Asa Butterfield was born nine years after the events of “Ten Thousand Saints,” his new indie, take place. In the drama, directed by “American Splendor”’s Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, he plays Jude, a troubled, drug addicted teen who winds up in Alphabet City in 1988, living with a band and trying to reconnect with his carousing Cool Dad (Ethan Hawke). Back when the neighborhood was very dangerous (Avenue D, as we’re reminded, means “dead”) though it was also a hotbed of upcoming artists. Butterfield was sent a list of music to catch him up to speed on the period.
“There was a band called Minor Threat,” Butterfield tells us. Drugs, hardcore, Alphabet City — this is all a gear-shift for Butterfield, 18, so far known for sensitive kids in safer movies: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “Hugo,” “Ender’s Game.”
“He’s certainly the darkest character I’ve played,” Butterfield says. “That helped me. I wanted to play someone a bit more shady than me, a bit less nice."
But back to New York: Butterfield got to witness the crew struggle to turn Alphabet City and the Village — now moneyed and condo-heavy — into the graffiti- and grime-strewn hellscape it not that long ago was.
“It’s completely changed. That was part of the trouble of filmmaking: They had to find parts of New York that look like it did in the ’80s,” he explains. “They had to close off streets and place graffiti on the walls. They had to make sure the camera couldn’t see all the modern technology, which was often just around the corner.”
It also reunited him with his “Ender’s Game” costar Hailee Steinfeld, who plays his friend and unrequited crush — a coke addict who’s been knocked up by his character’s friend, who OD’s in the first act. “We were at Comic-Con promoting ‘Ender’s Game.’ We had both just read the script,” he remembers. “Six months later we thought it was funny that we had both gotten the parts.”
Music isn't entirely alien to Butterfield. In 2004 he created a mash-up of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” and XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel.” “I was seven years old when I did that. My voice was a few octaves higher,” he says, chuckling.
He wouldn’t mind getting back into it. “I play piano, mostly, which is a really helpful instrument. You learn a lot about the basics of music that way,” he says. “I’ve never really committed myself to writing a song. Which is a shame. I’m sure I will do one one day.”
Butterfield is at the end of his teen years, meaning — especially since he’s male — he’ll start getting more mature roles. Asked if he has an inspiration as far as child actors who transitioned into adulthood, he names Leonardo Di Caprio. Like Di Caprio, Butterfield has starred in a Martin Scorsese film, “Hugo.” “He knows more about movies than anyone else. He really educated me and the rest of the cast by talking about films so much,” he recalls. Then he adds, “Not that it was homework.”