Ross Butler is having a breakout year — even if the 26 year-old actor can't yet seem to get out of high school. He's already known to a generation of teens and tweens as a veteran of "K.C. Undercover," "Teen Wolf" and "Teen Beach 2." More recently, he's taken on the role of Archie Andrews' rich kid frenemy Reggie Mantle on "Riverdale," and can be seen later this month on Netflix's "13 Reasons Why," based on the bestselling YA novel. In it, Butler plays Zach, a popular ball player with a mysterious connection to a recently deceased fellow student.
Butler, whose parents are Chinese Malaysian and American, spoke with Salon recently about how he's trying to change how Hollywood casts Asian-American actors, about acting with empathy — and about the enduring allure of Archie Andrews and the gang.
Congratulations on "Riverale's" renewal.
Thank you so much. Yeah, I just got the news and I’m very thrilled.
It's fun watching this new incarnation of Archie being interpreted for a new generation. I'm so intrigued by the durability of Archie and that world of "Riverdale." What do you think it is about that culture and that story about this group of very ordinary American teenagers that is so appealing?
It came out in the fifties in America and it’s been a staple since then. I think it's a reflection of how teenagers want to be, or how they want their friendships to be. Of course it’s family friendly — or at least the comics are.
After going through the history of it, I think it was a way for people to escape, to hope for something that was better and more colorful, somewhere everybody is friends and everybody can just mess with each other — especially in Reggie’s world — and have these strong relationships. I think that’s why it carried on generation after generation — which makes it fun now, when we make it this super dark thing. That’s just a reflection of our time now. We're being a little bit edgier and people want to see it more for reality. As the culture changes, so does Archie.
Tell me a little bit about Reggie and how you came to be cast as Reggie. One thing that I've heard you say repeatedly is you specifically said to your agents, "Don't send me out just for Asian roles." And you've said even now, when you got out for auditions, you may be the only Asian actor in the room.
Reggie originally was a white American guy in the comic books. He didn’t have any Asian characteristics except maybe black hair.
Other than that, he’s the jock character, he's always pranking everybody and he’s just confident and arrogant. Those are not necessarily characteristics you see in Asian roles. Usually Asian roles are reserved for martial artists or the tech nerds. At least that’s how it was a few years ago. At the beginning of my career I saw that, and that’s when I told my team, "I can’t go out for these roles, I’m just not built for them. I’m 6’3 and athletic. I can’t play a nerd or a Bruce Lee type of character."
Before I came to be cast as Reggie, there were probably a few years where I wasn’t getting a lot of auditions. Then slowly I started gaining traction on Disney, like "K.C. Undercover." I was the only Asian guy in the room for that, and that was written I think originally for an African-American character. Then there was "Teen Beach Movie 2," which was non-ethnic specific. I started booking these roles that could be played by white people or African-Americans. Then "Riverdale" came along, which was the first big step, because it was a character who was traditionally American. I saw that if I booked this, this would be a step in reversing the stereotype and starting to break new ground, because there’s all sorts of controversy about Caucasian actors playing Asian characters. Now this is the reverse of that, where an Asian actor would play a Caucasian character. That’s why Reggie is important me and that’s what stands out about him. For me, this was a step in breaking a stereotype and to kind of lead the way for more Asian-American actors to play traditional white roles.
It seems like if you're going to get typecast now at this point it's going to be as the athlete. That's what you’ve been doing a lot.
Yes, like in "Teen Wolf" and "13 Reasons Why." I've played lacrosse players, football players, basketball players. I think that’s just because of how I'm built. I look young and I'm also a big person. I’m working to change that because now I can show that I can break stereotypes, I want to be able to show that I can branch off from jock image.
The show's only been on just a couple of weeks but, it's already created so much buzz and so much conversation. What have you heard from viewers about your character Reggie and about the fact that you're part of this change in the way that that story is being told and this movement in representation?
I’ve seen nothing but positive comments, honestly. When it first came out and when people first saw me as Reggie, there was so much support. There was some surprise that they made Reggie Asian, but people were fully accepting of this, and talking about how like I look like the character. People seem to have no issues with it.
Have you heard from Asian-American fans?
Definitely. On Twitter and on Instagram there are people saying that it’s refreshing to finally see an Asian playing a joker, an Asian playing a jock or a traditionally white character. I like that a lot of fans message me on Instagram saying how they are inspired to actually follow the arts now, which is my goal. I want to inspire Asian kids to become more artistic and creative rather than feeling that they have to be academic or whatever.
That needle moving a little bit more and more over the past few years seems to have been led in a certain degree by those Disney shows and by those Nick shows. Five years ago if I was looking for diversity on TV, I was seeing it more in the teen shows on those networks. Do you think that part of the change has been led by this younger generation of actors?
Absolutely. When I first booked the job at Disney I saw it as the perfect launching point. It’s a start, putting in entertainment that Asian and African-Americans and all these different cultures are in our population are just everyday people. They are not stereotypes of having to be the smart kid or the dumb kid or the athletic kid. I think that the teen shows, and the CW and Disney and Nickelodeon, have a huge impact, because that’s the next generation. The more that the entertainment reflects real life, that’s the next step, that’s how we are going to get more diversity in the future. We know our fans are going to grow with us. It’s super important.
Yeah, it's cool when you're watching a show that's about a wizard, not about a Latina wizard.
Or spies! It’s not just Asian spies, they're just spies.
Are you now at the point though where it's, “Oh, God, I have to answer the questions about being an Asian actor again?” Are you ready to be, “I just want to talk about like being like a cool young actor in Hollywood?”
I don’t mind talking about being an Asian actor. We're fighting battles on two fronts now: fighting for Asians to play Asian characters, and then for Asians to play traditionally white characters. It's something that we need to be vocal about.
So tell me a little bit about, “13 Reasons Why.”
"13 Reasons Why" is about this girl who decides to commit suicide and she names thirteen people as the reasons why. And she records on cassette thirteen different tapes explaining how each person was involved in her suicide.
Your part was expanded from the book, right?
Yes, as were all the parts. What I tell people to reassure them is that unlike many other adaptations of books, this one has the majority of the book in it and then builds on top of it, rather than cutting it down and trying to fit it within an hour and a half like a movie would. That's why I think they had to go with an episodic format rather than a movie. All the characters were expanded. They gave us all more backstory and gave us higher stakes and our involvement in the whole situation. Then also they added the parents, which was a great addition, so we get to see from the parents’ perspective as well.
"Riverdale" and “13 Reasons Why” are stories about adolescence that — even though they are outside of reality — are also exploring the darker aspects of adolescence. Do you feel a responsibility to that kind of storytelling, when you know where people watching are going to come away really thinking and talking about some pretty deep, dark stuff?
Absolutely. It’s a huge responsibility and a privilege because we get to tell the story and we get to be representatives for this discussion. I will say that "Riverdale," yes, is a little more sensationalized. It's based on comics and it is a little bit more dramatic and a little bit more made for TV, made for teens. For "13 Reasons," we tried hard to make it as real as we could, as close to reality as possible. No corners were cut, everything was very raw and very real. I am excited about that because it’s a reflection of reality today. And that is what is going to open our discussion, because the dialogue seems very natural and flows. What we aim to do is just get kids and their parents talking. We feel that kids and adults will enjoy it, but also both connect at a level where it will open up the discussion about depression, suicide, just what it means to be teenagers.
And shaming and bullying, and all of these things that we are all confronting or, at least trying to figure out how to confront on a daily basis.
Yes, because it’s different now. What it means now to be a teenager now is different than from what it was when I was a teenager just a few years ago. Everyone has all these different social media and different areas where we can connect, where it’s great in one way but it’s also hard in others.
On the one hand, we're pushing all these boundaries in terms of diversity in representation in our culture. We're having important, deep conversations through the media about these issues. Then on the other hand, hate crimes are rising and bomb threats are being called into synagogues. You turn on the news and you see some deep divisiveness and deep ugliness. Where do you think the role of art and culture is in all of that? What can someone like you as an artist, as a performer, do with your work to change that?
It’s an interesting question because, I think as an artist, what we try to do is to encourage compassion and encourage empathy. As actors, we have to take characters and we have to feel for them and ultimately become them, and share that on screen so that audience feels that. We tell these stories of, for example, this girl who commits suicide in "13 Reasons." By showing how real and how dark it gets, we then want to teach what we could have done or how we could have acted to prevent this girl from committing suicide, how to open discussions so that we don’t repress feelings that can maybe turn into these violent acts later in life. We are preaching openness, or preaching being honest to yourself, and trying to find happiness where you can.
That’s ultimately that's the through line in any character I play. One of the core parts about my character in "13 Reasons" is loneliness and isolation, feeling like an outcast and feeling different. I think in this world where we have all these different connections, being more open and being more compassionate is needed more than ever, because there are all these channels for meanness. We need to try to take advantage of these connections and instead of using them for meanness, try to be more compassionate and more empathetic.