Ross Butler is ready to be done with high school. The 30-year-old star recently wrapped up a four-season run in Netflix's 13 Reasons Why and has his eye on tackling projects that don't require him to have a locker combination.
"You have no idea, man," Butler laughed. "I've been playing high school for longer than I've been in high school. I'm ready. I've been growing out the facial hair. I'm ready to hang up all the jerseys of all the sports I've played in fake high schools. I still could, if a really good role comes along or if it's somebody that's been held back for a few years, but, [Laughs.] besides those two exceptions, yeah, I'm ready to move on."
Moving on for Butler, whose credits also include Riverdale and To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, means stepping behind the scenes. During his time social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, Butler has been exploring the power of storytelling.
"I've started moving to the production side of things and I'm starting to get more creatively involved, which is something that I've been enjoying a lot and I've been wanting to do, but I've been shooting pretty constantly the last two and a half years. The silver lining in this whole COVID situation is that I've had time to just slow down and really work on what is more important to me," he said. "Of course acting is important and doing the job is important, but at the core of it all is telling stories that can reach across the aisle and actually make change in people, in the future generations."
Butler said he's looked at what's been happening in the world with the Black Lives Matter movement and has been exploring creative strategies to tell stories and "how to make them impactful from the creative standpoint."
"And that will transcend borders more than arguments on Twitter, if you know what I mean. You can shout arguments across the aisle, but I think what really can start to make change is through story," he said. "I've been just reading a lot of books on our human need for story, so I've been focusing more on that."
He may have his eye on the future, that doesn't mean Butler has fully closed the chapter on 13 Reasons Why. His character, Zach Dempsey, had one hell of a final season. The character struggled throughout the season, he abused drugs and alcohol and even brought an escort to his senior prom.
"This season he definitely becomes more of a lone wolf. A big thing that I've been saying in interviews that a lot of people don't really realize, I feel like until I say it, is that Zach has a very sad history. His dad died, the first girl that he kind of liked was Hannah Baker, and we know what happened with her. Another girl that he liked was being repeatedly sexually assaulted by a person he thought was friend, his whole future was taken away with sports," he said. "He doesn't really deal with the hot button issues, but I think Zach is very relatable in that sometimes as teenagers, we feel like we're constantly running into roadblocks or we're constantly hitting obstacles. And Zach, for me as an actor, the story we're telling is more of a cautionary tale of like, it's easy to go down that route and isolate yourself from everybody and to cope by unhealthy means, but that's not the way to go. Not only are you isolating yourself, but you're also isolating your friends as far as, like, you aren't there for them just as much as you're not letting them be there for you."
One key moment of the season involved Zach saving Alex (Miles Heizer). The two character had become close over the years, with Zalex shippers aplenty. While the two walked along the ledge of a roof, Alex slipped and Zach caught him. In the heat of the moment, Alex kissed Zach. Rather than recoil or react forcefully, Zach calmly had a conversation with Alex. The moment was something they wanted to do, "not only as fan service, but also just to show that, yeah, there can be healthy, platonic relationships between someone that's straight and someone that's gay," Butler said.
"We wanted to show that, yeah I do have a lot of love for Alex, but just not the same way as he loves me, obviously. We're hoping to show a new generation of young men that if something like that happens, you have to understand what's going through their head, that they are in a place of uncertainty, and that is not the time to pull away. That is the time where you need to be a little bit more supportive and it could just be mixed signals," Butler said. "We really wanted to show that these two really love each other, but it doesn't need to be romantic."
While Butler wrapped his time in high school (hopefully for good) with a Frozen-themed house party, he hasn't said goodbye to Zach. After all, it's the longest stretch he's played one character for throughout his career.
"No, I don't think I'm saying goodbye to Zach. I think Zach still kind of lives in me a little bit. I've learned a lot from Zach. It's not really saying goodbye, it's more so saying goodbye to the show and saying goodbye to my cast mates in real life," he said. "But as far as like the emotion and who Zach is, no, that definitely stays with me."
The entire series of 13 Reasons Why is now streaming on Netflix.