There’s a giant video of Katherine Langford playing in the middle of Times Square, but there’s probably no chance that she’s ever going to see it. Put up to promote Cursed, Netflix’s new fantasy epic, Langford towers over the crossroads of the world, swinging a big medieval sword at all the New Yorkers wearing face masks. Still stuck in quarantine somewhere in Sweden, Langford has to make do with posting someone else’s snapshot on her Instagram.
“It’s so amazing seeing it up there!” she tells NME via Zoom. “But the whole thing is just so surreal now. I’d love to see it in person but I was in Europe when all this started, so I’ve been stuck living with friends for months, just waiting it all out like everyone else”.
Upcoming auditions cancelled, planned projects put on hold, the 24-year-old Aussie actress has been trying to make the best of it since March – learning a new language and trying to pick up the guitar. “I’ve tried to stay productive,” she laughs. “I started out just trying to work through my bucket list, but I mainly just bought plants. I’m now a proud plant parent. I have a Venus Flytrap called Schnappers, and I have a Chinese Lily called Chris, after the Australian comedian [Chris Lilley]. I’m keeping them alive, so I must be doing something right!”
Earning the lead in Cursed – a show that’s pitched somewhere between Game Of Thrones, Disney fantasy Maleficent and Gerard Butler’s bloodthirsty 300 – and fresh from starring alongside Daniel Craig, Chris Evans and Jamie Lee Curtis in last year’s critically acclaimed whodunnit Knives Out, Langford has clearly been doing something right for a while now. Just four years ago, no one even knew her name.
Growing up the daughter of doctors in the suburbs of Perth, Langford was a pro-swimmer before dabbling in local acting workshops, finding her own agent, turning down a place on a uni course and walking straight into one of the biggest, toughest teen roles on the planet.
The first season of 13 Reasons Why debuted in 2017, with Langford taking the lead role as Hannah Baker – a high school girl who kills herself after suffering mental and physical harassment from almost everyone in her life, leaving behind a set of audio tapes for the people responsible. With scenes of sexual assault, bullying, and emotional violence in almost every episode (including one key suicide scene that Netflix later had to cut because it was too graphic), it’s hard to think of a more challenging first role for any young actor to take on.
“I think I’m starting to give myself more credit for it,” she says, now two years clear of the series. “But at the time it was the first thing that I’d ever done, so I took it all at surface value I think. That experience was my only experience on a film set. It’s a role that I’m very grateful to have played, and a story that I’m grateful to have told. But yeah, when I look back now, I think that was probably the hardest first role to have for a number of reasons. But for an overwhelming number of other reasons it was also the best. I was lucky to be surrounded by great people and wonderful creatives on that job. It’s a role that I’ll always have in my heart.”
But it wasn’t just the role itself that Langford had to deal with at the time. Heavily criticised for its unflinching portrayal of suicide and self-harm, Langford suddenly found herself at the centre of an ugly PR storm involving health care professionals, Netflix and a whole lot of angry social media noise.
“I’ve had a couple of years to separate myself from all that now,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “When it comes to fans, or specifically to social media, I think it’s really difficult to figure that out. When I started acting, and still now, my number one priority is the work. It’s why I’m here. I love what I do and I really wasn’t in that show for any other reason other than to act and perform. My relationship with social media is something that I think has evolved since then, but as far as fans go and touching on deeper issues, I actually find that to be an incredibly humbling part of the job. To hear that something you do affects someone else in a positive way, or changes someone’s perspective at all… that’s amazing.”
Leaving the show after season two, Langford took a lighter role in sparky coming-of-age romcom Love, Simon before getting her big break as Tony Stark’s daughter in Avengers: Endgame. The only problem? Her scenes didn’t make the final cut.
“It’s a memory that I’m so grateful to have, but it’s just a memory now unfortunately!” she laughs, shrugging off the fact that she was cut out of the highest grossing film of all time. “It was an incredible and surreal experience. To work with the Russo brothers, to work with Robert Downey Jr. on the last day that he was Iron Man, in his last scene?! I’m such a huge fan of Marvel, and there was just so much to take in. I was stepping onto the set of the biggest franchise in the world so for me it was all about trying to soak up as much of that as possible.”
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Luckily, she had a chance to make up for it with Knives Out, joining another impressive ensemble (including her almost Avengers co-star Chris Evans) as she helped tangle the audience up in director Rian Johnson’s lavish murder mystery. “I have so, so many good things to say about that film and that whole experience,” she gushes. “Everyone on that film just carried so much talent and history, but Rian is such a humble and wonderful guy. I’ve heard rumours about a sequel and that makes me so excited… To be honest though I’d want to do literally anything that Rian writes or directs!”
Before all that though, it’s back to swinging a sword through the middle of the fantasy genre – with Cursed seeing Langford take on Arthurian legends, ancient curses and the giant hole left by Game Of Thrones. Adapted from a graphic novel written by Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller (Sin City, 300), Cursed rewrites the story of Nimue – better known as the “lady of the lake” who eventually gives King Arthur his magical sword, Excalibur.
“I was sent the book and I just couldn’t put it down,” she says. “I was looking for something that felt challenging and different, but I definitely wasn’t looking to do a big series. By the time I got off the plane in London to start pre-production it had turned into this massive 11-month shoot and this gigantic commitment. I don’t think anyone saw that coming! It made me realise just how much time and money and effort really goes into creating these epic pieces, but this is just so different in scope and magnitude from anything I’ve ever done before.”
She might have survived the emotional wringer of 13 Reasons Why, but Langford still had a lot to learn before she was ready to take on the role of Nimue – a warrior queen who’s jumping horses through burning buildings, fighting wolves and lopping off heads by episode 2.
“I wasn’t intimidated by that side of it at all really,” she says. “I’m a former athlete so I was actually really excited to use my body for a role, because I’ve never done that before. But I also didn’t understand the reality of what I was letting myself in for at all! I do that sometimes – I lead with my gut and then let myself catch up!”
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Training intensively for four weeks to learn riding, sword-fighting, choreography and stunt work, Langford’s first big challenge came from having to stand outside in the English weather. “The first two days of the shoot were in the middle of winter, and I had to shoot this fight scene in the rain,” she laughs. “each day I was drenched. They basically just tipped another bucket of cold water over my head before every take. All day. All night. For 14 hours!” A gruelling 11-month shoot followed, pushing Langford further than ever before.
Was it worth it? Now warm and dry in Sweden, happily watering Chris Lily and Schnappers, the shoot already seems like a lifetime ago – and the actress is now looking forward to seeing what fans make of the series while she waits for lockdown to start easing up. “Growing up a fan of fantasy you don’t really have a lot of female role models,” she says. “When they were handing me different movie swords to try and figure out what Excalibur should look like, every sword that they handed me belonged to a man – incredible actors from incredible different roles, but they were still all kings and warlords and male characters. We’re putting a female at the centre of this legendary tale and it’s something that makes me so proud of Cursed. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”
‘Cursed’ is on Netflix now