the boy who fell to earth: asa butterfield is a child star turned superstar
Asa Butterfield reflects on a decade spent on the big screen as he moves out of his parents home, prepares to leave teenage life behind and takes a starring turn in two of this autumn’s biggest blockbusters.
Asa Butterfield's sense of wide eyed innocent charm has made him the perfect star for countless coming-of-age movies; his performances always resonate with depth and honesty, he brings a sense of reality to the fantastical adventures he stars in, anchoring the outlandish or extra-terrestrial in real life experience.
At 19 he's blessed with the striking features of youth, bright blue eyes and (metaphorical) bushy tail, but he's also blessed with a talent that belies that youthful appearance. He's taller than you might imagine, mainly because it's so hard to picture him as a grown up, so entrenched are images of his childhood and teenage years on the silver screen. He's just moved out of his parents home into a flat in Dalston, which he's slowly assembling furniture for; so far he's managed to get a kitchen table, a TV, a bed, and somehow, half a sofa. The other half is on its way.
Like all child actors he's had to grow up in the spotlight and on set. He's used to being away from home, so moving out and down the road is no big deal really, but Asa is adamant he hasn't had to mature any faster than any other teenager. Something born out by the fact he's remarkably like any other 19-year-old North Londoner.
"I've managed to keep my work life very separate from home," he explains, over a Coca Cola in a café near his parents' house in Islington. He's returning there for a goodbye dinner after our interview before heading off to America for three months for a film project. "I do manage to keep very grounded. I went to a normal school and grew up acting, so my friends became used to it. I mean, people will treat you differently, people will always be interested and ask questions, but it's something you just get used to. It didn't really affect me growing up, I didn't mature faster. I was having complicated conversations about acting with directors by the age of 13. But apart from that…"
And well, what directors to be having conversations with and learning from; most famously of course, Martin Scorsese, who cast Asa as the lead in the acclaimed and Oscar-winning Hugo. It was working with Martin that made him want to pursue acting as a career into adulthood, and who he cites as having the most impact on his professional life. But beyond that even, he's shared the screen with some of cinema's greatest talents; from Ben Kingsley to Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee to David Thewlis, Emma Thompson to Harrison Ford. He can add Eva Green and Samuel L. Jackson to that list as he stars in the upcoming Tim Burton fantasy Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children. "Every scene, every moment, every time he was on camera, he just owned it," Asa says, of working alongside Jackson. "Every film I've done, you meet people who leave an impression on you," he continues. "I've been lucky to work with some incredible actors, Miss Peregrine's wasn't any exception." It's on screen that's he's learnt and honed his craft. Asa never went to theatre school or had any formal training except for the primary school drama club he was plucked from to star in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, aged just 10. "My education has come from the people I've worked with," he states. "Experience is the best education to have, it's the most valuable kind."
So although he's made his name acting alongside those cinematic greats, and starring in the work of cinema's most talented auteurs, as he prepares to leave teenagedom behind, he's also aware of the fact that he needs to seek out new forms for his talent to take, try his hand with more independent films; quieter, more human stories. Not that he's bored of playing the wide eyed innocent yet.
"I don't go out searching for sci-fi and fantasy roles, but it is what I love. They're the only books I read, ones with huge explosions on the front covers," he laughs, "But as I've got older I've noticed that the scripts I'm getting are offering more complex characters, characters that I have the ability to work with more. That's fun because I can't always play the mistreated child, which seems to be every role I get," he laughs again. "I'm always an orphan, or having something horrible happen to me. It's that innocent look I have about me." Poor Asa, but his starring turn in two of this autumn's most anticipated teen flicks sees the young actor play similar, if opposite, roles, as, well, mistreated orphans. In the much-hyped, Tim Burton-directed Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children, Asa stars as the normal kid thrust into a weird world of the titular Peculiar Children, and tasked with protecting them from the outside world. Then in the sci-fi romance The Space Between Us he plays a human, born on Mars, who returns to earth for the first time; an oddity bundled into the normal world, trying to experience life and love before he dies. "I haven't seen the final films yet," he explains "But you have to trust your director. Everyone that worked on these films was so good at their jobs; from the cinematographers to the costume designers. They felt like real works of art when we were making them."
Although he shows no sign of losing the innocent charm that allows him to carry such performances with such panache, he's managed to avoid the classic child actor pitfalls of melting down in a pile of paparazzi pics, questionable night-time behaviour, and social media breakdowns. Most of which he puts down to living in London, outside of the media spotlight. He's never even considered moving to Los Angeles and even claims to never really get recognised whilst out and about in town, or popping to the shops to get a pint of milk. He's happier hanging out with his friends or honing his craft, than getting sucked into the Hollywood machine.
"Being an actor, you have the creative side of it, which I love, and then the celebrity thing, which I think is totally corrupting. But it is what it is, and you can't change it, people want gossip to feed on. You just have to deal with it as an actor and make the most of it." Not that it's all bad though. "Positives can come from celebrity, because you have people that look up to you and follow you, and you can try and get movement in certain topics, raise awareness and spread information. So there's good and bad sides. Then you have fans who draw pictures of you and send them to you on Instagram, which is kinda cool, I mean a lot of people would think that's totally weird, but I think it's sweet." Although of course, not as sweet as we find you, Asa.
Coat Neil Barrett. T-Shirt Gucci. Jeans Nudie Jeans. Socks Prada. Shoes Hackett London.
Text Felix Petty
Photography Leon Mark
Styling Tara St Hill
Hair Mari Tanaka using Bumble and bumble. Make-up James O'Riley at Premier Hair and Make-up using Elemis. Photography assistance Richard Kovacs. Styling assistance Marghertia Alaimo, Jeremie Girard.