While couch-bound in quarantine due to the coronavirus, the average person has watched record-setting amounts of television, lost hours to video games and maybe even baked banana bread—but Ross Butler isn’t the average person. Butler, the rising star best known for his role as troubled jock Zach Dempsey on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, has devoted his enforced timeout from life on set to learning Arabic and Japanese, as well as immersing himself in the production side of the entertainment industry. Diving headfirst into developing film and television projects may seem an unlikely quarantine hobby for a 30-year-old Hollywood heartthrob, but for Butler, who even in the Before Times filled his weekends carving wood and playing instruments, it’s all part of a necessary mental health practice.
“Hobbies are what ground me,” he says. “When you learn a new hobby, it strips you of any sort of comfort. Everybody learns things differently, so learning a new hobby for me is relying completely on myself. I don't think about Zach; I don't think about work. I just focus on how I learn things. That quiets my mind and brings me back to centre.”
Butler’s monastic study of the Hollywood machine falls at a transitional moment in his acting career. After four eventful seasons, 13 Reasons Why has come to an end, leaving the landscape of teen television profoundly altered in its wake. When the show launched in 2017, it was immediately engulfed in controversy, with television critics, educators and mental health professionals condemning its graphic depictions of suicide and sexual assault, fearing that it would inspire ‘suicide contagion’ among impressionable viewers. Yet even though 13 Reasons Why found few fans among adults, it amassed a devoted following of teenagers, who celebrated its no-holds-barred depiction of teen-specific social issues like bullying, jock culture and school shootings, as well as its mature portrayal of societal ills such as racism, homophobia and domestic violence. Despite the early backlash, which Butler described as motivating albeit surreal, he feels that 13 Reasons Why paved the way for a new generation of teen programming, laying the groundwork for shows that can be raw, real, and tapped into social issues.
“Teens are smarter than we give them credit for,” Butler says. “13 Reasons Why showed Hollywood that teens can handle it—and they want to. They want to talk about the hard stuff, because if they're dealing with these issues and can't talk about it, then when does the healing happen? I think that will be the show’s legacy. Teens can take it.”
“13 Reasons Why showed Hollywood that teens can handle it—and they want to. They want to talk about the hard stuff, because if they're dealing with these issues and can't talk about it, then when does the healing happen? I think that will be the show’s legacy."
As he graduates from Liberty High School, Butler also leaves behind a number of memorable roles on teen shows like Riverdale and Teen Wolf as well as a standout part in To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, the sequel to Netflix’s smash hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Though teen programming has been kind to Butler throughout his twenties, he’s eager to hang up his letterman jacket once and for all. “I've been playing high school students longer than I was actually in high school,” Butler jokes. “I'm trying to move to at least college and up.”
Yet Butler hasn’t checked out of the youth market entirely. While focused on producing during lockdown, he has zeroed in on creating stories for and about a demographic he views as largely underserved: early twentysomethings.
“I think there’s a story gap in between teen shows and adult shows,” Butler says. “Not a lot of content is aimed at the time between your late teens and your early or mid-twenties. That's a time of life that's very up in the air, because you're still trying to figure things out. You're just out of college, you're not really sure what you want to do with your life, and we look to entertainment as a guide. It's unfortunate that 20-year-olds don’t have much on screen to guide them. I've been trying to think of things that we would want to see. Think about a 25-year-old working part time—what's his wish fulfilment? What's his dream, and how can we put that on screen?”
As he’s whiled away the weeks of isolation developing projects, Butler has thought long and hard on how to practise the lessons he learned from 13 Reasons Why about making entertainment with a social conscience. He’s concluded that the path to educating audiences isn’t to take the after-school special approach.
“My motto going into every project is, ‘If you're going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh,’” Butler says. “Coming into the world of producing, I want to make social change, but how do we make people want to watch it? How do we avoid making them feel like they’re learning a lesson? A lot of people are programmed to dislike being told that they've thought about something wrong. When someone's world view is challenged, they take a very defensive position. If you make someone laugh, that defensive wall comes down. It’s like a trojan horse—you’ve showed them rather than told them.”
Butler features in a promotional video produced by #TheNew, representing Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and encouraging active participation in this November's presidential election.
13 Reasons Why isn’t the only project informing Butler’s sensibility about how to affect change on screen and on the page. This year, Butler also stars in an upcoming reboot of Swimming With Sharks, the cult classic 1994 movie about a naive Hollywood hopeful subjected to the cruelty and greed of Tinseltown by virtue of his domineering boss. In this year’s reboot, commissioned by the mobile-only streaming platform Quibi, the story has been genderbent, with teen queen Kiernan Shipka starring as the impressionable young assistant and Diane Kruger as her demanding boss. Butler rounds out the cast as a burnt-out, Ivy League-educated fellow assistant, who befriends Shipka’s character in the trenches of the underpaid and overworked. With the release date unclear and the project seemingly on ice due to the pandemic, Butler is sworn to secrecy, yet he’s thoughtful about launching this project into a post-#MeToo movement world.
“All I can say is that we have a lot of female studio heads and a lot of female creators in today’s Hollywood,” Butler says. “I think it's an interesting perspective, showing this gendered side of the story rather than just all men.”
That said, Hollywood has changed in more than just its increased gender parity. Even in merely the near-decade Butler has been a working actor, Hollywood has made significant strides in prioritising inclusivity in front of and behind the camera, with concerns about diversity taking centre stage in how viewers engage with film and television shows. For an Asian-American actor like Butler, the change is hugely welcome but woefully overdue. Born in Singapore and raised in Virginia from the time he was four years old, Butler’s winding path to Hollywood began with the movies he was raised on as a child, where he failed to see himself represented.
“I grew up watching a lot of movies,” Butler says. “My mum didn't let me watch much television, so I watched movies like Forrest Gump and The Breakfast Club. My tastes are deeply ingrained in American mythology, but I saw mostly white people. I loved those movies; I just didn't see myself in them. That led to a lot of identity issues for me, because we look to entertainment to learn how to deal with life. When I wanted to ask a girl out in high school, I watched how they did it in the movies. I could relate, but there was still a disconnect in that I didn't look like those characters, and I felt different because my mum wasn't a white homemaker who baked cookies every Saturday.”
"If you have a war movie like Saving Private Ryan and the lead is Asian-American, the more they see that as a kid, the less jarring it will be.”
Though he was encouraged to pursue a traditional path through academia, Butler’s heart was never in a classroom. At 20 years old, Butler dropped out of Engineering and moved to Los Angeles, where he quickly began pounding the pavement to secure roles. Early in his career, he went out for a number of stereotypical Asian parts, then put his foot down with his agent, saying that he would audition only for American or ethnically ambiguous roles. His audition count went down, but the parts he scored were more ‘fulfilling’ and the rest is history. This battle for representation, he argues, is twofold.
“In the Asian community, there are two battles we're fighting. There's the battle for Asian actors to play Asian roles well and not stereotypically, and then also the battle for Asian actors to play non-Asian roles. Crazy Rich Asians was an amazing milestone for our community, but I think we need to fight for more inclusion as far as, for lack of a better phrase, mixing ethnicities—having an Asian male lead and a female white lead or a female black lead.”
Crazy Rich Asians grossed USD175 million in ticket sales in the United States and Canada alone, with international filmgoers bringing the total box office gross to USD238 million. The film was seen by many in the Asian-American community as a galvanising success, yet as Butler points out, Hollywood still has a long way to go in depicting interracial relationships and multiracial ensembles. During his deep dive into producing, Butler has reflected on the financial incentives of making inclusive movies and television, leading him to believe that although the challenges are steep, diversity can be good business.
“The unfortunate part of it is that we’re selling to a predominately white audience in America, whereas worldwide, the Asian population is huge,” Butler says. “With Netflix and all the other international streamers, it's easier to sell something like that. But when we look at big studio movies that are predominantly going to be sold in America, it's harder to convince the studio that we could have an Asian lead if it's not a martial arts movie or a biopic about an Asian person. How many white Americans are willing to see a movie with an ethnic lead? I think streaming is spearheading experimentation in showing that people are willing to watch, but the question is, are people willing to buy? It's a steep hill that we're climbing. It's tough and competitive, but we’re moving the needle.”
While Asian-American success stories like Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell and Always Be My Maybe are cause for celebration, much work remains to be done. Hollywood certainly likes to pat itself on the back and consider racism solved, but the continued prevalence of #OscarsSoWhite proves that progress remains incomplete. As for Butler, he sees the solution as ensuring that young moviegoers don’t see the same whitewashed entertainment that characterised his own childhood.
"How many white Americans are willing to see a movie with an ethnic lead? I think streaming is spearheading experimentation in showing that people are willing to watch, but the question is, are people willing to buy? It's a steep hill that we're climbing."
“The only solution is to affect the next generation,” Butler says. “We do that by showing multi-ethnic relationships on screen—making it more commonplace to have these interracial relationships or multiracial ensemble casts. If the next generation sees it, even if they live in an all-white neighbourhood, it becomes more commonplace. As they grow up, it isn't going to be as jarring for them to see an ethnic lead of a movie. If you have a war movie like Saving Private Ryanand the lead is Asian-American, the more they see that as a kid, the less jarring it will be.”
As he stares down his producing projects and reflects on how he can do better than the films he grew up on, Butler is infectiously excited about the road ahead. Expect him to emerge from his quarantine crash course in producing with a rich vision for a new future of entertainment—one where young adults feel seen, and where Asian-Americans aren’t boxed into binary ideas of who can play what role. In Butler’s brave new world, Asian-Americans needn’t bifurcate their heritage—instead, they can see the wholeness of their identities illuminated on screen.
“It’s not just about Asians playing Asian roles, but Asians playing American roles,” Butler says. “It’s about prioritising inclusion. You can still tell these stories and hold that nostalgic ‘American’ feel. Now it's me and on us as a community to start making ourselves a part of that heritage.”
Photographs by Emman Montalvan
Styling by Britt McCamey
Grooming by Florido
Production Assistance by Elin Arnott