Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield – from the HERO vault
By Jake Hall | Film+TV | 12 July 2021
Photographer Sam Nixon
Stylist Jake Hall.

Shirt by Lanvin SS17; faux fur jacket from Cherry Vintage

This article is part of HERO Vault – Gems from back in time

“I’d totally do it, sign me up,” enthuses Asa Butterfield, referring to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline. Reaching an altitude of approximately 110km above the Earth’s surface would be a minor trip for the nineteen-year-old actor, who led an intergalactic war in Ender’s Game and now plays the first human to be born on Mars in Peter Chelsom’s upcoming sci-fi adventure, The Space Between Us.

Back on terrestrial soil, Butterfield has his feet firmly on the ground and yet his travel schedule is no less hectic. Currently in Los Angeles, it’s a fleeting stay between filming in Minneapolis and flying home to London the day after this interview (via a pit-stop in Seattle for The International Dota 2 gaming tournament) for a period of calm, as rare as it is brief.

Shirt by McQ Alexander McQueen SS17; leather vest from Cherry Vintage

The Butterfield story began in 2008, when his debut role as the naïve WWII-era child in the acclaimed The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – the cinematic equivalent of booking Knebworth as your first gig – was rolled out across cinemas worldwide, leaving audiences teary-eyed and critics raving.

Eight years on, Butterfield’s oeuvre is as measured as his initial performance. From a Parisian orphan living in Gare Montparnasse (Hugo) to the ‘peculiar’ boy who has the ability to see monsters (Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), through an autistic mathematical child genius (X+Y), there’s a correlation throughout: characters who feel out of place or different in some way. Although Butterfield simply puts this recurring theme down to coincidence, it’s a positive indication of a curated body of work, conscious or not.

His upcoming turn in The Space Between Us quite literally continues this ‘of another world’ thread, taking one giant leap into the next stage of his career.

T-shirt and shirt from Cherry Vintage; trousers by Dior Homme S17

Alex James Taylor: Nice mohawk, is that for a film you’re doing?
Asa Butterfield: Yeah, it’s for a movie I finished shooting about two or three weeks ago now in Minneapolis called The House of Tomorrow. It’s an independent film, tiny budget but everyone who worked on it was amazing and towards the end I get my head shaved.

AJT: It’s very Joe Strummer. Do you find it easier to get into character when they drastically change your look like that?
AB: I think so, yeah. Everything adds to it, whether it’s your hair or your costume or the set you’re in, the more you have to choose and think about, the easier it is to try and forget about the real world and get into the character.

AJT: Speaking of escaping the real world, I saw that you were recently at The International Dota 2 tournament in Seattle, how was that?
AB: It was amazing, I’ve been wanting to go for years now. I’ve been following Dota for a while and have been playing for almost four years, so being able to go and see these things that I’ve only ever seen through my laptop was pretty special and surreal.

AJT: Are you a big gamer then?
AB: I’m a pretty big gamer, yeah. Just before Christmas I actually finished building my own PC, which I’ve always wanted to do, and that allows me to play all the games which I never really could on my laptop because it’s kind of shitty. So now I’m able to play all these amazing in-depth games.

AJT: Is it difficult to build your own PC?
AB: Not really, I watched a lot of YouTube tutorials and some friends helped me. It’s not that hard, it’s plugging bits into each other. I bought all the pieces, the GPU, the motherboard, the RAM, and just made sure that they were all compatible and fit together, that took a while choosing all the bits but putting it together only took a day or two, then I just plugged in and was away.

AJT: You can get totally lost in those sort of games and all of a sudden a whole day has flown by. I saw pictures of you at the Dota event trying out virtual reality games, those look so crazy, it’s the ultimate immersion.
AB: Oh yeah, virtual reality is totally surreal. It’s hands-down the most virtual experience I’ve ever had. I’m going to get one actually, I was playing it for a couple of hours and was like, “That’s it, I’m sold.”

AJT: Do you find it scary at all? That total immersion in another world? For example, with games such as Grand Theft Auto, which is already controversial, imagine if people have a virtual reality helmet on and are literally walking around their room ‘shooting’ people.
AB: I think most people are smart enough to be able to differentiate that, and if you’re not, well you shouldn’t be playing those games. I don’t think it’s a reason to be worried, if people want to spend their whole day in virtual reality, fair enough, let them do it.

Jacket and trousers by Dior Homme S17; t-shirt from Cherry Vintage; boots by Devon Halfnight Leflufy SS17

AJT: I wonder if the technology will be picked up by TV companies? So for instance, if you’re watching a football game or a gig, you’ll put on the virtual reality gear and be sat in the crowd.
AB: So you’d be there in the stadium? Yeah, I can totally see that happening. There’s so much you can do with it, I think it’s exciting more than anything and it’s only going to become more advanced and more realistic. I guess it is a bit scary, but at the same time I find the evolution of technology so interesting.

AJT: When do you get your virtual reality headset then?
AB: I’m not sure yet, it’ll be when I get back home to London.

AJT: Nice. So what’re you working on at the minute?
AB: Well I was filming The House of Tomorrow out in Minneapolis, which was the last job I did. Since then I’ve just been on a brief holiday really, I came out here to LA for a vacation more than anything because we were shooting for really long hours and a lot of effort was put into the film by everyone, so it’s nice to take a break now. Then all my press for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is going to start towards the end of next month, so that’s my next commitment.

Trench coat by Criag Green SS17; trousers by DSQUARED2 SS17; t-shirt from Cherry Vintage; sneakers stylist’s own

AJT: I’m really excited to see Miss Peregrine’s, whenever Tim Burton has a new film out it’s guaranteed to be something special. How did your role in that film come about?
AB: I just auditioned for it really, I got the script and loved it. I hadn’t actually read the book beforehand but I read it afterwards, books are always helpful when you’re shooting a movie translation as they give you a lot of deeper information that you can work with.

AJT: I read an interview you did just after Ten Thousand Saints came out and you mentioned that you didn’t know too much about the whole 80s New York punk scene that the film is set in, but before filming you devoured all the information you could find. Do you enjoy that process of totally immersing yourself in a topic and learning as much as you can?
AB: Yeah, it’s one of the best things about my job. When you take on a different character, or are part of a different project, you learn a lot about a certain environment or topic or historical period. You also learn how to do practical things, like play instruments, as an actor there are so many opportunities to do things you’d never usually attempt. Every time you do a movie you gain something new.

Asa Butterfield in HERO 16

AJT: You learnt how to skateboard for Ten Thousand Saints, right?
AB: I did, I wasn’t very good [laughs] but I did some skateboarding lessons for that movie and I’ve wanted to skate for ages, so that was really fun, although pretty painful at the same time.

AJT: [laughs] I bet they were all crossing their fingers that you didn’t break your leg or something. Have you kept it up?
AB: No, not really. But for The House of Tomorrow I learnt how to play guitar, and I’m definitely keeping that up. I’m now in the mindset of buying a bass guitar so I can carry on learning because it’s such a fun instrument.

AJT: I saw a video on your Instagram of you playing Career Opportunities by The Clash on stage, is that from the film then?
AB: Yeah, it’s me and Alex [Wolff]. In the film we are this little punk duo, so during filming we went to this bar where there were just some random people and some crew members and we got on stage and played some songs, just to get the experience of playing live. That was my first taste of the rockstar life [laughs], it went really well.

AJT: Where was that?
AB: That was in Saint Paul,  Minnesota.

AJT: How did you initially get into acting? You started so young, what first piqued your interest in it?
AB: I was at this drama club I went to, just for fun really. I never had the intention of being an actor or following any sort of career in acting, I don’t think I even knew what acting was back then, I was only about eight or something. From there I ended up getting a few auditions and then I got the role in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which really kickstarted everything.

Shirt by Lanvin SS17; t-shirt from Cherry Vintage; trousers by Dsquared2 SS17

AJT: It’s a pretty intense film to star in as a fresh, young actor.
AB: Yeah, it certainly was. At the time I didn’t really understand the topic because I was so young, but when I got a bit older I was like, “Wow, that was pretty heavy.”

AJT: And how do your parents view your career? Do they find it odd that you’re in this crazy industry?
AB: I guess we’ve all sort of got used to it. I mean, it is weird and we make fun of it a lot of the time because it’s just so ridiculous but they’ve always been really supportive of my career and my choices. Neither of my parents are involved in the film industry at all, so it took a bit of getting used to, my mum really helps me out with choosing which projects to work on.

HERO studioAJT: As you started so young you’ve almost got this cinematic history of yourself where you can look back at different periods of your life through the films you were in, like a really epic photo album [laughs].
AB: Yeah, that’s true [laughs]. Although I don’t actually tend to watch back my movies after a while, I don’t think anybody likes watching themselves. But if I’m still doing this when I’m 60, or whatever, which I definitely want to be, it will be pretty weird to look back at my filmography and see how I’ve grown.

AJT: So you’ve recently wrapped The Space Between Us with Gary Oldman, in which you play the first human to be born on Mars. I watched the trailer the other day and it looks really epic and also very relevant. After all, today scientists have just announced the discovery of a potential ‘second Earth’, and there’s also Mars One, the planned one-way trip to Mars in 2026.
AB: Absolutely. I love space and sci-fi and the great unknown. I’d love to experience zero gravity and look down on Earth just floating in the darkness. Those images of the planet from space are incredible, it really puts things into perspective and makes you question everything. It’s also interesting the way space travel is beginning to become consumerised, look at Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic project. Just think, it was only 50 years ago that we went to the Moon and now we’re planning trips to Mars, so the film is very relevant. There was a lot of research put into The Space Between Us to make it feel authentic and they included technology and terminology that they spoke to NASA about it to try and make it realistic. What would happen if a child actually was conceived on Mars? It’s a question that nobody really knows how to answer, NASA literally said, “Have you been listening into our conversations?” Because they’d been discussing the exact same question as we were in the process of making the movie.

AJT: Would you go on one of Branson’s Virgin Galactic flights?
AB: Totally, sign me up. I’d love to go into space and experience that, it’s the ultimate once in a lifetime opportunity.

AJT: Is it true that your middle name is Bopp, after the comet?
AB: That’s correct, when I was born Hale-Bopp was in the sky, so that became my middle name.

AJT: So that space connection runs deep.
AB: Maybe next time it passes by I’ll be on Mars [laughs].

AJT: The movie also works on a psychological level of feeling out of place and not knowing where your home is. It’s a theme that seems to run throughout the characters you play. Would you say that you’re attracted to these outcast personalities?
AB: I don’t know really, it’s quite a relatable trait, I guess. Everyone knows that feeling or knows someone who has been in that situation, you can sympathise with these characters and I think that’s an attractive quality for me, as an actor. I guess growing up as an actor but still trying to lead a normal life, that was a strange situation and one where I felt a bit separated from others. I think a lot of young actors probably feel quite out of place being surrounded by all these older actors in a quite mature job, it takes time to get used to it. But whether that is relevant to why I take these roles? Maybe it’s a subconscious thing.

AJT: How do you tend to go about choosing roles?
AB: Up until now I’ve always had to balance my education with my work, I had to be quite picky because I was aware of how much time I’d be taking out of school. So that was a factor in my choices up until I left school. I guess me, my agents, and my mum have a good filter, so we find the roles that really appeal and the ones that would suit me best. The scripts change a hell of a lot in the actual filming process, so I think it’s just whether you get that special feeling from a script. I’ve been really lucky because I’ve had the chance to work with some pretty amazing people in the industry from a young age and I think that experience has helped me. I try to keep my options open and not close myself off to ideas or genres.

Top and trousers by Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh SS17; trench coat by Acne Studios SS17; boots by Devon Halfnight Leflufy SS17

AJT: It’s a real skill which you just have to learn as you go.
AB: Yeah it is and whether your character is the main role or not, you always want to be memorable and leave an impact on the audience. If people remember your performance and enjoy it, that’s what really counts.

AJT: Do you ever get nervous before going to shoot a film?
AB: Sometimes, especially if there’s a particularly demanding scene or an audition with someone I particularly admire. But you just have to push those feelings down because you can’t afford to be nervous, as an actor, because it’ll show in your performance. You just have to be confident and channel it into the role.

Trench coat by Dries Van Noten SS17; sweatshirt by Stone Island FW16

AJT: Are you looking forward to heading home tomorrow?
AB: Yeah I really am. I’ve actually just got a flat in London so that’s kept me busy lately. But it’ll be really nice to have that base to go home to when I’m not working. When I’m shooting a film it’s usually pretty hectic because you’re on a schedule and everyone is trying to get things done in time, so it’s good to go home and kick back, see friends and just go back to normal for a bit. I’ve grown to associate London with downtime, so it’s always more chilled when I’m back.

AJT: Do you watch a lot of films?
AB: I do, I don’t go to the cinema as much as I should but I do love to watch films at home. I recently saw 10 Cloverfield Lane and really enjoyed that. It’s super low budget too, it’s a small scale movie and it’s really tense because you never know who’s telling the truth. I won’t give away any spoilers, but you need to see it for the ending, it’s a real ‘what the fuck?’ moment.

AJT: I read that in 2013 you made an iPad game with your dad?
AB: Yeah, it was called Racing Blind. Originally we came up with this idea for a game and just drew it down on pen and paper and then we realised that it would make a great iPad game and it would translate perfectly. So we got designing it and writing music for it, then we found someone to code it for us and it was just a fun project really.

AJT: So you just drew it all out and then handed it to the coder to turn into a game?
AB: Yeah, it’s a really simple game so it wasn’t tricky, you just drive and then if you go beyond the line you crash and then you start from where you died. It’s on the Apple store, go download it and try to beat my high score.

Originally published in HERO 16 – Boy Next door (2016)

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