Glass interviews actor Ross Butler

WHEN murmuring began that a television show to be produced by Selena Gomez was in the works, the wheels of the internet’s rumour mill starting to turn a little faster. Upon the announcement that the show in question would be a Netflix adaptation of the hugely popular Young Adult novel 13 Reasons Why, millennial Twitter descended into a full-on meltdown. Fast forward to the show’s release, and the teen drama smashed records in every corner of the worldwide web, perhaps most notably becoming the most tweeted about show of 2017.

Of the main cast, few performances were as standout as Ross Butler’s portrayal of the sensitive jock Zach Dempsey. Having gained traction at the beginning of 2017 for his role as hard-headed antagonist Reggie in the CW’s Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why gave Butler the opportunity to flex his dramatic muscles with a storyline that revolved around his character’s unwitting contribution to the suicide of Hannah Baker, the show’s narrator. Glass caught up with Butler to discuss the astounding success of 13 Reasons Why, how he’s fighting for racial equality in Hollywood and the different career path he very nearly took.

Glass sits down with Ross ButlerRoss Butler. Photograph: Ssam Kim

What made you want to become an actor?
I actually didn’t grow up wanting to act, mostly because I didn’t believe that it was a possibility. My mother was a “tiger mom”, so she wanted me to go down an academic road in life, something stable and realistic for an Asian kid.

But I remember my best friend’s family and I watched Forrest Gump together and after the movie, my friend asked me if Forrest Gump was a real person. I responded “Yes”, half because I was 10 at the time, and half because I simply think it’s one of the best movies of all time, especially the acting; but my friend’s mom interrupted and said that Forrest was not real, but a written character, played by Tom Hanks. My mind was blown. I think that planted the seed.

I never tried acting after that until I turned 21, when my good friend bought me an acting class for 25 bucks because he had a feeling I’d like it. And he was right. It honestly was one of those cliché moments where I felt everything align.

You’ve stated that you didn’t initially believe you could be an actor, and you opted to study to be a chemical engineer. What was it that changed your mind and gave you the confidence to move to LA and begin your acting career?
I learnt early on in my academic career that I did not want to be a chemical engineer. Not only did I not want to be one, I hated the future I saw for myself. I shut down and just stopped going to all my classes related to chemistry and engineering. But thankfully, one of my elective classes was psychology, which I was in love with. I think my overall grade in that class was over 100 per cent. So I dropped out of school, moved home to Northern Virginia, saved up money, and moved out to LA, not to act, but just to drastically change the path I was on. So, again, when I went to my first acting class, everything clicked. Psychology was something I loved and acting was kismet.

You’ve been very vocal about rejecting stereotypically “Asian” roles in the past, i.e. the nerd. Why did you think it was important to turn these down?
I was keen to reject stereotypical roles because they weren’t innately who I am. I was an Asian-American actor in Hollywood – which is the exact opposite of the stereotype for half of my genetics, but I was supposed to fall in line to portray stereotypes? I am half-Caucasian, half-Asian, but growing up, I was subjected to Asian stereotypes. It shaped the mould of who I was expected to be and I’m fortunate that I can reject the typecasting. So I reject roles so that the next generation of Asian Americans hopefully don’t have to go through the same.

Did you face any challenges in auditioning for roles not specifically written for Asian actors?
At first, I was self-conscious about being the only ethnic person in the room. Nerves got to me a lot early on. I also found myself not going out on nearly as many auditions as my white friends, and that was disheartening. I was also dealing with a lot of rejection because I hadn’t quite refined my craft and I was not what Hollywood was looking for. The first few years were tough.

Glass sits down with Ross ButlerRoss Butler. Photograph: Ssam Kim

Growing up, did the lack of Asian roles in the US media affect your acting ambitions, and, if so, how?
Of course, not seeing representatives of who you are, in the field of work you want to be in, makes you think you can’t do it. However, it also put a fire in my belly necessary to book an acting job.

From your experience, do you see representation in the US media progressing for the better?
Without a doubt, things are getting better. The movie Crazy Rich Asians is a good example of a project that has taken things further. I hope the theatrical release does really well with all audiences.

What would you like to see change in Hollywood to improve this?
Realistic inclusion is all that is needed. Considering Asians are a relatively small percentage of the population in America, we can’t expect to be represented equally, but we deserve to be represented fairly and non-stereotypically, everyone does. We can star in “All American” roles because we are also normal Americans and live normal American lives. And my role in 13 Reasons Why depicts a typical member of a California high school in 2018.

Interestingly, in 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale you were playing similar characters – high school jocks. Could you give some insight into your decision to carry on with 13 Reasons Why and not Riverdale?
13 Reasons Why resonated with me on a completely different level. I loved playing Reggie because it allowed me to play a caricature of the American jock. But Zach Dempsey is a character that I felt able to give more depth to as far as vulnerabilities and insecurities. I felt a lot of athletes would relate to Zach as the “jock with feelings” because, just as I don’t like being stereotyped for my race, I think jocks don’t always want to be stereotyped as the super alpha male archetype.

13 Reasons Why was an unprecedented hit. Did you expect the show to achieve such huge success, becoming the most tweeted-about show ever?
When we were shooting the first season, we all knew it was a great show with a stunning concept. We also knew the way it was being written and delivered was exactly what needed to be done to make people talk about issues that needed to be talked about. And all that happened and the scale in which it happened, we couldn’t have truly seen that coming. But I’m glad that it has, we all are.

Glass sits down with Ross ButlerRoss Butler. Photograph: Ssam Kim

The show dealt with some very sensitive issues, such as suicide. How did you cope with the massive amount of media attention, including some criticism, that the show received?
Honestly, the fans helped me get through a lot of it. Publicly, there was a lot of love and some hate. But what made me feel like we made a positive impact were the thousands of messages I received from people who told me their story and how the show helped them open up to their family or their friends or a counsellor. That was the goal. Open those modes of communication.

It’s been announced that you’re joining the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) in the upcoming film Shazam! Can you tell us anything about your character in the movie, and what we can expect from it?
I can’t say anything about my character, but I will say that Shazam! will be fresh for the DCEU. It’s a script with a lot of heart and love. It has levity and depth. It’s not going to be a huge CGI display. You’ll get to see grounded relationships and see into the mind of these characters. I’m very excited to be able to talk about my character when I’m given the green light, but until then, hang tight!

Glass sits down with Ross ButlerRoss Butler. Photograph: Ssam Kim

How do you see your career progressing in the next five years?
I really want to do a romantic comedy. I grew up in the golden age of romcoms and, while usually not being huge blockbusters, they usually had some of the most memorable moments. They guided me in the teen years of how to ask a girl out on a date, where to go, what jokes to make, etc. So I think that would be a great next step for me, not only to again break stereotypes and explore new ground for the next generation but also because I think it would be a lot of fun. So, the general answer is that I would love to move into more film.

What is your ultimate ambition for your career?
My ultimate career ambition is to create. Whether it be a character after reading a script or putting together a project after seeing a story that inspires me, or creating a story from an idea that I feel needs to be shared. I believe storytelling is the most powerful medium we have for teaching, and I think the most powerful medium of storytelling is movie making. I am still relatively new to this industry, so there’s going to be some time before I get to that point, but everything I do and every project I choose and every professional relationship I make is directed towards the ultimate ambition of creating.

 by Thomas Marrington

Taken from the Glass Archive issue 33 — Vision. To make sure you never miss out on a copy of Glass, please visit here to subscribe

Photographer: Ssam Kim
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