Between “Ender’s Game” and his latest film “The Space Between Us,” Asa Butterfield’s definitely earned his interstellar stripes. But he really just wants a good swordfight.
Butterfield’s latest film, “The Space Between Us,” is a near-future melding of sci-fi adventure and YA romance, casting the 19-year-old actor as Gardner Elliot, a sensitive teenager who holds the unique distinction of being born and raised on Mars during an exploratory mission that ultimately took the life of his astronaut mom. Connecting virtually with feisty, outspoken high schooler Tulsa (Britt Robertson), Gardner risks everything to venture off to Earth and explore both his planet of origin and his feelings for Tulsa.
Butterfield joined CBR for a look at taking on a project he’d been hoping to make since he first became a teenager, as well his eclectic upcoming film “House of Tomorrow” (which blends punk rock with the life and science of futurist Buckminster Fuller) and his hopes that he’ll one day wield a badass blade onscreen.
CBR: What was that thing that you saw in this project? That first thing that just kind of resonated with you and said, I can spend several weeks of my life being in this world.
Asa Butterfield: When I first read the script, I was 13 years old. I read that and the “Ender’s Game” script in the same week. So that’s how long this has been brewing. Yeah, it kind of grew up. My character grew up, as I did, obviously, because I’m not a 13-year-old, and sort of matured and changed a bit.
The character itself I thought would be really interesting to play, and fun, different, and for me, having fun is ultimately one of the most important parts of making a project. You want to enjoy it, as with any job you do. I knew that I would be able to really experiment and have a lot of creative freedom with this character, to bring him to life, and make him interesting, and likable, and funny, and kind of weird.
As well as that, I think one of the ideas of the story, which I really hope the audience gains from watching it, is an appreciation of our planet. I’m very passionate about the natural world and preserving it. So I think this film really draws attention to what’s so special and what we're so lucky to have on Earth. Gardner really sheds light on that and really highlights it.
Are you more into looking at our planet a little more closely, rather than looking to Mars or to the moon or wherever we go next?
I probably am. I am interested in space, exploration of space, and the cosmos. I think that’s massively interesting. I love just looking up at the stars at night and just thinking, holy shit, we’re so like insignificantly small. Our problems are so minor in the scheme of things. It’s kind of mind-boggling. I would like to go to space at some point. I probably wouldn't go to Mars. A bit far.
If you can still see Earth, you're alright. As soon as Earth comes out of view, then you’re not even remotely connected. Scary.
Gardner’s got an inherent sense of alienation – no pun intended. He’s always got a distance from the people around him, except for her. How did you relate to that? Have you experienced that? Or did you have to just kind of turn on your empathy and figure out why he felt that way?
The innocence, and the optimism, and naivety of this character is what makes up so much of him, and why he does what he does, and why he's trying to learn these new things. It’s very sweet to watch. The process behind it, it’s always difficult to explain what you’re thinking and how you’re trying to convey certain emotions.
And for Gardner, I think he’s something I always remembered, is that he’s got this almost childlike wonder at everything that’s going on, and tapping into that. Tapping into that freshness, like when you go to a new place or a new country and you’re kind of in that almost dream-like, you’re really taking in everything, the sights, and the smells, and sounds. It’s that sort of feeling, but all the time, and that’s quite funny and different to show.
To make your step into being the romantic leading man must have been fun, and to do it with somebody who seems to have such a different energy as Britt Robertson must have been doubly fun. So tell me about getting that chemistry where it needed to be.
Britt and I got along really well. It’s always helpful when you trust the other person. You have fun with them and you’re relaxed because it allows you to really push, it allows you to try different things and push each other a bit more, which sometimes you get really great stuff from that.
In this film, they do sort of contrast each other, but compliment each other in that Gardner’s a wide-eyed, lovable kind of boy who just sees the best in everything, whereas Tulsa’s this very rough realist. They both teach each other things, and they both bring out sides to the other person, which ultimately make a more whole, and I show her that there this is happiness, enjoyment and love in the world, and she shows me that everything isn’t just, like ,happy and sunflowers. There’s a balance.
When it comes to the action-adventure elements, were you like, “I’ve got this stuntman, you stay over here?” Or were you like, “I’ve got to do this? Really?” How do you approach that stuff?
I like doing my own stunts. Those are a lot of fun. As with any, this film is a bit of a road trip, so he can’t wait to get a bit of everything. Motorbikes, spaceships, biplanes, all of which just adds to the experiences. One of the great things about being an actor is you get to do all of these things, which you probably would never be able to do otherwise.
Tell me about being a student of acting quality, because you’ve worked with Ben Kingsley, you’ve worked with Harrison Ford, and now Gary Oldman. What are you learning from watching these great pros at work?
I think a lot of what I learn sort of comes through subconsciously. It’s not like I’m studying them and making notes, nor are they sort of teaching me like a teacher. I don’t think anyone really would do that because it often can feel quite condescending. Or as an actor, you’re always on the same playing field. There’s never any kind of superiority – or if there is, then it’s usually not a great acting environment.
You want there to be a very level playing field. All the actors and actresses I’ve worked with, all of which have really been amazing. I have yet to have one who left a bad impression. Yeah, just by watching them and seeing the way that they kind of hold themselves, and respect everyone around them, and really come prepared. It’s all very obvious stuff as an actor, but they just do it so well.
Tell me about your next film “House of Tomorrow.” That seems absolutely crazy in all the best possible ways.
It is. I hope it will be. My character in that is similar to this: he’s kind of a boy raised in somewhat isolation by his nutcase grandma, living in a geodesic dome with very idealistic plans for the future. Then he meets this punk guitarist, who comes on his tours and convinces him to kind of break out of these chains that he’s put on himself and try something new, which is punk music, and they form this punk band, and sort of rebel against their…I wouldn’t call them captors, but kind of like that. Their guardians.
Do you go down research rabbit holes, in a case like this either this with the space exploration stuff, or that with either Mr. Fuller or punk music? Do you find yourself like, I want to learn about this for my character, and then you end up absorbing as much as possible?
Yeah. I try and pick and choose what’s most relevant to the character and his experiences. So in the case of “House of Tomorrow,” of course Buckminster Fuller and his philosophy was really the core of all of Sebastian’s beliefs, utterly. So he’s totally committed.
Then the punk music which comes through that, which Alex, who’s my co-star, knew everything about because he’s a massive fan. So he would teach me about this, and I would tell him things about Buckminster Fuller, and it was this very natural kind of relationship which really worked.
Then for “Space Between Us,” the kind of space exploration, the effect that that has on the body coming back to Earth is really interesting, and figuring out how it changes your physicality, and the way you walk, and trying to make all these things seem very real and scientifically accurate.
What haven’t you got a chance to do as an actor that you’re still very eager to do?
I’ve never had a sword fight, and I really want to have a good swordfight in like a samurai film, or some sort of martial arts movie. I think that is on the top of my list.