In UK cinemas this week is the extremely long-distance romance, The Space Between Us. This one stars Asa Butterfield as a Martian – a human being, in this case, born on Mars – who comes to Earth for the first time and gets into some scrapes alongside Britt Robertson as the girl he has been flirting with online. The film was directed by Peter Chelsom, of Hear My Voice and Funny Bones, and mixes its drama and comedy with a nice sense of scope and some sci-fi shenanigans.
Butterfield is one of the film’s strongest assets, now about eight times the height he must have been during the production of Hugo and picking up acting experience at an amazing rate. I sat down with him to speak about the film, and some of his ideas about acting.
Hi, Asa. Thanks for coming to speak with us.
I’m very curious, whenever I speak to an actor, about their process. There are so many different approaches that actors can take. When you first get a script, what’s the very start of the process like for you?
Well, I think that once we’ve gotten over approaching the character… it’s quite hard to describe and articulate one’s process, for this film especially, I found, as I didn’t have any references. In films you often have a lot of things you can look at or read upon, or films that it might be similar to but this one, it didn’t really have much of that because you have no records of people living on Mars.
This did mean I could have a lot of freedom, creatively, to make it my own, which was fun.
And yet the character is very relatable, so you’ve obviously succeeded in relating the situation to things we do have an emotional relationship to. What do you think the graspable core of the character is?
He’s isolated, isn’t he? We all have that sense at some point, especially as a teenager, of not belonging anywhere, or not mattering. Obviously this is an extreme case of that but it’s a very human feeling despite it being so distanced from us.
It’s a magnified version of something relatable. So, Peter Chelsom was an actor when he was younger. Did that change the way in which he worked with you, compared to other directors?
It did. He definitely could appreciate what an actor needs in terms of figuring out what’s going on. He’s a very collaborative director and he really values an actors take and their approach, and that’s always lovely to have. Often a director can be much more imposing and Peter wasn’t at all like that. He often said to me “Go, go have fun with it, do your own thing. Make it your own.” That was really humbling.
Can you remember any of your early conversations about the character or the themes of the film with him?
I can’t… I actually first read the script when I was 14. That was a long time ago.
That’s a big chunk of your lifespan. When you work with different actors, continuing my curiosity of their different ways of working, did it go down differently?
Yeah, I’m sure it does, but what I find is that once you have trust between actors, and you’ve built that relationship, it’s really just a case of playing and experimenting, of making mistakes and learning from that. Everyone on this film was very on board with that. Gary [Oldman] as an example, pretty much always came with an energy, a passion. That’s great – you really need that boost when you’re working on a film like this, where you don’t have long to film a lot, when you’re working long days and you’ve got a lot to fit in.
What’s left on your professional To Do list?
I’ve never done a horror movie, like a full-on gore slasher film.
Do you like them?
No. [Laughs] I think maybe if I was in one it would give me a new found appreciation. I don’t really like scary movies. I mean, I didn’t as a kid, but I think I got a bit better now. I’ve been easing myself into it, starting off with the less spooky ones.
So what do you enjoy in particular? And does this influence the way you approach your work, or the work you choose?
I think that’s been the case with every film I’ve done. In my career I’ve done varying genres and characters and when you dive into these worlds you learn a lot. I did a film, X+Y, in which I played somebody on the autistic spectrum. It’s a subject I didn’t know very much about, but being an actor gives yourself the opportunity to really immerse yourself in that world and learn things. It’s one of the great things about what I do.
We’re running out of time but I’ve got to ask you, quickly, what’s up next for you, and what made you interested in that next project?
Before Christmas I shot a film called Journey’s End, based on the World War I play. It’s a British drama with an amazing cast and that’s really exciting.
It’s a war film but unlike a lot of war films it’s about these officers and is set, pretty much, just in a dugout and you can see the way in which the war has changed them. They’re all from different backgrounds and they’re all dealing with the war in different ways. It’s a very powerful, honest approach to a war movie.
I look forward to seeing it. Asa, thank you very much again for your time.
The Space Between Us is in UK cinemas from Friday.