Asa Butterfield had a few stunts for his breakout role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Running through the Paris Gare Montparnasse railway station, climbing up ladders to reach clocks in need of winding, falling on the train tracks only to be pulled off last minute — tough stuff for a 12-year-old.
But still, Hugo hardly prepared him for his follow-up film: the epic sci-fi blockbuster, Ender’s Game.
Butterfield tells Hollywood.com that the first portion of rehearsals on the film was all training for the long-gestating adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s novel. In the book, Ender is sent to “Battle School,” a facility that turns skilled children into the next great military leaders. To prepare for the intensity of the fictional training camp, writer/director Gavin Hood sent his young cast to Space Camp — the summer escape of dreams (seriously, what kid didn’t want to spend a week away from home hooked up to a gyroscope?). But for the Ender’s Game star, it was a bit of a nightmare.
“It was painful,” he says. “There was all sorts of marching, running. ‘Left face, right face’ where you turn in different directions.” Butterfield admits that the rigorous boot camp helped him form a close bond with his fellow teenage costars — mostly because if they didn’t keep up with one another, they all suffered. “If one person in the group of about 100 extras, and 10 or so cast [members], made a mistake, everyone had to do 10 push-ups. And we’d be jogging and if one person fell behind, we’d have to do 10 push-ups. Then [the trainers would] extend it… because they’re a bit mean [laughs].”
Along with the exercise regiment, actual NASA astronauts taught Butterfield how to realistically maneuver in zero gravity. The tricks came in handy while performing on the enormous rig built for Ender’s Game’s fast-paced, weightless action scenes. “People think when you’re moving in Zero-G it’s like moving in jelly. But it’s not. You’re completely free to move however fast as you want. The reason people move slowly is that when, for example, they’re putting something down, if they put it down quick it’ll just float off. There’s nothing stopping it. You have to move your hand, You have to let go of it really slowly. Then it just floats there. That’s why people move slowly not to mess everything up,” says Butterfield.
With a scientific understanding of Zero-G movement, Butterfield set off to replicate the training on set. It was uncomfortable. “We were just in a harness,” he says. “It was completely up to us move our bodies in that motion — which is why it was so difficult. So to do that, you have to have your whole body completely tensed up so you’re not completely flopped over and suspended by the waist. Meanwhile, you have to move smoothly. Meanwhile, you have to say your lines in an American accent!“
Along with being Butterfield’s most physically demanding role to date, Ender’s Game is also his mostly morally complex. The book is observational, introspective, and sporadically action-oriented. Before he was even cast, Butterfield had four lengthy Skype chats with Hood on how exactly they would get inside the lead characters head.
“One of the main ones Gavin and I talked about was leadership,” Butterfield says. “Ender’s way of leading and communicating with other people — not just children, but adults — is completely different. It’s one of the things that makes him shine in the school.” The actor sees Ender’s two older siblings, Peter and Valentine, as ends of a scale that the character drifts between over the course of the film. “One’s completely selfless and open, Peter is the epitome of the worst human being. Ender knows he doesn’t want to be Peter, but at times he can’t help having his dark side shine through.”
Butterfield lauds Hood for having a deep love for the source material. The director’s passion helped him craft a cinematic narrative out of the story, changes made only when necessary. “He knew exactly what would be different in terms of things you could physically do when bringing something to screen,” he says. “And also, to make things more probable. So it’s almost completely true to the original book, except for things like the age of the characters and the time in which the story happened.” To bring Ender to life, Butterfield also went back to the book — but stuck mostly to the first of Card’s many Ender’s novels. “All of the other books in the series… none of them are particularly like Ender’s Game. Speaker [for the Dead] I started reading, but it’s so different. It was a real shock to me how far it varied from the original book. So I didn’t end up finishing that. It was too difficult for me to read,” he says.
While most of his training will disappear into the bigger picture of Ender’s, know that the exertion you see on Butterfield’s face as he fights his way through Battle School is coming from a real place. Take one scene where Ender is ordered to do 20 push-ups. Easy, no? Not in the world of movie magic. Thanks to shooting 10 camera angles, Butterfield ended up cranking out 200 push-ups by the end of the scene. That’s one way to stir up genuine emotion.
Ender’s Game arrives Nov. 1, 2013
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