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'13 Reasons Why' star Brandon Flynn on coming out at 14, finding his chosen family and getting sober

The actor sat down with TODAY to talk about the "pain" and "beauty" of embracing his sexuality at a young age.
Brandon Flynn attending the Balmain show during the Paris Men’s fashion Week Spring Summer 2018, in Paris, France on june 24, 2017.
Brandon Flynn attending the Balmain show during the Paris Men's fashion Week Spring Summer 2018, in Paris, France on june 24, 2017.Aurore Marechal / Alamy

It’s been two years since Brandon Flynn’s role as Justin Foley in “13 Reasons Why” wrapped. And now, he’s focusing on his own story.

Earlier this month, the actor settled into a cozy corner on the second floor of the Stonewall Inn in New York City for an interview with TODAY. The iconic landmark, which feels like you stepped into a kaleidoscope of rainbows, is living proof that the most difficult battles can result in the strength to make necessary change — a sentiment that can resonate with Flynn, who came out at 14.

For LGBTQ Pride Month, the "13 Reasons Why" star teamed up with bubly sparkling water — which donated $100,000 to the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative — to promote their short film “Coming Home“ as well as the importance of safe spaces and chosen families in the LGBTQ+ community.

As he sits in the landmark oozing with pride, Flynn reflects on discovering his chosen family, embracing his sexuality as a teenager, playing Justin Foley in "13 Reasons Why" — controversial ending and all — and getting sober to start his current new chapter.

Finding his chosen family in high school

Flynn, who grew up in Miami, recalled at a young age that didn't feel like he fit in because of how sensitive he was.

"I was never focused, I was always really sensitive, really, in my own world ... this feeling of not fitting in, of being too sensitive to play on the playground, of all these big, big emotions for a 10-year-old to be experiencing," Flynn told TODAY.

But he noticed a shift when he performed in his first play at 10.

"Everything kind of came into focus ... kind of cleared up in a way when I was performing, and that's actually never stopped."

Flynn's interest in acting led him to attend the New World School of Arts High School in Miami, where he met like-minded individuals who shifted his perspective — not only in regard to his career, but with who he was on a deeper level.

"It was a bunch of openly queer people, a bunch of artistic people all together," Flynn said. "I had to get up at 5 a.m. every morning, and I remember experiencing just pure joy and excitement that that was what I got to do."

During these high school years, the "Binge" star became friends with people who he calls his chosen family to this day, saying that they will "be around my kids when I have them and for life."

Coming out at age 14 was filled with "pain" and "beauty"

This support system played a part in encouraging Flynn to come out at 14, which he describes as a beautiful but "really hard and scary time."

"It was hard. There (are) a lot of moments I remember. A lot of it had pain to it, and a lot of it had beauty to it," Flynn said.

He specifically recalls telling his friend, Dylan, who he is still close with to this day, while waiting to grab a train back home.

"I just remember being so nervous to tell him, and I remember the relief I felt. And comically enough, like two days later, he — pretty much in the same spot — was like, 'Me, too'."

But feeling at peace with coming out wasn't an overnight process for Flynn, who says that it took him seven years to be able to feel confident in his skin as an openly gay man.

"There so many moments (when) my experience was also like, is this the right choice? Am I actually (gay) or is this just a phase? I went away in college to London, and I was 21 ... That was where I really found solid ground like, right, this is who I am. This is who I want to be."

13 REASONS WHY (L to R) BRANDON FLYNN as JUSTIN FOLEY in episode 405 of 13 REASONS WHY Cr. DAVID MOIR/NETFLIX © 2020David Moir / Netflix

Getting his big break on "13 Reasons Why" and Justin Foley's controversial ending

Shortly after graduating college, Flynn found himself on the fast track to success when he landed his role as Justin Foley in the Netflix teen drama "13 Reasons Why."

Flynn auditioned for multiple parts on the show but had a gut feeling that high school jock Justin was "the one," so to speak. After three months of auditioning, he was flown out to San Francisco to be on set for the first time as the character that was "really, really special" to him.

And the character was special to fans, too, who were won over by Justin and the show's raw approach of tackling sensitive topics in a high school setting. But not all scenarios that unfolded on the show were well received on the internet, including the ultimate fate of Flynn's character.

In the fourth and final season of "13 Reasons Why," which dropped June 5, 2020, Justin — who at this point, is a recovering heroine addict with a past of working as a sex worker — suddenly dies of AIDS after unknowingly contracting HIV. And it didn't take long for fans to turn to Twitter and express their frustration toward what was deemed an unrealistic depiction of HIV in today's world.

Flynn says that from his perspective, the controversial ending was an important one to see through because it tells a different story that can still happen today.

“For someone like Justin, who wouldn’t have known that ... he wouldn’t have known about AIDS,” the star explained. “You know, maybe he was checked out in school, he was hiding from the fact that he was using, and that’s what we discussed ... that would be his demise. And it was believable.”

"13 Reasons Why" actor Brandon Flynn, who plays Justin Foley.
"13 Reasons Why" actor Brandon Flynn, who plays Justin Foley.David Moir / Netflix

But despite being on board with Justin’s diagnosis, the 28-year-old completely understands why people got upset — especially because a lot of the frustration comes from his generation.

“I get why people are upset. I’m part of this generation that can be a little less worried about HIV and AIDS. But I also think the story is real, like the story has happened, the story still happens."

Getting sober after wrapping "13 Reasons Why"

Controversial ending or not, after filming four seasons, Flynn was ready to move on from playing Justin and refocus energy on himself — first, by getting sober.

"I got sober which was, you know, I think in part due to saying goodbye to Justin and all of his trials and tribulations that I think we're mirroring some of mine, and led me to realize a lot of stuff in my own personal life," Flynn candidly shared.

That, plus an unexpectedly long pandemic, led to Flynn taking a year and a half break from acting that he ended up being "very grateful for" and necessary after an "intense" four years of filming for "13 Reasons Why."

Flynn takes Justin everywhere he goes, he welcomes new opportunities that are more lighthearted and allow him to broaden his acting experience.

What's next?

Flynn just recently wrapped filming for his upcoming role in a comedy called "The Parenting," which he stars alongside the likes Lisa Kudrow, Brian Cox, Parker Posey and Dean Norris.

The film is about a young gay couple who rent out a house in the country for their parents to come and meet one another. However, things take a horrific twist when it's discovered that the rental is already inhabited by a 400-year-old poltergeist. Cue hilarious chaos.

"I took (a role in 'The Parenting') because it didn't take itself seriously. It was very funny. And without trying to say a bunch of stuff, it says all the stuff I think we need right now," Flynn spoke of the film. "How do you fight your demons, and how does love save the day? Yeah. So cliché, but it's needed and it's true."

After the interview, Flynn is heading to Savannah, Georgia to film another movie he recently got cast in called "Manhunt," a true crime series based on the book "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer."

But in this moment, while sitting in Stonewall that is already decked out for the pride celebrations happening all month-long, he says, "Today is a really beautiful way to celebrate."

To celebrate LGBTQ prideTODAY is sharing this community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and special features throughout the entire month of June.