Although he’s been acting in film and television for less than 10 years, 18-year-old Asa Butterfield has an impressive résumé, working with some fantastic directors an co-stars in works such as SON OF RAMBOW (his first film), THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS (opposite Vera Farmiga), the “Merlin” television series (as young Mordred), THE WOLFMAN, NANY MCPHEE RETURNS (opposite Emma Thompson), HUGO (directed by Martin Scorsese), and ENDER’S GAME (opposite Harrison Ford).
In 2015, he’s changed things up to star in two indie dramas: TEN THOUSAND SAINTS, with his ENDER’S GAME co-star Hailee Steinfeld and Ethan Hawke (playing his drug-dealing dad), as well as the film that brought us together, A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND (originally called X + Y), in which he plays Nathan Ellis, a young, socially awkward (likely due to Aspergers syndrome) math genius, who builds up his confidence and math skills when he becomes a member of the British International Mathematics Olympiad. The film co-stars Rafe Spall as his math coach/tutor, Eddie Marsan as the team’s coach, and the great Sally Hawkins as Nathan’s long-suffering mother. The film is in limited release now, and opens wider this weekend.
At Christmas 2016, prepare to see Butterfield in Tim Burton’s adaptation of MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, and director Peter Chelsom’s sci-fi tale THE SPACE BETWEN US, opposite Gary Oldman, Britt Robertson and Carla Gugino. Oddly enough, Butterfield showed up a great deal this year’s casting new for a role he didn’t actually get. It was reported that he was in the running to play Peter Parker for the Marvel-enhanced SPIDER-MAN film (and apparently in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR as well), a subject we broach in our recent chat. With that, please enjoy my conversation with the exceedingly talented and smart Asa Butterfield…
Capone: Hello, sir. How are you?
Asa Butterfield: I’m good. Yeah, I’m doing well.
Capone: Good. Where are you calling from right now? There’s a bit of a delay in my hearing you.
AB: I’m at home, in London.
Capone: Got it. So, I just recently saw both A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND and TEN THOUSAND SAINTS, because it just opened here in Chicago a week ago, and I do want to talk about that in a minute. As for A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND, when you first read this script, what was it about Nathan that grabbed you right off the bat?
AB: Well, I think, firstly, Nathan being on the spectrum and being autistic, that was something that I previously didn’t know very much about. So for me, what excited me about this project was that I would learn a lot about the people on the spectrum, so the educational experience. But other than that, the role itself was going to push me. It was a challenging role, and it took me awhile to really understand the character and get into his head, which was a quite incredible experience. I worked a lot with the director on that and where we were placing Nathan on the spectrum.
Capone: Can you talk a little bit about that—finding the balance of making it both realistic but also cinematic?
AB: To make it real, because I did research before, I wanted to make it a real representation of what it was like being on the spectrum, and I started talking to young people who are in the same position as Nathan and learning about things that they were growing up with and the things they were dealing with, and taking all of this information into his character and finding out where we wanted him and what would make his case and experience unique.
Capone: It seems that a real source of frustration for him comes from him not having a connection with people that are walking on eggshells around him, like his mother. The people who do get through to him are the ones that treat him just like a normal kid and speak to him directly, like his father and his teacher. Was that something you and the director discussed?
AB: Yeah. I think when his dad died—because his dad was the only person who really understood and related to him—that shook Nathan to go into his shell, and that’s one of the reasons why his mother found it so hard to relate to him. What made Nathan and his teacher connect was math. His whole world revolves around puzzles and mathematics, and Mr. Humphreys understood that as well, and Nathan had an appreciation for that. So he liked him, basically.
Capone: Just last year, I saw the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which I know was based on a book, but that’s also about a math genius in a similar circumstance. I had to actually check to make sure this movie wasn’t somehow loosely based on that. Was that a factor in your research? Did you have some exposure to that material?
AB: I did. I actually saw the theater production, and it was incredibly interesting seeing his take to someone who has got Aspergers, because everyone’s different, and there’s no defining traits. So having that as well as meeting with a few people on the spectrum, it gave me different things I could play with and take bits of, but not replicate and still make Nathan unique in what made him on the spectrum.
Capone: Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins are just such great actors. When you’re working with them and watching them, what do you learn from that experience and take away from having worked with them so closely?
AB: We were really lucky with our cast. We had the best of British acting with Sally, Rafe and Eddie, as well as young cast who I think are equally phenomenal. Jake [Davies], who played Luke, did an incredible job in his performance, because his character was also on the spectrum but was very different from mine, so it was very interesting to have that clear difference in two different cases. Then the case of the older actors. Rafe, who I worked quite a lot with both before we started shooting as well as over the course during the shoot, having that relationship with someone was great. You can really play with that on camera, having that understanding, so we did a lot of improv around that.
Capone: I was going to bring up Eddie Marsan separately, because he’s one of my absolute favorite actors right now. How was he to work with, especially in the circumstances where a lot of your scenes are in Taiwan, which in itself is a unique situation?
AB: That was great. Eddie is very funny to work with. He’s a very funny man. His character was brilliant as well, and I think having him bring him to life, almost as though he really was our insane school teacher, our math olympiad. It was really funny to have him when he went around as the coach at the front of the bus, because he really embodied the character. He just got into this state of being—a teacher who’s in charge of 16 young adults, who are wanting to be math champions. He’s very funny to watch.
Capone: Talk about that experience going to Taiwan for those scenes, because they mark not only a change of location, but also they bring Nathan out of his shell. He learns a new language; these girls are around him for the first time; the world his oyster in a way. What do you think it was about that experience that made him a little more self sufficient?
AB: It was a real turning point in the film for Nathan. We actually shot that part of the film right at the end, during the last two weeks of filming. I think going there, the atmosphere of the city alone really changed the feeling of the movie. It changed the way it was shot and the life you would get, and Nathan’s case revolves around patterns and bright lights—it really astounds him, the complexity of the city. It brings him out of his shell, as you said.
Capone: I assume that was maybe the first time for you going to Taiwan. As an experience for you and being surrounded by other young actors, did you guys have a little chance to explore and get around there?
AB: Absolutely. It was a lot of fun. I hadn’t been there before. I’ve never been to that part of the world before then, and we all got on so well at that point that we would go out and explore the city, and it’s different—the culture, the food, just everything about it. Night markets, where everyone is selling duck hearts and chicken tongues, and there’s all sorts of weird objects that you don’t have names for.
Capone: So you brought home a load of chicken tongues, is that what you’re saying?
AB: [laughs] No. We ate them all there.
Capone: A lot of the films that you’ve worked on over the years have had a heightened sense of reality; some are outright fantasy. But with this role and the one you’re playing in TEN THOUSAND SAINTS are very much rooted in the real world. Have those the types of roles you’ve been seeking out a little more lately?
AB: Well, I never really like to seek out roles. I prefer to take ones that come my way. I think if you think too much on something, it’s never good because something you may never have thought might come up. So I like to keep my choices quite open. But in the case of these two films, they were both just quite unique and important stories to tell. In the case in both films, actually, you don’t really get films that focus on that period of time or that subject.
Capone: It was really fun to see you and Hailee Steinfeld together again. Was it nice working with her in a completely different setting, strictly as an acting exercise?
AB: It was really fun. Me and Hailee get along really well, so we had a lot of fun. Shooting the film was great. The whole cast and crew was a lot of fun to work with. We were in New York, which is one of my favorite cities in America, so we had a lot of time on the weekends to explore and do lots of shopping.
Capone: Ethan Hawke is one of my absolute favorite actors as well. He’s a guy who you would want to be your dad—at least I would. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and how different it might have been from some of the other things you’ve done?
AB: You’re right. Ethan was hilarious. So much of his comic timing with his lines were completely new in every take, so our reactions are often genuine when he’s making us laugh. On top of that, he’s so natural and plays it so cool. And he’s a really nice guy.
Capone: I know you’ve made MISS PEREGRINE with Tim Burton, which had to have been an extraordinary thing, and you’re the lead in this thing. You mentioned before that you don’t really seek out roles, but what was it about this particular story that really grabbed you?
AB: Firstly, what grabbed me in the script was the front page where it said, “Director: Tim Burton” [laughs] Immediately, I was like “Wow, this is a big deal.” But the script as well and the book, which I also read, were both brilliant. They’re very up Tim’s street. I don’t think any other director could direct this film. I really is written for him, and it’s a great story as well. It’s very interesting and complex, and it’s a lot of fun.
Capone: I didn’t realize until I was doing research for this interview that your first film was SON OF RAMBOW, which is a film I hold very dear as one of the best films I’ve ever seen that captures kids’ imagination when they’re playing. What do you remember about that experience, if anything?
AB: It was my first role. I think I was eight years old when I did that, so I honestly cannot remember anything.
AB: I remember the name on my trailer, which was “Brethren Boy.” That was my character. But I only had one scene, which was with Will [Poulter]. So I was a little character. But you’re right, it is a brilliant film. It really captures kids and childhood.
Capone: Have you revisited the film more recently, just because you have no memories of it making it?
AB: The last time I watched it was a few years ago, but it should watch it again, you’re right, because it is a brilliant film. I’ll put it back on my list.
Capone: In recent months, your name had come up in a very public way regarding casting, which had to be very unusual for you. Were you surprised about the level of attention that this got, and did it bother you at all, or did you just roll with it?
AB: I mean, I was in the middle of shooting a film, so I couldn’t really pay much attention to it. I mean, it was a bit surreal, and it came out of the blue. I paid as little interest in it as I could because I had exams and a film to make.
Capone: There was a day or so where the news was that you had the job, and the next day you were out of the running entirely. It was really strange.
AB: [laughs] There you go—the film industry.
Capone: Since we still have a little time, let me ask you one more question about A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND. Your director, Morgan [Matthews], comes out of documentaries. Did you find that he tended to push the reality of Nathan’s day-to-day life? Did you find that if there was a risk of things getting too sentimental, that he would steer things back in a more realistic direction?
AB: Because he came from documentary, he gave the film—from the camera work and his approach to directing—a very natural feel and a very real hemisphere. All of these characters were very truthful. They could be real people. I think that was really captured from Morgan’s experience in documentary.
Capone: I’m not sure where you were in your schooling when you made this movie, but did you have to brush up on your math skills? Did you want to make a point to try to understand a little bit of the math that Nathan was doing here?
AB: [laughs] I tried my best to understand it. I was alright in math before. I had a good deal of understanding and then good bit of acting to make it look as though you knew what you were doing. That’s what I stuck with
Capone: You had definitely mastered the look of concentration with this movie. If nothing else, you fake looking like you know what you’re doing very well in this movie. [Both laugh] Do you know what you’re up to next, after MISS PEREGRINE?
AB: Well, I finished shooting MISS PEREGRINE about a month ago, and next week I’m flying out to America to shoot OUT OF THIS WORLD [which seems to have been retitled THE SPACE BETWEEN US] with Gary Oldman.
Capone: Can you say anything about who you play in that?
AB: It’s a science-fiction film, and I’m playing this boy who was born on Mars in secret, and he’s raised on Mars for 17 years. And it’s about him trying to get back to earth to try and find out who his dad is and experience the real world.
Capone: Is that based on a book?
AB: No, it’s not. It’s an original screenplay, which is funny because pretty much all my films are based on books.
Capone: That’s true. I hadn’t thought about that.
AB: It’s true, it’s mad; have a look. [laughs] Ninety percent of my films are based on books. I don’t know why.
Capone: It must be nice just in terms of—
AB: I like it. I like having a book; it gives you more sense of background.
Capone: You can fill in some of the blanks with the books sometimes, sure. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, and best of luck with these movies.