It's not as if Ender Wiggin has all that much riding on his shoulders. He just must single-handedly save the planet in a war against aliens and then become a moral compass for mankind. All before he's old enough to have a beer.
Orson Scott Card's futuristic novel "Ender's Game" demands a lot of its central character, which presented filmmaker Gavin Hood with a vast challenge when casting his lead in his big-screen adaptation of the book, opening in theaters this weekend.
"He had to be young enough to be a boy at the start of the story and old enough at the end of the story to become a man," Hood said of his ideal Ender.
In Card's 1985 story, set in the near future, Earth is caught in an epic battle against an insect-like alien species called Formics or Buggers, and the conflict has so devastated the globe that children like Ender are being recruited at a young age and trained to become the next generation of elite combatants. The perfect candidates are clever and restrained yet also a little impulsive and hostile. To say that Ender grows up over the course of the book is an understatement — the character starts the story at age 6 and ends it at 13.
Hood, who previously directed "Rendition" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," briefly considered casting several young actors to play Ender over the novel's seven-year span, and "immediately tossed it" because he believed moviegoers would find it difficult to connect to a character played by at least three performers. To make the math work for a single actor, in Hood's script Ender ages about one year, with much of the novel's earliest training compressed or discarded.
The next challenge was finding someone who could capture Ender's opposites. "Ender has very complex traits," Hood said. "He's a bit of an introvert and not really a jock. He's kind and compassionate and intelligent. But he also has a capacity for violence and aggression."
Many of the more than 100 actors he considered were capable of playing Ender's softer side, but when asked in auditions to confront a military leader (played in the movie by Harrison Ford), the candidates couldn't deliver what Hood calls the "raw emotional power" necessary to "stop Harrison Ford in his tracks." Most of the potential leads, he said, "sounded silly and squeaky."
When Asa Butterfield came in, Hood recalled, he finally found someone who could lecture a grown-up and not sound risible.
"It was his subtlety that I was most impressed by, his ability to communicate his character's deepest feelings, a lot of which is done without dialogue," Hood said of the young English actor, now 16, best known for playing Hugo Cabret in Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" and the son of a Nazi official in "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas."
He cast Butterfield just as the actor was starting to promote "Hugo" two years ago; "Ender's Game" was filmed outside New Orleans in spring 2012. The challenge for Hood was to complete the four months of filming before Butterfield's voice changed.
Butterfield said he believes that Ender "is probably the most complex character I've played," but much of the preparation for the role was physical, not mental or emotional. In addition to learning hand-to-hand combat, the trainees in "Ender's Game" engage in an intricate, zero-gravity game that is analogous to weightless laser tag. To prepare for the scenes, Butterfield and his cast mates (including Hailee Steinfeld of "True Grit") worked with acrobats from Cirque du Soleil who specialize in performing while suspended by wires.
The actors also studied with astronauts, who coached them that regardless of what they have seen in earlier movies, zero-gravity does not mean slow motion. "It's not at all like that," said Butterfield, adding that he also had to learn how to hold his body — your arms float to shoulder height rather than dangle by your side — when you leave Earth's gravitational pull.
"We all had to get into our heads this challenge of physics, forgetting all that you previously believed in," said Butterfield, who has an older brother and two younger sisters and is now studying for the A-level exams, which determine college placements in Britain. He will next star as a young math genius in the British drama "X Plus Y," which does not yet have a release date.
Butterfield said that he's a "massive sci-fi fan" and holds as his favorites in the genre the novel "The Knife of Never Letting Go" by Patrick Ness and the movie "The Matrix" ("the original, not the sequels," he said). He had not read "Ender's Game" before the role came along, but the book's popularity was initially forbidding. "The fact that he's loved by so many people is quite daunting," Butterfield said.
Hood said that, like his character, Butterfield matured quickly during production, growing about 2 inches during the filming, "which was a nightmare for the costume department." By the time the production summoned Butterfield to re-record some dialogue, the actor's voice had begun to deepen, and Hood had to coach him to remain in a higher register.
"That's one of the messages of the film," Butterfield said. "How young people sometimes have to grow up faster than they should. I guess that's something we both have in common."
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