'Sex Education' Star Asa Butterfield Says Working With Intimacy Coordinator Helped Cast "Find Our Boundaries"

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The 23-year-old actor also discusses his teenage character's season two arc, which saw Otis become "a bit of an a**hole."

For Asa Butterfield, the opportunity to play "sexpert" Otis on Netflix's dramedy Sex Education was a chance to both explore his own relationship with his mother and channel his teen awkwardness into a relatable story.

The 23-year-old English actor's first TV foray became a global sensation after the streamer said about 70 million member accounts watched at least part of the YA dramedy, in which he plays an awkward teen who shares sex advice while battling his own fears of intimacy. He spoke to THR about the second season, which sees Otis delving into his new relationship and reuniting with his estranged father.

Sex Education is an hourlong show that has both dramatic and comedic moments. Do you see it as a comedy or drama?

At the heart of it, it uses comedy to tell these stories. That makes the drama more powerful because viewers connect with these real moments and the comedy helps take down your boundaries and shields by getting you to laugh, which makes the dramatic moments more effective. [Director] Ben Taylor and [creator-showrunner] Laurie Nunn want us to bring our ideas into scenes and into our parts. That feels very freeing and allows us to channel that familiar teenage experience and kind of awkwardness that we all can relate to.

Sex Education was the first Netflix show to use an intimacy coordinator (Ita O'Brien). How did that help you play out scenes in which Otis becomes more comfortable with masturbation and his girlfriend, Ola (Patricia Allison)?

It was helpful to have someone to talk to if you don't feel comfortable or if you don't necessarily want to bring something up or you're embarrassed. A lot of my scenes were me, by myself. For my five-minute masturbating scene, I didn't actually feel like I needed to work with her because I had a good idea of how that might play out. (Laughs.) But for scenes with Patricia — we met at the end of season one, but we didn't know each other before then — Ita helped us find our boundaries.

Otis' relationship with his sex therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), has rarely felt like mother and son. How do you see it?

My mom in the real world is a psychologist. She's not a sex therapist, but there were elements of the kind of very casual conversation about things in which there's often questions within questions or they're analyzing how you might answer a question, whether they know it or not. That is something that I felt when Gillian was playing Jean.

Otis reunited with his estranged father, Remi (James Purefoy), in season two. How much did that help you fill in the blanks of what drives your character?

We see the effect Remi has had on Otis when he left and how not having a father figure in his life warped him. And when he comes back, all Otis has is this off-the-rails sex addict who lies and schemes his way through life. Otis is a bit of an asshole in a lot of season two and he pushes people away — and he doesn't know why. We see where that comes from with the episode with his dad — there is a lot of pent-up anger and frustration and he doesn't know how to deal with it. Then he has that scene where he finally tells his dad all these things that have been building up, and you get the moment where it's a bit of a weight off his chest. I'm excited to see how that has changed him coming into season three.

Otis and Maeve (Emma Mackey) are the will-they-or-won't-they couple of the show. Are you rooting for them as a couple?

They both have a bit of growing to do if they are potentially to become a couple. But, equally, I can see them just being good friends. I love Emma, and we all get on amazingly well. It's hard to put your finger on when you do experience that chemistry, but there are moments — fireworks, really — when you work with someone and it just feels right. Emma is so good at playing all of Maeve's different shades and also showing her vulnerability. Otis is one of the few people who can get her to show those cracks. We didn't actually get many scenes in season two together, which was really sad. I'm hoping they write some more for us next year.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

 

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.