Ross Butler | To Tell the Truth, We Lied Fantastically
His fault, not mine. I step out of my car with the countenance of someone who knows a text-and-driver when she sees one, someone with a good insurance policy and places to be. I’m in Chinatown and my car has just been T-boned pulling into the parking lot to interview Ross Butler. The driver gets out, sheepish, not a day over 18. As we exchange insurance information I marvel at what unfolds before me, comedic save for the scraps of my car decorating the ground like confetti.
This is the tableau: the driver in the foreground, on the phone, telling his mom about the accident. I can hear her shrieking, a real five-star drama queen. The air is the smoky pink of Los Angeles at twilight, and the red lanterns of Chinatown have begun to glow. And in the background of the tableau, just over the right shoulder of the driver, I can see Ross Butler. He’s in the midst of a photo shoot. The door to the studio is wide open, and Butler is dancing, lightly, just enough to create interesting looks for the photographer. It’s an awkward job, but he makes it look cool. The photographer, stylist and make-up artist buzz around him. Music of the “vibe-y” variety rumbles into the street. Tourists stroll by, but no one stops. Perhaps they don’t realize this is Ross Butler of 13 Reasons Why fame, of upcoming Shazam! fame, of 6.4 million Instagram followers fame, of young hearts swooning worldwide fame.
In the very near future, Butler will charm me with his grace and intelligence, and I’ll write down podcast recommendations for him. His dedication to supporting no-kill animal shelters will inspire me to start my own foundation, and Butler will offer to personally solder my car back together, one scrap at a time. The last sentence is a lie. But sometimes hyperbole is the best way to convey the extraordinary qualities of a person, like Butler’s prolific gentlemanliness and aptitude for man skills. But first, the driver’s mom has arrived on the scene and is screaming unprintable expletives at me, and I’m just hoping Butler and his team can’t hear. It’s a few hours before the winter solstice, and four days until Christmas.
“I’m learning Chinese these days.” Butler says this casually, like one might mention they’ve started taking walks in the afternoon. We’re exploring one of the antique shops in Chinatown, and I realize his new language hobby probably only came up because it related to the setting. Boasting, I will learn, is not part of the Ross Butler ethos. I ask what prompted his desire to learn Chinese.
“I'm a quarter Chinese and I think it's a beautiful language, and technically, it's the most spoken language in the world, so, it made sense. I like it a lot. I feel more connected to my Asian roots.”
He asks the shop owner a question in Chinese. They chat for a moment, and I’m impressed. I ask what they were speaking about, and he points to the antique hot pots for sale. “Those. Have you ever had a hot pot? It’s like soup.” Oh. No, I haven’t. I ask if he’s been to China. “A couple of times, but not since I was 14. I really want to go back. I like the food, and I read a lot about the culture.” I ask if he knows how people perceive him in China, being an American movie star with Asian heritage. “I have no clue.” Cue humble shrug.
Ross Butler is starring in the upcoming superhero movie Shazam!, but he can’t tell me anything about his role.
“Trust me, I've been wanting to tell people. But they're keeping it under wraps. The movie is a new direction for DC. I think a lot of people are going to enjoy that it’s self-deprecating.”
When I suggest perhaps they’re keeping his role under wraps because he’s buzz-worthy and they want to build the anticipation, Butler shrugs once more. The hero of the movie is a young boy whose magical power is that when he says the word “Shazam!” he turns into a grown-up. I tell Butler I watched the trailer and it looks like tons of fun, equal parts Deadpool and Big.
“We're not trying to be Dark Knight. Not trying to go down this dark, brooding direction. It's a new tone for DC. That's what I can say.”
We’re sitting on a concrete bench near the restaurant where a scene from Rush Hour was filmed. This thrills Butler. So do Corgi dogs, and cracking his knuckles. I say I love it too but my biggest fear is getting carpal tunnel. He says: “You can't. You can't get carpal tunnel from cracking your knuckles. Or arthritis.”
You see, there’s the truth we tell ourselves, and then there’s the truth truth. Like how I want to believe the fender bender was the other guy’s fault, but as his mom pointed out I was turning over a double yellow line, so technically it’s my fault. I’d like to believe cracking my knuckles will never cause problems. And after hearing it from Ross Butler, that will now be my story. All fear of developing carpal tunnel is gone, now and forever.
Ross Butler wanted to be able to play guitar at parties, so now he can. “My mom wanted me to focus on piano. I practiced literally hours every day for years. But then I taught myself how to play classical guitar. I wanted to be able to be with a group of friends and if one of them is like, "Hey, can you play this song?" I wanted to be able to look it up and play it on the spot. I always wanted to do that. Now I can.”
I ask how long that took. He says five years. I ask if he’s planning to put that same focus and drive into other creative pursuits, like writing and directing. “I'm writing a few things now. Directing, I think, will be further down the road. I've recently gone down this rabbit hole of looking at story telling as an art, examining where it comes from, and why people are drawn to certain stories on a very metaphysical level. Then, I got into the nitty-gritty as far as script structure. All the different beats and how many moments you have to have per act. So I've run the gamut as far as learning the soul of stories. I have a few scripts I've been writing. I think directing is a whole different beast. It's so many moving parts. I would love for movies to be my medium, since it’s the director's medium. I definitely see that as something down the road for me. But I'm gonna work on this acting thing for now.”
Good plan. I want to know more so I ask: “The projects you've been a part of, like 13 Reasons Why [the Netflix smash that started a national conversation about self-harm to and suicide] are definitely making a difference in the world. They’re tackling big, difficult subjects. Is that reflected in the things you're choosing to write about?”
“Yes, more analogously. One of my scripts is about dealing with being mixed race. It took me until I was further into the writing process to realize that growing up mixed race, I felt like I didn't belong. I think that the thing people most relate to in life is the feeling of not fitting in; but, ironically, that feeling itself can help people fit in. A lot of the movies I watched growing up are about outliers who don’t belong. The Breakfast Club, Forrest Gump, even Gladiator. It's that collective feeling. The reason these movies were so popular is because the feelings of being lonely are normal. A lot of people feel it.”
What’s it like to be a rising star in the “new” Hollywood? When conversations on inclusion and representation happen in a major way, yet masters of the old paradigm still call the shots behind shiny doors? If you’re Ross Butler, the answer is optimistic, and ever diplomatic.
“I think as we put a magnifying glass on these issues we also have to have the understanding that some people grew up in a different time. It's gonna take a while. Patience is really what it is. Just exercise patience. People grew up in different times or different environments. I think the last thing we need now is more polarization. So, just hang in there.”
This brings up the concept of isolation, which turns quickly to a conversation about social media. Butler has things to say on the subject.
“Overall, it just makes everybody feel lonelier, to be completely honest. The people who post these really manicured photos might get popularity, but after a while, they realize that people don't see them for who they really are, and so they feel isolated. Social media, in that respect, makes everybody lonelier. Ironically, it's supposed to connect all of us, right? On my social media, I really want to make it a window into my real life. I'll do my cooking, talk about books that I'm reading, or video games I'm playing. We're all normal people. We all have our interests. That's what we should be connecting on.”
I ask about the videos he posts of him singing and playing guitar. He gets a little shy.
“I don't have a perfect voice. I don't have perfect harmony. I grew up in the ’90s where grunge and rock was the thing. People respected the emotion behind music rather than the perfection of pitch. That's what I want to do. I don't want to be seen as the perfected guy. That's also why I pick up so many hobbies,” he continues. “It's all about the journey. It's all about the failures. It's all about little kinks you get wrong that give things character. I think that's the spice of life. It's failure and imperfection that make things interesting. If everything is perfectly symmetric then what separates one thing from the next? What gives things character, other than their imperfections?”
We walk by a storefront and see a man at a chalkboard, writing in Chinese on a graph, the chalk powdering his clothes. The room is decorated in old flags and certificates. There’s a lot of mahogany, and the shop has the frozen air of a bygone time. The sign out front reads, “The Society of Benevolent Activities.” I ponder out loud what he could possibly be up to. Because I’m still seeing the world through the lens of Ross Butler, everything is more witty, sincere, adorable. His response: “He’s planning because he’s Santa’s apprentice.” And then Ross Butler gives me a big friendly hug, asks his publicist what’s next on the agenda, and is gone.