As a rule, you shouldn’t compare actors to their characters. They don’t like it. But Asa Butterfield — star of Netflix’s hormone-fuelled mega-hit Sex Education — isn’t making it easy.
Why? Because the actor, much like Sex Education’s teen protagonist Otis Milburn, is wise beyond his 24 years. He’s also blessed with the same approachable, amiable — and occasionally awkward charm of his on-screen counterpart. Extraordinarily, his real-life mother even shares the same occupation as his character’s — played with svelte curtness in the show by Gillian Anderson. But more on that coincidence in a bit. Firstly, let’s focus in on perhaps the best ‘Butterfield-Milburn’ parallel; that almost-there, wispier-than-wispy, tip-top, lip-topping moustache.
“Oh, the moustache?” laughs Butterfield. “Well I’m glad you appreciate it. Because there have been a lot of mixed opinions about it, let me tell you. Mostly from the internet — which is to be expected, I suppose. And I wasn’t the biggest fan myself, if I’m honest”.
The moustache, written into the script by the comedy-drama’s creator, Laurie Nunn, is combed and scorned equally from the opening scenes of Sex Education’s third season, which lands on Netflix on September 17. Filmed during lockdown, the new episodes are much-anticipated — and will return viewers to Moordale Secondary School for another term of laughs, lube and heartbreak.
In this season, Butterfield’s Otis, who has spent the last two seasons doling out clandestine relationship advice copped from his sex therapist mother, is showing signs of growth. He’s growing in confidence, growing in maturity and — as the actor continues to give grounds for — growing in that oh-so straggly ‘stache.
“Well, it’s not like Otis — nor I — have particularly thick facial hair,” Butterfield continues. “So it was always going to be one of those teenage fluffy ‘taches. In fact, I think they based it on my own — and I’m not sure how I feel about that!”
Today, Gentleman’s Journal joins Butterfield in a sparse North London studio. We’ve presented the actor with rack-upon-rail of preppy styles, and plonked him squarely behind a school desk. (He promptly clambers on top of the prop). Even off-duty, he’s the picture of an errant, energetic student — albeit today with a slightly tidier moustache.
But Butterfield really does look comfortable in that classroom chair; feet up on the table and hoody tucked underneath his blazer. Practice makes perfect, after all — and the actor has kept returning to the locker-lined halls of Moordale Secondary every year since 2018. But, while his facial fur may be new for the show’s third season, Butterfield says that much remained the same — and returning to set felt like a warm welcome back to his longest-running role.
“When you already know the character, and the world that you’re going into, it does take the pressure off,” he reasons. “Because, when you usually start a new job, there are so many unknowns. So, to have that familiarity was really nice, and not something I’ve really experienced that much.
“For most of the jobs I do,” he continues, “it’s a totally new team, a new director, location, cast. So, to have all of that already, it definitely lessened the nerves — because I knew what I was doing”.
Sex Education, which this year introduces Girls’ Jemima Kirke as Moordale’s mercurial new headteacher, has been met with universal acclaim from critics. In particular, its approach to teenage relationships — unerringly depicting young people as adults rather than children — has been widely praised. But how long can Butterfield and his fellow actors carry on playing teenagers? Does the actor see ‘age disparity’ as a looming problem?
“It’s definitely something that people are aware of,” he nods. “But there are some creative liberties that you have to take. We’ve all certainly got a little bit older since season one — so we can’t keep playing 17-year-olds. I think Ncuti [Gatwa, who plays Otis’ best friend Eric in the show] has just turned 27 — and I know he feels weird playing someone ten years younger than him.
“It’s not like there’s a ticking clock,” Butterfield adds, “but we do have to wrap this up. I don’t think the show is going to follow these kids into university, because it’s a story about teenage life, and the teenage experience”.
Does that mean the show could be coming to an end?
“I don’t actually know what Laurie’s got planned for us in potential future seasons — or whether they’ll happen”.
Viewers would certainly be sorry to lose the Milburn’s melodrama; Butterfield’s relationship with his on-screen mother is the beating heart of an already-heartfelt show. And it’s a dynamic that mirrors the actor’s real-life childhood. Because, although Butterfield is quick to clarify that his mother is “definitely not a sex therapist”, she is a psychologist — who ensured he was raised in an emotionally-open environment.
“There was nothing quite as personal as Jean [Milburn’s] probing!” Butterfield laughs. “But I was lucky, yes. My mum’s always advocated being quite open — talking about things freely. And I think that’s great. I think all families could benefit from that kind of relationship. Because it is difficult to get kids and teenagers to talk about what they’re feeling. Jean definitely crosses the line — but my mum, thankfully, remained respectfully distant. But there are some similarities, I suppose!”
Butterfield confesses that his own mother is “a bit of a hippy”. But family is very important to the actor — he lives with his brother (and several cats), and has adopted his mother’s surname, Farr, as a middle name. In fact, a cursory browse of Wikipedia reveals the actor has a slew of magnificent middle names, with ‘Thornton’ and ‘Maxwell’ also in the mix.
“No!” Butterfield interjects. “My Wikipedia page is wrong! This is a whole thing; a whole thing around my middle names. When I was born — and I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent here — I had all these other names. But, after about a week, my parents thought it was ridiculous to have six names. So, on my actual birth certificate, there’s a different middle name. My actual middle name is ‘Bopp’.
“It’s inspired by the day I was born,” he explains, “when there was a comet in the sky called Hale-Bopp”.
“There’s not a ticking clock, but we do have to wrap this up…”
But his parents are far from astronomy buffs, adds the actor. They are, however, creatives. Butterfield’s father is a keen musician and taught Asa how to play the piano when he was younger. And, together, his parents safeguarded him through his early career — acting as chaperones at auditions and productions around the country. It was only when they stopped accompanying him, Butterfield says, that he began to feel the transition from ‘child actor’ to, simply, ‘actor’.
“It was gradual,” he nods. “And I sort of take it as a compliment that I can still play youth. I’m at that point in my career where I can have a foot on both sides of the line; playing more mature roles and younger roles.
“Although there was a film,” he adds, “called Journey’s End, which I did when I was 19. And that was quite a mature role. It was very much a collaborative effort between a group of men, all playing military officers. And I felt pretty much an equal. I didn’t feel like I was the kid on set, as I had done in the past — understandably. I felt like I could bring my own ideas and be treated as an adult on set, which was nice. That’s a nice feeling.”
That’s not to say Butterfield hadn’t enjoyed his fair share of big roles before Journey’s End. He rose to prominence in the tragic The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, worked for directors including Tim Burton, and even starred in Martin Scorsese’s extravagant, elegant ode to cinema, Hugo — a film which this year celebrates its 10-year anniversary.
“Does it?” says Butterfield. “Did it come out in 2011? Bloody hell. I have a lot of images in my head from Hugo; I remember what the set looked like. And I remember that it was a really long shoot — about nine months including rehearsals and stuff.
“It definitely shaped me as an actor,” he continues, “and it really helped me find my passion for filmmaking — not just acting, but cinema — and all the different elements that go into making a film. It gave me a massive appreciation for that. I don’t think I’ll ever work on a set as incredible as that again. But, being thirteen at the time, I don’t think I fully appreciated how unique that experience was.”
What about Scorsese? Did Butterfield fully appreciate how big a deal his director was?
“Yes,” he says, before pausing. “To an extent. I’d only seen one of his films — as most are obviously inappropriate for a kid. And I remember, when I told people I was working on a Scorsese movie, seeing their reactions. I was like: ‘Oh, okay, this is a big deal’. But having not seen his movies and being relatively inexperienced as a film actor — I think that possibly worked in my favour. I think if I was working for Scorsese now, I’d feel a lot more pressure than I did as a 13-year-old.”
Which brings us back to the easy, intimacy-coordinated atmosphere of the Sex Education set. Butterfield reveals that viewers will see a different side to Otis this season — as his character fuses even further with Butterfield’s real-life, laid-back self.
“We definitely see shades of Otis that we haven’t seen before,” he agrees. “He’s more confident, more colourful — he’s got a spring in his step that I think he might have been slightly embarrassed about before. And that’s partially due to this new relationship he’s got in his life. She brings out a sassiness that I really enjoyed playing as an actor.
“It’s fun to do new things,” he adds. “And, when you’ve got a character you’ve been playing for a while, it’s nice to find new moments, shades and vibes.”
And so to the big question; what was Butterfield himself like during his school days? The actor hedges, saying he was “relatively popular” and “pretty normal”. “I was a little bit geeky,” he laughs, “but not a complete nerd”. Despite the ‘starring-for-Scorsese’ side-hustle, Butterfield says that his was the typical British secondary school experience. With drama, presumably, being his favourite subject?
“No, actually. I didn’t really study drama at school — or even like it. Because I did a lot of that outside of school, so I felt this sort of pressure on me that everyone expected me to just be amazing at it.
“But I enjoyed school,” he consents, “Because it was a chance for me to be a real teenager — and not be a grown-up, as I sometimes had to when I was working. I was definitely mature for my age, which I had to be when working in those pretty adult environments.”
And, although school’s out for Asa, he’s still learning. Fans of Sex Education have lobbied for the show to be screened in school biology lessons — to teach, inform and illuminate students in its unpatronising way. Butterfield laughs at the suggestion, but admits that he has learnt more on set about sex than he ever did in school.
“My experience of sex education in school is that I can’t really remember it. I don’t think I realised that there were things I wasn’t learning. Because it was very much ‘the birds and the bees’ — the science behind it.
“The show is more about the reality of sex and sexual relationships; and the spectrum. I’ve definitely learnt more from the show, and I just feel generally more comfortable talking about this sort of thing. I realised that it’s just a normal part of life. But it’s hard to teach teenagers about sex. And what I think this show does well is make people laugh. It disarms them — and then teaches them stuff in quite an honest, relatable and non-judgemental way. And you often don’t realise that you’ve learned something until afterwards.”
"I didn’t really study drama at school — or even like it…”
Clearly, we could all learn a thing or two from Sex Education. And the show’s appeal extends beyond its frank and forthright relationship advice. From the inexplicably vintage cars motoring around Moordale to the scudding electropop soundtrack, it has carved out a pop culture niche all of its own. Even the fashion — flary, vibrant and stitched together in retro John Hughes-style — has transcended the screen.
In fact, perhaps Butterfield’s best anecdote concerns Otis’ signature jacket in the show; a block-striped padded piece from an old Wrangler collection that he picked out with the show’s costume designer.
“So, since the show has come out, there have been several replicas of that jacket,” he explains. “Some brands have even made their own. And, funnily enough, I was in the corner shop near my house, and I bumped into someone wearing one.
“And I was looking at them,” he laughs, “thinking: ‘That’s Otis’ jacket’. And I thought they must have seen the show and got a replica. Then they saw me; recognised me. And we were just looking at each other, having a moment. So I went over, and I asked them, and it turned out that it wasn’t a replica. They actually just had — and were wearing in the corner shop next to my house — the only other vintage Wrangler jacket like Otis’ that I’ve ever seen. Wild.”
Season 3 of Sex Education launches on Netflix on 17th September. With thanks to Emelia Gayner for wardrobe assistance and Bridie Scriven for production.
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