From across the room, Marco is watching me carefully and I know our thoughts are aligned: This is it. I’m about to launch into Ian Butler’s orbit for a solid fifty days in a row. I know we’re both gauging how well I’m going to handle it. I can be surrounded by functional relationships—with my mom, my best friends, even Nana—but five minutes with my father and I’m an insecure, awkward mess.
Looking at Dad’s face still feels like a trick of the imagination. Other than the shape of my ears, which I got from Mom, I take after him completely: the brown hair, the honey-brown Butler eyes, the full mouth. We even share a beauty mark, though his is just at the top of his right cheekbone, and mine is lower. His is a face that should feel so familiar—I see it in the mirror every morning—but it’s still so disorienting to get a good, long look at him. Even fourteen years after our chaotic reunion, I’m pretty sure I’ve still seen his face more frequently on a magazine cover than in person.
We sit at the table with an enormous screen mounted on the wall at our backs. With a laptop stationed in front of each of us, we look up expectantly at Lou. Behind him, Marco regards Dad and me with a faint smile. Publicist Marco wants to remind me to keep my smile natural for the cameras. Friend Marco wants to give me a hug and tell me, You don’t have to be so nervous. You don’t have to prove anything to him.
Dad’s elbow knocks into mine and he reaches over, cupping it gently, paternally, saying a quiet, “Sorry, baby.”
Another staccato of flashes captures the moment.
“The questions you’ll need to answer are from the main Twitter account,” Lou explains. “So they’ll be from ‘at Twitter.’ These are the questions we sent over last week.”
Behind him, Marco motions for me to pull my answers from the folder.
“You’ll probably also get some questions from other users,” Lou says, “in the hashtag—which is just ‘hashtag AskButlers’—and although it’s by no means required, you’re welcome to answer any of those that you like. We just ask that you try to remember to include the hashtag in your replies.” He gives me a teasing wink. “Sound good?”
We nod, relatively unconcerned because this is a fairly simple ask. It’s not like the tearful reunification interview Dad and I did with Barbara Walters only a week after I returned from London. It’s not like the Vanity Fair shoot we did six years ago where we were required to be in near constant physical contact for over seven hours. And it certainly doesn’t compare to the exhaustion of the one and only time I walked the red carpet with Mom on one side and Dad on the other. The only reason Mom agreed to come was because it was my first Emmy nomination and the speculation about whether my parents were bitter enemies was reaching an exhausting, fever pitch. Even tourists in Guerneville were stopping her in the café to ask her about it. As Mom said to me that night while we got ready, “To be bitter enemies, I’d have to give a shit.”
Marco and Mom: my two calm, stoic constants.
Nana, on the other hand, doesn’t ask about any of it. When I come home to Guerneville, I may as well be visiting from a space station or coal mine.
I settle in front of the computer, waiting for the first tweet to appear. Beside me, Dad shifts. “How was your flight from LA, kiddo?”
Flash. Flash. Over here, Tate! Flash.
“It was fine,” I say. Ever the performer, Dad nods and casually goes back to scrolling through Twitter, but the silence that follows is heavy and loaded. Marco reaches up, pulling on his ear—his sign that I need to relax. I look at Dad and give him a goofy smile. “It was only an hour but I fell asleep and am pretty sure I drooled the entire flight.”
Dad roars with laughter at this, and the press gobbles it up. My heart is a tiny, anxious bird in my chest.
You don’t have to prove anything to him.
“Here we go,” Lou says, and a tweet appears in the column.
@Twitter: This is your first project as co-stars. What aspect of the process are you most looking forward to? #AskButlers
Ducking, Dad immediately begins typing. He’s so good at this; he’s been doing all kinds of press tours for so long that he doesn’t even question anymore whether he’ll come off as natural. Everything he says is adored. Without referring to notes, he hunts and pecks enthusiastically at the keyboard. Surreptitiously, hoping that the press doesn’t realize I’m not writing this from the gut, I peek at the answer Marco has crafted, typing the words and double-checking for typos before hitting send. My tweet pops up only a second before Dad’s does.
@TateButler: Milkweed is the project we were always meant to do together. It may sound silly, but I just can’t wait to be on set with my dad.
@IanButler: Working with my daughter is the biggest item remaining on my bucket list. It’s all going to be a joy! Tate is the best actress of her generation, and a true gift to me as a father. #AskButlers
My heart is a beast with claws that extend, wrapping around the compliment. I gobble it down.
“Tate,” Lou says gently, “if you could use the hashtag . . .”
Oh, shit. “Sorry, sorry.”
Beside me, Dad beams in my direction. “I thought I was supposed to be the technologically impaired one.”
I toss my head back and laugh. Ha, ha, ha. Inside, I am mortified.
When it’s just me—Tate Butler, actress—I’m not intimidated by flashing cameras, by probing interviews, by the heated press of fans. I’m not the wide-eyed, wobbly-chinned girl anymore, sitting on the couch between Dad and Mom, giving my well-rehearsed answers in front of a camera crew. But when I’m near Dad, the entirety of who he is seems to dwarf me. I feel a little like a computer with a glitch.