Asa in Soho when I gave him his birthday presents.

Asa Butterfield got his big break at the age of 10 when producer David Heyman – who went on to produce the Harry Potter franchise of films – discovered him in 2008 for the role of Bruno in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  Since then, Butterfield, who grew up in Islington, has been hailed for his performances in Martin Scorsese’s paean to filmmaking, Hugo, in which he played the title character, as well as, among many other roles, those of Nathan in X+Y ( A Brilliant Young Mind, in its American release), Jude in 10,000 Saints, Gardner in The Space Between Us, Norman in Nanny McPhee Returns, Ender in Ender’s Game, Jimmy in Journey’s End, Sebastian in The House of Tomorrow, and Jake in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

His latest role is Otis in the hit Netflix series Sex Education in which he plays a rather peculiar yet alluringly wise and kind teenager who is quite sexy in his non-knowledge of just how sexy he is in his nerdiness – much like Asa himself, who is also an accomplished gamer who goes by the name of Stimpy and is a brand ambassador for the esport team Panda Global.   Butterfield  is @asabfb on Twitter where he has over 300,000 followers.  He is @asabopp on Instagram where he has 2.3 million followers. 

I met him in London’s Soho neighborhood for tea on the day before his 22nd birthday and – since he has taken the nickname Bopp based on the Comet Hale-Bopp and I had read that he is also a musician – I brought him a couple of cassettes of bebop music as my own spin on the name with which he’s christened himself.  As he read the lineup of music on the Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane cassettes, we began our conversation.

Asa photographed by James Lee Wall for Il Faut magazine.

KEVIN SESSUMS:  Can you even play these cassettes?

ASA BUTTERFIELD:  Oh, yeah, I gotta CD player. 

KS:  I read that you are into music.

AB: I play a bit with my brother and friends of ours.  Yeah, I’m a big music guy.  I’m into a bit of everything.  I play the keys.  A bit of drums.  There are mostly certain sounds I like. Kind of funk and soul.  Reggae.  Ska. 

KS:  All that white-boy stuff, huh?

AB:  Yeah.  In London though there is such amazing unity there.  And where I live in Dalston that’s really true.

KS:  I’ve been staying in Kentish Town.

AB:  That’s not far from me.

KS:  Were you just in the states?

AB:  Yes.  I’ve been doing loads of traveling since the new year, which has been great.  I haven’t been working so I said I want to go and escape for a bit. I was in the US for a few weeks.  Mostly vacation.  I had a few meetings which were actually quite productive.  Most exciting was meeting with people about projects I want to get off the ground.  I have an idea for something.  I’m starting to write a treatment for it and the end goal is to hire writers for it, if it ever takes off.  It’s fun to do something other than acting. 

KS:  You’ve been doing this for a while.  You might be turning 22 tomorrow, but you’re sort of a show biz vet at this point. You started as a child in this business.

AB: Way too young.

KS:  Were you – now that you look back on it?

AB:  I don’t know.  My experience growing up is the only experience I have, so I don’t really have much of a reference point.  I think I was pretty lucky because my friends and my family never felt like it was a big deal, so neither did I.  When I was going back home from working, my school and my home life is where I felt most natural.  But, yes, I know for a lot of young actors it gets difficult. 

KS:  One of my oldest friends is Larry Kaplan who works as the Unit Publicist on almost all of Martin Scorsese’s films.  He worked on Hugo with you.  When I told him I was interviewing you, he told me that you had a great mother and he couldn’t always say that about the child actors with whom he’s worked over the many decades he’s worked on films.  He liked you as a kid, but he raved about your mother.

AB:  She is good.  Yeah. A lot of credit goes to my mum and my dad. 

KS:  Are they artistic?

AB:  My mum is a psychologist and my dad is a creative type.  He writes ads.  But none of my family are in the industry in any shape or form.

KS:  I want to get this out of the way.  I feel the need to tell you this and acknowledge it.  I am in recovery and the first week I was getting sober around Christmas week almost eight years ago, I went to see Hugo on Christmas day with a friend who had helped to intervene and set me on a better path.  Sorry.  I’m not gonna cry here.  Whew.

AB:  That’s okay.  It’s the tea.  It’s the fumes.

KS:  I was scared to death that Christmas day sitting there watching you in Hugo.  I was so lonely.  I was a fucking mess that day.  So frightened.  So there is something very moving to me to have watched you in that film on that Christmas Day I will never, ever forget and now to be sitting here with you today.  It wasn’t even in my realm of knowledge back then to think that eight years later I would have been in an AA meeting in Soho last night at the Recovery Center and today be sitting across this little table with you sipping tea and telling you this.  I guess part of this – looking at how kind of scared you look at my telling you this, in fact – is that actors don’t even know how their art becomes a part of the narrative of lives in ways that they cannot fathom.  It is not that you are responsible for my recovery, but you are a part of its narrative.  So I want to thank you for that: thank you.  Thank you, Asa, for saying yes to this interview.  I deeply appreciate the arc of that narrative. I feel a moment of grace here.  I hope you’re not embarrassed by my telling you this.  I didn’t mean to freak you out. 

AB:  No .. I mean .. it’s … ahhh .. thank you.  It’s not why we do it as actors, but hearing stories like that and knowing that what we create can have as a whole a positive effect on people is really the nicest thing you can ask for.

Asa at the “Maniac” premiere. Photo by James Gourley.

KS:  You must have a lot of fans who have grown up along with you.  That is something that actors who make it as adults don’t have.  You have a fan base that has grown up right along with you.

AB:  Yes, they have.

KS:  Do some of them bond with you even more because of that?  Or do they break up with you as a way to signal to themselves their own growing up?

AB:  Do we have arguments?  I guess they do sort of continue to grow up with me.  There are definitely people who have grown up with me or seen me grow up in my movies, as they did.  Hmm ..  I don’t really know what that’s like because I don’t think I ever had that when I was a kid.

KS:  You were busy working.

AB:  I was working, but I was always kind of into dinosaurs and science and technology.

KS:  You’re a gamer, right?

AB:  Yeah.  I’m a huge geek and a “gamer.”  I love Japan.  Building robots all of that kind of stuff – which has always been my passion since I was young. 

KS:  I am always fascinated by people who have access to both sides of their brains – the scientific, geeky side and then the more emotive, artistic side.  You seem to have such a fully formed brain.  A rather busy one.  Is acting a meditative way for you to still your busy brain?  Because, with all your varied interests, you do seem to have quite a busy one.  You seem to have a busy, teeming brain.

AB:  You say that.  But I don’t think so.

KS:  I think some actors do have teeming brains.  The smart ones.  And I have a theory that acting is a way for them to still their busy thoughts and to still themselves as well.   It’s meditative.  It’s a way to calm themselves even in the most emotional of scenes in some incongruous way.

AB:  Yeah.  Sort of focus on this one thing instead of all these other things.  I think you might be right.  When you’re on-set you can sort of forget about all the other things like your mortgage and whatever, all that other nonsense.  No, you’re right.  It is definitely a kind of weird escape to be able to go and just be in this very isolated kind of bubble with all the same people.  I know what you mean.  It is sort of strangely meditative.  I hadn’t really thought of it like that before.

KS:  Did you take acting classes?  You started so young.   You just grew up being an actor and being on sets. It was just a part of who you are instead of being what you set out to become like students who study it and then come to it as adults.

AB:  I never went to a drama school.  I did go to this theatre club, this after-school club.  My older brother went to it which was the main reason I went.  It’s called Young Actors Theatre now.  It used to be called Anna Sher’s.   One of my two little sisters is still going there now actually.  I didn’t grow up as a sort of theatre kid.

Asa photograhed for i-D magazine by Leon Mark.

KS:  You’ve never really done theatre yet, have you?

AB: No.  I haven’t done any theatre.

KS:  Do you want to?

AB:  At some point, at some point.  It’s not something that really I feel drawn to.

KS:  Has Gillian [Anderson who plays his mother in Sex Education] spoken to you about it?  She has that seam in her career.  She is devoted to theatre, it seems, and being onstage. She’s a stage creature, in that sense.  Some actors just are. 

AB:  We have spoken about it.  I will do it at some point.  But it’s not something that’s really calling out to me right now.  It’s a whole other discipline.

KS:Discipline” is the right word for it.  One has to almost train for it and lead a monkish, disciplined life to do those eight shows a week.

AB:  Yeah.  Yes. 

KS:  Let’s talk about Sex Education.  You’re about to start filming your second season.

AB:  Yeah – which I’m sooooo excited for.

KS:  I resisted the show for a while.  For one thing, it’s set in a high school and I’m old and have no interest really in stories set in high schools.  And then if I’m attracted to one of the boys in the story – I’m queer – it sort of strikes me as creepy.  I know that the roles are cast older for the most part. You’re 22 tomorrow.  Some of the high school “kids” in your cast  even look 32, to be honest.  But everyone was raving so about the series, I thought I had to watch to see what everyone was talking about.  And they were right.  It’s so smart.  And it’s so moving.  And funny.  You do something quite singular and special in it as your character Otis.  I’ve never quite seen a character or a performance like it.  You’re even sort of heartbreaking in it.  At first you wonder if Otis might be “on the spectrum,” as we say now.  But then you think, no, he’s just sort of damaged.  And open.  And sweet.  Did they approach you about it or did you audition?

AB:  Yeah, they sent me the first few episodes about this time last year – February or March of 2018.  I read the first two or three.  I really laughed. I wanted to do a TV show, ideally in the UK. Because of the whole world shifting with film and TV, it’s not as clear-cut anymore. I had read other TV scripts that  had never quite kind of clicked for me.  I was never sold by the character or the story.  So when this finally came along, I was: ahhhhh.  Then my mum read it.  She sort of reads everything that I do.  She’s been there since the beginning and learning it all with me, this industry.  She still helps me with everything – massively.  I always talk to her about scripts.  And we both loved it.  As I said, it really made me laugh.  And all of the characters – not just mine – you really liked them and felt for them and it all felt very real.  So I met with with the director and producer, Ben Taylor, and was offered the part, which was amazing to be thought of for a part and for people to want you for something.  But even then just reading the script – and even during shooting – I thought we had something special because I knew everyone was giving amazing performances and because of the tone of it and the costumes, but it wasn’t until I saw it after it was finished that I knew that it was good. I was so, so pleased with it.  I don’t often think that.  I don’t generally like watching my work.  And I still don’t massively.   But there is something about this show that is really charming.

Asa being directed by Martin Scorsese in “Hugo.”

KS:  It’s heartwarming.

AB:  Yes. It’s kind of nostalgic and yet kind of new.

KS:  There is something sort of subversive and even transgressive about it in its not being afraid of its subject or being at all cute about it even though it’s set in a high school.  There is a danger that it could have been either coy or vulgar. It’s neither.  And yet it doesn’t beat around its own bush.

AB:  No.  It doesn’t.

KS:  Your own mother is a psychologist.  Did  that plot line – Otis’s mother played by Gillian who is a sex therapist in the show – speak to you in some way?

AB:  It did.  Yeah.  My mum loves that.  She’s telling everyone that Gillian Anderson is playing her. My mum’s not her, but there are elements of the Jean character which are similarities even though obviously Jean, Gillian’s character, sort of goes far and beyond what you would think would be acceptable as a parent. But, yeah, when I was working with Gillian, it felt in a lot of ways similar to my relationship with my mum.  There was something quite mature even at a young age with my mum when talking about things and being quite open which is difficult with your parents. 

KS:  Especially about sex.

AB:  Especially about sex.  I mean, I never spoke to my mum about sex until I got a lot older. Certainly not when I was Otis’s age.  Which doesn’t mean she didn’t try and talk to me about it and I was like …  aaaaaghghhhnoooooo …. I still remember that moment.

KS:  How old were you?

AB:  I must have been about 15.

KS:  I’m sure she worried about you on sets as a 15-year-old boy in show business.  Not only about what you were exposed to on those sets, but if people were trying to hit on you as you matured.  I mean, let’s face it, you’ve been around adults your whole life – a lot more than being around other children.

AB: Yep.

KS: I would presume it affects you in some way always being around grown-ups all the time as a child and being in that grown-up world.

AB:  Yes.  It does. 

KS:  You’re also the focus.  There is that element of it – you are the focus of grown-up attention as well as the attention of grownups, slightly different things. 

AB: Yeah.  They are smothering you with attention.

KS:  Did you resent it? Or welcome it?  I have a theory that the children who are comfortable being actors and are so natural at it are very comfortable being the focus of attention and are at home in it – and don’t become precious within.  They are able to be within it.  For some reason certain kids are able to be conduits for the kind of talent that calls for.    Do you feel chosen in some way when you’re a successful child actor?

AB:  I’m not quite sure.  I alway found it quite funny.  I was a bit like, “I still can’t believe this is happening.”  I kept waiting for someone to say to me, “Just kidding.”  But they kept giving me parts.  I think it was partially because when I was a kid, I wasn’t one of those kids who was like, oh, I want to be an actor.   It was something I totally fell into.  I was in that theatre club but it wasn’t because I wanted to be an actor but because my mum wanted me to socialize and gain confidence.  Even when I had my first few auditions, I remember thinking, “Well, this is weird.” 

KS:  Part of being a child actor is a comfort in being seen.

AB: Mmm … yeah. Comfortable in being themselves and being a kid and not thinking you have to be an adult now that you’re an actor. 

Asa in the last scene in Season One of “Sex Education” in which he finally successfully masturbates and seems to float upward toward his bedroom ceiling as he ejaculates. He said they attached the bed, etc., to the wall behind him and used a pole-and-pulley contraption to pull him toward the camera, a rudimentary way to attain the special effect. It took about 15 or 16 takes, he said, and ceased to be fun and felt a bit ridiculous. But it was a great “climax” to the series’ first season.

KS:  I left home at 19 in a rental truck full of furniture to move to New York to attend the Juilliard School’s Drama Division.  When I look back on that now, it amazes me the love it took for my grandparents, who raised me, to let me go.  I was a baby.  But you really were such a child when you began to work in films.  It must have taken the same kind of love from your parents to allow you to do this because by allowing it they were allowing your world to become so much bigger than one circumscribed by them.  Most kids’ worlds are their parents. 

AB:  Yeah.  I was no longer in just their safety. 

KS:  I guess in some way they also saw you at that point and saw that you needed to be a part of the greater world.

AB:  Yeah.  I think they were always supportive of my decisions and what I wanted to do and whether I wanted to act or not.  After I made my first film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – which I enjoyed but I also found it really tough – I remember saying to my mum, “I’m not sure I want to do this.  I’m not sure acting is really for me.” 

KS:  Making a movie can be so tedious while being emotionally taxing when that’s called upon. But God: the tedium.

AB:  Yes.  And for a 10-year-old boy,  it’s not the most fun thing to be on a set waiting around all day. I’m not sure what it was that kept me at it.  It wasn’t really until Hugo until I found my love of acting and filmmaking, and the technical aspect of it as well.

KS:  Was working with Scorsese on that film a big part of that? 

AB:  Yeah, it was.  Absolutely.

KS. Did you have an appreciation of who he was.

AB:  Not really.  Well, when I told people I had auditioned for this guy named Martin Scorsese and they went “Hell, mate,” and then when I told them I got the part and would be working with him, I saw the reactions of people.  So I did know.  I did.  I think I had seen only one of his films before, The King of Comedy.  I think it was the only one I was allowed to see. But, yeah, working with him was like … ah .. I don’t think I’m ever going to have an experience like that again.  The scale of it.  And everyone in their respective departments – costumes and lighting and set design – were so amazing.

KS:  He always tends to work with the same people.  He has his troupe.  His family. 

AB:  Yes, there’s that sense of family.  But also the amount of thought and detail.  I was getting interested in photography at that point and I was talking to Bob [cinematographer Robert Richardson] about cameras.  It opened my mind to this whole world of cameras opened up to me on that film.

KS. Hugo was a  love letter to filmmaking, in fact.

AB:  Yes.  There was that aspect of it. But Marty was also giving me films to watch and educating me too.  He’d give me these films and go, “Come back next week and tell me what you think, kid.”  So I had this whole master class of film history being taught to me by Martin Scorsese.

KS. What were some of the films he gave you to watch?

AB:  The Body Snatchers.  The David Cronenberg version of The Fly, which was really dark.   Really cool.  Really quite wild. 

KS: Did that appeal to the geek in you?

AB:  Yes.  It did.  And he gave me the boxed collection of Kurosawa films.  I was already quite a fan of those. 

KS:   And you were how old at this point?

AB:  I was 13. 

KS:  So you haven’t gone to university.

AB:  No.

KS:  Do you want to?

Asa still with his mohawk haircut he wore for his punk rocker roll in The House of Tomorrow. Photograph by Justin Campbell for justjared.com.

AB:  I think I’ll go at some point.  I went to a normal school and finished by A Levels.  I wasn’t home schooled, which I hated the idea of.  I did my exams and did okay which is good considering I wasn’t “in school” for most of the time.  And at that point I was so ready not to be in a regimented establishment regarding an education.  I’d already experienced living by myself and fending for myself.  The last thing I wanted to do was spend three more years in a hall. 

KS:  Was it hard for you to navigate going back and forth from the rarified world of films and film sets to your normal school life?  Did you need a cultural visa of some sort in your mind to make that transition back and forth as a kid growing up?

AB: I never felt that.  I always loved being able to “come back” and just hang out with my friends.  That’s where I felt the most comfortable, being with people my own age and doing things that kids were doing and teenagers were doing.  I still really enjoy that – just hanging out with my friends and just being a kid a bit.  Most of my best friends are still my friends from school.

KS. Do you have actor-friends?

AB:  Yeah.  The cast from Sex Education – we’re all really tight.

KS:  How many of episodes have you read so far of the new second season?

AB:  I’ve read the first five.  It didn’t go the way I thought it would.  It surprised me.  But I’m not saying anything more.

KS:  I want Otis’s mom to calm down and find some love, too.

AB:  It’s not calming down.  I will tell you that. 

KS:  The show does have a buzz about it that hit shows have.  Do you feel that buzz maybe around people your age?  I was with two young people last night in their first year of university.  When I told the I was going to talk to you today I suddenly became a lot cooler in their eyes since they love Sex Education and you as an actor.  Do you feel that buzz a bit when you’re out in the world?

AB:  I do.  Yeah.

KS:  It’s odd.  A lot of your film work was done in films that adults mostly went to see – that’s the irony of so much of your work in film as a child actor.   Not all, but a lot.

AB:  No, you’re right. Partially the buzz has happened because the show just hit at the right time and people have latched onto it and connected with it.  Plus, Netflix is huge.  Everyone across the world can see it.  I’ve always been able to keep a pretty low profile and be low-key.  I can tell from that vantage point that this show has really taken off.  It’s changed things for me a bit in some ways.  I’m a bit more recognizable. 

KS:  Are you comfortable because of the nature of this show talking about your own sexual orientation or fluidity?  I’m not asking about your private life.  That’s none of my business.

AB:  Just in general. 

KS:  Are you comfortable saying I’m queer, I’m straight, I’m fluid, I’m bi?

AB:  I’ve always been comfortable but since this show it’s definitely made me more comfortable in terms of talking about it.  I’m straight.  And I’ve never found it … well., no .. I’ve definitely found it easier to talk about sex and sexuality since I’ve done this show. 

KS:  I’m not your mother.  You can talk to me about it.

AB:  Well, yeah.  It is sort of easier to talk to anyone but your mum about those things – even a complete stranger.

KS:  Which is sort of a summing up of what Sex Education is about. 

AB:  Exactly. 

KS:  Now that you’re turning 22 tomorrow, is it hard for you to play 16?  Do you want to be more grown-up and play more grown-up roles?

AB:  I don’t think it’s too hard.  I’ve definitely done more mature roles.  I’ve done adult roles.  I’m lucky that I can just about pull off 16 maybe, if I’m cleanly shaven. I honestly like to think I”m quite a kid at heart. 

Asa photographed by James Lee Wall for Il Faut magazine. ilfautmagazine.com

KS:  Why have you dyed your hair? I’m sitting across from a blonde.  Was that for a role?

AB:  Just for fun.  Because I can.  No one could stop me.

KS:  Are they going to make you un-dye it for Otis once you start filming again?

AB: Yeah.  They’re going to dye it back to brown. Not sure I approve.  But simply put: I don’t find it too difficult to play a 16-year-old.  And it’s so well-written.  Plus, Otis – even though he’s 16 – he sort of talks like a 30 or 40-year-old at times.  He’s kind of mature.  And wise. 

KS:  So talk about Stimpy a bit and Panda Global and esports and competitive gaming.  Although, honestly, I  have idea what all that means.

AB:  Yes, I’m part of a team.  Panda Global.  I’ve gone to a few tournaments with them..   We compete in some fighting games like Street Fighter or a game called Super Smash Bros that I’m quite into.  It’s a crazy world.

KS:  Aren’t all games kind of violent?

AB:  No, not all.   Smash Bros is quite cartoony.  Made by Nintendo.  It’s originally a kid’s party game.

KS:  Is it about strategy or flexibility?  I’m trying to understand the allure of it.

AB:  It’s about reaction time.  It’s about guessing what your opponent is going to do.  Mind games. 

KS:  Is it like acting?

AB:  It is very, very almost the opposite of acting.  It’s purely physical and about the speed with which you can move your hands.  But it also is reaction-based which maybe is sort of like acting.  I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid.  I’ve grown up around it.

KS:  Did you hone your talent at it between scenes on a set?

“He’s gone and done it,” Asa wrote to his over 2 million Instagram followers when he decided to go blonde between seasons of “Sex Education.”

AB:  Yeah, it was something I would do if I had time when I was working.  Usually not between scenes.  When I was a kid, I had to go to school between scenes.  I’ve always sort of had a passion for games and have always played them with my friends.  I don’t really know why I am so drawn to it honestly.  Maybe the competitive nature of it.  I’m quite competitive.  When I did my research on it, I discovered there was this world where people compete at it.  That’s their passion. That’s their thing. 

KS:  You created a game?

AB:  Yeah.  Some years ago me and my dad and my brother created an app.  It was quite silly.  I’ve actually got an idea for another one that’s bigger and more complex.  That earlier game was called Racing Blind.  It’s a rather silly racing game that you can play on your iPad, which we had the idea for when I was doing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.  My dad and I would play with just a pen and paper.  You’d draw out the race track and try to get from Point A to Point B trying to avoid the walls as you close your eyes whilst you do it.  It’s surprisingly difficult because when you close your eyes you don’t know how far your arms are moving or your fingers are moving.   We put some music to it and animations.

KS:  See?  Your brain is always teeming.  

AB:  Well, yes and no.

KS:   Are you lazy?

AB:  I am lazy.  I’m really happy at not doing anything.  And I’m really good at not doing anything. 

KS:  You just described acting.  If you’re really a great actor, you’re really good at not doing anything.  There is a stillness to great acting.

AB:  Don’t say that.  You’re going to make me feel even more comfortable just spending all day at home building robots.

KS. No, Asa, I’m serious.  There’s a zen quality to great acting.

AB:  I know what you mean.  You’re right.  Being comfortable not doing anything.

KS:  Being still.

AB:  Yes, being still and not worrying about oh-I-have-to-perform.  I think maybe when you’re taught acting or when you so want to learn acting, it’s almost detrimental.  Again, I can only speak from my experience and I’m biased because I didn’t got to drama school. I learned on the job and I learned by not trying to act but just kind of believing I was there in the moment.  Like you do as a kid when you’re in the midst of make-believe. All these kind of fun-and-games you play when you’re not thinking about giving a performance, you’re just reacting. I think maybe that’s why I succeeded because I was comfortable just going with it and not overthinking it and just kind of being a kid – and still being a kid onset.

KS: At this beginning of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas there is quote that appears onscreen: “”Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.”  What are the sounds and smells of sights of your own childhood and has dark reason grown yet in your life?   Does the dark reason arrive tomorrow on your 22nd birthday, or are you still sniffing?

AB:  I’m still sniffing,  and I hope to continue for however long.  What a funny question. What were the sights and sounds and smells of my childhood?  Hmm.

KS:  Because in a way the sights and sounds of your childhood were adult ones.

AB:  But when I think of my childhood, I don’t actually think of sets and acting and directors and the industry.  When I think of my childhood that is not at all what I associate with it.  When I think of my childhood, I think of school and being outdoors in the woods and playing video games and reading books, which is quite funny now that I think of it.   I mean, I spent the majority of my time in school.  I only spent on average of two or three months a year filming when I was a kid. My mum always wanted me to have school as my priority and, if there was a good job and it worked out with my schedule, then we’d do it. Usually they were in the summers, so I didn’t miss much school. 

KS:  It’s interesting to look at the films in your career when you were a kid.  They are really interesting.  You didn’t do schlock.  You made – or someone made – interesting artistic choices.  There is an interesting arc to your career.  

AB. It was a combination of things.  Until recently, there were lots of auditions and lots of things I’d audition for I wouldn’t get. I think I was just really lucky with the projects I did get.  I don’t know.  I do remember reading scripts when I was 11 or 12 and thinking, this is crap.  When I really think about it, most 11 or 12-year-olds can kind of watch any movie and enjoy it.

KS:  You were preternaturally discerning.

AB:  I think it was partially hearing my mum’s thoughts about scripts, too.  Hers was a great voice to have because, if wasn’t sure about a project,  I valued her opinion massively. But finally I really do think I was just lucky about the things I was able to do and the ones I was offered.

KS. Did you have agency as a child so that if your agents and/or your parents really wanted you do something and you didn’t want to do it, you were listened to and heard if you did not want to do it?

AB: Yes, always.  I was always listened to.  It was always my choice.  I remember there were films my agents wanted me to go up for and I read the scripts and told the I am not comfortable doing this yet. Or I didn’t like the story or character. 

KS:  Have you had a sex scene yet in your career?  You almost had one in the first season of Sex Education.

AB:  Ah, no, I haven’t.

KS:  Will you finally have one in Season Two?

AB:  There could be. We’ll see.  Or maybe it could be a longer wait. So far, from what I’ve read, not yet.  He’s gotten close again.

KS:  Well, at least he successfully masturbated at the end of Season One.  That was a real climax to the season with that masturbation scene.

AB:  Enjoyed that, did you?  Well if you enjoyed that, you’re in for a treat in Season Two. There is a whole lot more of that.  Now that that cherry is popped, he’s like a waterfall. 

KS:  Because of the show’s obsession with sex, did if affect your own sex life?  When you got home did you think, God: enough.  I just don’t want to have sex.

AB: Ah; no. No.  My character sort of got off rather lightly in the having-sex department.

KS:  But he’s obsessed with it and talks about it all the time and it’s in his house constantly with his sexually active mother.  

AB:  Yes, all that.  But I really didn’t let it affect me outside the set – whether it was about sex or the quite emotional scenes which can sometimes take a toll on you for the rest of the day.  But I’m quite good at leaving it on the set, leaving it at work. 

KS:  Does your music help you decompress.

AB:  Yes. Sometimes I’ll play my keyboard after work and play a bit of music.

KS:  Has your music ever been incorporated into acting?

Asa photographed in 2016 by Peter Ash Lee.

AB:  A little bit.  I’ve played a musician in some movies – my favorite is a quickly little movie called The House of Tomorrow.  I played this kid who lived his life in a geodesic dome with his nutty grandma [played by Ellen Burstyn] and he gets introduced to punk music and becomes this kind of punk rock star and has his eyes opened.  I had a mohawk.  It was different for me.  Alex Wolff was in it with me.  I love that kid.

KS:  And in X+Y you played an autistic kid on the spectrum.

AB:  That was fascinating and another one of my movies that I’m most proud of, and proud of myself in it.  It was hard.  It was definitely the most challenging character I have had to understand or to get my head into.  I was quite young when I did it.  I was still learning about acting.

KS. I would think you would have to be careful about not signifying things in a part like that and being presentational.

AB:   It was about finding where we wanted to put that character on the spectrum because everyone on it is so different.  There are no traits really.  We just wanted to find the sort of things that made Nathan – that was the name of the character – what made him him and what were his quirks and what were his difficulties and what were the things he struggled to grasp.  He was also really quiet and sort of soft.  Once I figured all that out, I could sort of inhabit him easier.  But, yeah, I’m super proud of that movie.

KS: As Asa, who of all the characters in Sex Education would you most like to hang out with?  Otis?

AB:  I can’t say Otis.  I did bring a lot of myself into Otis – in his interests and in his kind of awkwardness and is often saying things that didn’t need saying and then immediately regretting it.

KS:  He’s so full of longing – for sex and belonging and for his father.  He’s riddled with longing.  But if you’re doing your job as an actor then each audience member sees himself or herself in you in someway.  So maybe I’m just seeing my own longing in Otis.  But other than longing, what else have you brought to him as Asa?

AB:  The geekiness.  And I had a lot of input into how his room looks.  The posters on his wall.  And the music he listens to – a lot of which I had sort of brought to Wales for myself where the show is shot.  He’s got the electronic musicians Madness and Joy Division on his walls.  A lot of punks. A lot of Clash.  A lot of Manga and Japanese animation

KS:  Weren’t you just in Tokyo?

AB:  Yes, I was just in Tokyo.  Tokyo is my favorite place in the world.  It was my third time there.

KS:  Would you live there if you could?

AB:  Yeah.

KS:  That was a quick answer.

AB:  I am planning to live there at some point. 

KS:  Do you like Japanese girls?

AB:  Yeah.  I do.  There’s lots of things to like about Tokyo.  Beautiful women is part of it.  Amazing food.  Amazing fashion.  Everyone there is quite sort of fun and spunky and kind of interesting.  And everyone is respectful. There are so many great things about it but there are also some things that are quite weird and old-fashioned. There is an aspect of their love of tradition that is great, but then they are also old-fashioned and misogynistic in a lot of ways which is quite strange.  Not sort of oppressively so, but so ingrained in their culture that it is normal to them. There is this way that they sexualize women that is quite weird and very strange. There are a few things like that.  But I do love Japan.

KS:  Are you a famous actor there?  It’s weird who is massively famous there and who they idolize from the west.

AB:  Yes. It is odd.  But, yes, I think I do have a fan base in Japan.  And since Sex Education came out and I went back in February, it got bigger and a bit odd.   But it’s different there.  There lots of fans and they always give you gifts and yet they’re very, very respectful. In America,  it’s completely opposite.  Here in the UK there isn’t much of a celebrity culture They might recognize you, but they don’t really make a big deal of it.  In Japan and in America, they much more put you on a pedestal.  To be honest, I wish there was none of that.  I find that all a bit awkward.  I have always found that interaction kind of weird.  But, yeah, in Japan they have their idols and they really cherish them.  And it’s lovely.

KS:  Did you go there by yourself.

AB:  I went there by myself this last time.

KS: Are you comfortable traveling alone.

AB: Yeah.  I enjoy my own company.  But I also sometimes really crave company.  I have family in Japan, so I was staying with them.  I don’t think I’d want to stay by myself in Japan for three weeks.

KS:  Do you still live at home?

AB:  No, I have my own place now.  But it is near to where I grew up. Not far from home.  It’s a two-bedroom flat.  It’s really nice actually.  I live with a friend, one of my best mates.  I wouldn’t want to live by myself.  But I am very comfortable entertaining myself and keeping myself busy.

KS:  Well, you have been very kind not being by yourself for this last hour. I’ve really appreciated your doing this today.  It’s very kind of you to do it, Asa. 

AB:  It’s been a pleasure.  I’ve really enjoyed it.  Honestly, I have enjoyed chatting with you. I’m glad we were able to meet.

KS: Me, too.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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