Photos Lenne Chai Assisted by Joseph Yao Coordinator Susan Yoo Grooming Tammy Yi/Exclusive Artists Management Styling Lisa Bae/The Rex Agency Assisted by Vakita Lewis Shot on location at Nick’s Cove
If it were not for acting, Ross Butler admits that he would be pretty lost in life.
“I get this question all the time and it’s starting to worry me because I really don’t know what I would be doing if I weren’t an actor. I don’t have a back-up plan,” Butler says before pausing to ponder the question. “I would have probably gone into engineering or something related to computers but I wouldn’t be as passionate about those as I am about acting.”
The 27-year-old star has had a breakout year after starring in two hit television series – Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why – and 2018 looks set to continue in the same successful vein once season two of the latter show begins airing on Netflix. It’s been an arduous road for Butler, who came to Los Angeles six long years ago after dropping out of college, much to the disappointment of his Asian mother. A year of chemical and biomolecular engineering lectures and tutorials made him realise how unhappy he was with his life at that point.
“I moved to LA against her will. You know how Asian mothers are like, right?” he asks me, appealing to my own heritage. “She just wanted me to graduate and get a secure job. When I dropped out and headed off, we did not talk for a long time after. It wasn’t until she saw that I was actually happy and supporting myself that we made steps to reconnect. Now, she fully accepts what I want to do,” Butler shares. The Singapore-born, Virgina-raised actor reveals that he’s always felt displaced his whole life. He would use films as a form of escapism and remembers being enamoured by complex and layered films such as Forrest Gump, Gladiator and The Shawshank Redemption. Not exactly standard film fare for a child but Butler tells me that his mother barred him from watching television. “But those films were fine,” he says, roaring with laughter.
Growing up in America too, Butler realised how cruel kids could be, especially when they perceive that you’re not like them. The actor, who is half-Chinese and half-American, reveals that he was a drifter in high school. “It was an… interesting time because I never knew which group I belonged to back then. I didn’t really feel like I fit in with either the Asian group or the American clique. It was difficult but honestly, I also made it hard for myself,” shares Butler.
The actor is incredibly humorous and oozes charm but underneath his regular bouts of laughter, you can feel a metaphorical veil that he uses to cover himself from the world. The jokes were his shield. It’s the sign of a man who’s experienced the tragic sorrows of life at a young age and when Butler reveals that his father passed away when he was just nine, it all came together.
Moving to LA was perhaps Butler’s way of rebelling after having to continuously reach his mother’s high expectations while trying to maintain some semblance of a social life during his teen years. He initially tried his hand at modelling and even managed to book a print campaign for Coca-Cola in China but he detested the culture associated with the industry. “I didn’t like the lifestyle, which was stressful, and it did not bring the rewards I was looking for.” Then, for his 21st birthday present, his friend bought an acting class for him. After the lesson ended, Butler knew that this was his calling.
On Stereotypes and Whitewashing
Butler has only ever played one Asian character in his life. It also happened to be the first-ever role he landed. “It was for a show called Major Crimes. I played an Asian drug dealer studying in Stanford University, and was interrogated by the police because one of the students who took my drugs passed away,” he reminisces. After that, he told his agent to stop sending him for stereotypical Asian roles.
“I consider it one of the better decisions I made in my career,” says Butler, laughing. “My agent was sending me for the tech nerd or the geeky character, your stereotypical Asian-American roles. But I physically don’t fit these descriptions. I’m tall. I play sports. I’m quite big. I just could not see myself playing a nerd to get myself in the door.”
Instead, Butler went for roles that were ethnically unspecific. He describes how he would be the only Asian man in a room full of white, Latin and black actors, all of whom were vying to impress the decision makers. Truth be told, it was tough. Butler was frustrated at how the casting directors never seem to looked at his audition performance, just the colour of his skin and the size of his eyes. Furthermore, years of being indoctrinated with Hollywood stereotypes made him feel that he could never play the high school jock or the All-American kid. “When you don’t see Asian leading men on screen, I guess in a way you don’t feel like you can be one,” Butler says.
He wasn’t the only one to feel that way. The Asian audience too was beginning to be perturbed by the whitewashing and stereotypes on the the small and silver screens. But while the older generation kept their mouths shut and their heads low, this generation began making their voices heard.
Whitewashing has been a Hollywood habit for decades. From Tilda Swinton playing The Ancient One, originally an Asian character, in Doctor Strange, to Scarlett Johannson tackling the lead role of Major in the Western remake of the Japanese original Ghost in the Shell, the practice continues to plague the industry despite the criticism.
The issue of racial inequality has also repeatedly reared its ugly head in television. Main leads Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park allegedly left Hawaii Five-0 after reports of wage disparities between them and the rest of the Caucasian cast could not be amicably settled.
But, there are heartening signs that the entertainment industry is finally listening to the vocal criticisms of not only the Asian community but the whole world. A few white actors have also started standing up for their Asian brethren.
A few months ago, Ed Skrein (who played the first Daario Naharis in Game of Thrones) turned down the role of a character with Japanese-American heritage in the reboot of Hellboy. “It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity,” Skrein states.
But, at the end of the day, the bottomline is what matters and with more and more of the Asian community, which makes up a huge percentage of the American population, starting to boycott films with whitewashing, it makes financial sense for film executives to pay attention. “Also, more and more non-Asians are also becoming vocal and it helps that I do have a lot of non-Asian fans, which makes the idea of an Asian leading man or woman not as far-fetched as it once was,” says Butler.
The litmus test is, believe it or not, the romantic comedy genre.
“It’s funny to think that such a film would be a good marker for social change but the thing about romantic comedies is that you don’t have the explosions, the action scenes or other physical set pieces to draw people in,” explains Butler.
“It’s literally the relationship between the leading man and woman. So you have to root for the protagonist to win her over. It’s ironic that we are talking about this because I recently had a conversation with my agent and I told him that I want two types of roles. One is to be in an action film playing a normal American character. The second is to be a lead in a rom-com.”
Man of Many Talents
Away from set, Butler likes to keep his brain and body busy. He’s currently learning a Filipino weapons-based martial art called Eskrima and is also teaching himself guitar. And if that does not make the ladies swoon, Butler can also play the piano. Trawl through his Instagram page (@rossbutler, naturally) and you can see several clips of Butler crooning, strumming along, tickling the ivories or all three at once. He’s a huge jazz fan and loves the ’50s and ’60s eras when Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Vince Guaraldi would play in bars and halls.
So it may seem strange that he’s currently bumping ‘So Am I’, a reggae-electronic song by Skrillex, Ty Dolla Sign and Damian Marley.
He even performed his own rendition that he uploaded onto his Instagram page. “I’ve been listening to this song every day now for the past two months. There’s something about the track that I really love. It’s so chill and mellow but you can still dance along to it.”
He also used to listen to trance artistes such as Tiesto and Paul Oakenfold but admits that he doesn’t like current electronic music because of how similar all of the tracks sound. “I don’t know if I’m just out of the loop or getting older,” he says, letting out another laugh. If there’s one thing that can tear Butler away from his instruments, it would be food. “I eat a lot,” Butler shares. He loves the sound of butter sizzling on a pan or a steak being put on a grill and regularly uses the word ‘delicious’ in conversations.
And if you can only eat one dish your entire life? Butler instantly replies, “My mom’s nasi goreng (fried rice).”
At the end of the day, Butler is still that Asian kid trying to make his parents proud, and he’s doing a hell of a job.