It’s been quite a journey for Ross Butler, who dropped out of his engineering degree course and made the bold decision to move to Los Angeles 10 years ago, when he was 20. Exuding a quiet confidence throughout our phone conversation, the Singapore‑born, Virginia‑raised actor tells me: “I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor. I just wanted to change the environment I was in, because I felt stuck and just really unhappy.”
His choice did not sit well with his mother, who wanted him to go down the academic path. “My mum and I stopped talking for a few years because she didn’t approve of the move,” Butler shares. “I was also moving to a town that I had only been to once before, so I didn’t have any friends or a support system.” He made his first foray into acting when he turned 21, thanks to a friend who bought him an acting class for US$25. Once he decided acting was what he was going to focus on (it was something he “immediately connected with”), there was no stopping him.
Growing up not only as a foreigner but also mixed-race in America—his mum is Chinese-Malaysian and his dad, English-Dutch—Butler never fully related to anyone. “You don’t really feel like you belong. You don’t feel like you have people you can lean on or who understand what you’re going through; it was isolating,” he shares. “I became a social chameleon. I got really good at fitting the mould of who I thought people saw me as.” He turned to film as a means of escape, but it didn’t help that they played into Asian stereotypes and that movie stars were mostly white.
This was an issue that continued to plague Hollywood when Butler first started out as an actor and he made it his mission early in his career to challenge the status quo. After auditioning to play martial arts or geeky characters that he just did not resonate with, he told his team to stop sending him out for stereotypical Asian roles. “I didn’t get as many auditions, but as soon as I started getting the ones I wanted to do, I was able to show what I could do. The first few years were tough.”
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Butler is of the opinion that there are two battles being fought when it comes to Asian representation in Hollywood: Asians getting on screen and Asians playing non-Asian roles. He’s more focused on the latter. “I believe in integration and inclusion,” he says, “where we don’t have movies that put Asians in their own group. The world is mixing more and more; these stories aren’t being told enough.”
In 2015, Butler landed what he calls his breakthrough role as Brett Willis in Disney’s K.C. Undercover, starring Zendaya. Then, he played Reggie Mantle in Riverdale and Zach Dempsey in Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, with the latter garnering him breakout stardom and an ardent social media following. He recalls waking up to a few hundred thousand new Instagram followers a day when the first season of 13 Reasons Why aired. “I’d also get messages from people saying how much the show affected them—that’s when I really knew that we had done what we set out to do,” he adds. “It was something we thought we were prepared for, but weren’t. To have the work appreciated by so many people was amazing.” Fast forward to today and Butler’s fan base includes 8.5 million followers on the platform.
Reminiscing about the massively popular and controversial series (it ended its four-season run this June), which touches on topics such as suicide and mental health, Butler shares that “this was the first cast I’ve really become a family with—we grew up together; a lot of them are like my younger siblings (he’s one of the oldest cast members). We went through so much together and we got to talk about things that hadn’t been talked about before. We blazed the trail for shows such as Euphoria to address real issues—that’s something special I think a lot of actors don’t get to do.” He considers Dempsey his favourite character and relates to him on many levels. “Zach is the closest to who I am as a person. He has this jock label on him, but he isn’t that. The feeling of being misunderstood is something I’ve felt my entire life.”
Having played high-schoolers—typically jocks—for about seven years now, the self-confessed video game nerd is looking to expand his repertoire. He’s especially interested in action-comedy roles such as his adult Eugene Choi character in superhero flick Shazam!. “I’m ready to move on because I like variety. I’d love to play a Chris Pratt or Ryan Reynolds that isn’t Asian—obviously, the race can be Asian, but it doesn’t need to be a martial artist or a Japanese swordsman. At the end of the day, I want to have roles where I can have fun and dig into,” he explains.
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Butler also has his eye on getting into the production side of things. To that end, he has been exploring the art of impactful storytelling during his time in quarantine and reveals that “there are two movies and a TV series that I’ve been developing; hopefully, they’ll get picked up. [I want to use metaphors and allegories to convey lessons]—I think that’s the only way you can really get people to understand a concept if they aren’t part of the lesson.”
When he’s not on set, Butler likes to keep himself physically and mentally active. Besides hitting the gym, he has picked up tennis again (he grew up playing it competitively) and is obsessed with golf. In addition to taking lessons in Japanese and Arabic (he picked up Mandarin a year ago), the self-taught guitarist is learning to play the harmonica. If that’s not enough to make fans swoon, he also sings and plays the piano. “I’ve been branching out into different genres for the instruments I can play,” he shares. “I’ve picked up jazz for piano; I enjoy the improvisational aspect of it.” Trawl through his Instagram feed and you’ll find clips that showcase his musical chops. “I take songs I like and interpret them differently,” he says. “I do a lot of ballad covers of EDM songs on guitar.” While Butler loves music, a career change is not on the cards. He does, however, want to work on some deep house music with his DJ friends.
Another thing Butler is passionate about is animals. Last year, he launched a line of t-shirts featuring rescue dogs and the word “unconditional” in support of Best Friends Animal Society, a no-kill animal shelter and non-profit organisation in America. He also uses his platform—where he often shares photos of himself and his beloved dogs—to raise awareness about special causes.
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When speaking with Butler, it’s clear that he sees himself on a continued path of learning and seeks to open himself up to new experiences. “Now that I’m being taken a bit more seriously in this industry, I can’t be afraid to ask questions, I can’t be afraid to look like I’m new at something. I’ve learnt to just do it and not judge myself,” he says. “There’s a great quote by Bruce Lee I’ve lived with my entire life. It goes along the lines of not being lazy in any aspect of your life, because that’ll bleed into everything else. You’ve got to keep pushing and breaking your plateaus.”
His sense of style reflects the ever-evolving aspects of his career and life he aims to keep up with. “It’s always changing; I put my own spin on trends. I’ve been allowing myself to express my feelings and personality with my clothing.” Among his wardrobe essentials are a vintage Prada checkered jacket, an oversize sweater and trackpants from his favourite brand, adidas, and a whole lot of hats.
Set to appear in Swimming with Sharks, Shazam! 2 and To All the Boys 3—and with many other projects in the pipeline—Butler is certainly making his mark in Hollywood. One advice he’d give to his younger self and other Asian actors looking to break the mould? “Don’t be afraid of expressing yourself and fighting for your creativity. Don’t be afraid to not follow the rules.”
Photographer: Yu Tsai
Stylist: Jeffrey Yan
Makeup: Fiona Stiles / A-Frame Agency
Hair: John Ruggiero / Forward Artists
Production: 88 Phases
Producer: Trever Swearingen
Digital technician: Luis Jaime
Photographer’s assistant: Massimo Campana