There’s a glimmer of childlike charm that flickers across the screen as Ross Butler hops on the video call. He seems unassuming in his t-shirt and Terry Black's BBQ Austin cap, sitting in his kitchen from what feels like a long day. As he tries to sneak in a few bites before our interview begins, I catch glimpses of intricate charcoal drawings behind him, sketched by Butler himself—an elephant and a lotus—pinned on the fridge as if by a proud parent. It feels quite reminiscent of catching up with an old buddy who has moved abroad, and this immediately sets the tone of our conversation.
With 11 years of acting experience under his belt, Butler has built quite an impressive resume starring in several hit TV shows and films. You might recognize him in roles such as Zach Demsey, the highschool jock in 13 Reasons Why (2017-2020), Reggie Mantle in Riverdale (2017, 2021), Trevor Pike in the beloved fan series, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (2020), To All the Boys: Always and Forever (2021), and as Eugene Choi in Shazam! (2019). However, at some point, Butler’s path looked very different—he originally majored in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering for a year before dropping out.
“I dropped out because I was studying something that interested me, but it wasn't something that I wanted as a career. I grew up very academic, so dropping out was kind of hard for me, especially for my mom. You know…we all know Asian tiger moms,” he says with a half-smile. Butler took the leap and moved to LA without knowing anyone. No plans, just with the money he'd saved up when he was 20. And when he turned 21, his friend bought him an acting class for $25, which started it all.
Despite dropping out, his appreciation for academia is still palpable and has left an indelible mark on him as an actor today. Butler explains, “I'm still learning to balance between the creative, the business, and the logic side of things. And I'm glad that I still have that academic background because I think it mixes well with the creative business, just to think about things more logically.”
Growing up Asian, Butler understood the complexities it came with in his line of profession with the ongoing lack of representation. It had taken Hollywood nearly 25 years from Joy Luck Club (1993) to Crazy Rich Asians (2018), a major film with an all-Asian cast that also reflected modern-day Asian Americans. Butler explains the importance of thinking business-wise sometimes, especially as an Asian American in the industry. He emphasizes, “You can't just go into this having the same expectations and approach in the industry as someone who's white. You have to be more strategic and approach things in new ways because honestly, it hasn't really been done that much before—so the academic background helps.”
Having had high academic expectations for him, Butler’s mother had reservations about his new career path. When asked about how she felt at the time, he frankly replied, “Oh, she hated it.” It wasn't until years later that she recognized the genuine happiness acting had brought into her son's life. It certainly didn’t hurt when Butler’s career took off, as it meant financial stability for her son (though the car purchase for mom probably helped his case a bit). Butler reflects on the pressures many Asian Americans face in terms of academic expectations and conformity. He says, “I think my mom fell into that for sure, but now I think she's a little bit more comfortable about not having to live up to any expectations or stereotypes. I'm glad that we've taken that journey together.”
In his latest film, Perfect Addiction, Butler continues to defy stereotypes. Based on Claudia Tan's widely-read romance web novel, Butler takes the lead as Kayden Williams, an underground MMA fighter entangled in a revenge plot complicated by love. “What I love most about the character is that he’s just an Asian American [guy],” he says. “There's no reference to his race. He's just a guy. He's not [a stereotype] like a kung fu master.” He further explains , “When you think of UFC, you imagine these huge boxing matches, you don't think of Asian people. You think mostly of Brazilians, Brits [...]. I saw it as an opportunity for my acting as well as [for] representation [in the industry].”
Butler further describes his character, Kayden, as having “a very dark past and is very much a lone wolf—a strong, silent type,” which he somewhat relates to. “I have times when I'm very introverted,” he admits. “I go through these waves of extraversion and introversion, which I think everybody should embrace. [But] there are a lot of times, especially in this industry, like when I'm off shooting somewhere, where I kind of want to just do my own thing and work on the skills that I'm curious about.” Butler pauses, contemplative, then adds, “But Kayden is a little bit harder because he's so emotionally cold.”
To fully inhabit the introverted role, Butler employed some method acting techniques.“In my everyday life, I actually had to force myself to keep a distance away from people emotionally because I wanted my mannerisms onscreen to be more cold,” he says. “If I was really warm with the people around me, I think that would affect [the role], and I wanted to really envelop the character.” He then sheepishly admits, “Yeah, I'm pretty sure for the first month of filming everybody [the crew] thought I was an asshole. I had a conversation with a lot of them too—I was like, ‘honestly guys, we arrived a couple of weeks early to start stunt training and I'm on a diet right now, and I'm also working on this character, so forgive me [if I’m a little moody].’”
In stark contrast to the enigmatic and solitary Kayden, Butler portrayed Eugene Choi in the hit DC comic series, Shazam! (2019). Eugene, one of six foster sibling superheroes, is known for his love of gaming and tech. He possesses the ability to transform into an adult superhero with electric manipulation powers and flight. Though Butler plays the grown-up version of Eugene, who is much younger in reality, he finds common ground with the character. “Sometimes, I feel like I have the mindset of a 14-year-old,” he says with a laugh. “I like to play a lot of games and I try hard to stay young mentally, the biggest characteristic for that being curiosity, so I'm always trying to learn something new. I'm always trying to look at the world as if I know nothing. I love reducing myself to a level of not knowing something about a skill or a culture.”
Shazam! (2019) proved to be a box office triumph, earning $366 million worldwide. Butler returns to his role in this year’s sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods. On his experience working alongside the legendary Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren, who play villainous sisters Kalypso and Hespera, respectively, he recalls, “I remember my first day working, I met both of them within five minutes of each other. I remember as a kid watching Lucy Liu in Charlie's Angels (2000) and then in Shanghai Noon (2000) where she was the princess. That was a very pivotal moment for me, [meeting] her as this heroine that just lives in the back of my mind. It was such a cool, very, like ‘I finally made it’ sort of moment.” He continues, “[Mirren] is like this… British legend of an actress. She is probably one of the most disarming characters, and I don't mean that in a fighting sense. She's so friendly, and I was so intimidated when I first met her. She's just so funny on set and she’s always making jokes.”
After Shazam! Butler took on a different type of role in the film adaptation of the New York Times bestseller, Loveboat, Taipei by Abigail Hing Wen. The story follows a young girl's journey on a Taiwan study tour filled with love, drama, and self-discovery. Butler portrays Rick Woo, a child prodigy who joins the protagonist on the program.
Butler speaks fondly of his time in Taiwan. "I adore Taiwan—it's one of my favorite countries," he says. “The biggest thing for me was the community feel that everybody has. I love that. I think because of the whole political atmosphere there, everybody is taking care of each other. There's such a strong sense of community.“ You can hear the wonderment in his voice as he describes his experience. “Just walking through Taipei—it's a super modern city and [then] you'll look down an alleyway and you'll see this old shrine. The clash between old and new was something that really blew my mind.”
The conversation transitions from Loveboat, Taipei to other literary interests, and Butler shares some of his favorite reads with enthusiasm. “Everybody has such different reading tastes, but for me, I love sci-fi fantasy,” he says. “I grew up reading anything [by] Neil Gaiman like American Gods [and] The Graveyard Book. I enjoy [Haruki] Murakami. Some of his books are really great like Norwegian Wood [and] Kafka on the Shore. The Three-Body Problem [by Liu Cixin] if you like hardcore science fiction. That’s one of the best trilogies I've ever read…if you can get through it,” he adds with a chuckle.
As the interview comes to an end, Butler takes a bit of time to muse on our current issue’s theme, “Reimagine”. “I play golf now, [since about] three or so years ago,” he says. “When I was younger, my mom tried to get me to play golf all the time. I guess I fantasized—that’s the right word—if I’d kept up with it, that I’d be good now.” He elaborates, “I would love to be good enough where I could go to some of these celebrity pro-ams, be like John Daly, and have a couple of beers, but to also just play [really] well…And I would feel better about spending so much money on golf if I was actually better at it. Golf is just one of those sports [that] everybody is so self-deprecating about and that's what I love about it.”
“I feel like this is not the answer you're looking for,” he says, laughing, “but this is the true answer.” His response, while surprising, reflects the sincerity, curiosity, and charm that permeated our conversation. As he leaves the call, we're left inspired by his perspective, eager for his future projects, and, above all, yearning to book a trip to Taiwan. After all, we now have a substantial reading list to accompany us on the journey.
Shazam! Fury of the Gods was released on March 17, 2023.
Perfect Addiction is scheduled as a limited release on March 27, 2023.
No release date has been announced for Loveboat, Taipei at the time of this article.