Asa Butterfield has lived a career on fast forward.
Aged ten, Butterfield played the lead in 2008 Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Three years later, Martin Scorsese chose Butterfield to front the critically lauded Hugo (11 Oscar nominations; Asa was not yet 14).
And then there’s the small matter of Sex Education, the Netflix megahit – more than 40 million watched the first season within a month of its release – that has triggered countless think pieces and turned Butterfield into a household name around the world. Not bad going for a man who turns 25 next April.
Who do you send to interview a prodigy? How about an icon? Gillian Anderson needs minimal introduction. Her glittering résumé includes The X-Files, The Crown, The Fall – and Sex Education, in which she plays the sex therapist mother of Butterfield’s Otis.
Their frank and freewheeling conversation covers everything from awkward scenes to video games to anime. You’ll laugh and learn in equal measure. It’s a true education.
Gillian Anderson: So, how did acting even happen?
Asa Butterfield: How did it happen? See, a lot of these memories are quite hazy, from so long ago.
It’s all the drugs you do…
Yeah, all of my pre-teen drug abuse. [Laughs] No, I went to a drama club, which is where it started. I went to an after-school drama activity thing. Mainly just because my brother went there, and my mum wanted me to be creative and meet new people. All those great things, and so I went and I enjoyed it.
I didn’t go there with the goal of being an actor. I didn’t want to be an actor until I was quite a bit older.
So it started out innocently?
Totally innocently. Even my first auditions, I didn’t know what I was doing. There’s this TV movie called After Thomas, I auditioned for it and got a tiny little role.
I had one line in the movie, which was “no”, because this boy wants to come and play with my trainset, or something, and I tell him to fuck off. That was my start.
A few years later, you did The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – I would imagine it was quite a big deal for you. Did you have a grasp of what it was that you were embodying, portraying, replicating?
I knew the context, to a certain degree. Only as much as a ten-year-old would, and I read the book. I do remember, or at least I remember afterwards, them telling me that they’d intentionally kept me somewhat naïve from the reality and the details. Both, I think, for my mental health as a ten-year-old, but also to preserve this character’s innocence, which is the heart of the film.
I remember having a lot of fun. We were shooting in Budapest. I remember the thing I was most excited about, before doing it, was having three months of not being at school. And I remember finding it difficult at times, some of the scenes – understandably for a kid.
Photographed by Charlie Gray
Photographed by Charlie Gray
So only a few years later, you ended up being cast in Hugo, working with Martin Scorsese, which must have been quite an overwhelming role to get at such a young age. It wasn’t your first venture into sci-fi, but it must have felt like entering a whole new world of filmmaking. The machine that revolves around him, but also just his perception of film and how seriously he takes it – having the privilege of being invited into that world…
It was. I don’t think I’ll do something on that scale ever again. I mean, the set alone was like stepping into another world. It was an eight or nine-month shoot. I was just totally immersed in this world for almost a year of my life. I remember just getting very used to it, ‘this is just now what I do’.
‘This is my life.’
‘This is my life now.’ Yeah, I was, what was I? I was 13, I think, when I did Hugo. I’d only seen one of Scorsese’s films at that point, because they were all obviously grown-up.
Yeah, which one had you seen?
I’d seen the King of Comedy. I remember he would give me films to watch on the weekend, and this is going back to his love of cinema. And I mean, it’s such a key part of the film as well. Some of the films probably weren’t appropriate.
I remember him giving me Cronenberg’s The Fly one weekend, which sort of blew my mind. Body Snatchers…
Oh, my gosh, wow.
After I’d seen them, he would just talk to me for ages about them. I wouldn’t have that much to say, as a 13-year-old, but it was such a privilege. Probably one I didn’t totally appreciate at that age. Just being tutored by potentially the greatest.
What were his directions like? Do you recall whether he is an actor whisperer?
Yeah. He had, like, his video village, which was just his tent, and it had him, and then Bob the OP, and I think Thelma [Schoonmaker] was there, the editor.
They would largely stay in their tent, watching. They had their 3D monitors, and he had his glasses, with these little 3D flip-down things which he would put on. He would give the direction to the first AD, and then he would come and sort of whisper in my ear. Sometimes, he’d also come out and talk to me.
It was such an enormous set, and every day, there were hundreds of extras. And as soon as Martin came out, there would be silence. There would be like this wave parting as he walked through all this 1930s magic. He’d come, and he’d talk to me, and talk to Chloë Grace Moretz as well. He’s got quite a low voice. Yeah, it was awesome.
Oh, I love that. I love hearing about that. I remember seeing an interview with him. It must have been during the press that he was doing for that film, where he was talking about the fact that in a not too distant future, all films were going to be made in 3D.
He became completely, completely obsessed and immersed in that. I had the privilege of meeting Ang Lee, only a few years ago. Then entered the world of 4K which is just a completely different thing.
The film that he made in that format can only be shown on, I think, four cinemas in the world. That’s true cinema obsessives, and I love that.
I guess we should probably enter into the world of Sex Education…
Maybe, yeah. Why not? I’m sure we’ve got some things to talk about.
Photographed by Charlie Gray
I remember on our first press that we did after the first season, there was a Polish journalist sitting in front of us, telling us that no schools had sex education, and that our show was their sex education in Poland!
We looked at each other, like “Are you kidding me?” What a responsibility we have. Educating Poland about sex!
Yeah, I’ve heard quite a few people from different countries where there either isn’t a sex education system, or just culturally, it’s not something they talk about. This show seems to have started so many conversations, which I didn’t even think that was possible.
No, certainly, at the beginning, it didn’t feel like, “Oh, I must jump on board this because it’s going to be such a game-changer, in terms of people’s perception.”
Educating the planet!
I’ve never heard the story of how you were cast. Was it just a normal script coming to your agent?
Yeah, I remember reading the first script, and finding it was really funny, but I couldn’t see where this concept of a school teen sex therapist would go. How can they make eight episodes out of this?
I wanted to see more. Let me read a few more scripts because I’d only ever done film up until this point. Now TV shows are such high quality. I was like, “It would be great to have a recurring show.”
I really wanted one that was set in the UK. I really wanted to do a comedy because comedies are just so much fun. I got the script, and then read a few more. Went and had lunch with Ben Taylor and one of the producers, and they were obviously very excited. They had all these ideas, and they were showing me their little look-books, and costumes.
Ben was talking about all these references, John Hughesiness, and the timelessness he wanted it to have. This was only maybe six weeks before they were going to start shooting. It was real close, and I had blue hair at this point. I had streaks of blue hair through my head.
And had I already been cast? Was I already part of it?
I think you were either cast or you were very nearly…
Yeah, I think they were saying to me, “We’re talking to Asa Butterfield.” And they were probably saying to you, “We’re talking to Gillian Anderson.” So we’re both going, “Yay”. But then sometimes that doesn’t work out.
I know. I remember the first day I met you, it wasn’t actually the day we shot together. Because they brought you in, I can’t remember what they brought you in for, but we were doing the party scene at Aimee’s house.
Oh, and then I guess, you were probably shooting your bit outside, where you’re stuck in the car, trying to reverse.
Oh, right. Was that the first day we met?
I’m pretty sure that was the first time we all met. I’d met the other guys, but we hadn’t met yet. We’re out in this sunny field, in the middle of Wales, no idea what was in store for us, for the next three years.
Yeah, always the best. I remember when I first signed up to do X-Files in the States. When you go to network to do your final audition in front of all the producers for a TV show, at least in the olden days, you had to sign a contract which basically said, “This is what I accept financially. This is what I accept as my pay, and I will sign onto five years if I get this role.” So, before you even go to your final audition, you have to sign your life away.
At that juncture, when you’re at FOX, and you’re in some tiny, tiny room with 50 producers glaring at you, not for a second do you think, this is going to be ten years of my life! You’re thinking, “Can I please get a job where I can feed myself?”
God. But they still do that. I’ve only had that experience once where they wanted me to sign a contract before I went in for my screen test. I didn’t do it, because I felt so trapped.
Photographed by Charlie Gray
Yeah, good for you. I wish I had somebody behind me. No, I don’t; I’m glad I did that. I have no regrets whatsoever, but it is such a huge thing to consider for a 20-something, or especially a teenager, to even fathom what that would mean. The life that one would be missing! You have no clue.
Anyway, we’ve gone a bit off track. And so, what would you say are the differences between Asa Butterfield and Otis?
I feel like Otis is definitely… I like to think he deals with things in quite a petulant and childish way, at times, and I think I’ve hopefully matured beyond that.
How old do people on the street treat you? Do they treat you like you’re 17, like Otis, or do they treat you like you’re 24?
No, people treat me as my age. At least, people I know do. I do get people on the street calling me Otis. I’m sure you’ve had the similar thing, but you just accept it. No, I think I was always quite mature for my age.
Well, your mother is a therapist, right?
My mum’s a therapist, so we had quite grown-up conversations from a young age. She’s always been very open about those conversations. I was living by myself at 17, and I was working and had been working.
I sort of felt mature. Not mature – well, yeah, I guess more grown-up than a lot of people my own age when I was a teenager. In a sense, Otis is a bit of that. I think he’s wise. People could describe him as like an old man in a boy’s body, which I think is quite accurate.
Yeah, I do, too. And so, is there anything that is similar between my therapist Jean Milburn, and your mum?
I’ve got to choose my words carefully. Yeah, there are similarities.
But presumably there are a lot of things that Jean would do that your mum would never do in a million years.
Yeah. Jean definitely cranks the dial up to 11, and probably crosses a few lines I don’t think my mum would.
I’ve got a 26-year-old, a 12-year-old, and a 14-year-old. I know that I wouldn’t go into their bedrooms and look around, I just wouldn’t. I wouldn’t open drawers, that just feels like such a violation to me.
You can see that it flashes across Jean’s mind that perhaps she shouldn’t do what she’s doing, but she just can’t help herself, and will go in and scrounge around to see if she can find the evidence of anything that points to Otis’s private life.
Yeah. My mum’s never done that. She’s never snooped around that I’m aware of. This is true. She’s not as sneaky as Jean.
Photographed by Charlie Gray
Yeah. There’s a question about the most embarrassing scenes. Now, I’ve experienced one of those where I would imagine, as an actor, it would be challenging. There’s the scene in season two, where Jean catches Otis masturbating in a parking lot, in the car.
Yeah, I remember this one.
I’m sure you do. I’m sure it’s seared into your brain, or at least it’s seared into my brain. I would imagine that under those circumstances of having to do that in front of other actors, in front of the crew, that it would be mortifying and inhibiting, et cetera.
But you seemed to completely take it in your stride, and didn’t seem embarrassed at all, and threw yourself 100% into it, take after take after take, which I was incredibly impressed by. So, if that wasn’t the most embarrassing situation that you’ve been in, in the series, what was it?
I don’t know…
Do you feel like, after season one, that you can literally do anything, and nothing will embarrass you?
I feel pretty numb to the whole thing. I feel like they really could throw anything at me, at this stage. I remember, season one, I did my very first wank scene. I was like, “OK, this is weird.” As you said, you’ve just got to throw yourself into it.
I think being able to laugh at just the absurdity of it, and that it is ridiculous, and you’ve got the cameraman, and then the sound guy has got the boom over you. It’s so stupid, that overrides the embarrassment, for me.
Yeah. And also, I think, having Ben Taylor as director, and his enthusiasm for the extremities of everything. Very early on, I felt that he normalised all of that stuff, and it freed the space to just do whatever was necessary, spontaneously, within the scene.
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Ben is a great help with that. Also just the fact it’s often rooted in comedy, and has a comedic element to it, I think helps. If it were a very serious, intimate wank, I might find it more difficult.
In season one, when Otis finally successfully has a wank, they got this awesome shot where it flips the set 90 degrees so that they can pull me on a dolly – it looks like I’m floating up off the bed. In fact, I’m just going on a dolly, and the bed’s on the wall.