Asa Butterfield brings intelligence and empathy to the role of Ender Wiggins, a brilliant and remarkably gifted 12-year-old who is trained to become Earth’s ultimate military leader in “Ender’s Game,” the long awaited big screen adaptation of the classic Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel by Orson Scott Card. Opening November 1st, the sci-fi action adventure is written for the screen and directed by Gavin Hood and also stars Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin and Sir Ben Kingsley.
At the film’s recent press day, Butterfield talked about the audition process, what it was like working opposite Harrison Ford, the fun experience of being in the ultimate gamer’s movie, commanding his fighters in the climatic final battle sequence that was shot against green screen, training at Space Camp and with the Cirque du Soleil, working in harnesses and executing gravity-defying maneuvers up high on the wires, establishing chemistry with the other actors, and playing his character with an American accent.
Q: Asa, how tall are you? We heard you grew two inches during the filming.
Asa Butterfield: At least. It was a nightmare for the costume.
Q: Congratulations. You did a great job.
Butterfield: Thank you.
Q: Can you talk a little about the first day you met Harrison Ford and what was it like to work with him?
Butterfield: I think I can speak for a lot of people in that they would be pretty nervous about meeting Harrison Ford, and I was definitely one of those people. For me, and I think for all of us, once you get to know him, you do get on very well. He’s such an amazing person and an amazing actor. There were so many young people on the set and he really pulled the best out of us.
Q: I know you’re a gamer. Right?
Q: What was it like to be in this ultimate gamer’s movie?
Butterfield: That’s a good point, I think. One of the really important discussions in even today’s society is how children of my generation have grown up around this technology and it’s shaped their lives. My little sister who is four can work my mom’s iPhone better than she can. It’s crazy how much that has changed in the last five or ten years. And then, imagine fifty years from now. That’s going to become an even bigger part of our lives. And so, to take that idea and make it such an important part of the story was really exciting because I do enjoy computer games. Being able to take some of that knowledge of mine and give in to my performance was something new.
Q: What’s your favorite game right now.
Butterfield: My favorite game at the moment is this game called Dota 2. You might know it. It’s a PC game.
Q: Is there any choreography that was used in managing the final battle sequence where you’re moving your fingers to command your fighters and did you draw on your Wii playing experience?
Butterfield: That’s really interesting. I didn’t have anything there because it was all green screen. It was pretty much down to me to almost convince myself that what I was seeing was there. Of course, you want to make it look like you’re actually doing something and that you’ve got a purpose with each move you make rather than just flailing your arms around, because then it’s impossible for the special effects team to make it look real and look like you’re doing something. I was taught a few different moves, but it was pretty much down to me to fit it all together and make it look like I was doing something.
Q: Can you talk about your audition and what you had to do?
Butterfield: Well, I first got the script in the summer of 2011. It really stood out to me. I’m a huge fan of science fiction, and so I think this is definitely one of my favorite scripts of the time. I mean, I was flying around in zero gravity shooting laser guns. What more could you want? Then, when I found out there was a book, I read the book and I loved that. When I spoke with Gavin, the director, and we talked about the character – this was before I got the role – we talked about his view for it and where I wanted to take it. It was really interesting for me to be able to have that much of a discussion about such a complex character. Then I ended up flying here to L.A. to audition for Gavin, and just off that, I got the role.
Q: What about the training that you went through once you got over here? We heard there was a Space Camp.
Butterfield: Yes, there was a Space Camp which was a lot of fun. For us kids, a lot of the process of that was to just break the ice. Because of that, we got to know each other so well and we really got on. I think that comes across in the film as well. Not only that, we learned how to march and salute and do all the things that you would learn in a military camp. So that was good to be able to take away all that understanding. It gives you an insight into what the characters were experiencing, obviously not to the same extent, but we were up at seven and lights out at nine. It was hard, but we had a lot of fun.
Q: How was training with the Cirque du Soleil?
Butterfield: For the Cirque du Soleil, it was Garrett (Warren), the stunt coordinator, and his crew. They were amazing. They really made us feel comfortable up in the harnesses, up high on the wires. Watching them pull off these flawless maneuvers and then us going up there and being like a group of flapping ducks in a blind, as Harrison so eloquently puts it in the film, it was a lot of fun.
Q: You have some interesting relationships not only with the elders in the film but also with some of your contemporaries and notably Aramis (Knight) who plays Bean and Moises (Arias) who plays Bonzo with very different relationships and very different dynamics between the two. How did you go about establishing your chemistry and those interpersonal arguments?
Butterfield: In terms of my relationships with a lot of the adult characters, when I was working with Harrison, it wasn’t like a verbal agreement, but we both understood that because there was this constant tension between our characters, we couldn’t say “Cut” and start acting normal. We had to keep an essence of that relationship in our characters off screen which is really important. I think a lot of that is what helped me develop my character. I wouldn’t say it was Method, but it was definitely a little more in depth than I’ve done before in terms of acting. With the other kids, we all were such good friends by the time we started shooting. Because of that, it allowed us to trust each other more to push the dynamics of the relationship to places which you might not be able to had you not trusted that person. With Aramis, I think that everyone was such good friends that when we took that onto the screen, even though Moises’ character and my character aren’t exactly friends, because we were in real life, as I said before, it means we could test each other.
Q: So you really did feel badly when you knocked him down on the concrete?
Butterfield: Yes. That was a pretty intense scene to shoot because it was probably one of the biggest scenes in the story. Bringing that to life with Garret, the stunt coordinator, was really interesting.
Q: We see a lot of the character’s emotions through your eyes. How hard was it to turn on the waterworks? You did a good job. What were your methods for that?
Butterfield: I know a lot of actors who don’t find it easy. I don’t find it easy. I don’t think anyone finds it easy. It is definitely one of the harder parts of acting for me because you have the physical difficulty and then you have the mental and emotional difficulty when it comes to different scenes. For my character in this film, he’s so complex and there are so many different things that he’s thinking about at any one moment in time. To incorporate that, and then at the same time, have to express that visually, whether it’s by crying or just being completely shaken up, it was an interesting experience for me.
Q: What do you think of when you do it?
Butterfield: Just sad thoughts.
Q: How do you as an actor in Hollywood deal with pressure and expectation such as Ender does?
Butterfield: That’s a good point, I think. It is one of the things that we have in common, myself, Asa, and Ender. It’s nowhere to the same level, but as a young actor, there is often pressure to be this star and to be in the limelight. What really has helped me stay away from that is simply living in London which allows me when I’m not here filming or doing press to be like any other 16-year-old. I play football. I hang out with mates. I listen to music. It’s not changed my life back at home as much as a lot of people think and I do think that’s really helped me become a more developed actor.
Q: In this you play a genius young man who is elevated to a leadership role and in your next film you’re playing a mathematical genius. In your real life, are you brilliant in any particular subject?
Butterfield: It’s funny you say that. No. I think it’s always difficult no matter how similar your characters are to yourself to get into that mindset, because however much they are similar to you, they’re not you. So in this film, “Ender’s Game,” I like to think I’m smart, but obviously nowhere near as smart as Ender or as Nathan in the film I’ve just been filming (“X Plus Y”). For me, with any character, there are different ways that you approach understanding him, and in this film in particular, because I had the novel to refer to. It’s always really helpful to have all of that information and all of those hundreds more words which give you an idea into the background and your character and all.
Q: Are you a leader in real life? Do you feel like you have leadership qualities?
Butterfield: Yeah. I guess so. But I don’t lead humans to fight off aliens.
Q: Can you tell us about doing an American accent?
Butterfield: (laughs) I’d never done an American accent in a film before. This is the first time I’ve done it. For me, during the audition process, I had someone working with me and at that point in time I had developed the accent for the words on the page rather than the accent to be able to speak it as though I was an American. When we started filming, Jess Platt, the accent coach, really helped me understand, rather than just the words in the film, the sounds, so that you could take it into any situation and any conversation and improvise and still have a believable American accent. One of the things that also helped that is being surrounded by crew and cast that were all from the States, even though it was Louisiana so they had a pretty Southern drawl. But it was interesting for me.