What's This?Ross Butler as Zach Dempsey in '13 Reasons Why.'
Image: Beth Dubber/Netflix
"Is Hollywood ready for an Asian leading man?" is a decades-old question.
The answer should be a no-brainer, yet the industry continues to push talented minority actors to the sidelines. With 13 Reasons Why, Netflix showed the wide appeal and bankability of immensely talented and racially diverse cast.
Among those core characters is Ross Butler, who's about to become a household name for his work on 13 Reasons and the CW's Riverdale. Butler, 26, grew up in Virginia with an Indonesian mother and part-British father. In short, he's American, and he's ready to be the film industry's next big leading man.
"[After] I started getting auditions and seeing that all the auditions I was getting were these stereotypical roles, that’s when I really first realized that there weren’t any Asian American male role models," Butler told Mashable in a phone interview. "And it occurred to me that that’s what needed to change."
"I’m a jock, I fit in with my friend group, and I just happen to be Chinese too — and I think that is what most accurately reflects America right now."
Butler told his agent not to send him out for "Asian roles," and that's when he started seeing a difference in the parts for which he got to read. His breakout roles, in his own words, include "boy next door" and "cocky jock," but have an "all-American" through-line.
For 13 Reasons Why, Butler auditioned over video for the most part, and all he really knew was that the production team wanted a diverse cast — that alone drew him in. His character, Zach Dempsey, gets a fuller backstory in the show than the book, including an Asian mother and sister, and eventually, a Chinese middle name.
"My full name is Ross Fleming Butler, it’s very British-Irish," Butler laughs. "[Producer Brian Yorkey] said ‘Yeah, we’re thinking about giving Zach a Chinese middle name, do you think that would fit?' I thought about it and said yeah. I think my mom in the show would have wanted me to have a connection to my Asian roots."
"I thought it was right for the show because it shows that I’m just like another one of the kids at school," Butler elaborates. "I’m a jock, I fit in with my friend group, and I just happen to be Chinese too — and I think that is what most accurately reflects America right now. There’s so many Chinese or Asian Americans that were either born in another country like I was and raised in America, or born in America and raised in America. They’re normal Americans and they just happen to have a different heritage."
Butler behind the scenes of '13 Reasons Why' with Katherine Langford (Hannah).
Image: Beth Dubber/Netflix
Butler is currently learning Mandarin, so he broke down Zach's middle name for Mashable. The script spells it as Shanyun; Shan meaning virtuous, and yun meaning essence, two descriptors Butler found accurate for Zach's development as a character.
"The arc that I kind of decided to follow is that Zach becomes a man during this whole adverse time with dealing with the suicide," Butler explains. "He’s starting to understand how to stand up for himself and how to be a stronger individual or become a decent person in a non-decent world."
"Zach throughout the show starts as this teenager that doesn’t know his own thoughts and doesn’t know who he is as a person, and changes into kind of ... like I am in my life now, where I stand up for what I think should be done, what I think is right, and not follow others blindly."
Butler connected to Zach — and to the mildly obnoxious Reggie on Riverdale — by identifying a loneliness in the character, a drifter quality in the otherwise segmented social strata of high school.
"I had a lot of friends but none of them I felt super close with," Butler recalls. "Now that I’m older, I can look back on my teenage self and kind of see the things I did wrong and the things I did right, what affect they had on me and what affect they had on other people. I can look at it in a much more conducive way to storytelling."
He can't say much about his upcoming projects, but Butler has his sights set on film acting.
"As a community, we’re fighting for Asians to play Asian roles," he says. "And then there’s the other battle which is Asian Americans playing roles that aren’t written for Asians, and I think that's something that completely should happen; Why can’t an Asian American male just play a leading cop figure ... or the Matt Damon roles?
The problem, Butler says, isn't that there's no Asian leading men in Hollywood. "There are leading man types that are available and they exist but they just aren’t being used," he says.
Television producers may have realized what an asset an actor like Butler is, and hopefully, film isn't far behind.
"We, Asian Americans, are just as part of American culture as Caucasians or African Americans," he said.