Sex Education's Asa Butterfield doesn't want to be famous
The British star of Netflix's hottest series sounds off on season two, celebrity and shunning the lure of Hollywood.
Photography Fumi Homma
This article originally appeared on i-D
Asa Butterfield has a comforting familiarity about him. It’s not surprising, given the 13 years he’s been on our screens. He was the mousey-brown haired boy who crossed the fence and broke our hearts in 2008’s holocaust drama The Boy With Striped Pyjamas; the plucky young protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo; the whip-smart lead in sci-fi epic Ender’s Game, and a teenage maths wunderkind opposite Sally Hawkins in the sorely underseen x+y. He is, on screen at least, Britain’s archetypal heroic underdog.
“What is a hero?” Asa asks rhetorically, sat in a London hotel room on a grey January day. “The typical idea of a macho, alpha male has definitely changed -- it’s no longer what you'd expect. Now, the spectrum is a lot broader. I like to think I’ve got a wide range, but I’m particularly good at playing the sort of awkward characters,” -- the kind of modest hero we prefer. “It comes quite naturally to me.”
Just because it comes naturally to him doesn’t mean the actor, 22, doesn’t choose interesting projects. Sex Education is one of his biggest curveballs so far: a coming-of-age Netflix show in which Asa plays Otis, a complex teenage lad navigating high school life while his mother Jean, a sex therapist played by Gillian Anderson, subconsciously feeds him a whole lot of know-how on how to, you know, do it. And yet, despite her sage advice, Otis hasn’t quite managed to tackle his strangely subdued hormones and orgasms yet.
At first, he’s a fairly unremarkable presence in the hallways of Moordale High, but when the headmaster’s son -- well endowed but suffering from a similar inability to climax -- comes to Otis’s house to work on a school project and learns of his mum’s occupation, the stars align. All of a sudden, whispers in the hallway make Otis the go-to boy to help his schoolmates discreetly make sense of their sexuality. As a show, it’s sweet but not treacly; smart but not knowingly so.
“I knew after season one that we had something good,” Asa says, his sentences often articulated with bleary eyed yawns. (He apologises; last night was a late one.) “I was confident after we’d wrapped shooting that it could do really well, and that people would talk about it, because the topics that it raises are quite revolutionary in some ways. But I didn’t expect the overwhelmingly positive, global response.” An alchemic mix of audience curiosity and addictively good screenwriting transformed the first series into a smash hit: 40 million people watched it within the first month of it hitting Netflix. Now, the show’s cast are all back for a second round.
If you’ve seen the first outing’s finale (no spoilers), you’ll be glad to know that the second season opens just as explosively. Asa had prepared himself for these semi-embarrassing moments -- ones his co-stars are more than familiar with -- on screen. “This is the first time I’ve played a recurring character, so I came into the second season with a game plan,” he grins. “I felt more prepared than I did the first time around. It was the same set with the same people, so it was like going back to summer camp!”
The show’s upbeat and quirky spirit remains its most valuable asset: a show about the semantics of sex, kinks and embarrassing mishaps that winks while treating them with sincerity. It’s a gift for an actor like Asa, who gets to have fun with a show that means a lot to people. “I don’t know if I ever expected it to have such a profound impact on certain communities and groups of people,” he smiles, when I ask what element of the show was most surprising to him. “Watching it back, it makes sense, because so many marginalised groups in society have a voice in this show, and we see them. It’s really cool.”
Like that pivotal central friendship that just existed without need for dissection in season one, between Otis, a straight, white teenage boy, and his best mate Eric, a gay, black character played by the effervescent and ever-brilliant Ncuti Gatwa. It’s the kind of scriptwriting that feels pin-sharp without being on-the-nose. It must change Asa’s perspective, I suggest, on the strength of other material that comes his way. “I’m lucky enough to be at a point in my career where I can make choices, and unless I really love it, I won’t do it, because you want to be passionate about what you’re making,” he says. “The writing in this show I immediately saw was so thoughtful, and when you read a lot of scripts, you know the good from the bad.” He shrugs. “So yeah, it probably has! It’s a treat to read these scripts.”
Being at a point in your career where you can consider and turn down work that doesn’t resonate with you is also a signifier that you’re closer to becoming a bonafide celebrity. Such a title doesn’t suit Asa, someone who you imagine enjoys the process of making films and shows without considering the glitzy byproducts of the industry. Have the ways that people interact with him on the street changed at all? “Everyone’s pretty much really nice, and has nice things to say. I enjoy hearing people talk about it,” he insists, “but I don’t like the celebrity culture, and pedestaling. So I always feel a little bit awkward. I think that relationship between an actor -- or whoever it is -- and someone who’s there to….” His sentence peters off. “It’s just odd. An odd relationship. It’s not why I act.”
Despite the undying lure of Hollywood for many young Brits, Asa has opted to remain in London. He went through school here, avoiding homeschooling like many of his peers, and the normality is not something he’s not willing to part with. “If I lived in LA it would be a whole other ballgame,” he says. “LA is fucked, and if you’re a young actor in LA you’re probably gonna have a certain view of the industry and what’s expected of you. Everyone’s trying to be the next big thing, whereas in London, people don’t care as much.” There doesn’t seem to be as much animosity, I suggest. “And the city’s built around the industry,” he adds. “I love acting, but when I’m not working I don’t want to have to think about it. I can’t imagine living in a place where everything revolves around that.”
Asa talks about the set of Sex Education like it’s a safe place; one that enables a more symbiotic relationship between actor and writer. “They trust us,” he insists, “but Laurie [Nunn, the show’s perceptive and talented screenwriter] is brilliant and she gets the youth culture and language. I did notice in season two, they’d brought in some things from season one that we’d say -- in terms of speech and rhythm of conversations. They scripted that into season two!”
For now, it seems like Asa is breezing through his career on little glimmers of sweetness like this, not sweating too much about the small stuff. Instead, for Asa Butterfield, it’s all about the here and now. Does he think much about the future? Not quite. “I plan about at most, about a year ahead,” he says with a smile. “I like to just see where the wind takes me.”
Photography Fumi Homma