To All the Boys' Ross Butler on the Impact of Asian American Stories in Hollywood

CUL_PS_Ross Butler
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"I feel like Asian Americans finally have a platform where we can express ourselves."

While teen dramas have been a mainstay of Hollywood for generations, the latest entries are challenging familiar formulas. "I grew up in the nineties and teen dramas back then were completely different than teen dramas now," says Ross Butler, who knows a thing or two about teen-driven content. He's starred in massive TV hits like Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why and the To All the Boys movies. "What people in middle America see represents culture for the rest of the world; it's what international people see as America." That exposure helps break down stereotypes. "All the white girls in middle America see that Asian guys can be seen as attractive." Continuing to challenge perceptions, Butler will be part of the mostly Asian American cast of Raya and the Last Dragon (Disney+, premiering March 5). "Disney really does take it to the forefront. They put their foot forward and really try and make a difference." The significance of the roles Butler has taken on, he says, has inspired him "to take a stand creatively" and to "choose things that I think will have an impact or will lead culture."

What do you think makes To All The Boys stand out from other teen film franchises?

Well, it's one of the only romcom trilogies I've ever heard of. So you can really take your time with it and show the progression of these characters over a long arc, really see them mature. Another big thing is we all just naturally have really good chemistry together. The casting did a really good job bringing together people that just mesh really well. I think, especially with my character, a lot of the comedy and a lot of the things going on was improv, so it was the chemistry that allowed that naturally, it wasn't forced.

What are older audiences missing out on in new teen dramas?

I think they're missing out on a lot, because we're kind of guiding how the next generation is growing up, right? For example, I grew up in the nineties and you think about the teen dramas back then, they were completely different than teen dramas now. Teens are a lot smarter today because they're thrust into a world that's completely open to them and interconnected. This next generation is very aware of feelings, and they're changing the landscape of how we treat each other. That being said, with teen dramas, shows like 13 Reasons Why was one of the first shows that actually talked about depression and suicide and things that we needed to talk about. Just the amount of DMs and messages we've got from teens saying, "Oh my God, this is exactly how I feel." It's cathartic for adults to watch because when they were going to high school, they probably felt the same things, but there wasn't anything out there that reflected how they felt.

13 Reasons Why really was a catalyst for a lot of important conversations around mental health. After the series finale, how do you think the show as a whole was perceived, and what's your takeaway from that experience?

What I took away from it, as an artist, was that it showed me how art does lead culture. What people in middle America see represents the rest of the world, it's what international people see as America. For instance, the relationship between Zach [Butler's character] and Hannah in 13 Reasons Why, he was an Asian guy and she's a white girl. All the white girls in middle America see that's an actual possibility. Asian guys can be seen as attractive. So moving forward with my own career, it forces me to choose things that I think will have an impact or will lead culture because the bar has already been set. Ten years from now, 13 Reasons Why will show that it really did start the ball rolling on conversations with parents and their kids. I'm hoping that 10 years from now mental health is seen as a priority and as something you shouldn't be ashamed of.

Do you see changes in the types of roles being offered to Asian American actors?

When I first moved to L.A., there was nothing. Every role I had was written Asian, a new stereotype. Like I remember going into a sitcom audition and I literally had to put on an Asian accent. At the time I was just like, "Oh, I don't want to do this." Like this is so demeaning, and it's literally after one of those auditions that I called my team and I was like, "No more of this shit. I'm not doing it." Fast forward and yeah, the landscape has changed. I think Hollywood is finally picking up on the idea that the next generation is smarter. They know that these stereotypes are antiquated. They're a thing of the past.

What was it like working on Raya and the Last Dragon, one of the first big animated films with an almost-all Asian American cast?

To be a part of that, specifically the Southeast Asian cast, because as much as I'm an Asian American, I'm still half Asian, I still have my roots in Malaysia and in China. It's important to hold on to that. That's what makes me unique. It's what makes all of us unique and ties us back to our roots. It felt good to be embraced by the Asian community again, because I feel like the Asian community has had a hard time in this industry and we finally have a platform where we can express ourselves and show that we have interesting stories that aren't just stereotypes. To be a part of that is an honor. The weird thing is when people think Disney, they think that Disney plays it safe. But like, even my first big role on Disney's K.C. Undercover was as Zendaya's love interest. She's mixed race, I'm mixed race, she's black and white and I'm Asian and white. So Disney really does take it to the forefront, it just seems safe. They put their foot forward and really try and make a difference.

Shazam 2 is in the works. Your work in the first one felt different from your other work: more comedic. Was it exciting to do more comedy and what can we expect from the sequel?

Absolutely. Comedy is where I started, and it's what I love doing. I grew up watching Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan and all these comedic actors. So I understand to audiences it feels like a departure, but it actually feels like coming home. We haven't shot Shazam 2 yet, we're going to start soon, hopefully—if things go to plan. It was surreal shooting the first one and then seeing myself in the costume. It's a non-stereotypical Asian superhero, it's not like a Kung Fu guy, it's not a monk, it's just a kid who plays video games and wants to be a superhero.

Now that you've been at this while, has your approach to acting changed? Do you have plans to do other things?

I've been creating my own stories and focusing on trying to tell stories that are specific to mixed-race people or just people that feel like they fall in between the cracks, because that's how I grew up feeling. So I'm moving into the production world. I have a few producing mentors that have been telling me about the industry and telling me how things work. That has absolutely changed my perspective as an actor going into the creative side. As an actor you're the face of the project, you don't have a lot of creative pull. So I've been working to take a stand creatively.