In January, ahead of the 13 Reasons Why fandom, Refinery29 spoke to actor Ross Butler about breaking Asian stereotypes. The baby-faced 26-year-old has carved a niche for himself playing characters previously relegated to white actors. In 2017, it’s insane to think casting directors still struggle with booking non-white actors for the roles of “cocky jock” and “the boy next door.”
In a recent interview with Mashable, Butler, who also stars in a “common” role on Riverdale, gave more insight into how he began booking such roles. It turns out this wasn’t merely a stroke of good luck.
“[After] I started getting auditions and seeing that all the auditions I was getting were these stereotypical roles, that’s when I really first realised that there weren’t any Asian American male role models," Butler told Mashable. "And it occurred to me that that’s what needed to change.”
Butler was born in Virginia to a Chinese-Malaysian mother and a father who is American. The actor’s full name is Ross Fleming Butler. “My full name is Ross Fleming Butler, it’s very British-Irish," Butler said. The Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why star then had an idea, he informed his agent that he no longer wanted to audition for stereotypical “Asian roles.” And surprisingly, it worked. When the 13RW script landed in his lap, he was enticed that the production team required a diverse cast, which included his character, Zach Dempsey.
"[Producer Brian Yorkey] said ‘Yeah, we’re thinking about giving Zach a Chinese middle name, do you think that would fit?' I thought about it and said yeah. I think my mum in the show would have wanted me to have a connection to my Asian roots,” he said.
"I’m a jock, I fit in with my friend group, and I just happen to be Chinese too — and I think that is what most accurately reflects America right now. There’s so many Chinese or Asian Americans that were either born in another country like I was and raised in America, or born in America and raised in America. They’re normal Americans and they just happen to have a different heritage."
Butler’s adamancy about not allowing producers to place him in a box helped catapult the rising star into the big leagues. Broader, layered roles in film and television beget better work. He’s also had roles in Teen Wolf and K.C. Undercover. On the scarce representation of Asian roles on television, he told Refinery29:
"We're a very underrepresented population in Hollywood, but we are the majority population of the world. It's a weird dichotomy that we have here. It's starting to get better and we are starting to see more Asians in roles, but we're not seeing a lot of Asians playing roles [that are] not specifically written for Asians. So when I first started out, I was being sent on auditions for "the geek," "the techie." Let's be honest guys, I don't look like a techie [laughs].