In some sense, Ross Butler never fully fit in. His unwillingness to conform to expectations of him often left him on the fringes, but that’s also what’s made him stand out.
Born in Singapore and raised in Virginia, at 20 he made the decision to move to the cultural mecca of Los Angeles. Rejecting stereotypical Asian roles didn’t make an already ambitious dream any easier, but that bold decision led him to find beautifully nuanced roles on 13 Reasons Why and Riverdale. For some that level of, seemingly, overnight fame goes to their heads, inflating their egos exponentially. The adoration makes them forget why they started in the first place, leading them to pursue further fame with a reckless abandon.
That isn’t the case for 29-year-old Ross Butler. Throughout our conversation, his responses are confidently considered, with a lack of filler that any public speaker would kill for. He’s quietly confident yet, without a hint of ego, unwavering in his determination to make the next generation of Asian-Americans see themselves represented in a way they historically haven’t been.
Speaking on how he started out, Ross explains “The technical answer is I went to LA when I was 20, and my friend bought me an acting class for $25 when I turned 21. Then, the more and more I did it, the more I went down the rabbit hole. And as I got older, I saw the signs of my younger self leaning in that direction because I was always putting on performances. I was always the kid that was trying to be funny and put on different personas. I wanted to be someone other than myself growing up– and that’s another discussion– but it just led me to express myself from different people’s points of view. Like, how would they feel in this situation? Even with presentations in school, I’d always go with a more theatrical presentation than an essay. I’d do a whole acting exercise… but at the time I didn’t realize what I was doing was considered acting.”
Many aspiring actors move to LA already equipped with a detailed understanding of the entertainment industry, but that wasn’t the case for Ross. “The entertainment industry was something I didn’t know a thing about. Of course, we all know acting from the standpoint of watching TV and movies, but there’s a whole other part of the iceberg that we don’t see… The business of acting, the rejections, going to acting class, and there are just so many factors that people who aren’t in the industry don’t see.”
“The whole moving to LA situation for the first two or three years was the biggest challenge for me, but early in my career– at around 23– I told my team not to send me out for Asian roles… It cut my auditions in half. It was odd adjusting to a completely new lifestyle because the choice to be an actor is really a 24-hour job. The training to be in this career was going on set, learning to manage your time and how to show up to set, working a 13-hour day, go home to memorize lines and wake up the next to perform them all. While somehow being able to fit in a social life and the gym.”
When asked about the decision to reject any stereotypical roles, Ross candidly explains, “Back in 2013-2014, those were the only roles for available to Asian actors so it was tough, but going back to what I said before, that’s because the people I saw on-screen were not me. They didn’t reflect who I was. It was something I didn’t want to be associated with; I didn’t want to be associated with the guy that only does martial arts or the guy that’s only the overachiever. So, my career started off hard at first; it was a steep slope to climb. But once I broke through, that’s kind of what made my career was that decision.”
A significant moment in Ross’s career was appearing in the DC blockbuster Shazam. Reflecting on the experience and its impact, he explains, “It was a crazy feeling. I think my character was one of the first on-screen Asian superheroes. It was nice to just play a superhero that wasn’t a martial artist or a Tibetan monk. He was all that I wanted to see as a kid. It was definitely a surreal experience to put on the superhero suit for the first time, and it literally just be a superhero suit, not a karate kit or anything. It was absolutely surreal and just the manifestation of what I wanted to do for years. It’s just reinforcing it and continuing to push that image forward of just the non-stereotype Asian-American.”
While Butler’s determination and excitement about the future of representation in the media is unrelenting, recent events including the substantial pay disparity between Crazy Rich Asians screenwriter Adele Lim and her Caucasian counterpart highlight that the problem is still far from solved. When questioned on how he thinks the industry needs to change to increase representation in an authentic meaningful way, Ross explains, “It goes back to culture. The Asian-American minority group is something that’s relatively, I shouldn’t say new, but one that we haven’t focused on. It’s something that’s turned a blind eye to. I read an article on Vice about Asian-Americans being the model minority and how Asians are stereotyped as the overachievers. They’re seen as people that are always going to be the doctors, the lawyers, the engineers or follow that kind of path. It sounds like a great stereotype, but what are the repercussions for if or when you fail? What kind of mental unhappiness is associated with thinking that you were born into a race that was always going to succeed and then not? You fall into a pattern of believing that you’re not only failing yourself but failing your genetics, what you were born into.”
He continues, “You don’t need to be an academic. Success isn’t based on your grades or on your salary. It’s rated on your happiness and willingness to follow your passion. Then also to improve the life of the generation that’s going to come after you. Just being in this industry we’re just paving the way to try and get rid of that model minority stereotype of being an academic superstar and that recognizing that failing isn’t a bad thing, it’s part of a learning curve. And you don’t need to force yourself to be unhappy just to fulfill some sort of cultural predisposition that other people expect of you.”
Butler’s role in Shazam! will obviously have an enduring impact. When we see ourselves on screen, the sometimes-restrictive expectations that we placed upon ourselves can be drastically altered. Additionally, how others see us changes too, allowing us the freedom to pursue our passions unhindered by baseless and constricting boundaries, that are often rooted in arbitrariness. Given the nature of the role in Shazam! and its impact, Ross remained surprisingly calm and determined to make sure the role reflected society properly. “As long as I’m staying true to myself and sticking to my guns and my opinions on what it means to be an Asian-American, I feel pretty confident in it.”
“In the first script, there was something that seemed off in the portrayal of Asian-Americans, where it felt very stereotypical and I had a chat with the writer and the director about it. They were super open to changing it, which made me feel a lot more comfortable with it. So yeah, just sticking to your guns is really what it is. Just really pushing for what you believe in and it’s not something you have to try with. It’s actually easier to just say how you feel and what you think than try to not say it because I think that just compounds tension. Like if you see something wrong and you don’t say it, you just have this inner conflict that just keeps building up and that’s when you feel uncomfortable. Just saying how you feel is almost always the easier route.”
Speaking up isn’t something that always comes so easy for Butler’s character on 13 Reasons Why, Zach Dempsey. His astounding performance as Zach sees him masterfully navigate the inner conflict. Drawing on his personal experiences, allowing his performance to be enriched with authenticity. “For me, it wasn’t hard at all because that’s how I grew up. As a kid, I was jumping between different social groups. Zach’s issues come from being a part of a group and a jock culture that expects a certain behavior. He is conflicted because he doesn’t think jocks should resort to this behavior. But, then again, he wants to fit in, just like other kids. He tries to ride that line of being the good guy but also being popular and being an athlete. I think that’s a feeling a lot of people are familiar with– the need to belong but then also dealing with things that come up within your social groups or environment that you don’t necessarily agree with, but being unwilling to speak up. Going back to what we just said, it’s easier to just say it and come forward, and if Zach had done that, he would have been a lot happier.”
Butler’s ability to slip back into the high school mindset, especially given the vast societal changes since he was in school, is extraordinary. Reflecting on the experience, Butler said: “Going back more than a decade is weird. I think high schoolers now have so much more to deal with and have so much more pressure on them than when I was in high school. We had social media back then, like Myspace, but it wasn’t as accessible as it is today. Because everyone has these apps on their phones, there’s this constant pressure to maintain an image you’ve created for yourself.”
“I think that’s kind of how Zach feels at times, that he’s decided to be the jock, and now he has to keep up with appearances. I think that’s a problem that’s lasted for a while but what I think is different now is this constant need to push out content that reinforces the persona you’ve crafted for yourself. I think that part was a little tough for me in high-school because I was always reinventing myself; I didn’t like to stick to one ‘character.’ It was definitely weird at first, but after three seasons, these characters have gone through so much, and grown up so fast so I actually relate with them more now.”
Being able to so successfully sympathize with the show’s multi-layered characters has also completely changed his life, in more ways than you may think. “The past four years have been a crazy ride. It’s indescribable. 13 Reasons Why is the biggest thing I’ve done in my career– It’s changed my life. If I’m being completely honest, it’s made me look at things from a completely different perspective. It’s made me a lot more aware of a lot of the psychological issues in the world and it’s made me more open to learning about new issues that are coming up. I’ve always said culture leads how we act.”
“To be part of something that’s become such a cultural phenomenon, and being able to show the next generation how to proceed or how to grow up and open themselves up is an honor. It’s weird to think about from a macro perspective but it really is an honor. It comes with pressure and responsibility, but it’s something that we have really taken seriously upon ourselves.”
Ever since its inception, 13 Reasons Why has sparked debate; a debate which is sometimes borne out of the fires of controversy. One of the interesting aspects of 13 Reason Why’s latest season is how deeply it delves in the path of the redemption that the main antagonist, Bryce, is seemingly on. “Season 3 is all about whether the monster is redeemable. Does someone’s past define them for the rest of their life? Especially when you’re dealing with teenagers, it’s difficult.”
“That’s part of being an adult, growing and dealing with the shit that was put on you as a kid. To some degree, there’s a possibility that someone can change from a monster in a way that doesn’t necessarily redeem them. There is some redemption in taking ownership of what you did and making an effort to actively change who you are. Doing that doesn’t take away what you did, but I think showing that you’re taking the steps to change and assessing what you’ve done wrong and using it to grow as a person is what it means to be human, right? Constantly learning, constantly evolving and doing the best you can. I believe everybody deserves a second chance.”
Ross Butler’s success has, at least, partially been due to his convictions. He’s battled societal expectations of him, and the accompanying personal consequences to define his own path. When asked about what advice he’d give to his younger self or anyone with a dream that feels unrealistic, after some hesitation, Butler said, “I’d say ‘really love your mom, but pursue your interests. You can balance having to do what your mom expects of you but also, I think creativity is really what’s going to make you happy.’ I’d say that to anyone. Creativity is a human commodity. It’s almost the most fulfilling thing and, in the end, that’s all it is. Creation and expressing yourself is where I believe happiness comes from.”
Ross Butler is overflowing with ambition, understanding that his perseverance has the potential to shape society. It’s his unapologetic stance that’ll lead him to exceed even the loftiest of expectations, and assert him as a defining star of his generation.