At the ripe old age of nineteen, British actor Asa Butterfield has assembled a remarkably full filmography, but as he explained during a recent Dallas visit to promote his latest, the STX Entertainment release “The Space Between Us,” his career occurred more by accident than design.
“My very first acting job was on a TV movie called ‘After Thomas,’” Butterfield recalled. “I was seven or eight years old, and I was just in a couple of scenes, and I only had one line, which was ‘No.’ I was playing someone on the autistic spectrum, and so much of the film, for the few days I was in it, was shot with kids who had behavioral disorders or learning difficulties. Then I did ‘Son of Rambow,’ which again was a very small part, a couple days’ filming—I had about four or five lines, an improvement on the first. And then I did ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,’ which took off.” His starring role, as the son of the Nazi officer overseeing a concentration camp who developed a secret friendship with a young prisoner—would lead to major parts in such pictures as Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” “Ender’s Game,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (directed by Tim Burton) and now Peter Chelsom sci-fi themed teen romance.
“But even when I did that,” Butterfield said of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “I didn’t want to be an actor. I never wanted to be an actor growing up. It just kind of came to me, rather than me finding it. It wasn’t until I was doing ‘Hugo,’ I think, that I started to think about taking it further and pursuing it. Before then it was just something I did for fun, that I didn’t take that seriously. I wasn’t really sure why it was happening. People kept giving me work, and I got time off from school.
“I wanted to dig up dinosaurs for a long time—to be an archaeologist. To discover new dinosaurs and name them after myself—that was my dream. I definitely didn’t want to be an actor.”
Nonetheless he’s embraced the career in which he found himself almost by serendipity, recalling the range of youngsters he’s had the chance to play, from the naïve German youth of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” through the boy being trained to save the universe in “Ender’s Game” to his new role as Gardner Elliot, a teen who’s grown up on Mars and comes to earth determined to explore the planet—and find his father—despite the fact that the gravity differential threatens his life. Fortunately, he has a friend—a girl, of course—who joins him on his quest.
“I’ve had my fair share of characters,” Butterfield allowed.
Butterfield’s work has brought him into collaboration with some pretty impressive figures—not only Scorsese and Burton but co-stars like David Thewlis, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley. “I take that pretty in my stride now, thankfully,” he said. “You can’t really get into the place as an actor that you need to be—relaxed—if you are nervous; they’ll see that on camera, and then everyone has to wait for you to get it together. I have a pretty good time just getting on with it and enjoying it. I’m lucky.”
Butterfield also feels fortunate in having been able to juggle larger, studio-type films with smaller, independent ones like “X+Y” (retitled “A Brilliant Young Mind” in the U.S.), in which he played an autistic mathematics genius chosen to attend a competition in China. “So far I’ve managed to have a really nice combination of both,” he explained. “I’ve not really done the whole Hollywood thing—I don’t see myself ever living in L.A. or having that kind of lifestyle. I live in London; it’s home. I just moved out, and have a sort of free, ordinary life back home, which is nice—just to step back from all the chaos, the whole machine of the giant film industry, which is really tough and unforgiving and cruel. So not to be in it every day of my life and not to have my life revolve around it is nice.
“Independent films are, from an acting perspective, [more challenging]. It’s not always the case—a film like ‘Hugo’ is a great actor’s film, but it also had so much going on that often the focus is elsewhere, the background or lighting, which is just as important. But indie films are pretty much just about the camera and the actor and the scene that’s going on, focusing on it and just playing around with it. You have a lot more room to try things, not necessarily because you have more time, but just because that’s where the focus is. It’s more about the characters, and the main thing you have to worry about is how you’re doing.”
“’The Space Between Us’ was a much larger budget than ‘X+Y,’ though still pretty limited given the scale of the movie. But there are moments when it did feel a bit like an independent film, when it felt like it was just about you and the director and the camera and you could send everything else away.” And he felt a certain degree of camaraderie with Gardner: “I think we both have curiosity about the outside world.”
The role required Butterfield to do an American accent—which, he suggested, is easier for British actors than it is for Americans to do a British one because they hear American English all the time—and once again, as in “Ender’s Game,” to be hoisted on cables for scenes of weightlessness. “I was a bit rusty. And I’ve grown a bit—it’s harder when you’re taller, just to keep control and not kick people in the head while you’re spinning around,” he said with a smile. As to how the effects people remove the cables from the shot in processing, he added, “I don’t know how they do it, but that’s not my job.”
Asked what he might do if he weren’t an actor, Butterfield replied, “Maybe music. I do love music, and I wish I had more time really to do that. Actually I do have the time. I’m just lazy. But if I weren’t an actor, I’d do that.”
But returning to the earlier discussion of his disinclination to become an actor as a boy, Butterfield now looked back on his career with enthusiasm. “I love acting,” he said. “You get to experience and to be a part of so many very different things, and learn new things. I’ve heard to play bass guitar, and how to skateboard; I’ve learned some Chinese. To get the opportunity to do all these things, and travel and meet people, it’s an amazing job, and a hundred percent I’d do it again.
“You work on a film, and then you might have five months off, and in those five months you can do whatever you want, learn whatever you want You can do so many other things. It’s almost like a part-time job.”
What might Butterfield want to do on his off tine? “I really want to go out and film wildlife docs,” he said. “I love the natural world, and I like photography and filmmaking. I really want to go out with a camera and film some wildlife. That would be inspiring.”
And what did he learn making “The Space Between Us”? “Well, I learned Albuquerque”—where the film was shot—“is not all that exciting,” he said with a smile. “There are some cool landscapes, but it’s all rather dull, especially if you’re not twenty-one.
“But what I really got from the film was a renewed appreciation of our planet. I’ve always been very conscious of our environment, and I hope this film helps other people to appreciate what we have and not to take it for granted, and to look at the world with fresh eyes.”