Netflix’s Sex Education: Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson on parenting, awkward conversations and on-camera wanking

Warm, funny and at times horribly relatable – especially in its depiction of adolescent awkwardness – Sex Education is the first big Netflix hit of 2019. Asa Butterfield (Ender’s Game, Hugo) stars as Otis, a gawky British teenager who becomes his schoolmates’ impromptu sex therapist despite, well, being a virgin. The iconic Gillian Anderson co-stars as his formidable mother, Jean, an actual sex therapist whose knowledge on everything bedroom-based Otis seems to soak up. NME sat down with the two actors to find out more about their surprising new comedy-drama show.

Read more: Sex Education review

Sex Education is a different kind of project for both of you. What attracted you to it?

Asa Butterfield: “A lot of things. I thought the character of Otis was very funny and kind of sweet. I’ve been doing more comedy recently, but typically I’ve typically done more dramatic roles, so it was nice to do a character who’s a bit bumbling and awkward. And then he has this journey of becoming a kind of sex guru, essentially.”

Gillian Anderson: “Asa’s talked about this too, but the minute we picked up the scripts, we laughed and laughed and laughed. And that’s quite unusual, I think, even for comedy. I don’t feel like I’ve seen my character before and I’ve certainly not had the opportunity to play someone as quirky and potentially funny as she can be, so to me, it just felt alive and fresh and new and fun.”

Gillian, your character reminded me of some mothers I knew growing up who’d say outrageous things to kind of gently embarrass their kids – she’s just on the next level of that. Did you base her on anyone from real life?

Gillian: “She is on the next level for that. But no, there wasn’t anybody I based her on. So much of her was on the page. But I think one thing that was important for me to work out with the writers and producers was this: if she is a therapist, and she is a professional, how believable is it that she’s so inappropriate and steps over so many boundaries with her son? And how far can we take that? Are we really taking that to the edge because that’s part of what the humour is, or does that take things down a path that people shouldn’t necessarily see? That was a very interesting concern for all of us, trying to pick through all that. And it was also important for me, as someone who’s just turned 50, that there was enough of the kind of things that a 50-year-old woman experiences – hormonal changes and emotional changes, etcetera – imbued in this character.  So that I felt like I was representing someone of my age appropriately.”

Do you remember having awkward conversations about sex with your own parents?

Asa: “It’s not a conversation I really had in any detail with my mum. And any time it does come up… did come up. I’m too old for it now, that would be really weird now! But you know, it’s difficult for anyone, there’s a weirdness and uncomfortableness to it. It’s too close and too personal, even though they’re your family and the people you trust more than anyone else, there are these things that you just can’t bear to talk about with them. So for me [the script] absolutely struck true.”

Gillian: “I think it’s awkward for parents and for kids. I mean, I’ve never had this conversation with my parents. My boys are too young to have it with yet. I sort of had it with my daughter but it was more focused on trying to scare her away.”

In what way?

“Just talking about all the things that could happen if she had unprotected sex – growing extra limbs and stuff like that. She’s still a virgin… she’s 24. Ha! Sorry.”

Asa, how awkward was it shooting the show’s, um, “self-love” scenes?

Asa: “It’s weird, because it’s a very personal thing. And it’s strange to re-enact that with a whole crew around you watching on monitors.”

Gillian: “Bloody hell!”

Asa: “The first couple of times are awkward. It’s like, I can’t believe I’m doing this. But after that, it does become more run of the mill. Actually, I’ve just remembered, I think it was the last one – the final wank scene, the most epic of them all. My hand couldn’t appear in the frame, but it kept coming into shot, so they needed to keep my hand down. So I was given a fake penis that I could poke through my flies. But as soon as I grabbed that fake penis, immediately I was like… no. It was so much easier pretending [to masturbate] than trying to wank a cold rubber penis.”

Gillian “I’m so glad it’s you talking about this, and not me. Though I do have a scene with a courgette. I give an instructional video…”

Moving on… what do you want people watching to take away from the show?

Asa: “Hopefully what the show highlights is that it’s absolutely fine to be different and a bit odd and to have these hang-ups and not to find it easy to do certain things. The show shows all these weirdnesses and doesn’t shy away from them. Hopefully it will make people realise this is normal and doesn’t make you an outsider.”

Gillian: “Or if you are [an outsider], it’s all-right to be one.”

Asa: “Exactly. And it’s not something to be ashamed of at all.”

Season one of Sex Education is on Netflix now.