Ross Butler decided early in his career that he had had enough of Hollywood’s stereotyping. The actor — of American, British and Chinese descent — grew frustrated that the only roles he seemed to get called in for were “Asian roles” like “the martial artist or the nerd.” So he put his foot down.
“I told my team, ‘I don’t want to go out for Asian roles anymore,’” Butler says. He found himself in a dark period immediately following, but soon enough, he got called in for roles that didn’t specify an ethnicity. And he started booking them.
The 26-year-old now plays fictional teen Reggie Mantle on “Riverdale” and has also landed a part in Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” Selena Gomez’s passion project based on Jay Asher’s 2007 novel. Butler plays Zach, a high school jock and one of the reasons why the show’s main character, Hannah (Katherine Langford), decided to take her own life.
“People in high school either feel like they’re with the cool kids in a clique or they’re isolated — there’s no in-between,” Butler says. “I wasn’t bullied or anything, but I didn’t really fit in. I think Zach has a feeling of that. Even though he’s seen as a popular kid, he’s actually really lonely. It’s that mixed with high school, where you have to put on this facade of who you are.”
He describes Gomez, an executive producer on the show, as “super down-to-earth” and not what he expected from someone who’s been in the spotlight for about a decade. Castmate Tommy Dorfman echoed this sentiment at an event in New York City earlier this month.
“She’s superhumble and supportive and obviously has a lot of experience to share,” Dorfman said of Gomez. “A lot of us are really new to this industry and she was there as an amazing resource. She’s so passionate about this book and this story being told.”
Gomez’s devotion to the project stems in part from her own struggles. She completed a 90-day stint in rehab last year to help her cope with anxiety and depression. Butler alludes to this time, saying Gomez was able to offer the cast “a lot of insight.”
“She was dealing with a lot of personal things a year ago,” Butler says of the actress-turned-singer. “Talking to her about that gave us a new perspective on the subject and how anybody can be affected by these things.” Through conversing with Gomez and working on the show, Butler was inspired to learn more about suicide prevention and depression diagnosis and how to have meaningful conversations about both of these.
“Try to imagine what it’s like to be this girl who’s getting bullied and is supercrushed to the point where she’d wanna take her own life,” he says. “All of our actions have consequences whether we know it or not. We never know what people are going through until something tragic happens — if they don’t talk about it.”
While he waits to see whether “13 Reasons Why” will get picked up for a second season, Butler continues to focus on shattering Asian stereotypes.
“Why can’t we have an Asian Brad Pitt or an Asian Ryan Gosling? Those type of roles, lead males,” he says. “I see this gap in the industry now where there isn’t an Asian leading man.”
He says he’s been auditioning for “leading” roles in which “the guy gets the girl at the end.” Perhaps he’s on his way to filling that void in the industry. At any rate, he says these potential projects are signs of “a good trending change.”