Friday 6 December 2019

Angelic Asa's journey to stardom

Aged just 20, Asa Butterfield is already a seasoned pro and in new war drama 'Journey's End' it shows

Asa Butterfield in Journey's End
Asa Butterfield in Journey's End

Anne Marie Scanlon

There was a time when the words "child star" were synonymous with the word "rehab". When I say this to Asa Butterfield the 20-year-old star of Journey's End, he chuckles. Butterfield, in his own words, has been acting more than half his life, having started working at nine. To date, he is probably best known for his role in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008) but his current film, Journey's End will change that.

To be honest I don't think I've ever met a more composed and relaxed 20-year-old. At one point during our meeting to chat about his role as the teenage Second Lieutenant Raleigh, he lay across the sofa he was sitting on, before swiftly returning to the sitting position - a hint of a blush on his face.

When I ask him if he thinks children in film are treated better these days (given the way they were often treated in the past, it's no wonder so many of them ended up with addiction issues), he replies: "I only know of my experience growing up as an actor living in London - which I think is very different to being an actor growing up in LA. I think the 'showbiz razzmatazz' that goes on in LA is damaging, especially to young people. There's lots of pressure, and trying to imitate or replicate people who aren't necessarily the best role models."

The young actor goes on to tell me that he stayed in the same school throughout his career, right up to A-Levels and he never experienced any backlash from other pupils. "I was quite lucky because I know it does happen - jealousy is a real thing but I knew a lot of my friends before it all took off and it didn't really affect how I behaved or how people behaved around me."

It probably helped that when he was a child Butterfield wasn't desperate to get into acting. At seven he joined the Young Actors' Theatre in Islington because his older brother was a member. "Even when I started doing auditions I wasn't that bothered. It was fun but there were other things I was more interested in. I wanted to dig up dinosaurs. Digging up dinosaurs was it for a long time," he says laughing.

Today he's wearing thick black Joe 90-style spectacles and has his hair in a quiff - classic geek chic. But behind the glasses he still looks impossibly young. When I tell him that while I was watching Journey's End I had the urge to put my fist through the screen, he looks slightly alarmed before I explain that I wanted to reach in and pull his youthful character Raleigh out.

"He's a child, he's too young to be out there," I say and Butterfield nods his agreement. Out there is the dirty trenches of Aisne over four days in World War I. Raleigh is a young man of 18, just out of public school, who thinks war will be a jolly adventure. His uncle is a general and he uses his pull to get posted to the battalion of his older school chum, and idol, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), who is also in love with Raleigh's sister.

The film is based on the play of the same name written by RC Sheriff about his own experiences as an officer in what was then The Great War. When the play debuted in 1929, events were still fresh. Conversely, Butterfield tells me he knew little about the conflict before he got the role. The actor was shocked by the conditions, which the director Saul Dibb (The Duchess) replicated on set, and the fact that some of the soldiers were indeed little more than children.

"Some of the people going in would be 14 or 15 years old and they'd lie about their age," he says. "They thought they were going off to serve their country (like) my character in the film."

He goes on to tell me about the set, "It was pretty real, quite an extensive network of trenches. We ended up knowing our way around - as you would. It was full of mud, in the middle of November, it was rainy. It was grey, (and) literally the mud in the trenches stank."

The plot of Journey's End focuses on the experiences of the officers in their claustrophobic dugout within the trench network.

Butterfield and Claflin are joined by Paul Bettany - heartbreaking as Capt Osborn and Stephen Graham as Second Lieutenant Trotter, a man determined to be jovial in the face of so much fear and misery.

Stanhope is having a breakdown and is reliant on alcohol to dull reality. His personality and his rage dominate the tiny space the officers occupy. The exuberant Raleigh doesn't understand why his old friend is not happy to see him.

Claflin is superb at expressing all of the complications Raleigh's arrival bring without having to utter a word. Trotter takes Raleigh under his wing (despite them being the same rank) and shows him how to be an officer. The young man's child-like delight at seeing the weapons and being allowed let off a flare are heart-rending.

All of the cast are excellent and Butterfield is full of praise for his co-stars, "I really adored working with and learning from (them) - just being in a very close-knit creative team. This was the first film I've done where I really felt a sort of maturity, the cohesiveness between all of these men, I really felt a part of that. I really valued that. We got close, formed those bonds, I think you really see that in the film."

The officers, with the exception of Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), are all trying to do their best for the men under their command despite knowing that the odds are no longer in their favour.

The commitment of the officers and the naivety of Raleigh are in sharp contrast to the cynicism of the generals, who put men's lives at risk in order not to delay their (fancy) dinners and are willing to sacrifice men for strategies that they know won't work.

Butterfield has been nominated for more awards than some actors twice his age but he hasn't allowed it to go to his head. I very much doubt we are going to be reading about the young man's high-jinx antics in the tabloids any time soon.

"I'm quite content with what I've got. I'd be perfectly happy doing independent films and enjoying the more relaxed lifestyle. Going to all the big parties and showing your face in places, that's not really why I'm an actor. I love acting." Butterfield already has an impressive CV and given his obvious talent, and despite his best efforts to remain low-key, he will soon be a very well-known name.

'Journey's End' is in cinemas nationwide

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