Katherine Langford is set to slay – Excalibur and all – in this summer’s NetflixTV hit, Cursed. But as GLAMOUR’s Josh Smith finds out, the new L’Oréal Paris global ambassador has had to put in the work to truly feel worth it…
Katherine Langford rose to fame after starring as Hannah, a teenager who took her own life in 13 Reasons Why. The Netflix show didn’t just ignite her career and garner her a Golden Globe nomination, it ignited a new conversation around mental health.
Via the power of Zoom, Katherine sits before me in the living room of her secret European quarantine hideaway after finding herself between her homeland of Australia and the US (Katherine is rightly private about her whereabouts, with a 16.6-million-strong Instagram following) and just after the fourth and final season of 13 Reasons Why has been released. Her look is as relaxed as she is warm; she’s wearing an oversized shirt, with her hair down and just the slightest hint of makeup. She tells me that starting a mental health conversation at such an early part of her career is one of the things she is most proud of, even if at times, it has cost her own emotional health.
WATCH: Katherine’s emotional and powerful words on body image, sisterhood and self-worth
“I think early on, just having roles that resonate with mental ill-health, was so important. But I’m quite an empathetic person,” the 24-year-old tells me. “I’ve learnt to monitor doing it now because sometimes if I hear someone’s story and they’re crying, I’ll cry with them because I feel that pain. Hearing other people’s stories makes me realise how human we all are. I felt and went through so many things growing up, but you realise all of us have similar reactions as we get older.”
“No one ever feels 100%, but you’re always worth it. Say your own affirmations like, ‘Girl, get out of bed, you’ve got this.’ Whatever you want to do you can do it. It’s that belief and that courage!”
How has she learnt to look after her own mental health I wonder, especially given the swirling conversations around her work? “It’s a journey, babe! I feel like you’re always looking after it and you’re always learning,” she replies. For many of us, the events of recent months have turned that journey into a rollercoaster, and Katherine is no different.
Despite having a new set of plants to “sing and talk to” – including a ficus tree named Eric, after Eric Clapton – Katherine has spent the vast majority of lockdown alone. “I was in need of slowing down, but I went through a couple of ups and downs because it was really overwhelming,” she confides. “At times you feel quite lonely. I just really wanted a hug. I miss hugs.”
It’s this relatability and the fact she represents a new generation both on and off screen that has led to Katherine recently being named as L’Oréal Paris’ latest ambassador and a Woman of Worth – she isn’t just a ‘face’ she stands for more than an image. Despite the ups and downs of life right now, does she feel worth it?
“I didn’t know where I fitted in and that was a big thing for me when I was younger.”
“No one ever feels 100%, but you’re always worth it,” she says, with a smile flashing across her face. “Some days I wake up and I just feel bad. Like in quarantine now, when I’ve been by myself and you’ve been in the same pajamas that you’ve been in for three days, you haven’t seen anyone. Even if you maybe don’t believe it in that moment, you’re always worth that attention. Say your own affirmations like, ‘Girl, get out of bed, you’ve got this.’ Whatever you want to do you can do it. It’s that belief and that courage!”
The positive affirmations certainly came in handy when taking on her latest role, in Netflix’s answer to Game Of Thrones, Cursed. In a feminist refashioning of the Arthurian legend, Katherine’s Nimue – who, PLOT SPOILER is destined to become the Lady of the Lake – joins forces with a mercenary (Arthur) to deliver the infamous ancient sword to Merlin. But in a true 2020 twist, Nimue herself is the power player, rather than the future King Arthur.
Two years in the making, with a solid year spent filming in the deepest, darkest – and naturally, wettest – locations across the UK from Cornwall to Wales, the filming of Cursed wasn’t without its challenges for Katherine. “The magnitude of this job is something that I don’t think anyone expected,” she says, puffing out her cheeks. “I had to learn sword fighting, horse riding and come up with a new English dialect and maintain it through 16-hour days. I had to be able to do these stunts and maintain that stamina without getting injured. Some days we just had to get the shot and I was in the water a lot and if you’re cold, your lips will shake. So, I had to learn to breathe in the Wim Hof method – really controlled breathing – just so you could get a couple of seconds where your lips weren’t shaking.” If that wasn’t enough she has even co-created and sung the show’s theme song, I Could Be Your King. Is there ANYTHING Katherine can not do? We will wait…
Showing the sheer resilience of this new multi-faceted screen queen was imperative to Katherine. “To have Nimue be this strong and capable character was really what I wanted to achieve. I want young girls to see that not only they can be strong and not only can they fight, but they can do it in a way that honours them, honours their bodies and also honours their gender.”
“The magnitude of this job is something that I don’t think anyone expected. I had to learn sword fighting, horse riding and come up with a new English dialect and maintain it through 16-hour days.”
However, the realisation of her own physical – and crucially, mental – strength happened long before she stepped back in time to take her seat at Arthur’s round table. She grew up in Perth, Australia with her mother Elizabeth, a pediatrician, her father Stephen, a flying doctor and her sister Josephine, also an actress, who starred in the teen romance film franchise of her childhood, After. Katherine says: “I loved it, and Australia’s one of the most magical places on earth for me. But the thought of becoming an actress didn’t feel tangible let alone a possibility for so many years.”
Instead of chasing her acting dream she focused on becoming a nationally ranked professional teenage swimmer, which gave her faith in her body image – something that proved invaluable going into an industry that is still heavily obsessed with looks. “I don’t think it was until recently and perhaps during Cursed, that I started giving credit to my body for what I was putting it through,” she says. “On the one hand, I grew up doing sport with a value in my body. I didn’t just focus on my body’s appearance. On the other hand, you face other critiques like, ‘you can’t fit into this [clothing], your body doesn’t look this way and you look too strong’ – not that there is any such thing. I am really grateful to have maintained that respect for my body’s capabilities coming into this industry. I’ve heard from so many girls and also boys who have said they just enjoy seeing someone who looks like them!”
Feeling reflected and seen wasn’t something Katherine grew up with as she struggled to find herself while at school. “I didn’t know where I fitted in and that was a big thing for me, I could do sport but then I was also ‘girly’, and I liked makeup, but I didn’t want to be a part of that popular girl group, and I was also a nerd. I remember we had this ‘girls’ magazine,’ and they would have pictures of celebrities with a quote. There was a picture of Scarlett Johansson who was saying something along the lines of like, ‘Just be yourself.’ I was 12 years old, and I looked at this and I just went, ‘But who am I? Tell me who I’m supposed to be. Should I dress like this and then I’m that person?’” Luckily for Katherine, Lady Gaga became her pop culture ‘mamma’ showing her that we ARE born this way.
This questioning of her identity flowed into the way she viewed her own beauty journey, too. “When I was younger, beauty or being beautiful equated to looking like someone else,” she says. “I think I felt a little bit intimidated by makeup, because my mom didn’t wear a lot and I didn’t wear a lot because of sport. So sometimes beauty felt very oppressive and to be able to see it as something expressive and freeing was just so liberating.”
Katherine is certainly liberated and in control of her own beauty now, doing her own makeup for her GLAMOUR cover shoot under the instruction of L’Oréal Paris Global Makeup Director Val Garland, and self-shooting her own images on an iPhone.
Creating cover shoots is something that Katherine still says she “can’t believe” she gets to be a part of, after a tough ride at the start of her career. “One of the biggest lessons I think I’ve ever had was when I got into drama school after three years of auditioning. I was asked to test for two projects in the US and the UK. So I turned down drama school to do them and was rejected from both,” she tells me, pushing her long brown hair from right to left.
“Everyone’s voice is equal, and everyone has their own experience to talk from, everyone’s opinion is valid and important.”
“I came back to Australia not being able to go to school, without a job and had to call all my bar jobs back. It was that moment where I was just at rock bottom. I didn’t know what I was going to do, if I was meant to do this or if it was even possible,” she continues. “I kept auditioning and it was a couple of weeks after that that my first project, which turned out to be 13 Reasons Why, came through. That for me was a huge turning point. I had to harness a lot of strength to keep doing it. I nearly quit. I think I nearly wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t kept going. I’m very grateful and thankful that it all worked out and young Katherine kept doing her thing.”
Now 24, Katherine is certainly, ‘doing her thing’ and ensuring her voice is heard, despite the outdated narrative around ‘difficult women’ still swirling in society. “You’re so eager to please in the sense that you want to do your job to the best ability that you can,” she says. “You hear all these stories about people being ‘difficult.’ So I am very conscious of, ‘I don’t want to be difficult.’ There’s still a part of me that recognises that even if I do say something regardless of how eloquent or logical it will be looked at differently.
“With Cursed, I wasn’t talked down to or sweet talked, like when people call you ‘sweetie’ or ‘honey’. There was a respect that I also earned from doing certain stunts. When your voice can be heard and people can respect it, listen to it, without prejudice or without other ideas, that’s how it should be really. Everyone’s voice is equal, and everyone has their own experience to talk from, everyone’s opinion is valid and important.”
Working in apost #MeToo world where sisterhood is now more celebrated than ever has equally made Katherine feel like her opinion is not only important but valid. “My first ever Golden Globes nominationcame at the time of the Time’s Up movement. Reese Witherspoon reached out to me and we chatted on the phone. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this person wants to welcome me in.’ We had a meeting the day before and I walked into this room of 25 of the most experienced actresses, I felt very starstruck but at the same time I also felt very welcomed.
“I still feel like I don’t know 100% who I am, and I don’t want to put labels on myself because we put labels on things to make them easier to digest.”
“I got a bit teary when I was talking to some of them, because, especially growing up in this industry, you hear these things like, ‘Women are this way, women are that way,’ and it just felt so far from the truth,” Katherine continues. “To realise that we don’t actually need to compete – we’re such an indomitable force together when we truly support each other and stand together, it only serves to lift all of us up!”
With a heightened appreciation for her worth, it’s safe to say Katherine will not settle for being labelled – not now, not ever. “I still feel like I don’t know 100% who I am, and I don’t want to put labels on myself because we put labels on things to make them easier to digest. I still feel restless but in a good way because to hell with that, f**k it, I’ll make my own box.” In a flash, I am treated to a taster of what it’s like to live in the head of Katherine, as she pauses in thought: “Sorry, I just had Gaga’s song come back in my head, where she sings, ‘Strong female, I don’t need permission!’”
That is the spirit of Katherine Langford, she is not asking anyone for permission, she is unapologetically forging her own path in a new Hollywood.
Katherine Langford is a L’Oréal Paris ambassador and Cursed is released on Netflix on 17 July