Poor Asa Butterfield: He’s never been allowed to be funny. The former child actor has done Holocaust dramas (“The Boy with the Striped Pajamas”). He’s played an orphan (“Hugo”) and a drug addict (“Ten Thousand Saints”). He was a young military leader (in space!) in “Ender’s Game.” But not till “The Space Between Us” did he get to clown around.
“It was difficult to get my head into that state, where I think, ‘I don’t have to be too serious now,’” Butterfield tells us. “I can just do whatever and see how it works.”
Not that the film is a comedy. It’s a sci-fi film, if one that doesn’t always feel like it. The London-born actor, now 19, plays Gardner, who was born on a trip to Mars during a revolutionary colonizing mission. Due to complicated medical reasons, he’s never been allowed to visit Earth, lest his body fail him. When a brief trip is suddenly allowed, he runs off almost as soon as he lands, joining up with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a girl he met online, and journeying out to California to find the biological father he never met.
"The Space Between Us" is part sci-fi, part road trip movie, part coming of age saga. Still, parts of the film play like classic fish-out-of-water comedy. Raised on Mars, surrounded only by adult scientists, Gardner only knows about Earth and its inhabitants from the movies. He doesn’t understand sarcasm, lingo or the delicacies of human interaction. His body’s also not used to our planet’s gravity, meaning when he walks around he stomps and drags his feet, looking like the star of a silent comedy. (Butterfield had to wear weights around his ankles for these scenes.)
“The comedic elements come out of the situations he gets himself into and the way he reacts to them, which are always abnormal,” Butterfield explains. “Peter [Chelsom, the director] would always say, ‘Have fun with it.’”
He cites Peter Sellers’ legendary turn in the 1979 film “Being There” as a major influence. Sellers plays a 50-something gardener who’s spent his entire life inside his rich employer’s townhouse, never venturing outside or meeting anyone else. (In fact, Gardner’s name is an homage: Everyone mistakenly calls Seller’s character “Chauncey Gardner.”)
“He’s an alien in the real world, coming out of his bubble and just being in awe of everything, interested in everything,” Butterfield says, a phrase that could apply to either Gardner.
Like a lot of former child actors, Butterfield has kept to his trade even while developing his own unique, perhaps unexpected interests. For him, it’s a love of photography, which he wants to combine with his love for wildlife documentaries; one day he’d like to be a cinematographer on nature films, which he says right now is a “work in progress.”
“David Attenborough’s my hero,” he says, referring to the writer and host of untold nature docs, ranging from “Planet Earth” and “Life” to older classics like “The Life of Birds” and “Life on Earth.” Still, Butterfield will have to get out of his hometown if he wants to learn how to shoot nature. “In England, you don’t really have much [diversity],” he says, then adds, with dry English wit, “It’s just pigeons and badgers, which doesn’t make for a very exciting documentary.”
In the meantime, Butterfield’s sticking with acting; he’ll next be seen in “Journey’s End,” based on the classic play. And with “The Space Between Us,” he has a film that’s technically in one of his favorite genres. He’s drawn to sci-fi, and though his new film is, like the superficially similar “The Martian,” on the more positive side of the genre, he tends to watch more downer dystopias, citing “The Matrix” as his favorite.
Still, he’s not himself very gloomy: “If you see the dystopian side of things, in 10 years time, when we’re not like that anymore, you can say, ‘Good! Great! We’re doing great guys, we don’t have machines taking over! Things won’t turn into “Mad Max,” nor have we got Replicants walking around!’”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge