys talk about it all the time!” the actress exclaims, noting that girls have to put up with boys constantly oversharing about masturbation while feeling embarrassed about their own sexual urges. “I remember being younger and guys were just like, ‘Yeah, I love jerking off!’ and the girls were like, ‘Oh my God, touching myself is so bad.’” This contrast is clear when you consider that a film like Superbad – part of a long line of films about virginal teenage boys – came to define a generation’s reference point for humour. It begs the question: where’s the film that makes teen girls talking about vaginas as ubiquitous as dick jokes? “This is it,” says Boe, speaking about Yes, God, Yes. “This is a lot of vagina.”
As Boe leans back and prepares for a food coma, she talks about her post-press tour plans for the weekend: doing absolutely nothing. “I’m going to see my mom. We drink a lot of wine together and watch TV,” she says, adding that they both love Barry, a dark comedy following Bill Hader’s low-level hitman as he tries to make his way out of the bounty-hunting business. “My little brother will intermittently come out of his bedroom while playing his computer games and be like, ‘Hey, guys!’” she adds, before gushing over how she loves the ten-year-old as if he was her own kid. “You know I’ve already had to give him the talk? Like, the talk. He already knows (so much). It’s the internet again!” she continues. “The internet is a magical, dark, twisted place. Love it.”
Hair Ramsell Martinez at Lowe & Co using R+Co, make- up Natasha Severino at Forward Artists using NARS, styling assistant Olivia Khoury, photography assistant Fabio Dozzini, production D+V