Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield Is All Grown Up

The actor who plays the series protagonist praises the show’s intimacy coordinator for making him feel comfortable enough to film sex scenes.

by Carrie Wittmer

Asa Butterfield, portrait by Joseph Sinclair courtesy of NETFLIX.

The season three premiere of Netflix’s Sex Education opens with a shot of a car rocking back and forth in the woods on a foggy night. As the camera gets closer to the vehicle, we see protagonist Otis Milburn through the window having sex. It’s not long after that the person he is having sex with is revealed to be Ruby (Mimi Keene), the most popular girl at Moordale Secondary School. It’s a scene that stands in stark contrast to the beginning of the series, when Otis was portrayed as a willful wallflower. “In season one, no one really noticed who he was, and he liked that,” actor Asa Butterfield, who plays Otis, told W.

When this sexy (and quite educational, even for those who have been sexually active for quite some time) show about horny teens in the British countryside premiered on Netflix in 2019, it received glowing reviews from critics not just for its humor, but also for its empathetic and educational approach to those hormonal teenage years. At the beginning of the show, Otis chose to go unnoticed. Most of his classmates did not know who he was or did not care who he was, and he liked it that way. During season one, it was revealed that though he was a wizard at helping other people work through their own sexual anxieties, he couldn’t masturbate, because he associated sex with the painful memory of witnessing his dad Remi (James Purefoy) cheating on his mom Jean (Gillian Anderson).

The second season, which dropped in 2020, also received high praise, and the recently released third season is even better. Butterfield credits this growth to the writing and the ensemble cast’s performances, which get deeper every season while keeping the story focused on Otis’ growth. But the actor also doesn’t give himself enough credit: his heartfelt, joyous performance demands physical comedy and some of the most emotionally devastating moments of teenage years and life in general, which he pulls off seamlessly.

Butterfield posited that where Otis really grows in season three is in his “confidence” as a person. “As an actor, it's always fun to play another side of a character,” he said. He credits the character’s growth to his relationship with Ruby, as well as the improvement of his connection to his mother, a sex therapist. Throughout the first two seasons, Otis—in typical teen fashion—rarely listens to his mother Jean and is annoyed by her existence. The third season is certainly not smooth sailing between Jean and Otis, but he begins to take his mother’s advice to heart.

With this increase in the character’s confidence come more mature scenes for Butterfield, who admits he is “quite numb” to the shocking intimate moments the writers put on the page at this point. He thanks the writing for making it easy to film those, because raunchy scenes are “always in the context of the character.” He also credits the welcoming atmosphere on set, which includes an intimacy coordinator. “The more comfortable we are, the further we can then push it and really make these scenes fun and touching and genuine, because we don't feel too embarrassed.”

Through his friendships and relationships, Otis continues to discover himself. “He actually really loves helping people and connecting with people,” Butterfield said. “That's where he finds joy. He's trying to figure out why he's doing it. At first, it's Maeve [Emma Mackey], but he comes to realize that actually his main reason for doing it is because he loves helping people.” The will-they-won’t they dynamic between Otis and Maeve is the heart of the show, and Butterfield is asked about it in interviews a lot. While he has hopes for their future, he’s also very aware that they are teenagers who have a whole lot of life ahead of them. “They've still got a lot to learn,” he told W, without spoiling too much.

Everyone learns something about sex and themselves while watching Sex Education, whether that’s the true definition of a vulva, or that you might want to explore alien role play. “I think a lot of it just comes down to the spectrum of sexuality and people's differences,” Butterfield said. “Everyone's got a very specific, unique, personal journey. I don't think I appreciated how wide and varied those journeys were... sexual preferences or interests or whatever it is can be so different, and I think that this show does an amazing job of highlighting and writing a voice for people in those communities.”