13 Reasons Why actress Kate Walsh talks about teen suicide

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Kate Walsh didn’t just happen overnight.

She had worked for over 20 years doing theatre, occasional movies, numerous television guest appearances, when unexpectedly, at the ripe age of 39 she was cast as Dr Addison Montgomery in Grey’s Anatomy, and overnight she became a star.

She followed that with her own series Private Practice, which proved equally popular.

But after five years, she’d had enough of long hours and grinding schedules; she needed a rest and a social life.

She found the love of her life, TV executive Alex Young. They were married in 2007.

But then disappointment. Her marriage ended after 14 months.

It was followed by a messy divorce and sadly her acceptance that she would never have children, something she truly wanted.

Ironically the 49-year-old actress plays a mother of a teenager who commits suicide in 13 Reasons Why, for which she is getting the best reviews of her career.

So what attracted you to this harrowing role?

It was a really beautiful piece and an important piece. I knew it was going to be a heavy part to play obviously and wanted to do honour to the people who have gone through this unimaginable loss (a child’s suicide) so I took that very seriously and wanted to portray it as accurately as I could.

But I had one question for Brian Yorkey, who created the show. Would the parents actually have a real role in the drama or would it just be a high school story?

I was adamant that it was going to be a bigger story, that it wouldn’t just be the kids in high school and their isolated experience. And once I got that assurance I was fully committed.

The show has been criticised for glorifying suicide, what is your response?

I know for a fact that everyone involved was adamant that there would be nothing romantic or gothy or sexy about this suicide, and when we finally got to that scene, it wouldn’t be romanticised in any way.

I personally spoke to a mother and father who lost their son to suicide, and they generously gave me their time and allowed me to ask them questions, and I also spoke with a psychiatrist who deals with families and kids who have died by suicide.

One of the things that Brian also wanted to show in the series, was that you could have a pretty amazing relationship with your kid and still not know what the signs are.

Even in school, certain things that we take for granted, like graffiti on bathroom stalls and people saying terrible things, can mount up and add to the pressures that kids experience.

Can you recall your own high school experience? Were there any points of reference?

What was so interesting was discovering the extent of what social media has done to high school, how people can be destroyed in 140 characters or less, and that there are no rule books on how to treat people.

I remember hearing about bullying and Internet bullying in high school and I was like, “Aren’t we just being hypersensitive, isn’t this just the culture? Doesn’t everyone get bullied?”

But then you see how quickly it happens now. I remember in high school, and thinking this is it; it begins and ends here. It’s hard to have any kind of perspective that it gets better.

But then again, my high school was pretty innocent. I grew up in Tucson, and if you saw that movie Dazed And Confused, that was my high school. We had hazing, but it was all very innocent.

The freshmen got hazed and there were lists, and girls were listed by their best body parts or worst body parts. And I remember feeling excited that my legs ended up on the Best Legs list. But I don’t remember it being extreme when I was there.

How old were you when you knew you wanted to be an actress?

When I was literally six or seven years old, my mum and I would watch those 1930s and 1940s old movies on TV, and I was just completely transfixed. I was in love with every dead movie star … Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant.

And I was confident even then that someday I’ll be a part of the studio system and wear beautiful clothes and be glamorous and be in movies.

So when did it start?

I started in school plays. The first play I ever did was The Wizard Of Oz. I played Glenda, the Good Witch.

And then I did theatre and community theatre, and then went to college, stopped acting, studied English and history, and then went back to acting and did more theatre, and then started doing TV and film. So, yeah I worked my way up.

Were you always confident you’d make it

I think you have to be, but I didn’t know how competitive I was until I went into auditions and there were dozens of other people there. Maybe I’m a true sociopath because my feeling always was, “Why are you here for my part?”

I would often get into that mindset, “This is mine,” and then be surprised when other people were there.

But the reason I guess is because I’ve always had to work hard. I was never a member of the cool kids club. I never had it handed to me.

There is always someone more beautiful and younger. So you have to have that tenacity … and the desire. There were plenty of times I wanted to quit, but there was nothing else I wanted to do.

And my brother would say, “Well, what are you gonna do?” I was like, “Well, nothing.” So I just kept going. I guess I’ve been lucky.

But not in love?

I’ve definitely made mistakes in relationships. I’ve been on both sides, I’ll put it that way. Both situations. I’ve been cheated on, and I’ve cheated before, but not in a marriage.

What do you like to do when you’re not acting?

I ski, I read … I like to read books. I like to cook, that’s fun for me.

And how do you spoil yourself?

I love jewellery, expensive cars.

Did fame have a big impact on you?

There was definitely a big shift when it happened.

Were you besieged by fans?

I haven’t had any really disrespectful situations, and honestly I feel like these are the people that sign my pay cheque every week, so I’m grateful for that. I know what it’s like being unemployed so it’s all a matter of perspective.

Looking back on the years you spent playing Dr Addison, do you miss the cast from Private Practice and Grey’s? Would you do a guest appearance on Grey’s?

I still keep in touch with the cast, and I have some very dear friends from both Grey’s and Private Practice who I see as often as I can, some more regularly than others, depending on our work schedules. But I have a great love and affinity for all of them.

Would you do another series like that again?

It’s not that I am opposed to doing a network show again, it’s just that schedule – the traditional 22 or 24-episode year is so exhausting – which I did for the better part of a decade, between Grey’s and Private Practice.

There is nothing like the community and family you build on that set. But creatively, it’s much more satisfying and healthy for me to play a role for a shorter period of time which allows me do other things too.

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