Sex Education, rather ironically or not, takes a look at the lives of teens within a rural community in England as they navigate coming of age, sexuality and romance, all while subtly highlighting the need for a substantial sex education syllabus in the real world. At least, that's how it comes across.
We found ourselves introduced to sex-related issues and terms we were not taught in school. In an episode that focused on body-shaming—specifically, vagina-shaming—Sex Education broached the topic of how there isn't a 'normal' or 'acceptable' appearance to the female body part. Through a subplot between two girls in a one-sided relationship, the show touched on how sex isn't just a physical concept.
And for Asa Butterfield—who plays Otis Milburn, a 16-year-old struggling with self-pleasuring, a sex therapist mother and gaining notoriety as the school's sex guru—it's the term 'vaginismus'. "I didn't know there was a term for it and that it's actually quite common," Butterfield tells us. "I sort of became more appreciative of the vast spectrum of people's sexualities and how different everyone can be—their quirks, likes and dislikes, and how personal they are."
Butterfield is by no means a stranger to acting. His credits count films helmed by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton, and span multiple genres. Sex Education is his first lead role in a television series and especially in such a bingeable format. It has very little to do with opportunity, but rather, the consensus that the quality of stories that the small screen has been producing is on par with that of film.
"I'd always wanted to do a longer form television show. When I read this script, it seemed to just tick all the boxes. It's British, so I was filming in the UK; it's a comedy, which I really enjoy doing and I've been doing more now; it sort of felt quite original and like we were treading on new ground," he explains. "And the characters were really, really well-written, and that's what I connected with more than anything."
The characters in Sex Education are refreshingly diverse and while at times that may seem idyllic, reality comes in the form of real-world prejudices and drama. Otis' best friend is Eric Effiong, an openly gay teen who comes from a strictly religious Ghanaian family, and battles with finding acceptance as an individual. In one episode, Otis dresses up in drag together with Eric to watch the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch as part of their annual tradition on the latter's birthday; a kind of relationship that's quite unheard of onscreen.
"Otis and Eric are different energies and quite complement each other; I think they bring the best out of each other, which is quite rare to find. And it's a really important relationship to show—that a gay, black guy and a straight, white boy have been able to be best friends and support each other and never be shoehorned in, and for it to be a part of their relationship. I think that's really nice to see," Butterfield concurs. Offscreen, he and Ncuti Gatwa "clicked really quickly" and it's apparent in the interviews that they've done together too.
With a show that has 'sex' in its title, deals with sexual issues and centres around teens with boundless sexual energies, the sex scenes in Sex Education are never gratuitous; they serve to push the narrative forward. Butterfield got off lightly by not having had to partake in intimate sexual scenes as compared to his other cast members. He says: "The scenes are always a little bit awkward but you get over it quite quickly." But Butterfield being in such filming situations is set to change in the second season.
"He's got a girlfriend now so he definitely has more intimate scenes with Trish [Patricia Allison portrays Otis' girlfriend Ola, a relationship that formed at the end of the first season]. And he's also discovered masturbating at the very last episode so there's a lot of that going on. So yeah, they've definitely amped up the sex scenes for season two but not crazily. It's still got heart," Butterfield expands on what to expect for the upcoming season.
There will be a chlamydia outbreak in school, the arrival of new students, the expansion on previous relationships (and one-offs), complicated family dynamics and a host of other general school-related issues. Yet what's also central to Otis' character is his relationship with his sex therapist mother Jean, played excellently by '90s icon, Gillian Anderson.
"Gillian is a lot of fun to work with. She doesn't take herself too seriously so I felt very comfortable around her. We've found a very nice sort of dynamic in this mother-son relationship, which felt very natural and it kind of just went from there," Butterfield tells us.
As the first season progressed, we witnessed how that rather strange but close relationship between Otis and Jean began getting increasingly estranged and complicated. It hit its peak with Jean assuming a romantic relationship with her handyman, who also happens to be the father of Otis' new girlfriend. As if dealing with a sex therapist for a mother wasn't difficult enough…
That's one of the draws of the series: there's hardly anything 'normal' about Sex Education to begin with. While the series is set in modern-day UK, the students don't wear uniforms. In fact, the colour treatment and styling is decidedly '80s—full of neon brights, an individualistic sense of fashion overall and entirely seen through a pastel-hued filter—as a nod to the teen movies by John Hughes. Otis' defining piece of clothing (he wears it everywhere) for example, is a vintage, colour-blocked Wrangler jacket that Butterfield says "a lot goes into keeping it safe" because there's only one of it. "I can't wear it when I'm eating lunch and take it off whenever I get the chance," he muses.
You'd see Butterfield change up his hair now and then ("If I know I've got some time where I know I can change my hair, I just go for it"), but just like his character, there's an attachment with the clothes in his own wardrobe. "My wardrobe, honestly, hasn't changed that much in the past year or two. I've got enough clothes that I don't have to buy anymore, which is quite nice; till they start falling apart," he says. There's also an affinity for Japanese fashion but he says "it's sort of changing".
What hasn't changed though is the sense of measured control and humility that has been there since the beginning of his career. When asked about his dedicated following, Butterfield only had nice things to say about them, especially about them being protective of his career.
With Netflix being the streaming giant that it is, the platform has brought to fore young talents that seem to have been plucked from obscurity thanks to its slate of teen-focused original series. Now-familiar stars such as Noah Centineo of To All The Boys I've Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, as well as Jacob Elordi of The Kissing Booth fame had their time as Netflix's It boys. For fear of Sex Education discounting Butterfield's pre-Netflix career to a new audience, fans took to social media to highlight his already impressive portfolio.
"A lot of them have been my fans for a long time. It's nice that people are protective, but I don't get too caught up in that," Butterfield responds.
Netflix reported that Sex Education was watched by 40 million accounts within the month of its release. And with the second season being highly anticipated, we're putting it out there that there really isn't anything for fans to be protective or concerned about.
Asa Butterfield has come. And we have a feeling it'll be more than twice.