Early in January of 2019, a sleeper hit debuted on Netflix. Thanks to the catchy name, strong cast, and excellent storytelling, “Sex Education” demanded attention. Writer and producer Laurie Nunn‘s ode to John Hughes high school comedies stars Asa Butterfield as an awkward teen named Otis. While Otis bungles most of his social interactions, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of sex and its importance in relationships. After all, his mother (Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist. When his mother’s profession is revealed to his high school, he begins a secret sex therapy practice for his peers. As the business takes off, his relationships to his best friend (played by Ncuti Gatwa) and business partner/love interest (Emma Mackey) evolve.
The comedy quickly picked up viewers, and by the end of the first week, Netflix reported that forty million people had watched at least one episode. The show received critical acclaim, earning a 90% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The show’s status as a populist hit and critical darling makes it an Emmy contender, especially for Butterfield and Anderson. Asa Butterfield sat down to talk about the role of the show in facilitating discussions on sex, what it was like to work with Anderson, and balancing dramatic and comedic tones on-screen.
Alan French/Awards Circuit: Now I do have to congratulate you on “Sex Education,” because it’s one of my favorite shows of the year.
Asa Butterfield: Oh thank you!
AF: My wife and I watched the whole show in one day and we looked at each other and asked if it was too soon to watch it again. How has the reaction to the show been for you? It was an instant hit and over 40 million people watched it over those first few weeks.
AB: Yeah, you never really know what to expect and how people would react to the show. We did take some risks with it and it’s definitely not like a typical Netflix show. But I feel like it hit at exactly the right moment when it needed to. I think it really connected with loads and loads of young people, and not even just young people.
Everyone could kind of see their school life and it was all a kind of ode to the John Hughes golden era of high school. I think it just really connected with people. It was great to have such a great response. It was so overwhelmingly positive and I’ve heard such lovely things about it. It’s really helped people in some cases and that’s all you can ask for.
AF: When you first read the scripts, what made you most excited about taking on the role of Otis?
AB: I found his relationship with his Mum the most interesting. Gillian (Anderson) had a lot of fun playing with that relationship. My Mum is also a therapist. Well she’s not a sex therapist, but she’s a psychologist so there are some similarities and parallels.
AF: I can imagine.
AB: Just playing someone whose relationship to sex is damaged, in some ways because of his past and his relationship with his Dad, was compelling. But he also has an incredibly open and kind of ease with his Mum that allows them to talk. It is a quite unusual dynamic with Mother/Son relationships that you don’t usually see on TV. He’s also very funny, kind of bumbling, but intelligent. He’s got this awkwardness, but also this maturity when he’s a therapist. There’s a lot there for me to play with and have fun with the character.
AF: You and Gillian Anderson are so good together when you’re on screen. You’ve worked with great actresses like Eva Green and Vera Farminga. What was different about working with Gillian?
AB: I think partially because now I’m a bit older, I was 21 when we filmed it, I’ve got a bit more confidence. I think I was able to have quite an adult relationship with her, and we could experiment with it. It really came quite easily. We didn’t have a rehearsal time at all so I only met Gillian the day before we started shooting together. We really had to hit the ground running and we found a very easy, natural banter between us. It felt very familiar.
She’s also hilarious. There are a few scenes I had with her, one in particular with Connor where they’re smoking a joint on a balcony, where Otis is supposed to be hating this moment. She’s down to Earth with this bully, but I couldn’t stop smiling because she’s so funny. I loved working with Gillian.
AF: You had some great chemistry with the rest of the cast, specifically Ncuti [Gatwa]. How did you develop that relationship?
AB: I’m not really sure. Again, it kind of just clicked. We were both really excited about the show, and we knew how important this relationship was. It’s kind of the central relationship of the show. Being back on set in a school environment brings out the childish side to you. The teen side to you comes out and Ncuti is so great in that part. I loved just letting him go to town with it, and that relationship was great.
AF: On the flip side, you and Emma [Mackey] were electric in a different way. There was a will they/won’t they relationship in addition to it being a professional business. How do you bring those elements out?
AB: We had very little rehearsal time because the show kind of came together very quickly. It was something we kind of just found. I think we were able to inhabit our characters quite quickly. That meant that when we were on set, we could all just play off of each other and know how we would react and behave around each other. It all just developed there.
I think it was because we all got on so well. Me, Emma, Ncuti, were all living in this sort of apartment complex and we all became really close. It meant when we’re on set we had this trust and ability to play off of each other. It meant we could have that chemistry.
AF: I really felt like the show was a drama masquerading as a comedy over those first few episodes. I think when you pick up Emma from the clinic it snaps into place. How did you handle balancing the very funny comedy with extremely funny moments?
AB: A lot of the credit goes to our writer, Laurie [Nunn] and the directors from last season, Ben [Taylor] and Kate [Herron], and really knowing the moments when you could hit a bit harder and connect emotionally with these characters. Having that meant the characters were so much more emotionally satisfying. It was well written and these characters are kind of believable and the situations they find themselves in are funny in themselves. We don’t really have to play too much into it.
AF: How early in the process did you meet Laurie Nunn?
AB: I don’t think I met Laurie until maybe just before we started shooting. The first people I met were Ben and Sian [Robins-Grace], one of the producers. I had the first few scripts but I wanted to see their vision and the kind of style of the show.
They told me they wanted to have that timeless John Hughes-feel that you don’t really see over here in high school dramas. They’re just not as colorful, they’re more depressing. It’s probably a lot more accurate representation of our school system. But having that ability to have the school be a character in its own, and have that vibrancy and funkiness brought a different edge to “Sex Education.” I think it stands out from other British comedies.
AF: My initial thoughts when I was watching it was that it felt like “Skins” meets John Hughes. Were the John Hughes movies part of the process of getting ready for the role?
AB: Less so for my role, but it was a big reference point for the show as a whole. There were a few films that I watched that Ben sent me that were his references for the show so that he could give me the idea of what he wanted it to feel like. They were “The Breakfast Club” and “Donnie Darko,” and Otis has a bit of Donnie in him.
AF: What were the scenes that were most exciting to shoot when you were reading through the scripts?
AB: I think a lot of the comedy. Because up until the last two or three years I’ve been much more of a dramatic actor. The projects I’ve done have been more dramatic, action or sci-fi. So to be able to actual comedic scenes and have a funny character, being able to play with that was really exciting for me. I’ve done a little more recently with the last few films I’ve been a part of, but Otis is funny in quite a weird way. It was fun to play with.
AF: Well you’ve been a known entity to the entertainment community since you were eleven with “The Boy with the Striped Pajamas.” How did this feel, going into a high school show, when you were mostly front and center for the world growing up?
AB: Well this is the first TV show I’ve been a part of, at least in terms of a lead role, so just jumping into that world was exciting for me. Yeah, it’s strange to think that I’ve been working that long. I guess I’ve just gotten used to it, shooting in my time off. It’s so normal to me now, which is funny to think about.
AF: The show has also helped open up conversations about sex. Why do you think that is?
AB: I think sex, in general, is quite a difficult thing to talk about, especially for young people. Especially with their parents. It’s just as hard for parents to talk to their kids about it as well. I think having a show that almost does that for you, and opens up that gateway for conversation, is great. We’ve had shows that feature sex prominently, but the sex is always gratuitous or trying to be sexy. Our show wanted to really show what it is, the awkwardness, and how it’s funny or never what you’d expect. At least for the first few times. Having that honesty was important because it meant that people were not so self-conscious. We’ve all been there, but it’s difficult to talk to anyone about it.
AF: Do you think the openness about sex makes it easier for the characters to open up to each other emotionally?
AB: Probably. It helps them connect with their emotions, especially their strong feelings for love.
AF: I know the show’s already been renewed for Season 2, so when can we expect it? I’m already chomping on the bit for more.
AB: Well, we just started shooting this week. Even though I don’t know when exactly it’s being released, we’ll be back for Season 2 early next year. We’re back at Moordale now going full steam ahead.
AF: What are some other projects you’ve worked on between the two seasons?
AB: Last year I did a film called “Greed,” a Michael Winterbottom film. We were filming in Greece for a few weeks, and that should come out this year. It was another comedy, which I was really excited about. We had a great cast with Steve Coogan, Stephen Fry, and Isla Fisher, so that will be my next thing that comes out. Working on “Sex Ed” this year, and I’ve got some things which look like they’ll be going ahead. Keeping busy!
AF: Have you ever considered directing? I know its something that gets asked to a lot of actors who have worked with prominent directors.
AB: In certain ways yes. I’ve got a lot of things that I want to get made. I’ve got an idea for a TV show that I want to try to get produced. My role in that, I’m not really sure what it would be, but I’d probably have a go at writing it. But directing it? I’m not sure. We’ll see, probably one day.
AF: Speaking of which, you’ve already worked with Martin Scorsese, Gavin Hood, and Tim Burton. Who is another director you’d like to work within the next few years that really stands out to you?
AB: There are great British directors who I haven’t work with yet but I’d love to in the future. Shane Meadows is one of them, and “This Is England” is one of my favorite films. Edgar Wright is another.
AF: Thank you so much for sitting down with me and the best of luck with awards season. You really do deserve to be heavily considered.
AB: Oh thank you so much Alan. Take care!