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Asa Butterfield Would Like a Career Like Leonardo Dicaprio’s, With a Side of Nature Docs

8 minute read

Correction appended: Sept. 10, 2015

After Asa Butterfield played the titular role in the Scorsese-directed, Best-Picture-nominated 2011 movie Hugo, the then-13-year-old British actor’s name began cropping up on lists of breakout performers and child stars to watch. Aas he’s moved from child star to teen star, the buzz has followed him all the way to the Spider-Man reboot casting rumor mill (and back again—the part ultimately went to fellow Brit Tom Holland).

But Marvel or no Marvel, Butterfield has transitioned gracefully from roles that trade in childlike whimsy to those that mine the depths of teenaged angst. In A Brilliant Young Mind* (Sept. 11), he plays math wunderkind Nathan, for whom living on the autism spectrum makes love—or at least outward expressions of it—the one equation he struggles to crack. And in this summer’s Ten Thousand Saints, opposite Ethan Hawke and Hailee Steinfeld, his Jude is a straight-edge, skateboarding lover of hardcore punk rekindling his relationship with his father in late ’80s Manhattan.

For a teenager who’s been acting for more than half his life, Butterfield seems unperturbed by fame, an attitude he attributes to attending regular schools throughout his youth and thinking very little about the Hollywood scene when he’s away from the movie set. And although his career shows no signs of slowing, fans shouldn’t be surprised if he takes a hiatus from movie-stardom to document the threatened habitats of Micronesia or the star-fingered Suriname toad—making his own wildlife documentaries is on his short-list of pursuits to check off.

Butterfield spoke to TIME about playing a character on the autism spectrum, lessons learned from Scorsese and why he thinks Leonardo Dicaprio is an actor worthy of emulation.

TIME: How did you prepare to play a character on the autism spectrum?

Asa Butterfield: It was the thing that really stood out to me when I read the script. I didn’t know very much about people who were on the spectrum. I spoke to a lot of them, met with a lot of young men who grew up on the autistic spectrum and learned about the things they had to deal with. One person in particular, called Daniel Lightwing, who my character was loosely based upon, I spoke to him for quite awhile.

Was trying to inhabit Nathan’s mind more difficult than other characters you’ve played in the past?

It did take me longer to really understand him, because his case of autism is so unique. I mean, everyone’s is. There’s no defining traits, so it took a long time to find what made his case individual.

Morgan Matthews, who directed the film, also directed the 2007 documentary that it’s based on, Beautiful Young Minds. How do you think having that experience influenced the way he made this film?

His experience as a documentary filmmaker, as well as his experience with people who are on the spectrum, really makes the film what it is. It does have that really quite intimate feeling with the camera shots, and it’s shot almost like a documentary. It’s very natural.

Did you have to brush up on math for the role?

I did, a bit. I was all right at math before, but I was never at all qualified to do what they were doing [in the movie]. So I had a bit of tutorial. As long as I looked as though I knew what I was doing, that’s what matters.

You tweeted something about exams a few weeks ago. Did you just finish school?

Yes, it was my last year this year, so I had my A-levels when I was shooting Miss Peregine’s Home [For Peculiar Children], and I got my results back a few weeks ago. So now I’m free! I’m done with school.

Did you go to a regular high school?

Yeah, I was in a totally normal school. I always have been. I’m a pretty normal person, outside of the film world. It doesn’t really affect me, when I’m at school or with my mates.

You’ve been acting for around ten years. How old were you when you decided you wanted to be a serious actor?

When I first started, it definitely wasn’t something I envisioned myself carrying on doing. It was a fluke, really. It just came out of the blue. I saw a casting director and that’s what got me my first role [in the 2008 Holocaust film The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas]. It wasn’t until I did Hugo where I sort of started to think that this could be something that I do for a long time, not necessarily the rest of my life, but we’ll see.

After Hugo, you were on a lot of lists of promising young actors and actors to watch. Did it feel like a lot of pressure to live up to these expectations the world thrust upon you?

No, I’ve always stayed cool about it, I think thanks to me being so not involved with it when I’m not filming. To have that normality to come back to, to totally relax and not have to deal with a lot of the pressure that’s put on young actors makes it a lot easier.

What was your experience working with Martin Scorsese, especially as a developing young actor?

Marty taught me a lot. I spent nine months with him, so you learn so much about filmmaking and the history of filmmaking. More than anything, it really made me appreciate where films came from, both due to the story of the film as well as Marty’s knowledge that he’s really generous with. Whenever you work with someone like that, you learn a lot just by watching them.

Your character in 10,000 Saints, Jude, is very different from Nathan. How did you get into the spirit of the late-’80s straight-edge scene?

Like with A Brilliant Young Mind, it was a topic that I didn’t know much about. I did a lot of research, especially into the music scene, and the philosophy, and learning to play electric guitar and straight-edge music. I learned how to skateboard, which I hadn’t been able to previously. That took some lessons. And a few bruised knees.

One of the movie’s directors, Shari Springer Berman, has talked about how straight-edge was a way for young people to rebel against parents who were the original rebels, and a way to rebel against not really having boundaries in the first place.

I think everybody has a bit of rebelliousness inside of them, and a lot of young people especially, and in that time period more than ever. But I think it’s something people can relate to on some level and appreciate, which is why I think the film is so great.

I know you’ve done some music projects and developed an app with your father and brother. Do you see yourself sticking with acting for awhile, or do you have other passions you want to pursue?

Whilst I’ve got these opportunities and whilst I still love doing it, acting is something I can see myself continuing forever, until I get bored of it. And I can’t ever see that happening because every film you do is something new. There are other things I would like to do. I would like to shoot wildlife documentaries. That’s an aspiration of mine.

Do you have experience doing camera work?

In school. I studied photography for four years and I did film studies. So I know my way around a camera, and I know how to take a good picture, but I’ve never really shot my own film.

Is there an actor whose career you’d love to emulate?

I think one actor who’s both had an amazing career and is really respected in the industry but also has done a lot for the planet and environmental work, and is just considered a great person, is [Leonardo] Dicaprio. I’ve met him a few times, and he’s always been really nice. I just think he’d be a really cool person to follow in the footsteps of.

Correction: This article originally misstated the name of Butterfield’s new film.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com