LOS ANGELES — Asa Butterfield's film work has included the very grounded drama "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" and the fantasies "Hugo" and "Nanny McPhee Returns."
But the 16-year-old Brit says he has always wanted to be part of a big-budget science fiction film that would take him into space because of his love for the genre.
He got his wish, cast as the central savior in the futuristic "Ender's Game." He plays the lone teenager who has the proper skills — and strategy — to protect Earth from an alien invasion.
"This is definitely one of my favorite scripts. I mean, I was flying around in zero gravity shooting laser guns. What more could you want?" Butterfield says.
What more? How about a trip to Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., or training with members of Cirque du Soleil to be able to handle all of the sci-fi elements in the script.
The trip to Space Camp served a dual purpose. Not only did the young actors get training in what life in space would be like, they also got to spend time together before going in front of the camera. That was important because Ender gets support from a close-knit group of teens.
"We were all such good friends by the time we started shooting and because of that, it allowed us to trust each other more and to push the dynamics of the relationships to places you might not be able to had you not trusted that person. I think that everyone was such good friends that we took that onto the screen," Butterfield says. "We also had to learn to march and salute and do all the things you would learn in a military camp. It was hard but a lot of fun."
The work with Cirque du Soleil was to get the young actors accustomed to the harnesses they would wear to simulate the zero gravity of space. Butterfield describes the first attempts by the actors to "fly" looked more like a bunch of flapping ducks. It didn't help that Butterfield grew two inches during the filming, creating a nightmare for the costume and special effects teams trying to hide the harnesses.
There were aspects of the role that came naturally to Butterfield, from his passion for gaming to knowing what it's like — because of his acting career — to be a teenager put into demanding situations. Ender doesn't have an escape from all his demands, but Butterfield has found an easy way to deal with the pressure that can come with being a teen actor.
"I think what's really helped me stay away from that is living in London. When I'm not here filming or doing press, I'm just like any other 16-year-old. I play football (soccer), I hang out with my mates, I listen to music. It's not changed my life back at home as much as a lot of people think. I do think that's really helped me become a more developed actor."
As if living out his dream to be in a science fiction movie and all that specialized training wasn't enough, Butterfield co-stars with Harrison Ford, who has starred in some of the biggest sci-fi movies in film history with the "Star Wars" trilogy.
Butterfield says he was nervous the first time he met Ford but the jitters quickly passed.
"Once we got to know him, you do get along really well. He's such an amazing person and an amazing actor. There were so many young people on the set and I think he really brought the best out of us," Butterfield says.
Getting past the nerves didn't mean Butterfield and Ford hung out when they weren't at work. Both actors knew there needed to be a certain amount of tension between their characters, and to keep it consistent they maintained a degree of tension when not filming.
"Ender's Game" ended up being the most intense acting experience in Butterfield's young career.
"For my character in this film, he's so complex and there's so many different things he is thinking about at one moment in time that to incorporate that and, at the same time, have to express that visually by, whether it's crying or just being completely shaken up, it was an interesting experience for me," Butterfield says.