Hightown just broke our hearts. Junior, the character we’ve been rooting for all season to make it and stay clean, tragically overdosed in a bathroom stall at a bus station. Just before his death, Osito had given Junior a way out of the drug world that Junior desperately did not want to be a part of anymore. When Junior walked away from Osito, it seemed like Junior was going to be OK. So when a young child finds Junior’s body slumped over in the bathroom with a needle still in his arm, it was a jaw-dropping moment.
HollywoodLife talked EXCLUSIVELY with Shane Harper about Junior’s tragic death. He revealed that he didn’t find out Junior was going to die until just before he read the script for episode 7. He opened up about that last conversation between Osito and Junior, whether Junior’s death was really accidental, and what playing this character has meant to him.
When did you find out that Junior was going to die?
Shane Harper: I didn’t find out until later on in the season. I think it was midway through shooting. They keep the scripts pretty under wraps until we get them sent to us. But most of the storylines are kind of hush-hush, so I honestly didn’t know about it. Rebecca [Cutter] briefed me. She sat down with me and talked about it right before episode 7 got sent out, so I found out pretty much with everyone else. I will say as like a prerequisite that I kind of felt like if any character we knew was going to tragically die it would be Junior, so I wasn’t completely shocked. But it was definitely heartbreaking. I was crying a little bit for him because by that point I was deeply involved in the character’s life and his story.
Despite some of the less-than-stellar decisions that he made and the situations he found himself in, Junior was definitely the character you rooted for and wanted to see make it. Was there ever a moment through the season where you thought that Junior would make it out of this OK?
Shane Harper: I definitely was, like you, completely rooting for him to be alright. I obviously knew that the trajectory of his story was a little bit bleak, but I was really holding out hope in the back of my mind. I kind of felt like there was definitely a possibility that he was going to get to the end of the season. I actually wasn’t sure by what means he would get taken out. I wasn’t sure if it going to be from the drug lords or from falling back in his addiction. Reading that script, I was like, whoa, that’s a heavy way to lose him. It’s tragic that he falls back into the habit that he’s been fighting for so long.
Right before that, Osito gave him an out. Osito was going to let Junior get off pretty much scot-free. Were you surprised by that move by Osito?
Shane Harper: I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I feel like Osito and Junior developed an interesting and deep bond. I think by the end of episode 7 you realize that Osito actually has a big heart for Junior because he’s been there. Atkins [Estimond] does such a great job playing that character. He’s not a total bad guy. He’s got a code and ethics to him. I think he gets this spot for Junior. In that last scene between two of them, Osito is giving him that path to freedom, and that’s what makes it even more tragic to see it end the way it did.
I wanted to ask your opinion about that scene at the bus station. Junior had already started spiraling. Osito even tells him that this is it. They’re done with the drugs. They’re done with it all. What do you think Junior was thinking in that moment? There’s a look on Junior’s face where I can’t exactly tell if Junior knows he’s going to do what Osito told him not to do, or he’s thinking there’s a little bit of hope there. I’d like to hear your take on it.
Shane Harper: That’s a really interesting assessment. I’m glad you picked up on that scene. I feel like there are a lot of dynamics in that scene, but I think the biggest one that is pulling Junior back down is the guilt and the shame about messing up with Donna and wondering if she can forgive him. Is it going to be OK? Am I going to be able to get back to them? Can I recover from that? He’s teetering on the edge of having hope. Osito’s trying to encourage him and telling him he’s going to be fine when he gets down there. I just don’t know if Junior really believes him. For me, in that scene, my thought was that the biggest thing for Junior is always dealing with his sensitivity and his shame for his behavior and not being able to necessarily control things the way that he wants to. I think that could potentially be a reason that he slipped up immediately after that. I don’t think he was planning to, but I just think that emotional pull towards that feeling of: will I be accepted back if things get better? I think it was just too much for him.
From what I’ve read about addiction, things can change in an instant.
Shane Harper: It’s moment to moment. The stakes are so high, especially when the addiction is something like what Junior had to deal with, which is always life-threatening at every moment. One minute you’re holding out hope, and all it takes is a split second that drags you back into that guilt and shame cycle, and then you’re trying to numb yourself from the pain that you feel. That’s what Junior’s been doing all season. He was just trying to get away from that shame.
In that scene, you see the up and down in Junior’s eyes. You see the hope and the guilt. It’s just so tragic. In your opinion, do you think Osito believes Junior’s going to be OK?
Shane Harper: I think that Osito clearly believes in Junior because he didn’t shoot him. He didn’t kill him and killing people’s not a big deal in the game that they’re in. Like we just saw in episodes past, Osito beat someone to death with iron. He didn’t kill Junior because he believes in Junior, and that’s what adds to the sadness of losing Junior. Everyone was, to an extent, kind of rooting for him, but especially Osito because he chose to kill the person that he’d been working with, to my understanding, longer and save Junior’s life, which is a really big deal. He trusted him with everything at that point because Junior has all the information that could take him down. Junior could just go to the cops and throw Osito under the bus, so Osito definitely believes Junior and believes in Junior. That’s how I feel.
Obviously, the whole thing that happened with Krista was super traumatic, and then Kizzle literally had his head blown off right in front of Junior. You could just see on Junior’s face that this was all too much for him. Do you think there was a part of Junior that maybe thought he was better off dead considering what he was involved in?
Shane Harper: I definitely think so. That scene with Kizzle in the forest is crazy when they hack him up and bury him. I think you definitely are touching on something that’s very, very real. I talked to Rebecca about that because my big question from her perspective was: was this intentional? Or was it an accidental overdose? Was there a part of him that wanted to just go away? I feel like we never know exactly. From my perspective, that lingers in the back of the mind of someone who’s dealing with all the pain and the trauma that Junior was. I think the audience is going to have to interpret that for themselves. But for me, I feel like part of him wanted to just not give up, and I think at a certain point it’s so tiring. That exhaustion is a part of falling back into the old habits and taking the risk of potentially ODing, which Junior knew very well. He’d OD’ed already three times before, so it wasn’t something he was unfamiliar with.
When he walks away at the bus stop, it’s the last time we see him. That moment gets me every time. You can almost feel the Grim Reaper right there. But you’re right, it is sort of left open for interpretation whether or not maybe it was sort of intentional.
Shane Harper: Part of me definitely leans toward that it wasn’t intentional. Life is full of nuances, and I think that there may have been a small percentage of him that kind of just wanted to give up. But I don’t think he wanted his life to end. I think it was way more of an accident than anything. He’s got the half-eaten sandwich sitting on the ground or half out of the wrapper. He was about to catch the bus and thinking that he could probably shoot up and it would help his bus ride to Florida. It was probably just an accident. I mean, that’s how I’ve laid it to rest in my mind at least.
What has this experience and playing Junior meant to you?
Shane Harper: It’s really hard to put into words honestly. This role and this show came at a point in my own personal life when I really needed this kind of experience creatively. Getting to leave LA for New York and meet these people and work with Rebecca, Gary Lennon, Ellen Schwartz, Rachel Morrison, and all the cast and crew was great. It was a very pivotal time in my own personal life to get the opportunity to work on this, and the creative endeavor of at all was so deeply fulfilling. I think very fondly of the times working on the show with everyone, and I feel like it really has helped shaped me in my adult acting career in a big way that I think will impact me for years to come. I’m very grateful for the opportunity, and it was a privilege to step into the life of a character like Junior and in the world that Rebecca created. Even though it is TV and we’re making entertainment, there’s a deeper side to the show. To represent the anchor for that deeper side of the show and in Junior was a really humbling experience. I just hope that I did the role well and that I did justice to the character in the world.