It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and Alisha Boe has found herself sitting at a classroom desk. Again. “It’s been six years and I can’t seem to get out of high school!” she deadpans, the irony of this makeshift interview location not lost on her.
The math there is correct. There was actual high school, of course, and then, for the past two years, a starring role on Netflix’s hit series 13 Reasons Why. But despite what her fictional persona and our current location may otherwise indicate, Boe is not actually a high schooler in real life—and she has a recent milestone birthday, and the time-honored epic 21st birthday party story to show for it.
“My friends and I went to Joshua Tree and all we did was listen to the Call Me by Your Name soundtrack,” she said. “We reenacted the dance scene, where Timothée is sitting on the chair and smoking, but instead my friend had a Juul in proper millennial fashion. Every time that song by the Psychedelic Furs came on, we’d be like, ‘Again!’ It was a lot of fun.”
Most importantly, she survived. “I did! I actually had wine the whole night like a classy adult,” she noted. “I mean, I was still super hungover the next day. I usually hate birthdays, but I was surrounded by all the people I love. But, we had this crazy Airbnb lady who drove two hours from Los Angeles on the second night because she thought we were wrecking her place. This is the craziest story, I’m really excited to tell someone. It’s a really long story, but it needs to be out there.”
The CliffsNotes version: There were threats of eviction, tears (the Airbnb lady), talk of aliens (again, the Airbnb lady), and, in the end, a shot of tequila to pacify the whole ordeal (Boe, in a valiant attempt to save her own party). “Yeah, I’m definitely not going to forget my 21st birthday,” she concluded, winded from the passionate tale. But the real twist: She didn’t even leave a bad review. “I just didn’t leave one because I didn’t want her to kick me off Airbnb,” she explained.
Fair. Thanks to 13 Reasons Why’s second season debut earlier this month, Boe has been on the road enough that she needs to keep her Airbnb record spotless. “I’ve been around the world. Literally, I went around the world. It was L.A. to Rome to Tokyo, then back to L.A., and I just came back from Brazil and Argentina.”
Yes, she even went to Brazil, just like all those Instagram comments pleaded her to. “We went to Brazil last year and literally a month later, they were like ‘Come back.’ So, we went back. They were very, very, very persistent. The superfan culture there is insane. They are very passionate people.”
Though now a Los Angeles dweller, Boe was born and raised in Oslo, Norway, where she spent her first seven years before moving to L.A. when her mom remarried. “I completely denied my Norwegian culture and was like, ‘I don’t want to have an accent anymore,’” she said of the move. “My mom would speak to me in Norwegian and I would speak back in English. A year later, I tried Norwegian and I couldn’t. What a concept: actually just forgetting your whole first language.”
Boe had been performing in dance shows and local plays in Oslo, and continued to do so post-move, albeit with some changes. “Performing was always something that was a part of me. I started with dancing and I loved being on stage. I think I just really loved the immediate satisfaction of making people happy, and I would feed off their energy. Or maybe it was just attention seeking, who knows,” she said. “But in L.A., when you’re young and you want to be an actor, what tends to happen is ‘Let’s pump her out. Let’s have her do commercials and do auditioning classes.’”
She did the former, nabbing print ads for Justice and commercial spots for Bratz and even a Sears commercial with Kylie Jenner, as well as what she describes as “a really bad horror film,” (it’s called Amusement, and it’s about a killer clown, natch), before entering into “a mini retirement” in her early teens.
“Honestly, it was hard for me to book [roles] as an early teen, because it just wasn’t inclusive then for mixed or ethnically ambiguous or black people, in general,” said Boe, whose father is Somali and mother is Norwegian. “There was nothing for that in the breakdown. They want to hire you in a family, and there were no mixed-race families on TV at that time. I would be sent out for Hispanic roles, but I don’t look Hispanic. I’d be sent for black roles, but I’m too white, and I’m too white to be black. They’d even send me on Asian roles.
“Identity has always played a really big role in my life,” she continued. “I’m a Norwegian Somali girl who got plucked out of her culture and moved to Los Angeles, which doesn’t have much history, and my mom and I don’t have roots in L.A. and I don’t identify as an American. Growing up, I would go through phases where I would straighten my hair because I went to a predominantly white high school where people would look at me and say, ‘Alisha, you’re pretty for a black girl.’ Then I thought being black was wrong and I wanted to take away my blackness. And then going on these auditions, I have the upper hand, because I am the token black girl. They aren’t going to hire the lead girl on The CW to be a dark-skinned black girl; they’re going to want someone who looks like me. That’s why I was able to do all the Justice, Sears, and Target print work, because I was light-skinned with Caucasian hair. I understand that, but identity is still something that I am working out.”
By the end of high school, however, Boe was ready to dive back in and began to gain steam, landing a number of recurring gigs on shows like Ray Donovan, Teen Wolf, and Casual. And then, at 19-years-old, came 13 Reasons Why.
“I was so surprised when I booked 13 Reasons Why, because I originally auditioned for Hannah and was like, ‘There is no way I am going to book a lead on the show,’” she said. “I had read the book when I was 14, and it was one of my favorite books. When they asked me to audition for Jessica, I disconnected with it. She’s supposed to be a pretty, popular teenager, and in my head, just from being brainwashed from all these breakdowns growing up, it’s a blonde girl with blue eyes. But since Brian [Yorkey, who adapted to book for TV] and all of them are so inclusive with their casting, they didn’t even think about it. It was my first time being able to be separated from being someone’s best friend, or being the butt of the joke, or an accessory. It was a dream come true for me. I didn’t expect it to come that fast.”
Fast is an understatement. In its debut week, the show became Netflix’s most tweeted-about show of all time, and, without hyperbole, a true cultural phenomenon. “None of us knew that would happen,” Boe said. “We knew that it was Netflix, and we knew the people were behind it, and that it had a following because of the book and because Selena Gomez’s name was attached to it. So we knew it would get some attention. But we had no idea…. For me, personally, it was a lot. I was 19, just turning 20. I had 5,000 followers before, and I kid you not, after two weeks, I had a million.”
Today, she’s at nearly 3 million. “I didn’t even think about social media as a concept, or social responsibility [before the show],” she said. “This side of the industry is all a learning experience…. People are really nice, but people are really mean, too, especially on social media. Then you question, ‘What is my responsibility?’ And you think about the longevity of your career; as an actor, I want to be a blank canvas, and not known as Alisha, but that actor who is on these different things. I had to quickly adjust. It took me a year. It took going back to the second season and being away from it all and secluded with my cast and focused on my work to get back to who I am. Being recognized by people and not being used to it, it brings up all of these things. I got a lot of anxiety, and you question a lot. It took me a year to get back to normal me, and I understand my role in this new world. It was a major life change.”
Going back to work, however, was no easy task. In season two, we see Boe’s character dealing with the aftermath of her rape, a raw and heartbreaking portrayal of sexual abuse survival, for which Boe prepared extensively. “This season, I really made sure that I focused on PTSD and anxiety disorders and how it alters you, and the aftermath and psychological everlasting effects of a survivor,” she said. “I have so many resources available. I talked to a psychologist who deals with survivors firsthand, and unfortunately there are so many resources online. The Brock Turner case, since season one, the statement has been my bible. After the first season, I learned to have an open dialogue with my girlfriends and my female family members. And so many people opened up to me who were my acquaintances or that I’d worked with. Especially after the second season—I could open my DMs right now and there will be 100 messages saying they related to Jessica’s story.”
Of course, for every personal DM, there are 10 think pieces on the show’s depiction of such heavy issues and their relation to teenagers, which have all but flooded the Internet since the second season premiered. “I try not to [read stories online], but it’s hard not to,” said Boe. “It’s a show that people have really strong opinions on. I’m really proud of the story that we’ve told, and the people who don’t like it have really strong opinions about it. And it’s good that they have really strong opinions about it, because that means they are taking it seriously. All I see are think pieces, and it’s refreshing.”
The show has yet to announce a third season, but like its rabid fans, Boe is certainly rooting for one. “I hope there is! I want a job,” she joked. “And I love the story and the cast…. We’re friends forever. They’re not going anywhere, that’s for sure.
“I think I’m going to look back on this experience, even five years from now, and know that I’m never going to have this feeling again,” she added. “It’s something that I’m going to savor for the rest of my life.”