When hit Netflix series Sex Education (hopefully) returns to production this summer, it will be one of the first major shows to do so following the coronavirus shutdown.
Asa Butterfield, who plays lead character Otis, is looking forward to it. “We’re going to be paving the way, potentially, for how things are done for the next while,” he says. “They want to get it right – there will be a lot of safety protocol put in place.”
Shot predominantly in south Wales, the high school drama’s sun-kissed visuals require long days of light. It was scheduled to film season three in May, before lockdown intervened; the restart is now tentatively scheduled for August, according to Sony, parent company of the show’s UK-based production company Eleven.
The option of quarantining a full cast and crew has been floated as a solution to Covid-19 transmission concerns in the industry. “If that’s what needs to be done, then that’s what needs to be done,” says Butterfield of the possibility that Sex Education could adopt such a measure. “I’m lucky that Wales isn’t that far from home – it’s in the same time zone and relatively similar. I’ve been staying in my apartment for the last few months so it wouldn’t be all that different – it’ll just be a different apartment!”
Whatever social distancing measures are required on set, he is naturally keen they don’t alter the essence of the show. “The foundation of this show is relationships, friendships, and intimacy, and it gives such a positive message. Otis and [best friend] Eric are always hugging and jumping around – we can’t change that. I would rather we all quarantined and we keep the heart of the show than lose that.”
Butterfield hopes the detailed work the industry is doing for a post-pandemic return as a chance to adopt greener shooting practices. “People are realising what’s important and what’s necessary, and then what’s just being wasteful. I know Sex Education is really pushing to minimise waste; taking that even further would be something that could come out of this.”
Many of his castmates including Ncuti Gatwa as Eric and Emma Mackey as Otis’ business partner/friend/love interest Maeve were newcomers when the first season launched in January 2019. Butterfield is comparatively an old hand, having started in film with 2007’s Son Of Rambow, broken out with the following year’s The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, and achieved a global presence as the title role in Martin Scorsese’s 2011 Hugo.
He is enjoying the opportunity to develop a character across a longer format. “Season one was such a shot in the dark – we really had no idea,” he says. “When we did season two, we wanted it to be as good, if not better.”
The second run saw Otis balance his burgeoning teenage sex therapy business at the fictional Moordale High with his first relationship, breakup, and several first-time sexual experiences. “He was able to relax in his own skin and not worry so much,” says Butterfield. “He projected a lot of his own insecurities into that relationship, which was one of the reasons it didn’t work out. In season one no-one knew who he was; in season two, he’s ‘sex kid’!”
The character is first introduced as a polite, reticent young man; the actor has enjoyed playing Otis as he “lets loose”, particularly in episode six, where he completes the teenage rite-of-passage of throwing a party that gets somewhat out-of-hand. “That was a fun change to his usual pace and energy. He’s mature and very wise and kind, but he can be massively childish and angry.”
People want change
Created by Laurie Nunn, the show has been roundly praised for its ethnic, social, and sexual diversity; Butterfield says continuing to improve representation is essential to him, especially in the context of the social movements of this year. “The last few months have seen such an outcry, a demand for justice across all sectors. What Sex Education does well is implement diversity and give everyone a voice without making a point of it – it just feels part of the world.
“People really want this change; it needs to happen across film, TV, music – all the arts.”
Could Sex Education include a Black Lives Matter storyline? “Laurie’s an amazing writer, so I think she could do it,” says Butterfield. “Moordale is its own world. It’s hyper-real, like a parallel universe where this doesn’t necessarily have to be explained explicitly.”
Butterfield lives with his brother and their two cats. Lockdown has been spent improving his culinary capability (“a lot of curries, and I’ve been perfecting my waffle recipe”); exercising, initially (“after a month of waking up to not much changing I lost a bit of motivation”); catching up on Mad Men; and reading “more scripts than usual”. He’s been chatting with directors on Zoom, trying to line up projects for when productions resume.
His upcoming films include Grans Gone Wild from Jellyfish director James Gardner, in which he plays an aspiring young rapper living next door to one of two elderly sisters who go on a bender. “It’s one of the most original and funny scripts – it has such a high potential to be really unique.”
He’s also still attached to play Adrian Healey in a feature adaptation of Stephen Fry’s semi-autobiographical novel The Liar, a project that has been in development for over a decade. Butterfield wants to embrace the “challenge” of playing a semi-fictional version of Fry – “I’m praying that this is the year all the planets align our schedules.”
First in the lunch queue, though, is season three of Sex Education, in which Otis and Maeve may continue their unconventional courtship. “I hope they finally talk to each other and are honest,” says Butterfield. “What that finally blossoms into, I don’t know. They’ve got things going for them; I think they’d be great friends, or if it becomes something romantic.”