Asa Butterfield says Netflix’s Sex Education taught him about the complexity of masculinity, too. The show, whose third season just dropped, has become known for provoking conversations around male friendship, intimacy, and sex among its loyal young fandom, and the 23-year old British actor who plays the lead is no exception: he says “the show has taught me about the spectrum of sexuality.”
Butterfield plays Otis Milburn, a teenager who at first struggles with his mother’s occupation as a sex therapist. Then Milburn starts his own sex education business at fictional Moordale Secondary School, helping his friends through their own sexual frustrations and experiences. While grappling with his own puberty in real-time, he becomes well-known for his advice. Two seasons later, Butterfield describes Otis, who now has a girlfriend, as more self-assured. “I enjoyed seeing this sassier side of Otis. We haven’t seen this side of him before, and I’m having fun with it,” he says.
Butterfield talked to GQ about Sex Education season three, the difference between himself and his character, and his love of video games.
What was your sex education growing up?
I grew up in the United Kingdom, and we had sex education so infrequently in school. I don’t remember there being very much about intimacy or sexuality. There certainly wasn’t anything about gay sex. I remember most people in my class giggling and not taking any of it seriously anyway. I don’t think we were ever taught about pleasure. I have this memory of my teacher bringing in a model penis, and we took turns putting a condom on this blue penis. I remember no one being able to do it. It was too embarrassing, like just cripplingly awkward. Bless her, though, our teacher tried. My school was relatively progressive too. There are many places around the world where sex education is not even taught.
What has playing Otis taught you about sexuality?
The show has taught me about the spectrum of sexuality. Everyone’s interests and preferences are so personal and unique to them. There are so many factors that can play into sexuality. Everyone’s on their respective journey.
Otis taught me so much because he’s such an empathetic person and a great listener. I think hearing that and seeing that in a script, and there were various things I didn’t even know existed, like vaginismus, for example, I didn’t realize that was a thing. I’ve learned so many new terms for people’s sexuality and how everyone is still learning about themselves.
One of my favorite relationships on the show is between Otis and Eric [Effiong]. They are two very different people, but they connect and love each other. They are truly best friends. We don’t see that often on-screen between two males. I think all of the male characters in the show subvert a lot of expectations as to what, on the surface, you might think they would be like. I credit Laurie [Nunn] and the whole writing team. They have shaped these characters, not just men, but women, everyone, as incredibly complex with layers to them. No one’s perfect on the show. Everyone has their faults and downfalls, which are real and relatable. I think that’s one of the reasons people like the show so much because it is real people going through their adolescence in real-time.
Fans seem to have a hard time separating you from Otis, especially on social media. Does that bother you?
I see parts of myself in Otis. He is quite a relatable character—the kind of awkwardness of relationships and identity and not knowing who you are. He taps into the unknown feelings associated with the teenage experience. I enjoy playing awkward characters, I find it comes naturally to me, and there’s a lot of humor in awkwardness, and it’s inherently relatable for a lot of people.
People on the streets sometimes call me Otis. I get it. I usually say, “Hi, my name’s not Otis.” They don’t necessarily know my real name yet, and that’s fine. No one has come up to me asking for sexual health questions, thank god, because I don’t know what I would say.
Some fan theories speculate about whether Otis will ever explore queerness on-screen. What do you think about that?
I’ve never had any suggestions or gotten any leads to suggest that he’s disguised any part of him, including his sexuality. But then again, everyone is constantly changing, so who knows?
How does Otis evolve in this new season?
He’s matured a lot, especially concerning his home life. In season one, he’s a lot more childish and selfish. His relationship with his mom in this season is really sweet, and that’s only evolving. His mom is pregnant too, and that’s going to make him only continue to learn once he has this sibling in his life. I’m excited to watch him become a role model.
I’d say he’s gotten sassier this season. I think it’s largely due to this new relationship in his life. She’s turned over a page for him, and he’s become more confident. I had a lot of fun playing that side to him. He’s dressing a bit differently; he’s got a spring in his step. And it’s nice, as an actor, whenever you’ve got a character you’re familiar with to find new sides to them and new shades to play. I enjoyed seeing this sassier side of Otis. We haven’t seen this side of him before, and I’m having fun with it.
When you date people off-screen, do you think your personality changes?
Yes. I think everyone changes their personalities when they’re dating someone new. You’re trying to be charming and hopefully trying to impress someone. Everyone puts on a bit of an act and tries a bit harder, especially around the first date. I’ll even put on an American accent! I’m kidding, by the way.
You recently joined the esports Team Liquid. Fans speculate that you’re working on developing a game. How is it going?
It’s still quite conceptual. I don’t have enough time! Gaming’s always been a passion of mine, and I’m sure it will continue to be. It’s a world I’ve always been invested in. I don’t have the time to commit to being a pro, but I want to introduce it to more people. I don’t think people really understand how far it’s come and how huge of an industry it is. I think of gaming as an art form and a way of staying connected with people. I played tons of games over lockdown because it was a great way to be social when you couldn’t see people in real life.
I don’t stream on Twitch, but I do watch games on Twitch. I also tend to watch competitive sports, games I’m interested in, and tournaments that are going on, whether that’s Super Smash Brothers, Boho, or Valiant. I’ve got a few big servers on Discord with friends of mine I know, people I only know online, and then also people I’ve known online for years and then come to meet them in person.
At what point do you tell new internet friends that you’re a famous actor?
Some of them know it’s me. I’ve known many of these people for years now, and I’m not going to lie to them if they ask me what I’m doing [offline]. There are now people that I consider my good friends, who I only spoke to online for quite a few years. We recently all went to a big tournament. It was so strange meeting all these people, who for years you’ve only ever heard my voice. It’s cool that games can bring people together like that.
Is your username your real name?
God, no. I’m a relatively private person.
Would you say gaming informs your acting at all?
It’s just a good escape; everyone deserves that. I’m a very competitive person, so it scratches that itch of me. I don’t play sports. I used to play rugby when I was a kid, but I don’t think rugby and being an actor go hand in hand because of insurance issues. They don’t want me breaking my neck for obvious reasons. It’s fun to have something you can get better at or challenge people in. I’m a huge nerd as well. I love technology and gadgets.
Your fans are obsessed with asking if you’re single. Do you want to answer that?
No, I want to keep them guessing.