Born in Singapore to a British-Dutch father and a Chinese-Malaysian mother, Ross Butler, 28, grew up in Virginia and briefly attended college before deciding to move to Los Angeles to model. There, his friend bought him a $25 acting class for his 21st birthday, and the rest, as they say, is history. After breaking out on the Disney Channel’s K.C. Undercover, he rose to stardom last year as a lead character in not one but two popular teen dramas, playing Reggie Mantle on Riverdale and Zach Dempsey on 13 Reasons Why.
Butler left Riverdale to pursue other projects, including joining the cast of the forthcoming DC Comics movie Shazam! (as a character that has not yet been identified). But it’s his role in the second season of 13 Reasons Why that really has everyone falling in love with him.
The show deals with the suicide of a teenage girl named Hannah Baker, who left behind tapes that describe the 13 people who drove her to make the tragic choice to end her life. Over the course of the series it shows Zach (Butler) grappling with his own guilt and his own struggle to stand up for what he believes in—all while touching on topics such as sexual assault, gun violence, bullying, depression, suicide, and peer pressure.
Recently, we sat down to talk to Butler about the hit show—as well as a range of topics including his upbringing, the #MeToo movement, what it’s like to be an Asian-American actor working today, and how to be “one of the good guys.” [Editor’s note: This interview took place several days before the bizarre news emerged that Frances Bean Cobain’s ex-husband, Isaiah Silva, is claiming that Courtney Love—with the aid of a group of men that includes Butler—conspired to kill him so that Love could then repossess one of the late Nirvana frontman’s guitars in Silva’s possession. Butler has no comment on the allegations, but a source close to Love’s said: “Isaiah Silva is a dangerous sycophant that refuses to end his campaign of terror towards the Cobain family and their friends…. Frances and the family are prepared to fight with a fury of unprecedented legal force and they will prevail.”]
For that—and more—from Butler, read on, and know that this interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity. And for more great celeb interviews, here’s the Best Life Q&A with Jon Hamm.
Why did you decide to leave Riverdale?
After the first season of 13, I had to make the decision of whether I wanted to be split my time between two characters and be a less prominent character on two different shows, or spend more time on just one. I made the decision to go with 13 because I knew much more about Zach and I connect with him a lot more. But it was kind of a risk because 13 hadn’t been picked up for a second season yet, so I was putting all of my eggs in one basket.
Which character do you get recognized for the most?
Usually I’d say it’s Zach, and then Reggie. But I still get recognized for my Disney channel roles [laughs].
Zach is really the show favorite right now because of the storyline and he’s also one of the most redeemable characters. What do you think is his most redeeming moment?
I think his most redeeming moment is when he enters back into the movie theater and apologizes to Hannah for what he did. But I was conflicted about whether people would like him more or less. I think people like him more because of the whole romance thing. But, for me, I saw this season as more of a letdown because he went through all this trouble to redeem himself and apologize and start this deep relationship with Hannah all for, at the end, to go back to his old ways and basically choose his high school persona of being the jock over what he really feels. I think he’s one of the people who could have really saved Hannah. And instead he just let her down again.
I noticed though that you said in one interview that you feel like Zach “becomes more of a man” by the end of the season.
By the end of this season, yes. Because over the course of this season, the decisions that he makes to finally break from this jock culture and to help Clay, that’s what I do like about Zach. And another redeemable moment is when you find out he gave Clay all the polaroids and he was the one that was feeding him information.
Is there a particular lesson that you want people to get from Zach’s storyline?
For teens, I think it’s a cautionary tale about not sticking to your guns and standing up for what you think is right. Because this season, you get to see a lot more of Zach’s guilt and pain. He’s really learning the lesson that if you try to be someone that you’re not, you’re going to end up unhappy.
It’s interesting because the show deals a lot with unreliable narrators, both in the questions posed by Hannah’s version of her truth and the lies that the students tell at school. How much can we believe Zach’s story about his romance with Hannah, especially since she didn’t include it on the tapes?
I will say that the summer relationship did happen. It’s not like Bryce’s testimony where he lies about her. I think the reason she left it off the tape is because they were genuinely in sync that they wanted to keep it between them, and they didn’t want to bring the jocks into it. And even during the testimony, Zach didn’t bring it up. It was pulled out of him.
How do you feel about his decision to hide the relationship? Because he says that he did it in order to protect her, but it’s clear by the end of the episode that he did it more to protect himself.
Exactly. I don’t think he should have kept it a secret. Hannah could have really used his social standing to change people’s minds about who she was. And I think they would have been happy together and that they genuinely loved each other. So the lesson here is that you should pursue how you feel rather than what other people think you should be.
With the conversation right now about #MeToo and gun violence, there’s a focus on the fact that men, more so than women, don’t have a lot of male friends that they can talk to and confide in, which is a problem. And you see that in the show. Zach’s dad dies and he doesn’t have conversations with his so-called friends, so he turns to Hannah. And that’s a common trope in movies, the man only being able to open up to a woman. And women are often happy to adopt this role, but it’s problematic that men can’t have those kinds of conversations with their male friends.
Absolutely. That’s something that even I feel sometimes. Because we’ve all dealt with feelings of depression and loneliness, and when I was growing up I dealt a lot with that as an only child. And I lost my dad when I was nine so it was just me and my mom, and she’s Asian, so that also contributed to that because in Asian culture you don’t have emotional conversations.
So the combination of the two, everybody saw me as a very happy kid because that was the facade I put up, but that covered up a lot of what I was feeling. And I never talked to anybody about it. I always thought that I could deal with it on my own. And to a point, I could. But when the fame started coming in, especially last year, I did feel an extreme form of loneliness. So over the past few months, I’ve learned that I do need to start opening up to my close friends and people that I can trust. And that’s very important for health in general.
It sounds like playing Zach has definitely affected how you deal with emotions.
Absolutely. The show has really changed me for the better, I think, because it’s finally made me open up to people.
I think it’s really great that there are so many high-profile men lately who are opening up about the importance of sharing your emotions. The Rock recently talked about battling depression, Ryan Reynolds discussed his anxiety issues, James Marsden talked about how deals with negative thoughts.
It’s important because when you feel lonely you feel like you’re the only person who’s dealing with this. And this lets you know that you’re not alone in this and that you shouldn’t feel weird talking about this.
Was there ever a time in your life when you felt that way?
When I was in high school, I felt like I didn’t belong. I was a social chameleon. I wasn’t a jock, but I wasn’t an outcast. I tried to fit into all of these different social groups. I was constantly changing my mannerisms and my interests to fit in with these different groups. So I never really felt like I truly belonged to any of them, which led me to feel like I wasn’t close friends with anybody. No one really knew who I was, so I felt super lonely.
Did you know who you were?
No, I didn’t. And that’s another thing. Until I figured out who I was, I was unhappy.
So how do you deal with those feelings now?
I’ve always been a guy who likes to teach myself things, so I’ll go on YouTube, or I’ll get a book, just to keep myself busy and distract myself from the problem. Which helps push things aside or calm me down if I’m feeling anxious, but it feels more like a Band-Aid than anything else. So now it’s really talking to my friends. And that’s really something that’s happened in the past one or two months. And it’s great. I feel like a weight has lifted off.
Given the current conversation around #MeToo, what advice would you give to someone who wants to be “one of the good guys?”
My advice is to really be mindful, not just towards women, but in general, that the things that you say have an impact. Words are really powerful. And also to support people. It’s an interesting question, because there’s all these straightforward answers, like “Just don’t be a *$%& person.” But I think a big thing is about how you converse with people. Speak your mind, but do it in a respectful way.
One of the things that stuck out to me in one episode is when Hannah is talking about how women constantly have to deal with rumors that they’re “sluts,” and Zach responds by saying that men have to deal with getting sh*t for not doing enough. It’s 2018 and the idea persists that women get shamed for having sex whereas men get praised for it. Does the show want to change that dialogue?
Yes. When Zach says he gets *$&^ for not doing enough, that’s definitely still a part of our culture. I think sex should definitely be a team effort. For me, I’m the happiest and the most comfortable when I know that the other person is feeling good. So it’s important to check in and ask questions. We need to get away from the surrender/victory thing because that implies that one side wins and one side loses. It should be a win-win situation. It fits into the conversation around toxic masculinity because the culture of that really needs to change.
How does the #MeToo conversation affect people on set?
The movement started halfway through us shooting the second season, and obviously this is something that we’ve been dealing with since the first season. It was really inspiring for all of us to be making a show that tackled that head on, and we really felt that we were reflecting what society wanted to change.
13 Reasons Why is a very popular show but it’s also a very controversial one. How does that affect you?
I think it’s controversial because it makes people uncomfortable, but the fact that people are uncomfortable with some of the things that we’re seeing and talking about means that it needs to be talked about. Because there hasn’t been a show like this that tackles teenage tragedy in such a real way and that treats teenagers with respect. We have all of these teens that are galvanizing now with #neveragain and it’s amazing that they’re making their voices heard, because, through media, we’ve kind of made teenage drama seem soap opera-ey and insignificant, which is weird to me because I feel like everyone remembers their high school experience and everyone carries baggage with them from high school.
How do you feel about how Zach’s relationship with his mother, and what it says about Asian culture, is portrayed on the show? It’s particularly poignant when he tries to talk about his feelings and she just shuts him down completely.
It wasn’t a surprise to me that Zach couldn’t talk about his mom about his father dying. That’s definitely something that’s prevalent in Asian culture and I’m hoping the show might do something to change that.
I’m honored that the Asian community has looked to me and other actors as leading the forefront on this. I also feel an immense amount of responsibility by needing to be perfect and not make mistakes, which is something I’m kind of dealing with now. Because, yes, I want to be a role model, but I also want to be who I am. I don’t want to focus so much on who the community wants me to be. It’s funny how that transfers because, before, when I was breaking those stereotypes, it was like, I don’t want to be who society has deemed an Asian male to be, like an artist or a nerd. Now, I’m feeling a different part of that, which is that I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. Because I understand that I have flaws, and I want people to understand that that’s OK. Because being yourself is the ultimate thing that people should be trying to be.
In college you studied biomedical engineering. What drew you to acting?
Yeah, that was really me fitting into what my mom wanted to see me doing. But it was a very sharp feeling when I was in my dorm at Ohio State writing up this chemistry thing that I did and I just saw myself doing this for the rest of my life and making a lot of money but being absolutely miserable.
And I was just like I can’t do this. So for the rest of the year I just slacked off, because I made the decision to study that when I didn’t know who I was. So I moved to LA to model and my friend bought me an acting class for twenty-five bucks for my birthday, and after a few classes, it was like something clicked and I knew it was what I wanted to do.
And what are your long-term goals as an actor?
There’s been been an Asian leading man in Hollywood. There’s never been an Asian Brad Pitt. I just don’t want to play roles that have stories written based purely on my ethnicity. You know, why can’t there be a Notebook with an Asian lead?
What’s it like to be a 28-year-old who plays a teenager?
[Laughs] I know I feel like I’ve been in high school for the past decade. It’s actually kind of cathartic for me because I feel like as an actor, it allows me to express things with higher stakes in the mindset of a teenager. Which, as an actor, is great, but as a person, it’s exhausting.
Do you feel like it might give teens unrealistic expectations for what they actually look like? Because I remember watching rom-coms as a teen and wondering why I didn’t look like the girls in the movies without realizing it’s because these people were actually in their late 20s.
Yea, I remember there was a meme that came out comparing what a sophomore in 13 Reasons Why looked like, showing me, and a real sophomore in high school [Laughs]. And we get that, so I would tell teenagers, “Don’t take it at face value. I understand I’m a little bit more built and I’m taller than an average teenager. So don’t compare yourself to me.”
How do you stay in shape?
I had to get in pretty good shape for Shazam! so I worked with a nutritionist and I did a mix of intermittent fasting and the keto diet. It sucked but I lost 20 pounds of just fat in three weeks. And I was working out five or six times a week. I don’t do a lot of cardio because I hate running so it was mostly strength training two muscle groups a day.
What’s the best piece of advice someone has ever given you?
A few years ago, I booked this commercial on a private island on the coast of Fiji. The director knew this Australian billionaire named Albert who bought out the second-highest rated resort in the world and he closed it down to let us shoot this small commercial.
I saw him every day so I asked him for the best piece of advice he could give me as a 23-year-old. He said, “It’s the three L’s. Look. Listen. And Learn.” And that’s what I did the first few years in Hollywood. Courtney Love is a very good friend of mine. I met her through my roommate when I first moved to LA, and she mentored me and would introduce me to prominent directors and producers and I didn’t peep a word. I would just sit there and listen to what’s going on.
The other best advice is a quote by Neil Gaiman, who’s one of my favorite writers, who said, “To be eccentric, you must first know your circle.”
So, in order to break the rules, you need to know them.
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