Asa Butterfield on what the end of ‘Sex Education’ could mean for him: “All good things need to come to an end”
Festive films, surviving climate change and being the next David Attenborough, there’s more to this talented actor than awkward teenage chats about sex.
He’s a man of statements, Asa Butterfield. You could say his first was declaring his potential to the acting world as the blue-eyed son of a Nazi, in a debut performance full of innocence and emotion. His latest statement, almost 15 years after that role in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, comes as he rocks up to this HUNGER cover shoot wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Emma Thompson”. Sure, it’s just a name, but it definitely has more meaning when you decide to wear it on your chest.
It’s a Monday morning in October and the 25-year-old is sitting in a pub in Kentish Town in north London, pint in hand and party food stacked up in front of him: sausage rolls filled with questionable meat and pineapple and cheese sticks on two separate plates (a production oversight). He has swapped the statement tee for a Gucci suit and he places the beer back on the table after his team insist that we shouldn’t include any photos of him drinking, even if no one will know it’s before midday. He’s humble yet confident in what he likes and dislikes, he’s kind and totally unassuming.
“This reminds me of the Christmas film I shot last summer,” he says, sitting back on the worn leather bench as the editorial team glance at one another wondering if he’s missed why we’ve gone with a Christmas- themed shoot. The film in question, and of course the inspiration behind the day’s set-up, is Butterfield’s first foray into the world of festive movies. Your Christmas or Mine? is a surprisingly non-sickly, pretty funny and at times tear-jerking story of young love and the seesawing feelings of love and frustration you get with family members.
“I think Christmas movies are inherently a little cheesy because Christmas is a little cheesy. You’ve got your traditions and you stick to them,” he tells me over the phone the following Friday during a break in filming for series four of Sex Education. “I’ve never done a Christmas movie and I don’t really watch that many Christmas films, but I read [the script] and I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually really funny.’” Probably the only thing as weird as throwing a Christmas party in October is watching a Christmas film in October, but I persist in the name of research. Its premise: days before 25 December, James (Butterfield) and his girlfriend, Hayley (Cora Kirk), decide to surprise each other for Christmas Day and end up at the other’s house and … well, you’ll have to watch it to see what happens.
Butterfield moves on to discussing how his own family spend the festive period. “There’s lots of chaos, there’s lots of kids running around, there’s lots of games being played,” he says. “We often get each other board games for Christmas, then we spend Boxing Day playing them. So it was actually eerily similar to what happened in the film.” Butterfield’s celebrations are very run of the mill – there are no swanky trips abroad or splashing out on eye-wateringly expensive staycations. Then again, what would you expect from a guy for whom maintaining normality seems to be his thing, despite his early experience of acting?
Butterfield was never crafted as a precocious actor by pushy parents and drama schools. He didn’t attend the Brit School or audition for adverts, Mini Boden catalogues or the like. In many ways he sort of dawdled, unwittingly, into it all. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, adapted from John Boyne’s 2006 book of the same name, brought him his first big role, and while everyone knew at the time he was a good actor, not many people hold out too much hope for children in debut roles. “I never really imagined I would carry on acting,” Butterfield admits. “I was thinking I’m not gonna be an actor when I’m an adult. I wasn’t really a theatre kid. I never had a huge burning passion for it, which I think worked in my favour in some ways because I didn’t put too much pressure on myself.”
But then along came Martin Scorsese’s Hugo – a full-on US production with a stellar cast and the chance to work with a director who could separate Butterfield’s face from other rising British stars at the time. “That movie was an absolute masterclass in every department you can imagine,” Butterfield says. “That’s when I really fell in love with [acting]. I think it was after Hugo that for a couple of years I didn’t get any work. It sort of stressed me out weirdly.”
When I press him on whether or not he still stresses about the prospect of not getting work, Butterfield’s response is calmingly mindful: “It’s not a worry, but there’s always an inkling at the back of your head of, ‘Have I just been winging it for the past 15 years? When’s it all gonna come crashing down?’ But I don’t let it bother me. I actually quite enjoy the breaks I get now when I’m not working.”
His incredible performance as the awkward but lovable Otis in Netflix’s Sex Education is what has made him a household name, of course. It’s a show that needs little introduction. Rather than what it’s about – schoolkids learning about sex, sexuality and relationships through their peers – it’s the pushing of boundaries that has been the most commendable thing about it. With a series that talks so candidly about sexual taboos, what’s OK in the bedroom, what’s not OK consensually, and exposing the ubiquity of horniness in different forms, it’s difficult to know how much further the idea could be taken.
“I’d be quite happy leaving it after four [series],” Butterfield says, snacking on peanuts. “Honestly, I love the show and I think it’s done a lot of really amazing things for people and helped so many of us as actors in our careers. All good things need to come to an end. There’s always a fear with TV that you don’t wanna overstay your welcome, but I’m not saying that’s going to happen.”
If Sex Education does finish after its next series, out in 2023, it could be a new beginning for Butterfield. He has said in previous interviews that he’s great at playing the awkward character, and he’s got the good guy with a lovable sense of humour and the ability to win over the audience down to a tee. But perhaps leaving the role of Otis behind, a character who must by now feel like an extension of Butterfield, will enable him to cast his net as an actor over more varied roles. “I wanna play more bad guys,” he says. “I think it’s really interesting. I don’t know whether it’s if they’re sociopaths or whether they’re just mean or desperate, I think there’s a lot in villainous characters to tap into. I feel like it’s something I want to show people I can do. I think people look at me and quite often see these awkward, bumbling and funny characters.”
Perhaps his easiest segue into more sinister roles will come via his empathetic nature. “You really gain a lot of empathy [as an actor],” he says. “Putting yourself in other people’s shoes going through difficult times and trying to imagine what it would be like … You have to put yourself in that position and try to make sense of what they’re thinking, whether they’re a good or a bad person.”
As he lingers on those words, our conversation turns to empathy in general – to issues outside our individual lives and the trajectory of the world and the environment. “I wouldn’t say I’m in sort of the crisis stage yet,” he ponders. “But at times I’m thinking about what the future’s going to be like and a lot of people have a very rose-tinted idea of what the next 30 years are going to look like. I have to say, I think it’s going to be pretty major and pretty fucked up for the vast majority of people on the planet.”
He continues: “A lot of people do think the same, but most people either don’t care or are just getting on with it. Honestly, I’m just getting on with it as well – I’m working and filming, and you do in a way have to just be aware of it and slowly make efforts to prepare yourself for what those changes are gonna be. Whether it’s changes in climate, food shortages, overpopulation – everything’s going to shit.” It’s a solemn note to end our conversation on, and it’s hard to leave on that, knowing that the actor isn’t necessarily a despondent person. While his sentiment focuses on accepting new, probably worse, ways of living, it’s not just about survival for Butterfield – as an actor and as a young person trying to navigate issues out of his control – it’s about turning his life and work into something worthwhile.
“My mum runs a climate awareness and activism centre in Islington, and it’s really about educating people on what they can do, whether it’s big or small,” he says modestly. As you would expect, that passion for change and education runs in the family. “I’ve always loved the idea of doing wildlife documentary series. I know there are tons of them and they’re being made all the time. But I think it’s quite a good way of educating people, and it ties into my ability as an actor to reach out to my audience and to educate people.” And Butterfield doesn’t just talk the talk. That Emma Thompson T-shirt that he subconsciously advertises to the world as he wears it is a 100 per cent recycled tee by Girls on Tops – a brand that partners with feminist activist groups and celebrates talented women from a variety of industries.
As he finishes his peanuts and leaves the call to go back to filming his hit television show, you can’t help but think that the world could do with a few more Asa Butterfields.