Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield: ‘I feel more confident talking about sex’ | Television & radio
Ah, yes, says Asa Butterfield, the young star of the explicit and brilliant comedy of sex manners, Sex Education. Butterfield is recalling one of the stranger milestones of his acting career, “my first, big, on-camera wank. That was a fun day on set.” With a second series of the hit Netflix show due to debut online soon, the 21-year-old Londoner has come to a diner in King’s Cross to eat an oozing burger and talk with some pride about a show that first set the internet humming back in January 2019. Part hyperactive teen comedy and part public health broadcast, Sex Education, created by British/Australian screenwriter Laurie Nunn, turned out to be that rare cultural thing: a show that filled a hole we didn’t know was there.
“I think it did a great job of normalising young people’s fears, and quirks, and hang-ups around sex,” Butterfield says. He plays Sex Education’s central character, a preternaturally wise teenage boy called Otis, who takes it upon himself to advise his sixth-form peers on the intricacies of sexual contact and sexual politics. “When I first signed up, I knew it would be interesting, risky, that the scripts were treading new ground. I guess I hoped the show would be talked about a bit. But I didn’t expect it to connect so instantly, so overwhelmingly, with so many people.”
It connected. It also, as the title ironically promised, educated. Over eight episodes, Sex Education explored an array of important topics, including (deep breath) performance anxiety, impotence, consent, possessiveness, wet dreams, premarital sex, virginity loss, fear of masturbation, fear of penetration, mid-sex panic attacks, having a too-large penis, revenge porn, pregnancy, abortion, social-media shaming, and whether to have sex with the lights on or off. It was thoughtful, great fun – and the only show I can think of that, after eight hours of patient dramatic build-up, culminated in a closeup of a young man pleasuring himself.
“I did my big wanking scene towards the end of the shoot,” Butterfield recalls, “so I’d kind of warmed up to it. I knew I’d gotten off pretty lightly compared with the others in the cast.” (His costars included British newcomers such as Ncuti Gatwa and Emma Mackey, as well as veterans Gillian Anderson and James Purefoy.) “They’d all done their share of revealing sexual things. I thought, ‘Well guys! My turn. Watch this.’”
On set that day Butterfield was fitted, under his trousers, with a prosthetic erection. He was strapped to a rising gurney, to simulate floating, blissed-out pleasure. The rest was all him: fluttering cheek muscles, rolling eyeballs… Butterfield, who has acted since he was seven years old, but never like this, aced his big moment, I tell him. He says: “Well, thank you. Uh, when we signed up for this job we kind of knew we’d be putting our pride behind us. But it was worth it, I think. I’m super-proud of the show.”
Such was the response to the first series, at the start of 2019, that Netflix broke its weird omertà about viewing figures and gave an idea of how many had tuned in – 40m households in a month, we were told. “I think it hit at the right time,” Butterfield says. “It was zeitgeist-y, and people really wanted something like this, given what was going on with feminism, with toxic masculinity, everything.”
Butterfield is tall and narrow, with pale skin and black hair that’s just been shaved for the first time. He has come to the burger diner dressed in two distinct halves that neatly represent his chief occupations. From the waist down he looks like a young actor, in dapper patterned trousers, suede-effect sneakers, camel socks. On the top half (shapeless hoodie, specs) he looks like a computer gamer, one itching to get home to his London flat and fire up a beloved Nintendo.
“I’m a big gamer,” he says. “A lot of my closest friends are from that world. I go along to professional tournaments sometimes.” I knew this about Butterfield from his Instagram feed, which is unusual for a working actor’s in that it mixes images of ritzy screen gigs with photos of him unboxing new control pads or looking hunched and pained in front of a keyboard at an esports event. Employed fairly regularly for the last 14 years, Butterfield has stood in the glow of Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Martin Scorsese. But it’s pro-gamers who’ve always impressed him, he says.
“I just love that whole world. The competition. The pace of the games. As an actor, the work is often quite slow, I guess. Quite contemplative. I like the way the high energy of gaming offsets that. Acting’s great – I just don’t know if it’s the most soul-satisfying job, all of the time.”
It’s worth pointing out that actors never say such things in public, perhaps for fear that a gang of drama professors and method types will beat them up for letting down the guild. There’s also a risk of sounding ungrateful. But Butterfield is just being honest. He thinks a gentle ambivalence towards acting has probably been a healthy thing over time.
“I could always interrupt the acting and do other things, be interested in other things. It wasn’t my whole world. It’s a tight industry – an industry in which a lot of the conversations are inward-looking. And I don’t really love talking about the job, to give an example. It’s not that I get embarrassed. I don’t want to say it’s humbleness, but I think it comes from that. Often, even just talking about being an actor, it means someone putting you on a pedestal. It might mean people being a little bit in awe, or even revering you. And I hate that feeling, hate it.”
Butterfield fell into the business as a kid, long before he was old enough to think about different futures for himself. He grew up in two homes in London, raised by his mother (psychologist) and father (advertising copywriter), who lived a few miles apart. “They split up when I was young. But they stayed good friends,” Butterfield says. “With my older brother, I spent equal time with both. We’ve got half-sisters on either side, who are friends as well. So we’re all – yeah – pretty lucky.”
Around the age of six, he joined a drama group, the Young Actors Theatre in Islington. (The theatre counts Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya among other alumni who hit big.) While Butterfield was still at primary school, he got a part in an ITV Christmas drama called After Thomas. He had a few lines in Son Of Rambow, that strange and lovely coming-of-age film from 2007. That was it, in terms of his climbing-the-ladder phase. From the age of 10, when he was cast in the Holocaust drama The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, he more or less played lead characters only.
“I remember bits of that job,” Butterfield says of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, “and the bits that stick with me were the hardest.” The film, based on a bestseller by John Boyne, told the story of two boys in the 1930s, one Jewish (Jack Scanlon), one not (Butterfield), as they formed an unlikely friendship through the fence of a Nazi concentration camp. Spoiler coming: the film had an unhappy ending. Butterfield: “The gas chamber scene, at the end, I knew what it was, I knew what we were demonstrating, I knew it was only acting. But I remember being in a room full of men, some of whom were completely naked, and it was dark, and they shut the door on us, and it was just… awful.”
Butterfield, in those days, would be chaperoned on set by one of his parents or grandparents. “There were a few times I came out and said, ‘I can’t do it.’ We took gaps between takes, we played games. But it’s hard for a kid. That topic.”
Has he spoken to his parents about all this, since getting older?
“A bit? Not really. They always wanted to protect me. And it wasn’t like they were on the sidelines saying, ‘Get back in that gas chamber.’ At all. They always said, if you don’t wanna do it, you don’t have to do it. When we were finished on Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – I don’t remember this, but my mum told me after I finished that job – I said I didn’t want to be an actor any more. Which I find interesting now.”
He was back working on a film a couple of years later: a flashback scene in a fantasy movie called The Wolfman. Why does he think he went back to acting? Butterfield opens his eyes very wide and says, “I did it for fun, and because I didn’t have to be in school – I got to spend three months in Budapest, or wherever, instead.”
By this time, he was at secondary school. “They were super-supportive. On average, I would do a film a year, be away for a few months before coming back.” But often, he says, film shoots crossed over with the summer holidays.
What did the other children make of it? “Kids can be cruel, they can be arseholes, but I surrounded myself with good people, I think, and I was never bullied, when a lot of people [in that position] might have been. The teachers made a bigger deal out of it than the kids, to be honest. They treated me… almost too well. Asked a lot of questions. I’d think, ‘Stop sucking up. You’re my PE teacher.’”
At 14, Butterfield made his biggest movie to date, playing the title character in Martin Scorsese’s 2011 fantasy Hugo. He brought an affecting, eerie, melancholy to the film. Next – and before he’d even sat his GCSEs – he was in another Hollywood blockbuster, Ender’s Game, playing a teenage soldier in a computerised future world. There were life moments that happened at home in London (first beer, first smoke) and there were those that happened on set. He had a first girlfriend, aged 15, on Ender’s Game. “One of the supporting actresses. It was fleeting. But, y’know, it’s all experience, part of growing up.”
Another landmark occurred a few years later, when Butterfield was finally old enough to fly to a location shoot in Albuquerque (for 2015’s The Space Between Us) without an adult chaperone. Boy, he says, the disappointment when he got there, expecting high mischief, and realised “there was fuck-all to do in Albuquerque”.
Probably his first wholly satisfying film experience, Butterfield says, came quite recently, when he starred in the first world war drama Journey’s End. “That was the first time I felt like I wasn’t the kid on set. I got to know these older actors, good people, who’d done everything: Stephen Graham, Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones.” The war movie went on worldwide release in the spring of 2018, around the time Butterfield was sent the script for something a little different in tone.
Sex Education was conceived by its creator Nunn as a sort of Breakfast Club or Mean Girls for the present generation. In episode one, Butterfield’s character Otis realises that, having been raised by a sex-therapist mum (Anderson), he is unusually savvy about sex. Pals Eric (Gatwa) and Maeve (Mackey) convince him to monetise his knowledge and become an ad hoc therapist for his friends and peers. Each episode presents Otis and the gang with one or more sex problems to solve, the solution to which, generally speaking, is: be more honest.
“Since doing the show, it’s definitely made me a lot more open to conversations about sex,” Butterfield says. He could have done with something like Sex Education to watch as a primer, back when he was a baffled teen, he says. “You have sex ed at school, but I wouldn’t say I’ve garnered my knowledge from a school curriculum, y’know?”
Does he think we do enough, in schools, to educate young people about this stuff? “I think there’s only so much you can teach in school. Cos teenagers are going to not listen, and whisper, and giggle, and not be totally there. There were definitely elements missing, bits we were never taught about, like gay sex, female masturbation, pleasure. The curriculum is very biological – it’s mostly about pregnancy, safety, consent. All important things, but they’re on the surface level of sex and sexuality. The other things, I didn’t even realise they were missing, not till I got older, and started doing the show, and I thought, ‘You know what, that never came up at school.’”
How did he learn? “Like most people – on my own. I think a lot of my knowledge came from talking with friends, and hearing whispers, words that I didn’t understand, and Googling them later.”
To my Gen X ears it doesn’t sound an ideal learning journey, and Butterfield catches me wincing. He has a wry and deadpan sense of humour that is reminiscent of Steve Coogan’s. (Next year, Butterfield will appear alongside Coogan in a comedy, Greed, directed by Michael Winterbottom.) The young actor teases: “I’m guessing you didn’t have Google, then, as a child. What was it… like, books? In a library?”
It’s a surprise to me that Sex Education has not yet been awarded any major prizes; I half-feel the Department for Education ought to divert a chunk of its budget towards Nunn and her team, in simple thanks. What makes the show such an effective means of delivery, I say to Butterfield, is that it resists preachiness. He nods. He says he knew that something was right with its tone, from the speed with which it opened up the young cast to frank sexual chat during their off-time. “It fed into us, the whole message of the show, that sex is nothing to be frightened or embarrassed about.”
In the diner, Butterfield has made short work of his burger. While he picks at the few remaining chips I ask about his nonsexual politics. There are things he feels strongly about, he says. “The environment is the big one for me.” But in his blithe and frank way, he also admits to an uncomfortable feeling that, as a young person with a public platform, he is obliged to take firm positions on matters he has only a sketchy understanding of.
“Politically, what’s going on in the UK, I often feel it’s so depressing, I can’t make myself read another article on it, or take any more in. But as someone who has a tiny bit of a spotlight, I feel this responsibility to spread positivity. Or have a view to share – when all things being equal I would rather keep my thoughts to myself. Probably loads of people [my age] are in the same position. But it can feel like a selfishness to stay quiet when our generation seems to be being taken advantage of.”
We chat for a bit about a computer game he’s been designing and coding with a mate, a comedy script he’s written, his efforts to learn the bass guitar. Before long, the plates are being cleared away and we’ve drifted back to sex. I came to meet him today with a list of prepared questions. Nothing unusual about that. What was odd, I admit to Butterfield, was how many of the things I meant to chat to him about involved sex. Does he find, given the freedom and unflinchingness of Sex Education, a lot of conversations tend in this direction?
“No one comes to me with their sex problems, exactly,” he says. “What the show has done, I guess, has steered a lot of conversation towards my own sexual experience. And that was never something I got asked about when I was younger and being interviewed for films.”
I’d hope not, I say, given that you were about 12.
“Well, exactly,” Butterfield says. “But I do feel more confident talking about this stuff.” So bring it on, Butterfield says. “It would be hypocritical for me to be any other way.”
• The new series of Sex Education is on Netflix on 17 January
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