Film

Asa Butterfield and Emma Mackey on why we need Sex Education

We get to know the lead actors in Netflix's new hit show.

What were the first reactions you guys had when you were approached with this project?

Asa Butterfield: My first reaction, umm, gosh it wasn’t even that long ago it was like March [2018] and I got the script, read the first two or three and just really laughed. I think that’s always a good sign when you’ve just got a smile on your face reading a script. I met up with the directors and producers to talk about Otis’ character, and they shared their vision for the tone and the look. It got me really excited: being able to do a British comedy which isn’t too depressing (laughs), I feel like a lot of British school-set shows are very kind of grey and gritty. Self deprecating…

Emma Mackey: Which we love too!

AB: Of course! But the vibrancy of this show really comes out. I think they did an incredible job with finding this beautiful location where we’re filming it – in Wales – and the costume design, it made it feel very unique in its world of British comedies. I thought that was really special, the characters are all brilliantly fleshed out, you root for them and you love them, and no ones perfect.

EM: Yeah, I don’t really know what else I can say than that – that was the best description of the show (laughs). It’s just so colourful: it’s great to be part of a show that is both important, and celebrates the weird and wonderful. All of the characters are flawed, but you find yourself falling for all of them…

I bet it took you right back to your school days…

AB: Very much so. I think being on set in a school setting, surrounded by people our own age took us all straight back.

EM: It was really weird, quite surreal!

AB: We were like cheeky schoolchildren again: playing pranks, seeing if the teacher was watching… (laughs) It really did feel like we were just back in school.

EM: There were so many elements that help you get back into that headspace too. Obviously you’re in costume, and I definitely didn’t dress like Maeve when I was 17 (laughs), but there was that element of being at that uncomfortable-in-your-own skin age. It just felt like we were in summer school for 4 months, but it was so fun.

Did you relate to your characters? Or did you look to other influences when finding inspiration for your portrayals? I felt some serious John Hughes vibes…

AB: Probably not in terms of performance, but definitely in terms of the style and tone. For us, the characters seemed so individual, I definitely just related to Otis and drew quite personal links: being introverted, a bit on the side-lines… But I think his progression throughout the show, how he he’s comfortable in his own skin, is a really vital story. I mean it’s funny, he’s this awkward guy who becomes a sex guru but still being completely unable to do anything with it all, it could’ve gone so wrong…

EM: It could’ve gone in a whole other direction…

AB: It’s refreshing to see a male character who uses these powers for good, as such…

EM: Definitely. I feel the same about Maeve, there was a lot of inspiration that came to me through what I’ve taken in over the years… But the exciting thing for me – which kind of relates back to your question about what drew us to the roles in the first place – was that these are completely new characters, it’s a new idea, we’re creating it all from scratch. Everything we’re surrounded by – the costume, the set, the people – it all helps bring this person to life: it was a process and it was a team.

So, now you’re both a part of a Netflix show, soon to be phenomenon and possible subject of memes… Are you ready for it?

AB: It’s mad (laughs). Netflix is just becoming bigger and bigger, they’re producing so much relevant and good content. It’s really cool to be a part of it and to know that in the flick of a switch, our show is available to 190 countries…

EM: God.

AB: I know! With dubs, you know, I could watch all 8 episodes in Spanish… (laughs) It’s just crazy, even with a major film it will get a global release but it’s not the extent of that.

EM: I think it’s really cool that it’s people in control of their own watching, and exciting to think they’ll click on us… The quality of what Netflix makes is so high and there’s a plethora of work there, and it’s so exciting to be a part of that platform.

It’s a very liberal show, a very open-minded show. How did it feel to be making something like this in today’s cultural and social climate?

EM: It’s amazing, I feel like it’s the perfect time for it to come out. I feel very strongly about all the issues Sex Education touches on, so I’m proud to be a voice in that. I hope it will become part of these important movements, and will be a part of moving these dialogues forward and into an even greater audience. It’s an important show for so many reasons: the characters, the representation, the storylines, the issues tackled, encouraging sex positivity…

How do you feel Emma as a young actress starting out in the industry?

EM: I feel like it’s the right time because I’ve been granted the ability to talk about the issues that are present, to gain a platform for that. It’s easier in this position to talk about the important things and voice my own opinions. I feel really positive, there’s been a lot of change already in the past year and I feel it can only move forward now, the movement will only get bigger and brighter. It’s exhilarating to be a part of it.

 

Do you think that there’s an obligation in film and TV to push boundaries and approach issues?

AB: Not always, but usually the ones that do are the best… But I also think you don’t want to force that, to make it controversial or topical for the sake of it. It has to be justified. I think if it’s important in the real world though it makes it so much more relatable and important to the audience.

EM: Whew, I concur!

Asa, you came into the spotlight as a child, how do you feel people will perceive your coming of age in Sex Education?

AB: I’ll be interested to see what people will think… I’ve never done anything this, umm, sexual: although what Otis does in the show is pretty tame compared to some of the characters, I still think people might be surprised. I’m 21 now, so it shouldn’t really be surprising, but I think people do see me as the kid in Hugo or Ender’s Game. Time’s change though… I’m excited to see the reactions. I really enjoyed doing comedy actually, I’ve mostly done drama before, and so it was freeing to do something a bit more light-hearted. I hope people enjoy that and I hope to get to do a bit more of it.

What films have shaped you both personally so far?

EM: Before Sunrise changed my life, I watched it at a time when I felt Julie Delpy’s Céline was me: “this is how I think”, “this is how I think”, “this is me talking”. I love This is England and Shane Meadows. That’s two… Oh, Moonlight too – that changed me, it’s so beautiful. Call Me By Your Name too. Girlhood, a French film by Céline Sciamma, Kate Herron one of our directors gave it to me for inspiration for Maeve.

AB: This is England, for me too. Lord of the Rings started off my love for fantasy and adventure – and, er, fellowship. The Matrix too. And Le Haine.

Where do you feel this project will lead you too?

AB: Hopefully season two! I hope to do a bit more comedy, I recently played a villain in an indie which was fun. So I’d like to expand my horizons and keep my options open, as long as the content and script are good I’m in if it captures me.

EM: I’m taking it pretty step by step, I’m so happy to be in this show, all I know for now is it’s given me a bit more confidence in myself and my work. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen… Hopefully I’ll get another job. (laughs)

Sex Education season 1 is available on Netflix now.

16 January 2019