As the boyish protagonist of Netflix’s stand-out comedy Sex Education, Asa Butterfield has won legions of fans — which can be both good… and bad. Jimi Famurewa talks to an actor dealing with next-level fame
The first year or so of the pandemic did strange, inexplicable things to all of us and this seemed especially true if you happened to be famous (we need only invoke the words ‘Gal Gadot’s Imagine’ to feel that familiar face-clawing horror all over again). But even so, it feels like a specific product of our virus-disrupted age that in May this year, even as lockdown sputtered out and much of the world reopened, the actor Asa Butterfield broadcast a live video of him cleaning his kitchen to his 4.3 million Instagram followers. And then, perhaps even more surprisingly, found that thousands of them really, really wanted to watch it.
‘Yeah, that was weird,’ says Butterfield with a half-smile. ‘I think at one point something like 8,000 people were watching me do the washing up.’ So was it a piece of The Truman Show-influenced performance art? A sly comment on the digital age’s perpetual hunger for piping hot content? The significant thing about Butterfield’s brief, unexpected foray into #cleanfluencing is what it tells us about the peculiar fervour around him and, specifically, his role in Netflix’s returning mega hit, Sex Education.
Before the show — an inveterately horny but emotionally tender chronicle of the sexual misadventures of secondary school students in a heightened John Hughesian reimagining of rural Britain — launched in early 2019, Butterfield had plenty of pedigree as a child actor without a properly defining breakthrough adult role. He was the doleful Nazi officer’s son in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, the 12-year-old lead in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and the intergalactic military prodigy alongside Harrison Ford in Ender’s Game; one of a handful of recognisable, British leading-men-to-be in the same class as Freddie Highmore, Will Poulter and Thomas Brodie Sangster.
But then the big bang of Sex Education’s success arrived (season one alone was watched by more than 40 million subscribers in its first month on the service) and things shifted. Now Butterfield is almost indivisible from his role as Otis Milburn, the gawky-cool, sexually blocked teenager who, alongside Emma Mackey’s Maeve Wiley, starts solving his classmates’ intimacy issues for money.
Now, without especially asking to be, he is something of a totemic Gen-Z everyman, with his hashtagged name garnering almost 57 million views on TikTok and his every downbeat utterance on social media (a video of him practising bass guitar, photos of his cats, dispatches from his other life as an esports enthusiast) inciting acute passion in the show’s surprisingly cross-generational fan base. So, yes, Butterfield’s fame has spiked, but while it is the sort of step-jump plenty of actors would kill for, it is a shift to which he is still very much acclimatising.
Grooming by Emma White Turle at The Wall Group using Oliver J Woods.
Stylist’s assistant: Charlotte Harney.
Photographer’s assistant: Freddie Payne.
Shot on location at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club on Kodak Professional Portra 400/Portra 160