pushing perceptions

Asa Butterfield on Sex Education’s progressive portrayal of masculinity
By Cal Brockel | Film+TV | 19 October 2021
Photographer Fabien Kruszelnicki
Stylist Inês Bizarro

all clothing and accessories by ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA FW21

We last spoke to Asa Butterfield back in 2016, just as he was shifting away from the formative roles that cemented his name. Since then, he’s been a punk convert in The House of Tomorrow, starred alongside Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s satire of the super-rich – Greed – and taken on the lead in Netflix’s hit series, Sex Education, playing Otis, the awkward son of a sex therapist (Gillian Anderson) who starts charging his classmates for third-hand advice on intimacy, relationships and sexuality.

Over two seasons, Otis has transformed from a dysfunctional teen, to a slightly less awkward version of himself able to embrace new levels of intimacy. With season 3 set to air this September, we return to Moordale Secondary School for some much-needed answers.

all clothing and accessories by ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA FW21; jewellery and glasses, worn throughout, ASA’S own

Cal Brockel: Sex Education season 2 ended with a lot of threads hanging. What can you tell us about season 3?
Asa Butterfield: There’s a bit of a time jump between seasons 2 and 3. Everyone has grown up quite a bit since the second season and they’re now all in their second year of sixth form. For Otis, there’s the question of the voicemail [a cliffhanger from the end of season 2], and what goes with that, but he’s somewhat moved on and got all sorts of other things happening. He’s started seeing another girl, Ruby [played by Mimi Keene], who’s one of the untouchables, one of the queens of Moordale and she’s rubbed off on him a bit. It’s a lot of fun for me as an actor as it’s quite different from Otis’ usual self. She’s brought out his sassy side and he’s got a different level of confidence this season. There’s definitely some teething issues but he does enjoy this new energy he’s got.

CB: Otis seems to be part of a changing depiction of men on screen, eschewing traditional masculinity. What does it mean for you to play a character like that?
AB: I think it’s important. Especially in this day and age, we’re so much more aware of the spectrum of masculinity. Male figures in film don’t have to be this action hero, or geeky nerd. There’s much more depth than that. I think Otis manages to toe that line very organically.

CB: Men can sometimes be a little behind on that conversation. How do you think Otis is received?
AB: I try to make people laugh, I think that’s a great way of disarming people. If you can get people to take down their defences, especially teenagers, it’s a great way of getting through to them. But Otis is also a flawed character. He doesn’t always do the right thing and he can be petulant and childish. He makes mistakes but he does try. He’s also incredibly empathetic, which I think is quite inspiring. A lot of the characters are hugely relatable, which is something I think the show does incredibly well. They’re complex. Connor’s [Swindells] character, Adam, really demonstrates that, Jackson [played by Kedar Williams-Stirling], too. He could very easily be the jock or the bully, but there’s a lot more to him than that. It’s a credit to Laurie’s [Nunn, creator and writer] writing, she’s given these characters real depth and dimension. They have layers and struggles, which you don’t see at first but, as the series goes on, they take off these layers and we see they’re not as happy as they perhaps seemed. They’re just as confused as everyone else.

all clothing and accessories by ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA FW21; jewellery and glasses, worn throughout, ASA’S own

CB: Would you say that’s what Sex Education does differently?
AB: I think it’s one of the things. Sex Education isn’t the only one, but it’s trickier in teenage shows. In high school shows the tropes are very obvious and it’s more difficult to break those stereotypes.

CB: Has the success of the show changed how you approach that? Are you conscious of the social role now?
AB: I suppose, but I never really let that phase me too much. When we’re on set we just have a lot of fun with it and try not to think, “Oh, I’ve got to send this message here.” I think if you’re trying to do that, it can feel forced. Instead we just let it play in the characters, trusting that the message will come across and will feel believable and natural – people won’t feel like they’re being taught a lesson while watching a TV show.

 

“Especially in this day and age, we’re so much more aware of the spectrum of masculinity. Male figures in film don’t have to be this action hero, or geeky nerd. There’s much more depth than that.”

CB: The show was one of the first to use Ita O’Brien as an intimacy coordinator, what was it like for the actors to have someone on set responsible in that way?
AB: It’s super useful having someone in your court. That’s not to say that the directors and such aren’t, because everyone is so respectful and supportive – that’s one of the things I love about the team – but just having that extra support, someone to talk to and, if you do feel uncomfortable, being able to say “No, I don’t want to do this.” Especially for the less-experienced actors who wouldn’t have done intimate scenes before, I think it’s really great for them to have because it can be scary, embarrassing and awkward.

CB: You’ve recently finished filming Flux Gourmet [described as a film about “power struggles, artistic vendettas and gastrointestinal disorders”], what can you tell us about it?
AB: That’s going to be a peculiar movie. We filmed it last month and I’m interested to see how it turns out. Peter Strickland [director] is fantastic and it’s a real dive into his head, into his interests and passions. There’s not much I can say, and that’s not because I can’t, it’s because I really don’t know what it’s going to be like. It’s very surreal– quite trippy.

all clothing and accessories by ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA FW21; jewellery and glasses, worn throughout, ASA’S own

CB: You also play bass in a band, Mambo Fresh?
AB: Yes, I play quite a lot of music, especially over lockdown. It’s been nice to have something creative to do. We haven’t gigged in ages, for obvious reasons, so often it’s just me and my brother, who I live with. We have a little music area in our flat and we just jam and have fun.

CB: What kind of music have you been making?
AB: It’s a bit of a mix. We do a lot of funky hip-hop, some reggae, ska. Some dance tracks as well. I listen to a lot of funk, I feel it’s a genre you can be really creative with and have real flair. Where if you’re playing rock or punk it’s a bit more standard. Reggae’s also really fun on the bass.

CB: What does making music give you as opposed to acting?
AB: It’s a bit more personal. It’s you. You’re creating something. Not that you aren’t when you’re acting, but you’re working off a script, and a story, and a world. With music you’re creating something totally new in the moment with a group of people, it isn’t scripted. Finding moments there is cool.

all clothing and accessories by ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA FW21; jewellery and glasses, worn throughout, ASA’S own

“With music you’re creating something totally new in the moment with a group of people, it isn’t scripted. Finding moments there is cool.”

CB: I also saw that you’ve wrapped on a horror film, CURS>R. What kind of horror are we talking?
AB: It’s a sort of supernatural, retro, sci-fi horror. It’s interesting. It’s about a cursed video game from the 80s. It’s sort of like a dark Jumanji. We shot that in April and it was a lot of fun. I like horror movies but I’ve never really done a proper one.

CB: A video game horror seems like a natural choice for you.
AB: Yes, it’s very on-brand for me. I’ve always been into my games, and still am. Over lockdown that’s something I did a lot of.

CB: Do you think that’s been important for people over this year?
AB: I think so. The games industry did incredibly well and it was a great way
for people to stay in contact with their friends. It certainly was for me. I’ve got a big community of friends scattered around the world, so it was nice to stay connected, chat, and play games. To still have that social side of our lives.

CB: You designed a game once, right? Are you looking to do more of that?
AB: I did, a long time ago. I made a little app with my Dad and my brother. Game design is cool but it’s bloody hard. It takes a lot of time, and at the moment I don’t really have that. I wish I did. I do have ideas for games but having ideas is one thing; coding, writing, designing and publishing it is a whole other beast.

CB: What are your thoughts on games as an art form?
AB: As an art form, you can almost do more than film and TV through the
interactive element of it. There are some brilliant stories in games and brilliant voice acting. They can be so immersive, and the fact you’re somewhat in control gives you a different sense of connection compared to TV, where you’re very much a spectator. Games are getting bigger and more complex, as technology improves the possibilities get bigger.

CB: What are some examples recently that have shown the standard of what can be done?
AB: Hades was brilliant, that had some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in a game. It’s really clever. It’s quite a simple game stylistically but really beautiful and engaging.

CB: You’re set to appear in The Liar, an adaptation of Stephen Fry’s debut novel, what drew you to that?
AB: That project has been on the table for years now, I got attached to it about
four years ago. It’s had various iterations. In this industry you never really know if something is going to happen until you’re there on set. We just found out that it’s gearing up again with Jeff Goldblum attached, who’s incredible and I’m so excited to work with. We’re shooting that later in the year.

all clothing and accessories by ERMENEGILDO ZEGNA FW21; jewellery and glasses, worn throughout, ASA’S own

Interview originally published in HERO 26
Grooming: Anna Chapman at Julia Watson Agency

Photography assistant: Bruno McGuffie

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