What is an actor?
If you distill the calling down to its purest, most uncompromising, distraction-averse fundamentals, you’re left with the simple and profound realisation that an actor is a vessel for character. At 25, our London-born cover star Asa Butterfield has been an age-defying-and-defining vessel for a host of characters whose presence in our cultural consciousness has left an impactful effect on those who’ve consumed his art.
Though well in his youth, Asa seems to have already lived many lives. As a child actor harnessing his gifts at the Young Actors Theatre Islington, he caught a glimpse of the transportive power of the dramatic arts, that would come to chart the course of his chosen career path. In 2008 the age of 11, he heralded his way into to the ultimate ‘big screen’, as the lead in the Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, where, as Bruno, he brought an affecting sense of nuance and poise to the best-selling novel by John Boyne (released in 2006 with the same name).
Next, he caught the eye of Martin Scorsese, who cast him as the lead in his first-ever 3D film Hugo in 2011. You don’t need to be a scholar of film to affirm that being one of Scorsese’s leading men puts you in very good company. Since then, Asa’s been turning heads in a slew of conversation-starting productions including the coming of age dramedy Sex Education, widely regarded as one of most popular shows of Netflix’s repertoire, and earning him a position as an affable, approachable and very able actor.
Later this year, Asa will take on a more light-hearted note, spreading the festive cheer in the coming-of-age romantic comedy Your Christmas Or Mine? (a Prime Video film) where he stars opposite newcomer, Cora Kirk. The two play student lovers James and Hayley in their first year of university, who unknowingly end up on opposite trains home for Christmas break, resulting in having to spend the festive period with their future in-laws’ families, rather than with their own. What ensues is a comedic, poignant and entertaining film about love, acceptance and most all, embodying the festive spirit.
Ladies and gentlemen, Asa Butterfield.
Asa, it’s so lovely to see you! Congratulations, you’re not only our October cover star, but also here to discuss an exciting new project that’ll be released soon – your very first Christmas movie. Do you feel like it’s extra pressure to work on a film set during a time many people are nostalgic about and look forward to? How was the experience?
I mean you say that, but I didn't feel too much pressure actually! I'm generally quite good at not putting pressure on myself when it comes to jobs. I think it's one of the reasons I've been successful at what I do. I'm able to kind of take things in my stride, and I try not to get too stressed out by things. We had such a nice team and I love Christmas and that time of year, so it was quite exciting to dive into something that just celebrates the festivities. Also, as I discovered through the written script [for the movie], it was really funny and really kind of genuine, heartfelt and original. When you're shooting a Christmas movie in summer, it is sort-of a bit surreal though. Because you're all in wooly jumpers, hats and scarves, and you're out on sites pretending to be cold. But in reality, the sun is beating down on you. The other crew are all in like shorts and T shirts and you're here ‘shivering’. It was quite strange, trying to kind of capture that Christmas spirit by listening to Christmas songs and pulling crackers all in August!
That sounds a bit like an Australian Christmas honestly, back where I’m from! So, what inspiration did you draw from your favourite Christmas movies for this role, if any?
I don't know actually, if I necessarily drew inspiration from Christmas movies! I think for me, it was really just capturing James' part of the story and really showing that Christmas is so unique and specific, and everyone has their own Christmas traditions. And they're all weird! If you spend Christmas with someone else, you're witness to their traditions. Weirdly at times [on set], I felt like we were doing a play, because there were maybe six or seven of us in all the scenes in Haley's house [played by Cora Kirk]. There was so much dialogue and it was all kind of chaotic. It actually had that kind of truly messy Christmas energy, with lots of kids running around, food being cooked, games being played etc. So, for us it was just trying to capture that as authentically as possible.
How do your Christmas experiences in the film compare to your own family traditions?
I'm from quite a big family. I mean we're all grown up now, but when I was younger, there were a lot of kids. And I’ve been quite lucky as I’m the older cousin and I have cousins who are quite a bit younger than me. So for me, having young people around is great, because children really capture that Christmas energy, as they're so excited. I love Christmas myself, but it's different when you're a kid, obviously. I don't know, that's what gets me excited; seeing kids being so thrilled about Christmas and Santa coming. As for family traditions, I can’t think of any! I may have to come back to that one.
Outside of film, you’re most uniquely known for playing the lovable and sometimes frustrating character of Otis Milburn in Netflix’s Sex Education. With the show being so globally popular [including here in Singapore], how has portraying Otis onscreen changed your life?
I mean, yeah, it's totally changed my life! As you can probably expect, Netflix as a platform is so global. You've experienced it in Singapore and others have all around the world. I've had trips to different places, whether it’s the U.S. or Africa or Japan, and in every corner of the world, it seems to have tapped into what people like; because it’s, as you said, kind of universal. And there are some cultures where [sex] it's less open and less spoken about, and the show kind of gives a platform for those conversations. I think people really value that, especially in countries where they don't necessarily have access to a lot of information or they don't feel like they can speak about these things with their friends or family. It's really starts that conversation. So yeah, it's really special. I don't think any of us really appreciated what it could do, especially in season one when the show hadn't come out. We just saw the scripts, and we knew it was pretty well-written and it had some poignant messages. But I don't think we expected such for it to be such a sort-of, education or platform for people, which is really cool and unexpected.
The show has so many parallel story-lines and there’s always a lot going on, it’s almost organized chaos. Do you sometimes feel like Sex Education is truly a world of its own?
I mean, it is a world of its own. It's got all of this sort-of colour and vibrancy, and it is one of a kind. As you said, it is quite chaotic. I think letting it be chaotic works. It’s this kind of heightened world, because you almost suspend your disbelief, and it's not set in any particular place and it's not set in any particular time. So, you can just get along with the fact that there’s this school and keep up with all the things the kids are doing. Sure, they might not happen in the real world. But they're still inherently relatable, because these characters are so relatable. And then you just crank the dial up a little bit, and it just adds to the humour and the whole kind of, spectacle of it.
It's truly a fantastic show. Has portraying this role taught you anything about yourself that you didn't know prior?
Has this taught me anything about myself? [Laughs, pausing to think]. I don't know! I think just being a part of the show has made me more open when talking about things, particularly sort-of more personal and intimate things. Also, it’s taught me about just being less shy, I suppose. At the end of the day, I've had some pretty revealing moments through it, and as an actor, you kind of have to just get along with it. I think that’s one of the bigger parts of this, which is that everyone goes through these experiences one way or another. We've all been a teenager, we've all had embarrassing moments. As actors, if we can capture that and put ourselves on the line so that people can feel entertained, or feel seen or just feel good about themselves, then that's a really special position to be in.
Part of playing a character that explores sex openly and all that comes along with it, can often result in you being cast in a light as a sex-oriented symbol. How do you handle the attention that comes with that territory?
Honestly, I don't really engage with it. I think that's my way of dealing with it! It’s to kind of separate myself from the character and try and separate myself from social media. Because I mean, it's a whole other conversation; what people project onto you as a person through your character. And in case of Sex Education, as you can imagine, they can be quite personal. So yeah, I try not to engage in that.
Is playing someone like Otis or portraying a really well-defined character that becomes beloved, a restrictive career move? Do you think it's ever limited your potential on what kind of future roles you could do, or how people are going to perceive you once you choose to do something entirely different?
It doesn’t really worry me. But I guess I'm making efforts in that when I'm not doing Sex Education, I’m working on different characters which are across quite different genres. I mean, I'm 25 and Otis is 17. I can't play a teenager for my whole life! So, I think I'm doing a good job at managing to kind of straddle both, and I'm making choices to try and do roles and characters which are different. That’s the constant balance you have to strike as an actor. To do things which will challenge you or push you to show what you're capable of, and give you opportunities to learn and get better at what you do. I've done all kinds of things. I did a horror movie this year where I played quite a dark role, which is about as different as you can get. Last year, I did a film called Flux Gourmet, which was one of the most surreal movies I’ve ever been a part of. And I really love it, because it is so different, and my characters are too. The writers and the styles of the films are always unique.
You mention the difference in all your roles, but I want to know, is there a common thread between any of your characters and how you approach playing them? Do you like to start fresh each time you play a new role, or do you bring something of the past to each project?
Oh, that's a good question. I'm not sure! I think…I think I probably try and just start things fresh. I mean, you're always drawing upon your own experiences; there's always a bit of yourself in these roles. And often, that's what directors and casting directors are looking for. That's why they want you; because they've seen something you can do and something in your style and they want you to bring that into this other part. And then it's up to you to find ways to really go in various directions if you need to, and yeah, explore the character and find ways to make the voice [or whatever it is] really memorable. It's one of the challenges of acting; creating characters which feel like they haven't been done before and feel like you're watching a real person. Each time you’re putting a bit of yourself into it and creating something new.
You mentioned at the beginning that you’re quite good at not putting pressure on yourself, but you’ve had a unique journey in that you’ve grown up in the entertainment industry. How has that experience actually been for you and how do you stop yourself from feeling that so-called ‘pressure’ to survive and thrive?
I don't know. At times, it was challenging. I think when you're young and you're working in a very adult industry, [with a lot of grown-ups], you can at times, feel disconnected from your peers and your friends. But my way of kind of dealing with that was just to spend as much time as I could being a kid. So, I never left school. I did my A-Levels and all of my friends from school were totally supportive of me. I was really lucky to have that, because I know there are a lot of young actors who struggle with doing both, and whether it’s because of bullying or jealousy or just feeling like they don’t fit-in at a mainstream school. I was lucky that I could manage to do both. And school really for me [and my family] was my priority. Having time to be a kid and to be a teenager and have a normal life was really important, and it’s helped me deal with the more growing-up side of acting.
So outside of the realms of acting, what’re you most passionate about right now or enjoy doing the most?
Hmmm…I love music. I like listening to music and I love playing music. I like video-games and hanging out with my friends. Games are just something I’ve played my whole life and I think it’s a great way to connect with people. Especially over lockdown – it was a great way to be social without being able to be social, and I think that’s continued since. I also love the outdoors; going to parks and being in nature. But I do also love watching movies and TV.
What’s a show you can watch over and over again without getting sick of it?
Probably Avatar: The Last Airbender [laughs].
You’d be surprised how many times I’ve actually heard that show be mentioned in interviews!
I’m actually not surprised! Because it’s such a good show, both for kids and for adults. I watched it when I was a kid and then sort-of, watched it again and again growing up. Brilliant writing and animation – I love everything about that show.
Our issue this month is all about this notion of ‘success’ and what it embodies. I want to ask you, at what point did you consider yourself successful, if you do?
I mean…I would consider myself successful. It would be a discredit to all the people I’ve worked with for a long time [since I was a kid] and all the roles I’ve done if I didn’t consider myself successful. But when did I consider myself successful…I don’t know! It’s been a gradual thing. Success is subjective. You can be successful economically at your job, but you could not be successful in your life and being happy…so I don’t know…it sort-of depends what angle you come from. I think to achieve success ultimately is a really difficult thing to do. I could be successful in my job, but not feel fulfilled in my life. Then would I consider myself successful? [Pauses] I’ve gotten quite deep there…[laughs].
No, it’s great, I love it! You say success is subjective, so what are the elements that make you feel successful?
Feeling proud of something you’ve done or something you’ve achieved. Helping others. I think you can find success in what other people do and being a part of it. Just feeling happy. If you can feel happy in your life, you’ve been successful there; because happiness is a lot harder to come by in life than people realize and actually takes work.
What have you learned about success being in the industry you’ve been in? Has your perspective evolved over time? Is there such a thing as ‘enough’? There’s a more, more, more culture in the entertainment world, be it for publicity, promotion, films or money. Is there a finite point for you where you’d feel like you’ve had enough?
Yeah, I think people’s goals are constantly shifting as they get better and as they succeed in some areas; they set their bars higher or want something else. So, your [people’s] vision of success is constantly shifting. I’d say it’s fluid. For me, I’d say I’ve been successful at acting, certainly, but I’d like to be successful in other ways and in other areas. Whether it’s conservation or educating people…or yeah, there are lots of ways you can do it. What’s nice about acting in my position [as someone who has been successful at it], is it’s given me opportunities and time to do other things and go into other areas and it’s something I want to continue doing as I get older.
And finally, do you think people perceive you differently based on your age and how young you are? Have you ever felt imposter syndrome and felt the need to navigate if you feel good enough for a role?
At times, yeah, for sure. I think being successful at a young age can cause various difficulties, whether it's alienation from your friends and your peers who live very different lives and have very different ideas of success. It’s something I’ve certainly acknowledged, seen and spoken about with my friends a lot about. I try to be open about that sort-of thing. And for actors…acting is the only job I’ve ever had, because I started so young. There are so many parts of the world that I am pretty naïve to, and I’m wholly aware of that. There are a lot of things that others have had to struggle with, that I’ve never had to struggle with, so at times I think, how can I empathize with that? You try, but you do sort-of live such different lives as actors. So, it can be alienating and people will have expectations of you and your success. Sometimes I think, [shit] is this a fluke? Having I just been winging it the whole time? And that’s a feeling that I don’t know will ever go away. But then when you get those words of affirmation from someone you really respect, it does make you go: Yeah, I have worked hard.
And that’s just something you have to remind yourself of from time to time.
Creative director & producerVanessa Caitlin
Fashion editorGordon Ng
On-set stylingAdele Cany
Second assistantJoshua Hippolyte
Styling AssistanceMy Olsson Pajkin