Asa Butterfield is “a massive science fiction fan,” he says.
Which is a good thing, considering Martin Scorsese plucked him from relative obscurity to take the title role in the fanciful “Hugo,” which turned into a decent-size hit a couple of Christmases ago.
But Butterfield’s love of the genre really paid dividends as he landed the second title role of his young career. He is Ender Wiggin, the hero in the film of Orson Scott Card’s popular young adult sci-fi series that begins with “Ender’s Game.”
On an Earth that has survived one interstellar invasion, Ender is identified as a potential Caesar or Napoleon, a child-general with the reflexes, cognitive skills and tactical instincts to be a great warrior and potential leader of other young warriors into combat. “Ender’s Game” is about this video-game-trained killer growing up during his training and baptism of fire and the empathy, compassion and guilt that develop as he trains to do what Earth needs him to do for humanity’s survival.
“He’s the most complex character I’ve played, because he’s pure, but there’s so much going on internally,” Butterfield says. “He’s pure at the beginning and someone I’d call kind of broken at the end of the film.
“For me, because the character has such great instincts, such great understanding of himself and others around him, he has kind of reached this stage of development that no one else has.”
Precocious, in other words. Much like Butterfield himself. The London (Islington) native has been acting since age 7 and got his first big break in the cinema by landing the role of a naive son of a Nazi concentration camp commander who befriends a Jewish boy his age in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”
“Ender’s Game” is a nearly 20-year-old novel, and director Gavin Hood wonders if a big reason that sci-fi crazy Hollywood hasn’t made a film of it before now was that it was waiting for that “perfect” actor for the part.
Ender is “highly intelligent and deeply empathetic, but he also has within him the capacity to be frighteningly aggressive when pushed into a corner,” Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) says. “This tension between his capacity for great compassion and his equal but opposite capacity for aggression required that we cast an actor with great emotional range. Asa Butterfield has that range.”
At 16, the thin, pale Butterfield has had to hold his own opposite the likes of Vera Farmiga and David Thewlis (“Striped Pajamas”), Emma Thompson (“Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang”), and Sacha Baron Cohen and Sir Ben Kingsley (“Hugo”).
Kingsley co-stars with him again in “Ender’s Game,” along with Harrison Ford and Viola Davis. So even though Butterfield sees few parallels between his acting career — begun in childhood — and Ender’s being groomed for military life, there is one.
“People mature at different ages,” Butterfield says. “Ender is very advanced, for his years. I don’t think that is any reason, however, for him to be called on to do the things he is has thrust upon him. There’s a big difference between being more mature than your peers and being asked to do things which no one your age should be asked to do.”
The film has opened in his native Britain, where reviews have been mixed. Total Film says it “hums along on its own gravitational pull, driven by funky combat in the zero-gravity room and Butterfield’s terrific performance.” Will the box office be good enough to warrant taking on the sequels, beginning with “Speaker for the Dead”? Butterfield has learned to be cagey. He is not signed up to do sequels — “not yet.”
But he’s game should the need arise. And unlike Ender Wiggin, he’s not had second thoughts about the career he chose quite young. Working with Scorsese and Hood settled that for him.
“As of now, acting is all I ever want to do,” he says.
“I might have a change of heart. But meeting the people I have been able to meet, having the experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have, flying in the air 40 foot above the ground with Cirque du Soleil trainers for this movie, all the other wonderful experiences I’ve had on sets, this does look like the life for me.”
At area theaters. Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material. 114 minutes.