Ross Butler has mastered the art of seduction. In P.S. I Still Love You, his character Trevor Pike struts confidently into a classroom, pink rose clutched between his teeth. The affable jock is there to meet his secret girlfriend — the deeply sardonic Chris (Madeleine Arthur), essentially his polar opposite — and wrongly assumes they are the only ones in the room. Instead, Chris’ best friend Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is there, enjoying a Subway sandwich lunch, shocked by evidence of this stealthy love affair. Trevor, rose still in mouth, freezes and says “Hey.” With one simple word, we forget for a moment that this movie is technically about Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky’s (Noah Centineo) love story.
“There was so much ad-libbing that we did in this movie,” Butler explains when I tell him it’s one of my favourite moments in the film. “There was so much that we came up with on the fly. We were just plugging in different ideas.” In the end, this version of the rose-in-teeth attempt at seduction won out.
It was just three years ago that Butler, now 29, found himself on the cusp of his big break in Hollywood: The arrestingly handsome actor — who previously appeared on shows like Teen Wolf and K.C. Undercover — had just signed on to play Reggie Mantle in the highly-anticipated Archie Comics adaptation Riverdale and Zach Dempsey in the Selena Gomez-produced Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.
In this day of TV overload and hit-or-miss concepts, it’s a serendipitous coincidence that both shows became instant cultural phenomenons, skyrocketing Butler and the rest of his castmates to celebrity status. Butler ended up having to choose between continuing on 13RW or Riverdale; he picked the former. Charles Melton replaced him as Reggie.
P.S. I Still Love You, the sequel to 2018 Netflix film To All The Boys I've Loved Before, was far more of a sure bet. Based on Jenny Han’s novel of the same name, To All The Boys is reportedly one of Netflix’s most-watched original films ever, though one only needs to look at the insane social media followings (26.4 million combined on Instagram) of romantic leads Centineo and Condor — and the memes and GIFs devoted to their characters’ relationship — to know that this movie is a big, big deal.
Clad in a tan turtleneck and plaid jacket, Butler’s look is worlds away from the tees-and-hoodies aesthetic of his characters. To be fair, though, Butler has the confidence of someone on the cusp of 30, whereas the teenagers he portrays — whom Butler credits with keeping him in a “young mindset” — are still figuring themselves out.
Butler says that Han called him up specifically to offer him the role of Trevor in her sequel. It reunited him with Centineo, an acquaintance-turned-friend he would regularly run into at auditions while they were both doing the whole “aspiring L.A. actor thing.”
“To this day, we don’t know how we actually met,” Butler explains. “We [officially hung out] at this Halloween thing, and then we were like, Wow, you’re cool. Let’s hang out more.”
And then, thanks to Netflix and Han, it actually happened. Onscreen, Butler’s character Trevor is the carefree sidekick to Peter, adored by many. (Trevor’s serenaded with the Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way” on Valentine's Day by the school choir, suggesting he's got at least one secret admirer.) Trevor was suspiciously absent from the first film (the movies take place back-to-back) but is the perfect comic relief in the sequel to distract from Peter’s relationship drama. While Peter and Lara Jean’s different life experiences are a source of tension between them, Trevor and Chris take their unique differences in stride. They keep their relationship a secret because they don’t feel like explaining it to everyone else.
The one thing they do have in common is their carefree, laissez-faire attitudes, a good thing for fans: Based on rom-com lore, we know that the two won't break one another's hearts — that's reserved for our main couple — which makes them so fun to watch, and even more fun to stan.
“They’re cutting together a gag real, and there’s going to be just so much of me trying to get on Madeline’s nerves,” Butler says. “It’s a fun relationship.”
Butler’s eyes light up when he talks about his work, even though I know he’s had similar conversations multiple times today alone. Butler isn’t a child star finally stepping out of the roles of his youth. He didn’t get started in Hollywood until the age of 20 — later than many young stars, some of whom cut their teeth on shows like Barney & Friends (like 13RW producer Gomez) and Gap Kids commercials.
That's because for Butler, who was born in Singapore and raised in Virginia, acting wasn't even on the table. He felt pressure to live up to the expectations often placed on Asian-American children to succeed in academics, even though his heart was never really in it.
“I went to [college] for biomolecular engineering, because I felt like that’s what my mom wanted. I absolutely felt that pressure,” Butler explains. “Before I moved out to L.A., I had just switched to a computer science major at a community college to try it out. I told my mom, I’m not supposed to be doing this. I’m supposed to be entertaining. A week later, I moved to L.A. against her will.”
Upon moving to the entertainment industry hub, his friend bought him a single acting class. It was in the Valley, and by Butler’s own admission, it “wasn’t the best” acting class in the world, but, still, something clicked: This was what Butler should be doing for a career. Just a few years later, Butler made his first TV appearance on a 2013 episode of TNT’s Major Crimes.
“Looking back on my life, it makes sense,” Butler says. “For group projects in school, I would always pick to do something where I had to perform. I taught myself how to breakdance with YouTube because I wanted to perform. My mom didn’t let me watch TV, so I would watch movies, and found myself quoting movies all the time. Really, I’ve been acting my entire life.”
“If there is an Asian James Bond, that would be great. Do I see that happening anytime soon? Maybe not.”
As an actor of Asian descent, Butler was keenly aware that the entertainment industry had a narrow idea of the parts he could play. In a 2016 interview with Refinery29, Butler shared that early in his career, his agents would often send him on auditions for roles like “the geek” and “the techie” — at the time, those were some of the only roles available to Asian actors.
“It’s supposed to be kind of like a compliment: ‘Oh, you’re Asian, so you must be good at everything [academic].’ But it’s setting a lot of the Asian community up for failure, and it’s attributing our successes to genetic[s],” he says. “I work just as hard to play piano as everybody else — it’s not nature, it’s because I put the time in.”
Physically, Butler looks like a guy who spends more time in the gym than he does behind the computer, and he instructed his agents to stop sending him out for parts specifically written with Asian stereotypes in mind. They listened — Butler’s new slate of auditions were for parts where race was not mentioned at all. The switch worked.
“That’s the battle I am fighting,” he explains. “For Asian or ethnic people [to play roles] not specifically written for people who are Asian.”
Now that Butler has “made it” he’s ready for the next step. He’s yet to receive top billing in a TV series or film, often portraying a member of a large ensemble (Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why, and superhero movie Shazaam), or the “best friend” to a leading man, a la P.S. I Still Love You. Butler was recently inspired by a panel hosted by the Asia Society at the Sundance Film Festival, where Charlie’s Angels actor Chris Pang’s mention of an Asian James Bond brought laughter to the mostly Asian audience.
“We were like, ‘Oh yeah, like that’s [ever] going to happen.’ But then we all took a second and thought about it. [Actor] Daniel Kim said: ‘Well, that is the next step. Where an Asian person isn’t playing a [typically] Asian character, and that’s normal,’” Butler explains. “If there is an Asian James Bond, that would be great. Do I see that happening anytime soon? Maybe not.”
I mention to Butler that Daniel Craig is stepping down from playing 007 after this year’s No Time to Die — now would be a good time to call his agent, just in case. (He laughs.) Butler, however, won’t just wait around for the next thing — he’d rather build it himself.
Butler’s using his status as one of Netflix’s most popular young stars to strike up conversations with executives about future projects. He teases one promising idea that would team him up with Centineo again, though the specifics of it are still under wraps. Then there’s the psychological thriller, and the one about superheroes, though he notes that the marketplace may be a little too full right now. There’s that joy in his eyes again — Butler just seems thrilled that this is his job.
“Having [more Asian representation] behind the camera is what we need to make broader changes.”
Butler is inspired by people like Awkwafina — with whom he sat down for a conversation in 2018 for Character Media — who produces much of her own work and just scored a history-making Golden Globe for The Farewell.
“As an actor, you have creative license on the day you shoot, which is great,” Butler explains. “Having [more Asian representation] behind the camera is what we need to make broader changes.”
Maybe Butler will be one of the people who break down barriers for the next Asian performer, seeking to do more than what Hollywood expects. Until then, though, Butler has a premiere to go to — and eight million Instagram followers to charm.