Three years ago, Ross Butler was tasked in an acting class to share a list of his goals with a friend, who would then remind him of the objectives from time to time. Those six goals were to: Finish one screenplay. Go to a casting workshop. Learn how to cook. Learn Chinese. Be more assertive. Reach out to mom more.
By Butler’s account, he’s now accomplished the final four of those listed (well, he’s still in the process of learning Mandarin). What’s more, that “be more assertive” thing? It led to the biggest turning point of his career, and allowed him to book roles — like Zach in Netflix’s buzzy “13 Reasons Why,” and Reggie in the first season of The CW’s “Riverdale,” both high school jock types — he might never have landed otherwise.
“To be assertive, you need to be confident, and to make bold choices, you need to be confident,” Butler, 27, said. “And to fight more for what you want. The first thing was telling my agents that I didn’t want to go out for Asian roles. I was proud of that moment, and I wanted more of it.”
Butler grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, a D.C. suburb. As a kid, he never really felt a connection with his Chinese Malaysian background, despite having been born in Singapore. Dramatic heavyweights like Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino dominated his favorite movies, and none of them looked like him. “I mean, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ came out, and that was cool, but it didn’t resonate with me. They weren’t even speaking English,” he said. “So when I was growing up, I didn’t embrace my Asian heritage as much because I didn’t see it.”
By the time he was in college, all Butler knew was that he was miserable in the chemical engineering degree he’d begun pursuing, and itching to leave Virginia. One day in the kitchen, while doing computer science homework, Butler came clean to his immigrant mother: “Mom, I feel like I want to entertain people. I want to tell stories,” he said. Though unvoiced, he’d been thinking about moving to Los Angeles for months. His mother told him to go back to his homework. But it wasn’t as fleeting a thought as she might have figured — three days later, Butler moved out to L.A.
The decision spurred at least two years of discord with his mother (hence his last goal on that list, to reach out to mom more). He’s since repaired his relationship with her, and she’s finally come around in supporting his career.
(Shane Lopes/Kore Asian Media)
Not long after arriving in L.A., Butler was picking up modeling work doing print ads, enrolling in acting classes and going to auditions. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to show Butler what it expected of someone of his background. He’d answer calls looking for “good-looking all-American guy” and walk into rooms where he saw not one Asian American face.
Once, out of anxiety, he left before he even went through with the reading. A friend he was with urged him to go back in and just do it. Who said Butler couldn’t be that all-American guy?
“I pumped myself back up, went back in, didn’t get it, but that was a big turning point for me. Why don’t I deserve to be seen just as American?” he said. It was in those audition rooms that Butler finally found his purpose. “I started to think about why I wasn’t connected with [my own background], and came to the point where I thought, it’s because I didn’t have Asian American heroes that we see in culture. I grew up wanting to be Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“It was about figuring out that I deserve to be here, rather than, ‘Oh please, thank you so much for having me,’” he said.
(Shane Lopes/Kore Asian Media)
And once he’d convinced himself he deserved to be in those rooms, there was no stopping Butler. After all, there’s a reason they say confidence is the key to success. That, and a whole lot of hard work. “You don’t go out and party, you’re not here to have a good time, you’re not here to find love. Not yet,” Butler recalled his mentors telling him. “I thank them for it. This is the most competitive market in the world. Why give yourself any distractions? I cemented my work ethic, and now it’s second nature. I will always have that in the back of my head. Don’t slack on auditions, no matter where you think you are. Don’t believe your own hype. Get the good habits in.”
“He’s extremely determined and has a will of steel that goes into his craft,” said Courtney Love via email. Love has been a mentor and friend to Butler since he first met her through his manager. “I’ve watched him bloom due to his uniquely amazing work ethic.”
In 2015, Butler landed his first proper recurring gig on Disney Channel’s “K.C. Undercover,” where he played ex-boyfriend to the titular K.C., played by Zendaya. Then came a whirlwind of roles, first with Reggie in “Riverdale” and then Zach in “13 Reasons Why,” with the latter propelling him toward breakout stardom.
Too much of a blessing can sometimes be a curse. That was partially the case, at least physically, for Butler, who at one point for a two-month span. was filming both shows at the same time. Flying from NorCal to Vancouver every other day, he would shoot Sunday to Wednesday for one, travel Thursday, shoot Friday for another, travel Saturday and shoot Sunday again. Staff on both shows have more than enough blackmail photos of Butler sleeping on every surface available. That unforgiving schedule was a struggle to get through, but a happy one nonetheless, and a privilege not many actors can claim to have had.
(Shane Lopes/Kore Asian Media)
“It’s honestly a goal I had before I became a working actor. I wanted to be at the point where I’m shooting and I have to fly here and there. It seemed so cool,” he said. When it came time for “Riverdale” to renew, Butler was forced to make a choice: leave the show, which was looking to give Reggie a larger role in its second season, on the faith that “13 Reasons Why” would also get picked up again, or stay, and risk losing the chance to return as Zach. He chose the former.
“I’ve always wanted a Netflix show, and a milestone for an actor is being a regular on a TV show,” he said. “13 Reasons Why,” despite all its controversies surrounding its portrayal of teen suicide, emerged as one of TV’s biggest cultural and critical hits of 2017. “Now I realize I want more. This is motivating. If I can do this, then I can do the next one. I started to see opportunities open up, and now I’m looking to make the next step.”
What’s important for Butler as he looks to even bigger projects, hopefully ones in which he’s the suit-clad guy jumping off buildings and saving the masses from ticking bombs and evil villains, is that he’s riding the wave with other Asian Americans who are also beginning to make cracks in racial stereotyping in media.
“There are other actors out there that are doing the same thing, and we’re exploring new territory,” he said. “While it’s pressure to be like, ‘We need to do this,’ I’m looking at it as, how do we reset the tone? I’m asking, how can we change up the status quo?”
That’s a new goal that fits right into his definition of working on his happiness. “Happiness comes from a sense of fulfillment. For me, career fulfillment is giving back to my community, making change that lasts,” Butler said. “And if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it. I don’t want to half-ass this. I want to do as much as I can.”
Photos Shane Lopes
Styling & Hair/Makeup Lo VonRumpf
Assistants Melena Celeste, Patrick Gonzales
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