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The first year or so of the pandemic did strange, inexplicable things to all of us and this seemed especially true if you happened to be famous (we need only invoke the words ‘Gal Gadot’s Imagine’ to feel that familiar face-clawing horror all over again). But even so, it feels like a specific product of our virus-disrupted age that in May this year, even as lockdown sputtered out and much of the world reopened, the actor Asa Butterfield broadcast a live video of him cleaning his kitchen to his 4.3 million Instagram followers. And then, perhaps even more surprisingly, found that thousands of them really, really wanted to watch it.
‘Yeah, that was weird,’ says Butterfield with a half-smile. ‘I think at one point something like 8,000 people were watching me do the washing up.’ So was it a piece of The Truman Show-influenced performance art? A sly comment on the digital age’s perpetual hunger for piping hot content? The significant thing about Butterfield’s brief, unexpected foray into #cleanfluencing is what it tells us about the peculiar fervour around him and, specifically, his role in Netflix’s returning mega hit, Sex Education.
Before the show — an inveterately horny but emotionally tender chronicle of the sexual misadventures of secondary school students in a heightened John Hughesian reimagining of rural Britain — launched in early 2019, Butterfield had plenty of pedigree as a child actor without a properly defining breakthrough adult role. He was the doleful Nazi officer’s son in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, the 12-year-old lead in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and the intergalactic military prodigy alongside Harrison Ford in Ender’s Game; one of a handful of recognisable, British leading-men-to-be in the same class as Freddie Highmore, Will Poulter and Thomas Brodie Sangster.
But then the big bang of Sex Education’s success arrived (season one alone was watched by more than 40 million subscribers in its first month on the service) and things shifted. Now Butterfield is almost indivisible from his role as Otis Milburn, the gawky-cool, sexually blocked teenager who, alongside Emma Mackey’s Maeve Wiley, starts solving his classmates’ intimacy issues for money.
Now, without especially asking to be, he is something of a totemic Gen-Z everyman, with his hashtagged name garnering almost 57 million views on TikTok and his every downbeat utterance on social media (a video of him practising bass guitar, photos of his cats, dispatches from his other life as an esports enthusiast) inciting acute passion in the show’s surprisingly cross-generational fan base. So, yes, Butterfield’s fame has spiked, but while it is the sort of step-jump plenty of actors would kill for, it is a shift to which he is still very much acclimatising.
‘Up until Sex Ed [the fame] was all pretty manageable,’ he explains, looking stubbled and decidedly off-duty in glasses, AirPods and a slouchy T-shirt on the sunlit roof of his Dalston flat. We are talking over Zoom and Butterfield, throughout our hour together, is polite and quietly self-assured company; a mix of elliptical answers and long thoughtful pauses with an impenetrably Zen demeanour that is only briefly punctured when one of his roving cats, Lyra and Atlas, claws his leg (‘Ow! Sorry, one of them has just attacked me’).
But anyway. He continues. ‘One of the reasons for that was, because I was working as a kid, and so I would change a lot — a film would come out and then I’d be a foot taller than when I made it. But also, working on a show on Netflix is inherently global and immediate. It really went to a new level, which I probably should have expected. It’s great, but in terms of privacy there have definitely been some downsides.’
After a hugely acclaimed second year, Sex Education returns later this month with a hotly anticipated, Covid-delayed third season that has the feel of a series hitting its stride. Spearheaded once again by creator Laurie Nunn, it features a comforting mix of the series’ familiar hallmarks (1980s teen movie visuals, oddly aspirational house interiors, an introductory medley of knee-trembling sex scenes set to a cover of Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’) and adds an overarching plot concerning Moordale’s new disciplinarian headmistress (Girls star Jemima Kirke, intriguingly playing against type).
And then there is Otis’s sex therapist mum, Jean (a freshly de-Maggied Gillian Anderson) having a baby, a mysterious new non-binary character (played by musician Dua Saleh) and Ncuti Gatwa’s Eric trying to fully consummate his relationship with reformed school bully Adam (Connor Swindells). It is the usual mix of the profane and the profound, then. But there is a more pronounced sure-footedness and zip to it that is also reflected in the fact Otis has emerged from a transformative summer break with a new-found sexual confidence of his own (not to mention a wispy moustache).
‘There’s a real evolution coming into the third season because obviously there’s been a bit of a time-jump,’ says Butterfield. ‘Otis has definitely changed. He’s got a swagger and I feel like he’s got a lot sassier, which I had a lot of fun playing with as an actor. It was quite different. But obviously he’s still Otis so he’s still a bit bumbling and not totally sure if something is the right thing to do.’ Naturally, a lot of this haplessness relates to the show’s typically frank and lightly trailblazing sex scenes (the show was among the first major productions to use the now ubiquitous intimacy co-ordinator, Ita O’Brien). And Butterfield says the tight-knit cast has long passed the point of finding these encounters especially strange.
‘We’re all so used to it at this point that everybody’s just kind of game,’ he says. ‘And we’re all so close and such good friends that it doesn’t get awkward because we can just laugh about it when we have to do something that’s just ridiculous.’ As the delayed shoot in Wales coincided with the bleakest depths of our Covid winter, the ridiculousness of Sex Education’s world felt like its own sort of life raft. ‘Those first days, just to be back on set and out of the house, we were all kind of giddy,’ he says, with a smile. ‘Being able to be busy and have a creative outlet when it was possibly the toughest part of lockdown was huge.’
This is not surprising to hear, given how large acting has already loomed in Butterfield’s life. Born in Islington to a psychologist mum (‘There are some similarities with Gillian’s character but she doesn’t pry as much’) and music teacher/copywriter dad, Butterfield had already cameoed in coming-of-age drama Son of Rambow by the time he was 10. A few years later he had been scooped up by Scorsese (whom he has been known to still meet for lunch whenever he is in New York) and earning a Bifa nomination for the heartfelt X+Y in 2014. They were wild times for a teenager; shuttling from Hollywood sets to Clissold Park skatepark. But if Butterfield managed to stay grounded and atypically well-adjusted for a child star, he credits that to his parents decision to keep him enrolled at Stoke Newington School.
‘It was always so normal when I was back at school, which I’m so thankful for,’ he says. ‘And school was always my priority. If I got some [acting] work, then cool, but my career was never the focus.’ Of course, paradoxically, his obvious comfort in front of the camera began to yield even bigger career opportunities. And Butterfield nearly got one of the hugest jobs imaginable in 2015, when Tom Holland barely pipped him to the role of Spider-Man. Considering his wistful fondness for the relative anonymity he enjoyed pre-Sex Education, does something like that feel like a web-bullet dodged?
‘It’s tricky, isn’t it?’ he says, after a moment’s pause. ‘To be really successful in this industry, you do have to kind of put yourself out there as a public figure. That’s just the way the industry has gone with social media and marketing. You’ve got to play the game in some respect. Not always. I think I’m quite good at still being myself. But whether I got Spider-Man or any kind of gig like that, it was inherently going to come with a lot of eyes.’ And those eyes are clearly making his life a bit less fun. ‘I can’t really go out without thinking about it and I can’t totally relax. Which is a shame. I’ve definitely had days when I just feel like I’ve had enough. When I’m out with friends and just think, “Well, I guess I’m going home.” Because I’d rather just not have to worry about it.’
But if Butterfield seems a little shaken by Otismania then he still sounds sincerely evangelical about the positive impact the show can have; particularly in the age of toxic masculinity and legitimate concerns about abuse culture among young men. ‘It’s in the title: Sex Education,’ he says, with a grin. ‘Part of that is educating people about specific sexual things but it’s also educating them about respect and tolerance and understanding. Otis is a hugely empathetic character who really demonstrates that. I think I’ve learnt a lot from him and just the way he’s really able to look past people’s differences and see who they really are.’
Which begs the question of how long this particular class can be in session. Nunn has stated her reluctance to follow the characters beyond their time at Moordale. And Butterfield has other intriguing projects on the horizon, including a starring role alongside Jeff Goldblum in a long-simmering adaptation of Stephen Fry’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Liar (‘it’s been this pipe dream for at least four years but now it looks like it’s actually going to happen’). So how long does he think the show can last?
‘I think we’re all in agreement that nobody wants this show to go on until we’re adults and we’re greying,’ he says. ‘Season three does end it in a potentially quite nice way. I’d love to do another season but equally I’d be happy to let this character go and move on. Because it has been three years. I’ve spent more time as Otis than I have as any of my other parts. And if [another season] doesn’t happen then that just gives me time to do something else.’
Perhaps season four is already on the way and he is just being cagey. Perhaps he is willing on the end of the show in the vague hope he may get some privacy back. But there is the sense that this boyish veteran who has been acting for more than half his life may in fact only just be getting started.
‘Sex Education’ season three launches on Netflix on 17 Sep
Photographs by Tung Walsh
Styling by Jessica Skeete-Cross
Learn how the Sex Education champions diversity and inclusion with creator Laurie Nunn and cast members George Robinson (Isaac) and Chinenye Ezeudu (Viv) at the Evening Standard Stories Festival. Purchase tickets here.