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The child star with the colourful career

BBC News BBC News 18/04/2016 By Steven McIntosh
Asa Butterfield © BBC Asa Butterfield

At 19 years old, Asa Butterfield already has a box-office record any actor twice his age would be proud of. But he's achieved it by choosing unusual and unexpected roles. What attracted him to taking such a unconventional route to fame?

Asa Butterfield appearing in Merlin: Butterfield appeared in BBC One series Merlin in 2009, shortly after the release of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas © BBC Butterfield appeared in BBC One series Merlin in 2009, shortly after the release of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Asa Butterfield must surely have one of the most varied filmographies of any actor.

Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield: True Grit and Pitch Perfect 2 star Hailee Steinfeld stars alongside Butterfield in Ten Thousand Saints © BBC True Grit and Pitch Perfect 2 star Hailee Steinfeld stars alongside Butterfield in Ten Thousand Saints

The movie that put him on the map, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, dealt with the holocaust. X+Y saw him play a socially awkward maths genius.

Asa Butterfield's first film role was in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, released in 2008 © BBC Asa Butterfield's first film role was in The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, released in 2008

His latest film, Ten Thousand Saints, covers a wide spectrum of serious themes for a teen film - adoption, drug abuse, death and teenage pregnancy.

Asa Butterfield: Butterfield says he does not see himself acting for the rest of his life © BBC Butterfield says he does not see himself acting for the rest of his life

"I've played a worrying number of orphans, children who have been abandoned or had something terrible happen to them," says Butterfield, half-jokingly.

"I think I'm good at playing dramatic and serious roles, but it's not necessarily what I want to keep doing.

"I'd also like to do some comedy.

"It's just the way things have worked out."

His latest film, Ten Thousand Saints, released in the UK this week, is based on the novel of the same name by Eleanor Henderson.

Co-starring Ethan Hawke, Hailee Steinfeld and Emile Hirsch, it sees the Islington-born actor appearing alongside some of Hollywood's big hitters.

Set in the 1980s, Butterfield plays 16-year-old Jude, who leaves his adoptive mother to go and live with his father, played by Hawke, who sells drugs in New York City.

Ten Thousand Saints doesn't have the usual, predictable, boy-meets-girl structure. True, there's a girl. True, Jude has to make some tough decisions. True, it's been widely described as a coming-of-age tale. But there are some surprising plot twists along the way, to say the least.

"I guess I was at a similar time in my life, being 17 when I filmed it," Butterfield says of the role.

"That transition of boy to man, being in that situation myself, is something that we all go through, and that made it easier and more relatable.

"I loved the script because it was one of the first I was sent that felt like a departure from the younger roles which I'd been used to playing.

Early fame

"It was a chance for me to take those first steps to being a more adult actor and dealing with some more serious issues."

Butterfield is now 19, but, despite his youth, he's just bought a house in London and even recently wrote a will - perhaps not what most people his age spend their time doing.

But then again, most people didn't start their career at the age of 11 by appearing in a critically acclaimed box-office hit.

Released in 2008, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is set during World War Two and tells the story of Bruno, a young boy - played by Butterfield - who befriends a Jewish boy named Shmuel in a concentration camp.

Bruno regularly goes to visit him, and, over the course of the film, the pair have conversations, separated by the fence of the camp.

The story is told through the eyes of Butterfield's eight-year-old character.

The actor convincingly portrays the young boy's innocence and lack of awareness about the horrific events taking place - something Butterfield says is down to his own youthful naivety at the time.

"I think I was aware of World War Two and some of what had happened, but at that age you never have a full understanding of the events that took place and what they meant," he says.

"So I was in the dark but in the best way possible. My character in the movie is supposed to be this innocent, naive chid. So it helped that I was also somewhat naive in understanding what was going on, and I think that translated well."

A successful film can be both a blessing and a curse for a child actor.

'Chance to show off'

Young stars who become well-known for a single role may enjoy short-term success, but then face the added pressure of proving their credentials as an actor in later years.

Abigail Breslin, Daniel Radcliffe and Haley Joel Osment were all keen to try something different for the films following their initial success to avoid becoming synonymous with the role that made them famous.

Nicholas Hoult, known for About A Boy, recently shook off the youthful innocence of some of his previous roles by taking the lead part in the 18-rated Kill Your Friends.

In Ten Thousand Saints, Butterfield appears alongside another former child star, Hailee Steinfeld - who has followed a notably similar path to him.

The actress rose to prominence at the age of 13, receiving an Oscar nomination for her role in True Grit, and has since appeared in Begin Again and Pitch Perfect 2.

"This is the second film we've done together, before this we were quite good friends," Butterfield says of his co-star.

"But for both of us it was a chance to show off very different characters to the ones we've played before.

"We both had the opportunity to explore some darker elements to these characters."

Despite Ten Thousand Saints only just being released in the UK this week, Butterfield has already shot two new films since he completed filming.

"I've shot two movies since then, The Space Between Us and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, directed by Tim Burton," he says.

"I love the way [Burton] works. It's very chaotic, but at the same time everyone involved is in the same kind of chaos, so it ends up working."

If Butterfield continues his string of box-office hits with these, and other, future projects - we could certainly be seeing him on the silver screen for many years to come.

But, he says: "I don't see myself acting for the rest of my life.

"I'd really likely to shoot wildlife documentaries, I watched so many of those as a child, and I'm quite into wildlife and love photography as well, so that's something I'd like to do."

He jokes: "I'll hopefully be able to make something of it and get out of the UK because in London there's not all that much to film in terms of wildlife - maybe some foxes and pigeons, but that doesn't make a very exciting documentary, so I'd like to go somewhere more interesting."

Wherever Asa Butterfield is headed next, few will have any doubt it will, indeed, be interesting.

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