EXCLUSIVE: Asa Butterfield should have been shooting Season 3 of Sex Education when he sat down with Deadline last month, but like so many other things, the Netflix hit series has been put on ice by coronavirus. His loss was our gain.
Netflix has a hopeful August shoot date, but in the meantime, London-based Butterfield has been occupying himself reading scripts, building a videogame, devouring Mad Men, and writing his first TV script. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a man who has been busy all of his life has remained productive during lockdown.
Butterfield has been on our screens since he was eight years old, starting out on British TV shows like Ashes To Ashes, he soon found himself leading two features in the shape of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Since then, he has worked with the likes of Harrison Ford on Ender’s Game and Saul Dibb on Journey’s End.
But Sex Education’s Otis Milburn is the role he is recognized for more than anything else in his 15-year career. Butterfield manages to tread a line between dorky and dashing in the series, which has won millions of fans around the world and plaudits for its deft handling of difficult issues like sexual abuse, identity, and mental health.
Here, Butterfield tells us about how he has grown to adore working on the show, his formative experience of working with Scorsese, his plans to get into writing, and his next role in an adaptation of Stephen Fry’s The Liar. Read on for the full interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Deadline: You should be filming Sex Education Season 3 right now, shouldn’t you?
Asa Butterfield: We should. We should be in sunny Wales right now. It’s a shame, but this whole situation is pretty mad. It’s been a lot of holding your breath to see what happens. I have a feeling this is going to go on for a while — I don’t know when we’re going to go back and start shooting. It’s hard to tell. I’m at home right now trying to keep myself busy, playing games, playing music.
I live with my brother and two cats and we have a flat in Dalston with a balcony. We’re lucky to have a bit of outdoor space, which is doing wonders. I couldn’t imagine not having that, or living by myself at this time. It would be a lot harder.
Deadline: Are you speaking to fellow castmates and ruing the fact you’re not filming?
Butterfield: Yeah, we have a few group chats and we all stay in touch. It’s lovely to have a group of people who are so close on set and when we come back home. We’re all like, ‘Damnit!’ The summer plan [is no more]. It’s strange but everyone is staying positive for the most part.
Deadline: It’s one of those shows where you have quite a lot of intimacy on-screen, shall we say…
Butterfield: Yes, it’s quite hard to keep the two-meter distance when you’re kissing someone or doing anything else. I’m sure that’s something they have realized. As well as that, when you’re on a set making film and TV, there are so many parts to this machine. It will make it incredibly difficult to enforce a rule around quarantine, but you have to because this virus is going to be around for ages. Luckily that’s not my job to figure those things out.
Deadline: How has Sex Educations been for you personally? Where does it sit among some of the projects you have done in your career?
Butterfield: It’s completely different to anything else I have done. One, in terms of its reach — it being on Netflix means tens of millions of people can watch it at the same time all across the world. That didn’t fully dawn on me until the first season came out and it blew up everywhere.
I was used to a certain level of being in the public spotlight because I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m used to that. But this was a whole other level. I came to terms with it quite quickly, but for a lot of the other guys, this was their first-ever job, so to go straight into that must have been quite shocking, exciting, and scary.
The show itself, I’m so proud of. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from it — coming from someone who is known for being more of a dramatic actor. A lot of the roles I had as a kid were dramas or adventure, so to do a heartfelt, raunchy comedy — I don’t think people necessarily expected it from me, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it. Otis is a lot of fun.
Deadline: Is it your first recurring character?
Butterfield: Aside from the BBC series Merlin, I was in three episodes across three seasons, but that was over 10 years ago now.
Deadline: Does it change how you prepare for the role, or does it not?
Butterfield: Not massively. I sort of anticipated there being more of a difference. The biggest thing you have to get used to is having to jump around times. There are so many more arcs and you might be doing scenes from different episodes in one day. But once you read the scripts enough, you can remember what comes after what.
Deadline: How chronological do you shoot?
Butterfield: We split it up into blocks, so block one will be episodes one to four, which will be shot in the first eight weeks. Then we have a week break and shoot five to eight. Sometimes there’s a bit of crossover. It makes it easier for us and for everyone else involved.
Then coming into a second season was not something I’d done very much, especially not as a lead part. It was one of the first times I have gone into a job feeling totally prepared and knowing what to expect. I often get quite nervous before starting a job because it’s the first time on the set and you’re still trying to find this character and hoping that what you’ve come up with is in line with the director’s vision. There was none of that. I felt so attached to the character and had a great understanding of him, and had a great rapport with the crew and cast. It was exciting to jump back into it.
Deadline: The show was become known for tackling tricky subjects in a forward-thinking way, from mental health, abuse, identity. Are you aware of that when you’re filming?
Butterfield: They do a really good job of having these messages or having these issues and shining a light on them in a way that’s really genuine. Laurie [Nunn] does an amazing job of weaving these quite difficult subjects into these characters’ lives. It’s a big part of why the show was successful. It resonated with people.
Deadline: You’ve worked with some incredible people, including Martin Scorsese, Michael Winterbottom and Sam Raimi — where does Laurie sit in that pantheon?
Butterfield: An actor’s relationship with a writer is quite different to a director. I didn’t meet Laurie until we had started shooting Season 1. I wondered where this quite mad, sexy, geeky story came from, and I was not expecting it to be a sweet, innocent, young woman. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
I’ve been really lucky with the people I’ve been able to work with and it is mad when you say it out loud. Especially when I was a kid, nothing is such a big deal, but when I get older I realize “Wow!” It possibly helped because I wasn’t nervous, like on the set of Hugo. If I’d worked with Marty now, I’d have been bricking myself before coming on to set, but I had that child-like nonchalance.
Deadline: How do you reflect on that time now on Hugo, now that you’re older and you’ve got much more experience? Was it important for you and your career?
Butterfield: It was. It’s important in terms of being a huge role to be a part of, and a groundbreaking movie in a lot of ways. For me as an actor, what I learned the most was an appreciation of cinema. Marty is a huge lover of cinema and it’s one of the main strands of the film.
He often talked to me about films that inspired him, films that he grew up watching that he references in his work. He would give me movies to watch over the weekend, and he’d ask me what I thought. Often it was a black and white film and I would be trying to wrap my head around it. An appreciation for film and its history I didn’t fully understand until that, and having someone like Marty educate you is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Deadline: Would you want to work with him again? Is that a possibility?
Butterfield: Absolutely — I hope so. I don’t know many more movies he’s going to make, probably not many, if any. The Irishman, I feel like he gave everything to that movie. It is exactly him. I have seen him since, I occasionally go and have a cup of tea with him — which I can’t believe I’m saying — when I’m in New York. He’s an amazing person to have a relationship with.
Deadline: Do you get recognized more for Sex Education then anything else you’ve ever done?
Butterfield: Yes, for sure. I’ve been working for 15 years now almost, but everyone knows me for something I did recently, which is amazing but I often think: watch my old movies. That’s just the power of Netflix.
Deadline: And from Netflix to something very different, in that you’ve done this Sam Raimi series for Quibi, 50 States Of Fright. How was that experience going from a big Netflix show to an experimental platform which is just finding its feet?
Butterfield: Yeah, it was totally different. It’s an anthology series. We came in and shot over five days in Vancouver in the forest at night and it’s horror. There was lots of fake blood, running and screaming, which we don’t get to do much of in Sex Education. It was a laugh and I like horror movies, and I haven’t done any of them.
Deadline: What do you make of Quibi?
Butterfield: It’s an experiment. I don’t think it’s for me because I’m not a huge commuter and it’s for people who have a small amount of time dotted around their work lives and they want to watch some quality entertainment. I don’t use my phone all that much. I’m interested to see where the market for it lies.
Deadline: What’s next for you? Producers have been drumming up funding for Tony Hagger feature The Liar, is that something you’re still planning to shoot?
Butterfield: It’s something that we’re still planning to shoot if all goes to plan. It’s been bubbling away for a while now. It’s one of my favorite scripts I’ve ever read, one of my favorite characters.
Deadline: Is it contingent on the funding or coronavirus? What needs to happen to ensure it goes into production?
Butterfield: I honestly don’t know. As with all films, there are so many things that have to lineup at the same time, whether it’s the funding, the cast, and in this case the school being available. It’s set in a private school. Obviously, corona is corona. We’re waiting for the stars to align. We have got an amazing cast attached to it, so I really hope it does happen.
Deadline: Are you finding things are getting bunched up in your diary because of what’s going on at the moment?
Butterfield: Things always move all the time, and when something says it’s going to go at this time, it doesn’t always happen. I take things with a pinch of salt. Sex Education is going to happen as soon as possible and there were things I had planned to do at the end of the year, and so I think it’s going to be quite tricky. There is going to be so much backlog and things are going to be pushed further back.
Deadline: Have you got other things coming up?
Butterfield: Yes, I’m reading a lot of scripts and chatting to people. It’s alright. We’re adjusting to this lifestyle.
Deadline: Putting coronavirus to one side for the moment, what’s it like for an actor right now? It looks like you guys have so much choice about your next project because of the huge explosion in content.
Butterfield: There are so many things being made at the moment — there is a huge market with more streaming platforms. TV is now even more popular than film. It is a good time to be in the industry. As an actor, it’s hugely competitive and I’m really lucky to have established myself at this point, so I can be more selective about things I want to go for. That’s really nice because there’s less pressure and I can really think about the type of characters I want to play.
Deadline: What do you watch when you’re relaxing?
Butterfield: At the moment me and brother are watching Mad Men and we’ve almost finished Season 3. It is brilliant, some of the best TV I’ve seen in years. Other than that, I don’t have that much time to watch TV. We have a Dungeons & Dragons session every other evening, which takes three or four hours online.
Deadline: You’ve said before you’d be interested in writing and doing other work behind the camera?
Butterfield: It’s still something I’m thinking about and there are a couple of things I am working on, one of which is a TV show that I’m trying to get off the ground. I’ve started writing parts of it, but I’m figuring out the logistics of how you get a TV show made. It’s the first time I’ve done this sort of thing.
A friend and I are also building a videogame. We’re making a concept build to make sure it’s fun. It’s very different to what I usually do, but I love games and it has always been a passion of mine.
Deadline: What kind of stories do you want to tell?
Butterfield: I want to tell stories about areas of the world that I understand and appreciate, but there’s a lot of people who don’t fully understand them. I’m trying to not say what my idea is!
Deadline: What gives you the confidence that the industry will come out the other side of the pandemic stronger?
Butterfield: People in the creative industry are always going to be passionate about ideas and if there’s a market for it, then it will be made. Everyone loves good film and TV and people are going to need cheering up after all this.