In the sci-fi, young-adult romance “The Space Between Us,” actor Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”) stars as Gardner Elliot, a teenager living on Mars who travels to Earth to find his biological father with the help of his online friend Tulsa (Britt Robertson), who has no idea he is from another planet.
During an interview with me last week, Butterfield, 19, talked about staring in another sci-fi/fantasy film, why space interests him, and what he plans on doing when NASA astronauts finally land on Mars in the future.
You have starred in sci-fi and fantasy films before like “Ender’s Game” and “Hugo.” What is it specifically about these genres that attracts you to them or is it just a coincidence you’ve been in handful of them in your career?
I think it is just a coincidence more than anything. I read the script [for “The Space Between Us”] in the same week I read the script for “Ender’s Game” about six years ago. It’s kind of grown up as I have. It has changed and matured. I do love science fiction. I’ve always read science fiction books and loved the genre, but I don’t say to my agents, “Get me a science fiction job!” That’s not the case at all. I’d love to do something different from sci-fi because people tend to think I’m a science fiction actor and that’s the last thing I want.
What kind of conversations did you have with your director Peter Chelsom about the kind of movie he wanted to make? Did he mention other sci-fi films like “E.T.” he wanted to pay homage to or were you all starting on a clean slate?
“E.T.” was one of the film that did come up, but I wouldn’t even call this film science fiction, to be honest. I think more than anything, it’s a road trip, coming-of-age film with a backdrop in the future and with this romance entwined in it. More than anything, it’s about this boy learning to be a human being and trying to figure out where he belongs and what he needs to do to find somewhere to belong and find out about his past.
I know you shot this film a few years ago. As an actor, how do you feel when something takes a little bit longer to be released? Is it frustrating or do you just trust in the process?
I mean, you have to trust they’re doing it right. You can’t rush this kind of thing. It can be frustrating, but ultimately you’ve done your job and now it’s out of your hands.
So, did you ever wake up in the morning and think, “Where is that Mars movie I made three years ago?”
Sometimes. Yeah, sometimes.
As a child, or maybe even now, did space and the idea of galaxies unknown interest you? Was that a subject you enjoyed?
Yeah, I am massively interested in space and the cosmos. I love looking up at the stars at night, especially on a clear night. That’s one of my favorite things to do. It’s mind-blowing. I am very in touch with the natural world.
If you could get the answer to any question you had about space or nature, what would your question be?
There’s this star that is relatively close to [Earth]. It’s called Betelgeuse. It’s due any minute to explode into a supernova, which apparently is going to light up the sky for a few days. It’ll be like we have two suns. It’ll be amazing. So, I’d love to know when that is going to happen. But we won’t know because it might’ve already happened and we won’t know for however many light years.
If given the chance to travel to a place like Mars—say Elon Musk called you and said to get your bags packed today—would you take the trip?
No, actually. I’d love to go to space, but Mars is just a bit too far away.
So, where instead?
Maybe to ISS (International Space Station). That’s the logical place to go.
I’m sure you know, but movies set on Mars haven’t had a great track record over the years. Do you think it’s difficult for filmmakers to make a place like Mars cinematic and how do you think Peter did that here during the Mars scenes?
We filmed those scene in Albuquerque, which is a bit like Mars. (Laughs) I think we did a great job capturing the landscape.
You’ve worked with Academy Award-winning and nominated actors like Harrison Ford, Sir Ben Kingsley, Ethan Hawke, and now Gary Oldman. At 19 years old, does it still feel surreal to be working with actors of this magnitude or do you view it differently?
I don’t really feel that kind of pressure. I still occasionally get star struck, but I tend to stay pretty cool. I kind of have to because you can’t afford to look stressed or nervous on camera. Everyone else will see that.
Do you think someone landing on Mars will happen in your lifetime?
Yeah, I think it will.
Will it be as big of an event as landing on the moon was in 1969 or has the world changed too much for anyone to care?
I think it’ll be a big deal. I’ll be amazed. I’ll be watching it while everyone else will be too busy looking at their phones.
I’m sure there will be an app you can download by then to watch it.
Probably. Watch it live on your phone!
I’m sure you’ve gotten this question all week, but what is your favorite thing about Earth? (A question his character asks everyone he meets).
Which answer do you want? (Laughs) Just kidding. This time I’m going to say music. I love music, playing and listening to it.
I know you’re playing a musician in your next film (“The House of Tomorrow”). What was that experience like—to combine another of your passions into a role?
I filmed that last year. I always wanted to play bass guitar. I love the instrument. It was great to channel my inner punk.
This is your 10th feature film in 10 years. What do you ultimately want out of this career? Do you have a goal set? Do you just want to make good movies? Tell good stories?
I think it’s telling good stories more than anything and entertaining people and making them think. I think that’s what I enjoy doing. Making people rethink things or change their view on certain things. I think that’s really exciting.