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Asa Butterfield | On the couch with Gillian Anderson

Asa Butterfield made his name working with Martin Scorsese before going global with Netflix smash-hit Sex Education. Who better to interview him than his (TV) mother, Gillian Anderson? 

Asa Butterfield (c) 2021 Threadneedle Media Limited

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.

Asa Butterfield (c) 2021 Threadneedle Media
Asa Butterfield (c) 2021 Threadneedle Media

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.

Wow.

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.

Asa Butterfield (c) 2021 Threadneedle Media

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.

Asa Butterfield (c) 2021 Threadneedle Media

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.

Asa Butterfield (c) 2021 Threadneedle Media

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.

Is that how they did that?

My hand had to move in a certain way, and I remember them offering me something to actually hold onto. Before then, I’d pretended the whole thing. They gave me something to hold onto and that made it so much worse.

That turned it from being all make-believe to suddenly I’ve got something in my hand. This feels so weird, and so we immediately got rid of that. Yeah, I think I’ve got my onscreen wank technique pretty down to a tee.

Asa Butterfield (c) 2021 Threadneedle Media
Asa Butterfield (c) 2021 Threadneedle Media

That’s really funny. I think probably the most embarrassing thing I’ve had to do was masturbating the courgette.

At the same time, oddly, I was also working on Margaret Thatcher [in The Crown]. And so there is a take where I come out sounding a little bit –

You do a bit of a Thatcher voice?

A Thatcher voice.

With the courgette.

A Thatcher voice and wanking the courgette. Bringing off the courgette, yes. Which are your favourite scenes that we’ve done together?

I mean, still one of my favourite scenes to this day is the scene with me, you, and Connor [Swindells] out on the balcony. We’re all smoking a joint. That still makes me smile thinking about it.

I really enjoy our breakfast coffees out on the balcony. They’re always nice, and somehow, we always get like gorgeous sun coming in. They time it perfectly.

I like our sofa scenes. You know, when we end up plonking down. Those end up being really intimate, sweet.

We don’t get that many scenes where Jean and Otis really bond. Well, not that they don’t bond, but there’s not some tension. It’s nice. In season three we had more of them.

Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield in Sex Education

And it feels like the sofa is the apology sofa, or the place where we reconnect after we’ve been going in opposite directions.

Yeah, it was nice to see Otis be more supportive of Jean this season. For a change.

Do you recall if we’ve ever had a scene where we couldn’t stop laughing?

Never so much that’s become ‘that’s not funny anymore.’

Yeah. Oh, my God, that’s so painful when that happens.

Yeah, and then it makes it worse. It’s the worst. The worst feeling as an actor. 

The crew is all standing around looking at you like, “I need to get sleep someday. Can you please stop goofing around?” Who is the funniest person on set?

That’s hard. Ncuti [Gatwa] never fails to make me laugh. Mimi [Keene] also, just really, really tickles me with her little flicks of her hair, and just like pitch-perfect.

Yeah. I swear to God, if I’m working on a day that Ncuti is also working, and I arrive, into my trailer, to start getting ready and hair and makeup, if he’s anywhere in proximity, whether he’s in his trailer or in the hair and makeup trailer, you can hear him.

The two of us have been doing press this week, and we had a good laugh together throughout. We were paired for almost all our interviews, and it’s great because I can just bounce off him, and his endless source of energy, and laughter.

Asa Butterfield (c) 2021 Threadneedle Media

What’s your favourite room in Jean and Otis’s house, and why? Well, they’ve recently built Ola’s room…

It is a cool room. I don’t think I ever saw it not full of things, but that was the whole point. It was our storage room. The amount of detail they put into the house. Everywhere you look, you’re finding a phallus of sorts. The chess set is possibly my favourite. The penis chess set in the bathroom.

Penis and yoni. Penis and yoni.

Is there both?

There’s both. Didn’t notice the yonis?

I didn’t. I really didn’t. I’ve just been looking at the penises, clearly. I just like the kitchen, living room, kind of space.

I know. I love the house. I just want to pick up that house and move it somewhere and live in it.

The exterior, the cottage is on Airbnb, and obviously, now that people know the show, they can charge an extortionate amount of money for people to come and stay in the Sex Ed house.

But everyone who goes there is suddenly really disappointed, because the inside is nothing like the inside of the show. I mean, they have now done it up.

Yeah, but it’s not, and it could never be. I mean, the sprawling version that we have would not fit inside the house that’s there. I hear that you are a talented gamer. What does that mean?

I’ve always played games, growing up. It’s been a big part of my life. There was a period of time where I entered some competitions and competed in tournaments. I went to Las Vegas for a huge tournament.

You could make a lot of money these days, doing that.

You can, if you’re good enough, which I’m not, sadly. It is fun. And I do, there’s a few communities where it’s just like-minded gamers and geeks come and play games. There’s a gaming bar, there’s actually loads, really, near me. That’s really taken off.

Do people show up to see Asa Butterfield game?

No. There’s been tournaments. So, the bigger tournaments I’ve been to occasionally, there might be a group of people behind me watching me, watching me lose, depending whoever I’m playing against. It’s quite nice to not be that, and just be among the crowd.

Oh, my God, I’d pay a lot of money for that experience in life.

Yeah. I remember when – I think you probably remember this – when I bleached my hair blonde, and I think we did some press, and I went to a tournament with my blonde hair, and my jersey with my tag on the back. Yeah, it was cool. It’s a cool world.

View on Instagram

Well, that also brings me to your style, because you have a very cool, or what I consider a very cool sense of style.

Thanks, Gillian.

You’re welcome. How did that begin? At what point did you start to grow into the style that you have now? Because it’s unique.

I don’t know. I really don’t know. I really like Japanese clothes. So, I draw a lot of my inspiration from there. I like colour.

Did that come from a love of anime?

I don’t know. I’ve always liked Japanese culture, and have been introduced to it from quite a young age. My auntie is Japanese and my uncle used to live in Tokyo so I would spend some time out there with them.

I always enjoyed the food there, the film there, anime, and their fashion – I love the minimal, and just the shape of it. Yeah, I’m not really sure what it is. I guess I’ve got a good stylist.

Who gets you, which is important.

Exactly, who gets me. He’s always trying to push the boat out a bit. That’s boosted my confidence to wear different things.

Are there specific designers you like?

I like vintage sportswear. So I’ll go down to Brick Lane and get clothes from vintage shops and cool like European sports brands. I love a dungaree – really love a dungaree.

Really? I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen you in a dungaree.

Really? No, I’ve got a few pairs of colourful dungarees.

You could start a line of them…

Well, dungarees are very – I don’t know if they’re very in, but I feel like a lot of people are wearing dungarees these days. You can get some really cool ones.

I bet. I bet you could go quite bold.

OK, this is an idea. I’d have to come up with a catchy name for my dungaree line.

Oh, I think that will be easy. Coming up with a name will be quite easy, but I think you need to go in for a dungaree brand, Asa.

I’ll have a word. Start some sketches.

Back quickly to anime, do you recall what age you were when you first were introduced to Miyazaki?

I think I saw My Neighbour Totoro first. I remember seeing Spirited Away at the cinema when it came out, Screen on the Green.

I remember my uncle giving me the manga for them when I was younger, or he gave them to my brother who passed them down to me. Then my uncle gave me the boxset.

There’s this anime called Neon Genesis Evangelion, that was the first anime series I’d watched. It was this mecha robot and this young boy who has to save the planet. It’s really good. It’s really dark.

Even Totoro is kind of dark. I remember introducing it to my daughter, and I was so impressed by the fact that there was an element of fear. Totoro is not all innocent fluffy bear character. He’s got teeth.

Spirited Away too, because I saw it again recently, and I’d forgotten how dark it was.

 It’s so dark. And Princess Mononoke…

 I remember geeking out over your Princess Mononoke when you invited us all for dinner. You had one of the cells or something?

Some of the cells, yeah.

That blew my mind, because possibly my favourite Miyazaki film is Mononoke.

Very, very proud to be a part of that world, in a tiny, tiny way. Gosh, I think I might be done with questions.

I feel we’ve covered all the bases. It’s been lovely.

Well, thanks for the chat, Asa.

Thank you! It’s lovely to catch up. 

Sex Education S3 is on Netflix from 17 September

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