Speaking to Variety from his home in London, Asa Butterfield – on a short break from filming Season 3 of “Sex Education,” before returning to South Wales, where the Netflix comedy shoots – expresses his gratitude for being able to work during the pandemic.
Filming was meant to begin in spring, but – thanks to you-know-what – was pushed back to autumn. He wasn’t able to work on anything else last year, but feels blessed to be working at all.
“This last year was very quiet. Everything is pretty quiet for everyone. And then we’ve been on ‘Sex Ed’ since September, so we’ve been pretty busy, which has been nice. I’m so lucky to be working, and having something to focus my energies on. I’ve really appreciated that.”
He adds: “We’re coming to the end of the shoot, and I do have some things lined up for afterwards, this spring and summer. So fingers crossed, all of that works out and all those come together.”
Like all other U.K. production teams nowadays, the “Sex Ed” cast and crew have had to abide by strict COVID-19 protocols laid down by the British Film Commission, especially important given the intimacy involved in the show. But it hasn’t impinged on his work as an actor unduly.
“I think intimacy or not, we’ve been very careful, and we’ve got these guidelines which we’re following,” Butterfield says. “For me as an actor – I think for all actors – it hasn’t changed too much. Once we’re shooting, we just do what we do. And between that, we wear masks all the time, we get tested all the time. And then we’re essentially in a bubble together.”
He adds: “We’ve had to change a bit of the way it works, but thankfully not too much. And it certainly hasn’t detracted from the show at all, I don’t think. Everyone’s just really getting on with it. And it feels pretty normal now as, at this point, we’ve been doing it for four or five months.”
Alongside Butterfield’s character Otis, Season 3 sees the return of Maeve (Emma Mackey), Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Jean (Gillian Anderson), Adam (Connor Swindells), Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) and the evil Mr. Groff (Alistair Petrie). They are joined by some newbies, including a new headteacher at Moordale, Hope, played by “Girls” star Jemima Kirke, and “Harry Potter” star Jason Isaacs as Peter, the brother of Mr. Groff. There’s also a new pupil joining Otis’ class – recording artist and songwriter Dua Saleh makes their acting debut as Cal, a non-binary student.
Although the new characters “do shake things up a little bit,” Butterfield says, and “bring a new perspective and highlight new issues,” in the main Season 3 sticks with the group of characters that we already know and love. “It’s been done really well and sensitively,” he says. “It’s just building on this ensemble, which is quite exciting.”
Expect a few revelations in the new season, which hopefully will keep the show’s many fans lusting for more. “When I got the script for Season 3, I was surprised at where the storyline went, and I quite like that, the fact that I really had no idea where this was going to go or where the relationships were going to go,” Butterfield says. “So I think that, just the kind of not really knowing and being surprised, is something that I appreciate, and I think the audience appreciates. I don’t think anyone wants to be able to see exactly where things are going to go.”
He adds: “I think we all kind of grew up a bit between seasons, and the characters did so too, especially Otis. In Season 2 he learns a lot about himself and really connects with himself, mentally and physically, if you know what I mean. He’s got the whole story of self-discovery, and relationships. Yeah, it was fun to play with, and fun to get that evolution.
“And then coming to the third season, as well, there’s more things which come out, and he’s kind of come out of the shell even more, and got more charismatic. It’s nice.
“Coming from someone who’s only ever really done film, it is fun to be a part of a show and part of a character that does grow up, and has a much longer arc than you could have in a 90 minute movie.”
One of the strengths of the show is that – although Otis is the thread that holds it together – it’s an ensemble piece that allows each character to shine, and that’s down to the quality of the writing by the team led by the show’s creator Laurie Nunn.
“I think that’s in the story, the stories being really well crafted, and the characters being really well-thought-out. And they never feel like they’ve been shoehorned in, just for the sake of it,” Butterfield says. “Otis’ story is one of so many, and they’re all equally powerful. And especially in the second season we saw even more of these parallel storylines, and we got to learn more about these characters.”
He adds: “Because we had such a fantastic response in the first season, everyone loved these characters and these people and this world. And they managed to break down the stereotypes of what you expect a bully to be like, or what you expect a jock to be like.”
Butterfield ascribes the show’s success to a number of factors. “I think the show came at a really important time when people were really needing something that was totally honest, and didn’t take itself too seriously. And it came at a time when young people and teenagers are more grown up than ever, and have a greater understanding, and are exposed to a lot more, and just have all these other things going on, that they really resonated with a show that was just incredibly relatable, but still managed to keep the kind of – I’m not going to say magical, fairytale-esque quality – but it does have that color and vibrancy of this world that is slightly larger than life, but is still human and relatable and touching and real.”
Although the show tackles some quite serious issues, it manages to do so in an entertaining way. “That’s one of the reasons why people really enjoyed watching it because it does deal with these almost taboo topics that people don’t really want to discuss. No teenager really wants to talk about sex with their parents, and vice versa. No parent really wants to start that conversation. To have a show that is a medium for that conversation to start, but does so in a really disarming, and entertaining, and frank manner was really clever. And credit to the writers for creating these characters, which allowed that to happen.”
Butterfield has started to write material for the screen himself, which he plans to produce, but declines to elaborate on what kind of project he’s working on.
“I’m not sure if I can yet. I’ve been working with a friend of mine on something, which hopefully I’ll be able to talk about soon. It’s still quite early days, but something we’ve been working on for a while. It’s fun to be on the other side of things. I’ve never done it before,” he says.
“As actors when you get a script or you sign onto a job, that’s pretty much one of the last things that happens, and then suddenly, it’s ready to go. You’re not a part of the years of brainstorming and writing or finding mood boards and all of that stuff that you don’t really think of as an actor. So coming in from the other side has been quite cool.”
Butterfield has been acting professionally since the age of 10. How does he cope with being so well-known, especially in the age of social media?
“I think I’ve managed with it quite well. I don’t put much on social media, unless it’s something I’m passionate about and really want to get out there. The environment is something I’m quite outspoken about. Generally, I try and not take social media too seriously or not use it that much, and not read all the things on it because it’s so distracting, and can be so destructive and really damage your mental health.”
He adds: “I try not to get sucked into the social media whirlpool most of the time, but it’s difficult because it’s on your phone, it’s on your computer, and you get notifications. I try and keep a bit of distance.
“I do feel some responsibility too, because as someone with a large reach, I can share information or help get people to join important movements. So I do feel some sort of responsibility, but I try and not let that take over my life.”
His interest in environmental issues, which dates back to when he was a child, may at some point cross over to his professional life. “The environment’s always been something I discuss and share information about and try and share links to resources. I think that’s got to be the biggest one for me. And I’ve always been quite passionate. As a kid I loved animals, and going out into wildlife has always been part of my life. Even when I was younger, what I wanted to work in was the natural world, and it’s still something I want to do. One of my dreams is to film wildlife documentaries, and we’ll see whether that ever happens.”
And with that the young actor prepares to return to the wilds of Wales, and to engage in another session of “Sex Education.”