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Ross Butler on ‘13 Reasons Why,’ ‘Riverdale’ and Why There Are ‘No Asian Leading Men in Hollywood’

Variety logo Variety 3/31/2017 Jacob Bryant
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Ross Butler has been busy.

Back in January, “Riverdale” — the CW’s “Gossip Girl” meets “Twin Peaks” adaptation of the famous Archie comics — debuted with Butler playing Archie’s (KJ Apa) bully Reggie. On Friday, Netflix released the highly anticipated “13 Reasons Why” — an adaptation of the popular book by Jay Asher, courtesy of Selena Gomez — with Butler playing Zach.

Variety spoke with Butler about “13 Reasons Why,” “Riverdale” and playing parts that aren’t necessarily “Asian roles.”

How was working on Selena Gomez’ passion project “13 Reason Why”?

It was amazing. It was not a show I was expecting of Selena. This seemed like a complete 180. When I heard that she was a part of it, it was really interesting and drew me to it. After I got to work with her, I have some much more respect for her and the message she’s trying to put out there.

Tell me about Zach. How does he fit into the mystery?

He’s one of the reasons. He’s one of the jocks — there are a few that are involved — and he’s not the smartest guy, but he definitely has an emotional side to him that people don’t expect because he puts on this front.

Both “13 Reasons Why” and “Riverdale” share a lot of similarities. Both cover modern issues faced by high schoolers like bullying and depression, and both end up with a student at the school dead. What was different about “13 Reasons Why,” or Zach compared to Reggie, that drew you to the show?

With “Riverdale” it’s a murder mystery. You don’t know who the killer is, and you don’t know why. Over the course of the season you’re meeting new characters and you’re learning new information about them. With “13 Reasons Why” you start off knowing that the girl Hannah (Katherine Langford) committed suicide, and you know that there are 13 reasons. It unfurls through the season which I thought was a super unique way of telling a mystery.

In terms of Reggie and Zach being different, I’d say Reggie is a jock through and through. He’s loud, and obnoxious, and doesn’t care what people think. With Zach he’s much more grounded, for me, in reality. He’s a jock that has very dark and lonely feelings, and throughout the first season you really witness what happens with him.

Jumping over to “Riverdale,” how has it been working with material as iconic as Archie comics?

It’s really interesting, and not what I expected. When I first saw the breakdown for the characters, I didn’t know it was going to be a murder-mystery. They were keeping that a secret. Reggie was originally Caucasian, and when they brought me in I got very excited thinking, Yes, we actually get to do the reverse of what’s usually done in Hollywood. That personally was really fun to get some ethnicity in there from the Asian-American side.

It was also fun to take this family-friendly comic and make it super dark by throwing in a murder. There are all these characters that you associate with being colorful and happy, and you get to see their darker side. The writers did a great job making it current and gritty.

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of Asian actors in TV and film. As an actor playing a character who was originally Caucasian, what’s your take on it?

It’s something that we’re all aware of and something that’s really talked about. There are no Asian leading men in Hollywood. There’s not an Asian Ryan Gosling or an Asian Brad Pitt. Reggie was important to me because he isn’t seen as an Asian character, because he wasn’t. He’s just known as one of the guys, and in a comic that was based in American culture. The show is no different. I’m not the Asian kid of Riverdale; I’m Reggie and I just happen to be Chinese.

It’s important because it’s telling the story that Asian-Americans are in American culture. They’re a big part of our population. It’s a stepping stone to helping find our Asian-American leading movie stars. That’s the next step.

The show just got renewed for a second season. Is there anything that you’d like to see happen to Reggie in Season 2?

I think that Reggie needs to have a dog. Reggie’s dog has been a big character in the comics. Archie has a dog in the show, but I don’t have a dog. I want a dog. I’d also like to explore more of Reggie’s family life. We don’t really get to see them at all, and in the comics there are some interesting stuff about them and how they’re never really there. That’s definitely something I’d like to explore.

“13 Reasons Why” is available now on Netflix. “Riverdale” airs Thursdays on the CW.

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