Category Archives: Interviews

ASA BUTTERFIELD ON “THE SPACE BETWEEN US”

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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.”

JOVAN ADEPO ON “FENCES”

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When Denzel Washington decided to bring August Wilson’s “Fences” to the screen—directing the film as well as taking the lead role of Troy Maxson—he reassembled most of the cast that had shared the stage with him in the much-praised 2010 Broadway revival directed by Kenny Leon: Viola Davis as his wife Rose, Stephen McKinley Henderson as his pal Bobo, Russell Hornsby as his older son Lyons, and Mykelti Williamson as his brother Gabriel. But a newcomer assumed the part of Troy’s younger son Cory, played in New York by Chris Chalk. Jovan Adepo, a member of L.A.’s Robey Theatre Company who has appeared in some independent films as well as the television series “NCIS: Los Angeles” and HBO’s “The Leftovers,” is making his studio feature debut in the role.

In a recent Dallas interview, Adepo discussed how he fit into the established ensemble, which itself was rethinking their roles anew. “The first couple weeks of rehearsal, they all expressed that it was very much like it was for them in 2010,” he recalled. “And they actually had to make note of it, to joke about it, in order to let it go, because this was very little from the play in the sense that August Wilson wrote the play and the screenplay, but we’re not trying to play to an audience right in front of us. We had the luxury of actually being able to be intimate, to have the conversation. That’s something they enjoyed doing. That’s all I knew, because I had only done television. I had done plays before, but nothing on Broadway, so I hadn’t had to play to the eight-hundred people in the back. I had maybe a forty-seater, and that’s easy to project to. Being able to sit in and watch them find new things, find things different from what they explored in the play, was awesome. I think it benefited me.”

Adepo had gone through a long audition process before winning the role. “I know there are a lot of people who wanted this part,” he said, “and I remember that at the first couple of auditions, the line was very long. You do the audition, you put your all into it, and you let it go. It’s almost like you want to let go of the hope of getting it after the first audition, but when you get a callback you have to get excited about it again. That line is shorter, but the stakes are higher, and you get more invested in it, and it’s scary, but it’s what we love to do. And when I got the call that it was time for me to meet Denzel, it was completely terrifying, because it was a very short list. I was freaking out having to compose myself. I was lucky that whatever I did in that room, he felt was what he needed for this film. I’m indebted to him for that—he gave me an opportunity he could have given to anybody, and I’m really grateful for it.”

The young actor was, of course, familiar with Wilson’s “Century Cycle” of African-American plays, but he admitted, “The only one I had seen live was ‘Joe Turner,’ but I had read all of the plays, except for ‘Jitney’—Russell was giving me a hard time about that, because he’d performed in that. Sorry, Russell, for the record! And I had workshopped sections before in acting classes. So I was very familiar with the material. I had workshopped Cory, and specifically the scene at the end between him and Rose. So when it came time to revisit it, for the opportunity to audition, I was very excited about it, because when you’re workshopping it in class, it’s a scene study, but this was for the real deal—it’s a job interview, so you have to really get into it.”

In playing Cory, Adepo plugged into what he called “his experience as a young man trying to come into his own, trying desperately to find his own way in a huge world and make an imprint, and do so without completely letting down his parents.” But he gave a good deal of credit to Washington’s direction. “He’s amazing,” Adepo remarked. “In my limited experience working in television, I’ve been able to work with a lot of directors for each episode. This being my first feature film, he was everything that I could have hoped for him to be, and more—incredibly generous in his advice, incredibly patient with me, understanding that I was nervous. He could see it, it was all over my face, and he was very disarming, giving me the confidence that I needed to do to job and feel comfortable making choices as an actor and feel confident in those choices.”

Adepo also credited Davis with helping him flesh out the character. “There’s life experience to be had for characters outside of the script,” he said, “so it’s your responsibility as an actor to delve into that, to explore that. And Viola was a huge help in that, because she and I are really close—I’d known her before this film, because I know her older sister. So we already had a connection, and I felt comfortable talking to her. When I texted her in the middle of the night and ask her questions, she’d ask questions—she wanted to know how long was Cory gone when he left, how often do you come to visit me, do you send me letters often, is there a woman in your life, have you lost any friends in battle? We were creating that, even though we knew that nobody who’d see the film would ever see that part of his life. Those are things that you create and use to season your performance. Cory was seventeen when he left, and comes back at twenty-five. He’s not going to stay the same, he’s not going to speak the same, he’s more mature.”

It was also helpful, Adepo said, that the film was shot in sequence—an unusual practice—and in the location where the story was set. “We shot in the actual neighborhood—the story takes place in the Hill District—Sugar Top is the little area of that neighborhood,” he explained. “The people couldn’t have been more delighted. There were people who had been huge supporters of August Wilson and his work in Pittsburgh, and they were thrilled to have Denzel be the one at the helm. They were really excited about it.”

Adepo enthused about the opportunity the film gave him to watch his co-stars at work, which he said he did “all the time,” even when he wasn’t in a scene: “Nobody asked me to, but how often do you get to sit in and watch Denzel and Viola work every morning? That’s an acting class they would charge millions for, to sit in on a workshop like that. I had get up early in the morning, and when it was time for everybody to leave for work at 6am, I had to get up and be in the truck ready with them, or I wasn’t going to get to go. So I made sure I was there ready, and sometimes I brought a notebook. But a lot of times I just stayed in the tent and just watched Denzel and Viola, and Steven and Mykelti and Russell, because they’re all very talented. It was interesting watching all of them prepare and approach the material.”

And what had he learned from his more experienced colleagues? “To be patient, and not to be afraid to make interesting choices,” he noted. “Al Pacino said, you can only be as good as the risks that you’re willing to take as an actor. My cast mates in this film definitely had a similar sentiment—take risks, enjoy the journey, and don’t play the end result. There are conventional ways to show certain emotions, but sometimes the most interesting ones are the ones you wouldn’t expect to see.

“Making a choice to have a career in the arts, I’ve always wanted to have the chance to work with great artists. And I’ve been really fortunate in the last year and a half to have an opportunity to do that. There are some people who want to be an actor and it takes them years to get that call that they’re waiting for. For some people, the call never comes. So I’m incredibly blessed to have been able to work with one of my heroes already—as an actor, a co-star and a director. It’s made me hungrier, it’s motivated me to want to do more, and to do my best to continue to look for great roles and great projects and strong narratives top play. To get to do material like August Wilson and to be in the first film of many to introduce him to the world is awesome—there have been countless renditions of ‘Fences’ done, but we are the ones putting it out on celluloid, and I’m so honored to be the new cast member to do it.”

Asked about avoiding too reverential an attitude to the play, Adepo noted that Wilson himself had done the screenplay, and added, “ I don’t think there was ever a discussion…that we’ve got to do whatever we can to keep the play’s ‘essence,’ because that’s not what we were trying to do. Many people see the grand performances as being stage-like, but…that’s a representation of the black culture in the 1950s in that neighborhood, and that’s what August knew, and that’s what he wrote. It just so happens that it started on stage and now it’s a film, and more than anything we wanted to come from an honest place and we wanted to be intimate.

“We don’t get this level of material that often…. People are not used to have scenes that don’t cut away every ten seconds. But why cut away from where the drama’s happening right here? We have scenes that go on really long, and people aren’t used to that. People are quick to call things stagey, but it’s life. Why turn away from what’s going on right in front of you? I think the one thing Denzel wanted to do was to get people out of the habit of needing an explosion over here, a whistle over here, somebody looking over this way. That’s why he starts off the film in complete darkness—because he wants to you listen. Then, once you’re listening to the words and getting caught up in the story, then he opens the camera, and you can pay attention to the moving picture. It is a motion picture, but he wants you to listen first, and understand that the words are what’s important, not the cutaways and all that—that cheapens the material.

“It’s an important story, and we can all relate to it,” Adepo emphasized. “It’s specific, because it’s specific to this family and this community and this part of black culture, but the theme is absolutely universal.”