'I would do anything to be able to have a good influence on this generation': Selena Gomez, executive producer of drama on teen suicide

Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford star as high-schoolers Clay and Hannah in 13 Reasons Why.
Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford star as high-schoolers Clay and Hannah in 13 Reasons Why. PHOTO: NETFLIX

Selena Gomez, the co-executive producer of 13 Reasons Why, wants teenagers and parents to discuss issues such as bullying

Singer Selena Gomez and her mother, Ms Mandy Teefey, want the new suicide drama, 13 Reasons Why, to shock teenagers and their parents into having conversations about depression and bullying.

The pair are executive producers of the new show, which sees a girl named Hannah (Katherine Langford) decide to end her life. She explains her reasons in a series of audio tapes she leaves for highschool peers such as Clay (Dylan Minnette), who are then forced to confront the part they played in her death.

Yet Ms Teefey, 40, says that she and Gomez, 24, did not want to make a preachy "public service announcement or a documentary".

Instead, the goal was to create a cool, relatable high-school drama that "the kids are all going to watch and possibly be learning things that they don't even realise that they're learning", says Ms Teefey who, with her daughter, bought the screen rights to the book the series is based on, Jay Asher's best-selling 2007 young-adult novel 13 Reasons Why.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in New York earlier this year, she adds: "I think the parents are going to have the hardest time watching this because they don't want to see their kid being that bully or see them miss signs of the loss of Hannah.

"Because the kids already know this - they see this every day."

Gomez, the pop idol behind hits such as Come & Get It (2013) and Good For You (2015), says the show will steer clear of messages such as "Be empowered", because "that's not what kids want to see".

"Unfortunately, kids don't care. They have to see something that's going to shake them. They have to see something that's frightening and follow these characters they're going to instantly fall in love with."

Debuting on Netflix on Friday, the series was written for the screen by Pulitzer-winning playwright Brian Yorkey, with Oscar winner Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, 2015) directing the first two episodes.

Although her teen years are behind her, Gomez - a Disney Channel star on Wizards Of Waverly Place (2007-2012) before turning singer and film actress - could instantly relate to the bullying and dark thoughts Hannah experiences.

"I have had to deal with it on a different scale, whether it was just (with other) kids or growing up in the biggest high school in the world, which was the Disney Channel.

"It was also adults who had the audacity to tell me how I should live my life and it was very confusing for me. I had no idea who I was going to be, what I was still going to become and it definitely hits home," says Gomez, who is estranged from her father, Mr Ricardo Gomez.

"And I actually was going through a really difficult time when they started production (on 13 Reasons Why)."

In 2015, she revealed she has the autoimmune disease lupus, which has led to depression, anxiety and panic attacks. This required her to undergo chemotherapy and prompted her to cancel dozens of concerts last year and take a three-month hiatus, during which she reportedly sought help at a mental-health rehabilitation facility.

"I went away for 90 days and met tons of kids who are in this place that we're talking about, (with) a lot of the issues that these characters are experiencing.

"That's why I wanted to make sure I was still a part of this project in any way," says Gomez, who has appeared in films such as Monte Carlo (2011) and The Fundamentals Of Caring (2016), and at one point considered playing Hannah herself in a film adaptation.

"I would do anything to be able to have a good influence on this generation."

Gomez, who is the most popular user on Instagram, where she has 115 million followers, hopes seeing her name in the credits will get some of her young fans to watch the show because many of them tell her they struggle with the same issues as Hannah.

"A lot of people have watched me grow up and I have these conversations with my fans because I have never really wanted to be an unapproachable person or seem like I have it all together.

"They tell me these things in the meet-and-greets I do before and after my shows and they trust me because I think they understand that I'm honest and, whether I like it or not, people have seen a lot of my mistakes."

Young people need a series such as this so they can see that others are going through what they are, she believes.

"I want to be a part of this because I think this is what they want, this is what they need."

Gomez - who had dated pop star Justin Bieber and is seeing 27-year- old singer Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd - notes the pressures of social media on a young person and other sources of unhealthy images bombarding teens.

"It's hard right now. I can't stand social media, I can't stand what they're looking at. I can't stand what they think is reality. And this show is as real as it could possibly get."

• 13 Reasons Why debuts on Netflix on Friday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Teen suicide drama meant to shock'. Print Edition | Subscribe