ONCE Asa Butterfield has finished speaking to me, his promotional duties for his new sci-fi blockbuster, Ender’s Game, are finished. What does this mean?
Perhaps he’s off to another movie set? It could be that he’ll slink off to party somewhere. Or it might be that he’ll go back to college in North London and continue studying for his A-Levels (Biology, Geography, Photography and, of course, Film Studies).
“Bittersweet” is the word Butterfield jokingly chooses to describe his double life. In fact he sounds supremely unperturbed by his strange existence as star of Hollywood blockbusters (Butterfield’s credits include the acclaimed Martin Scorcese children’s film, Hugo) and a lower sixth A-Level student.
“I find it quite easy now because I’ve been doing it for a while,” he says. “I’m just like any other kid when I’m not doing this. I play football, I hang out with friends, I listen to music, I play video games. It’s changed my life in some ways but not as much as some people think.”
There’d be some who couldn’t remotely convince you of this, but Butterfield, 16, seems absolutely genuine. Being an actor is like having an alter ego, he says. The best part of it is playing characters who can do things that you could never dream of doing in real life. That couldn’t be truer of Butterfield’s latest starring role as Ender Wiggins in the sci-fi epic Ender’s Game. Based on the cult novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card, the movie is adapted and directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and boasts a stellar cast including Harrison Ford, Sir Ben Kingsley, Viola David, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin. If that wasn’t enough to create a ripple of expectation, then the source material itself certainly would.
The original novel was published in 1985 and became an instant sci-fi classic, picking up awards and legions of devoted fans. A coming-of-age story as well as a space adventure, the novel has enjoyed massive success – it’s been translated into 28 languages and, a little eerily, is included on the United States Marine Corps’ Professional Reading Program list for its insights into leadership.
It is set against the conflict between the inhabitants of Earth, us, and insect-like enemies known as Formics. After surviving a near fatal assault by the Formics, the people of earth have prepared themselves for a repeat attack by nurturing a new generation of child geniuses trained as warriors at Battle School, an orbiting space station where, using computer simulations, the young recruits train in a viciously competitive atmosphere. Ender Wiggins (Butterfield) stands out even amongst his brilliant classmates and is picked by the school’s commander, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to become the saviour of his species.
As heroes go, Ender Wiggins is more complex than most, which is one of the things that appealed to Butterfield. “Not just how complex and deep Ender is, but the story itself. There are so many questions and ideas, themes and morals that are taken into account in the story. Ender is no exception to that – there is so much internal struggle going on.”
Director Hood said that once Butterfield was cast he knew that he had a movie. If that felt like a burden to Butterfield he certainly wears it lightly. I’d guess this is because Butterfield seems like a very down to earth 16-year-old and also perhaps because he wanted this part so much. “I talked to Gavin a lot before filming,” he says. “When I got the script I was so excited by it and passionate about it – I don’t think I’ve ever fought this hard for a role before.”
Butterfield was nominated for a Critics Choice Award for Best Young Actor for his role in Hugo, which only added to the critical acclaim he had received for his earlier starring role in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas opposite Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis. Part of what Butterfield can do, with those wide-set, blue eyes, is capture internal conflict with real subtlety. It’s a talent that is making him a sought-after actor for a range of dramatic roles. He’s just finished filming X plus Y with Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins, the story of a mathematics genius trying to cope with the sudden death of his father. Inspired by Morgan Matthews’ acclaimed documentary, Beautiful Young Minds, the role couldn’t have been more different to his experience of filming Ender’s Game, and that’s exactly how he likes it – mixing up the projects, getting as much experience as he can. For Ender’s Game that meant attending Space Camp with all the other young actors, being put through their paces like young military recruits as they prepared to fly about in a zero gravity environment, blasting spaceships out of the air. What teenager wouldn’t want to do that whilst also getting the chance to act with sci-fi legend Harrison Ford?
“For me, the best parts about acting are the amazing experiences you can have and the opportunities that you get to meet amazing people. When you’re playing a character, often that character can do things that you could never even dream of doing even if it’s not really there and you’re shooting it against a green screen, that in itself is so exciting.”
Education comes before career, at least until he’s done his A-Levels. But after that, who knows? Butterfield’s not trying to map out a career because what would be the point?
“You just can’t predict it – it’s one of those professions where things can come out of the blue and completely change your life,” he says. “Acting is a really unexpected journey and that’s one of the things I love about it.” • Ender’s Game is on general release from 25 October