We had been ushered by the producers into a trailer that had been set up in simple press conference style -- a bunch of folding chairs facing a long table where the talent would be sitting. Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield had entered the room after a few minutes of us chatting aimlessly and flipping through notes, both still in costume: dark turtlenecks, long pants, and the black tactical boots we've seen so often in the film's trailers. I felt terrible for them as May in New Orleans is scorching, but the room was cool and they seemed comfortable -- or, at the very least, resigned to the decidedly unglamorous life on a movie set.
Making use of the short time we knew we had with the pair before they would be called back to filming, the first question was launched and off we went.
Hailee couldn't quite remember how she initially became involved in the Ender's Game project. She had been in the middle of another film when she found out about the role and a few phone calls were made. While the then 15-year-old actress was too soft-spoken and sweet to admit that everyone was probably thrilled to hear that her Oscar-nominated self was interested in the project, it's easy to imagine casting the character of Petra went very much like this:
"Hello, this is Hailee Steinfeld's rep…"
While no one can doubt his acting chops, London-born Asa Butterfield had a tougher time of it as he had to prove he could pick up a generic American accent.
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And how did he react?
"Well actually, it was just before our flight out to New York to start everything and my mom came into my bedroom and... okay, this is pretty much word for word... she was like, 'Okay, take a deep breath.' And as soon as she said that, I knew what had happened. I literally screamed. Like, I was flipping out. It was amazing," Asa grinned.
While neither Hailee nor Asa had read the book before they'd began the audition process, they both picked it up quickly after booking their roles. We asked Hailee if she found the Petra of the film to be similar to the author's version of the girl with "more balls than anyone else" in Salamander Army and she immediately insisted that she was.
"It's very similar. I mean, the movie is as close to the book as a two-hour movie can get. But for my character I love, you know -- Petra, she's a very strong independent girl and I love that. [...] When I first read a character, if it's a strong female role then that's kind of a part for me."
"The book really helped with the background for Ender, the whole thing about his family and... so that was really helpful," Asa remarked. "And there is a lot, sort of, on Wikipedia about the past and all of the law to the Hegemon and the Strategos, so that was all really helpful."
The Hamster Wheel
When the topic of stunts came up, Asa and Hailee told us a bit more about something we'd been allowed to peek at during the production art tour: the hamster wheel. In the video we'd seen, the two of them were strapped face-to-face in a spinning device, flipping over and over at a speed that would have made the most seasoned stuntman nervous.
"It felt a lot faster than it looked," Asa insisted. "It might have been going really slow but we were travelling a hundred miles an hour."
"It's really funny," laughed Hailee, "Because I mean, working with the stunt coordinator, Garrett Warren, it's been... he's so passionate about what he does and it makes it that much more fun for us. You know, he has something new he's like, 'Hey guys, let's check this out, let's try this!' and if something doesn't work he's like 'Forget it, let's do something else' and he's, you know, always up for new things and new challenges but um... the hamster wheel is one that we did where, I mean, we couldn't even look at each other with a straight face 'cause our helmets were super tight and once we were upside down it like kind of…"
"Made us look… sort of hamsterish. Hence the name."
Since most of us were there representing one fan outlet or another, we asked Asa and Hailee if it was more difficult working on a movie that has such a huge fanbase -- does it put pressure on them in any way? Surprisingly, neither of them thought it did.
"I don't feel that, personally," Hailee explained, pausing a moment. "I think, speaking for myself and I think the others could agree, coming onto a project that does have such a huge fanbase that, you know, I found that I'm a fan of it in general... kind of coming on and being able to be a part of it is just kind of an honor rather than feeling the pressure of it."
Asa definitely agreed. "Yeah, I mean, totally. It's an amazing opportunity to be on this and it's been an amazing experience. But there is a massive fan base for this and, well, as soon as I got the part one of the things I told my mom was... one of the main scenes I want to do in this is still appeal to the massive cult that already follows Ender's Game and so... that was what I was thinking about when I was doing the role."
Before we had stopped in to chat with the cast, we were speaking to stunt director Garrett Warren -- in an interview you'll read tomorrow -- and he had gushed excitedly over the infamous shower scene. When asked, Asa admitted it's going to be pretty epic.
"It was intense. It's an amazing scene, from what I've seen of it at least. And yeah, it was one of the first scenes I had filmed with Moises and we were both really excited about it. Like at the hotel we both were like wondering, 'Am I going to do a back flip over you or something?' And of course it was more realistic than that but we had our fantasies about how epic it would be. And of course there's the part about … it was difficult to shoot because they could never show me naked, so they had to always shoot me from the waist up. But yeah, it was an amazing scene."
Gavin Hood's arrival signaled a change in conversation and a few minutes later, both Asa and Hailee were called back to set and a troop of boys wandered in: Suraj Partha, Conor Carroll, Khylin Rhambo, Aramis Knight -- with a guest appearance by Stilson actor Caleb Thaggard.
The first question for the group was well-suited to a bunch of teenage boys growing up in the 21st century: What piece of advanced technology used in Ender's futuristic world would they love to see available today?
"I think the little mouse for our computers that we saw today," Aramis pipped up. "They are incredible. It's cool how just a little device this big... they compacted the keyboard into it and the little scrolly thing and the joystick. It's so cool."
Khylin went for a more obvious choice: the flash gun.
"You'd need the flash SUIT with that, too."
"Ah yeah, that's true," Khylin winced.
Throw together scores of teenagers, long days, and a dash of Gavin Hood and you are sure to occasionally run into mischief. And when we asked the boys if there had been any silly moments on set, they definitely did not disappoint.
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"That was a good one," Aramis agreed. "I was like, 'Should I go with it?'"
"Donnie Darko. You guys can see him too, right?"
What about when they weren't filming or in between takes?
"I've been learning how to beat-box from Asa," grinned Suraj.
"And he's RIDICULOUS at it," Aramis assured us. "I've been teaching these guys a little bit about basketball. We've been doing that a little bit."
But not everything they did between takes was just for fun - they also admitted that they liked to spend time getting revved up and ready for Battle as a group and had come up with a way to really get blood flowing.
"Yeah, when we gotta get pumped, ready for battle, right before they say "action!" we start doing chants and we're like stomping. It's like a football team," Khylin nodded. "It's super cool though, it gets you in the moment."
Once the boys were pumped and ready to go, the real work started. Who needs stunt doubles when you have a bunch of young, energetic teenagers to work with? It was really surprising to hear from the cast how many of the stunts they actually pulled off on their own - and of course they all had their favorites.
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"I know one scene that… Bean definitely knows this... and it's probably one of his and one of my favorite scenes, too," Conor leaned over to gesture at Aramis a few seats away. "We were on the zipline and he's laying face-down on one of the windows looking out and I grab his leg and he kicks me and I have to do a couple somersaults in space. It was one of the hardest scenes I had ever done cause like my gun kept dropping or I didn't spin enough times or I spun to the side."
"And I told him if I had any anger towards him, I was going to let it out in that scene. I really went for it. I kicked him, I kicked him. It felt really great," Aramis grinned.
But what about Stilson? Did Caleb Thaggard get to try out any of the wirework even though his character never quite makes it to Battle School?
"Well, with these guys telling me how much those things hurt, I really didn't…" he admitted as the room exploded in laughter. "'You wanna try??' 'No, no I'm fine, man. I'll be an Earth brat. I'm good. I'm chillin' on Earth.' But yeah, it was still really, really fun."
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"I got to do some of that. I have a new respect for every single one of them. The stuff they had to do every day... cause, you know, at first I only had to do like marching and you know, if I messed up with that, all I had to do was push-ups. These dudes had to do push-ups, sit-ups, sparring. I was like, 'All right, yeah, you guys are beastly.'"
So, Battle School is breath-taking and the null-gravity stunt work should be incredible. But there's one question that's still on everyone's mind: What do the Formics look like? It appears the studio wants to leave this reveal for the big screen; there hasn't been any sign of the aliens in the trailers and it's very unlikely they come out with a Bugger Drone #24 character poster before the film hits theaters in November.
They did, however, give us a peak at the Formic imagery last May and the Buggers were impressive -- and terrifying. But what did the boys think the first time they had a chance to check them out?
"The first time I think all of us saw them, it was just a picture, right? They just look like really giant ants." Aramis explained, using his hands to to give us a better visual. "Giant ants with claws and teeth and it shows like everything, like the science, crazy names on all of them, the anatomy, muscular system. It's crazy."
"I had two impressions when I first saw them. The first was, 'Oh my god, I can't believe they look like this!' I always thought they were like humanoid, almost. Like they'd walk on two legs. My second thought was, 'I don't wanna be one of them cause I'd have to be with other Formics all the time,' Conor admitted, to huge laughter and agreement from his castmates. "That's like another reason why I don't want to be like... a spider or something, being around spiders all the time."
Suraj, however, pointed out that the Formics weren't entirely frightening. "I think the artists have done a good job, though, of... I mean, there is sort of a beauty to them as well. You're supposed to be grossed out by them but they've done a good job with the color, really making them creatures that, once you get to know them, you would love them and you'd want to live in peace with them. It's really interesting."
"The Formics are supposed to be this intelligent adversary," Caleb agreed, "One of the things I think they did with the design was really... the facial structure itself kind of had expression and an intelligence to it. So you were like, 'Yeah, okay, I could see how this thing would kick our butts in a space battle.' They just looked advanced, look like a threat."
When we asked the boys about their favorite costume, there was a bit of confusion on our side of the room. Several of the boys shuffled a bit in their seats and at least one of them winced.
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"Yeah, my favorite looking is the flash suits," Khylin said, to the agreement of his friends.
It was when we asked if the suits were comfortable that we found out why they acting strangely. No. No, they were not.
"I'm glad we said favorite looking," Aramis shot at Khylin, who grinned and replied, "My favorite one is the pajamas."
Suraj laughed. "Yeah, the flash suits were definitely... they looked really good on camera. And one of the funniest things is that in the dormitories we have all the flash suits and everything. We're supposed to get dressed really quickly and run over to the Battle Room. And I don't think that anyone is ever going to realize that to get these things on we had like 4 people on us tugging at the pants, trying to get the jacket over, and trying to zip this up so this is…"
"IT DOESN'T FIT, IT DOESN'T. NEW ZIPPER, NEW ZIPPER," Aramis reenacted. "I remember the first time and all of us tried it on at the same time and I remember all of us were like, 'Yeah! We can do this!' Fifteen minutes later: 'I can't do this.' Because, it's not like it's really like... you can move, it just gets tough to breathe after a while because it's tight and so well-fitted. And it also gets hot cause there were at least nine layers, at least."
In our interview with costume designer Christine Bieselin Clark which we released Friday, she admitted that they had fashioned the flash suits with wiggle room so that the actors could grow and not necessarily need a new one. But with all the working-out they were doing, the form-fitted suits did occasionally get a bit snug.
"When we got our fitting, they measured us and everything and then it fit me perfectly. And then once we went to training doing like push-ups and sit-ups and stuff, I'd put it on, the same suit, and I almost fainted. It felt like I was getting hugged by Nonso!" Khylin laughed. "It was crazy tight, but it got so much better after they tailored it. And it wasn't as bad as we were making it sound. It's definitely going to look really good on camera."
The conversation had slowly begun to dwindle at this point. The boys praised Moises Arias's intense work-out ethic, Nonso laughingly explained why yelling at the kids was a fun sort of therapy for him, and Khylin gave us the low-down on his new show, The First Family. There was a long pause, and I jokingly, brought the conversation back around to something we had been talking about earlier with the producers.
"We're going to start talking about Pop Tarts again in a minute."
"You guys talked about Pop Tarts? Where was I?"
"What? I love Pop Tarts."
"The strawberry kind with like the frosting and the …"
"I have a whole life story on Pop Tarts. At home there are these Pop Tarts and they are blue and drizzled with purple and they're like Wild Berry. At home, they don't make them! They don't make them in LA."
Check out the Pop Tart audio below:
Coming tomorrow: Interview with stunt coordinator Garrett Warren, the set designers, and Sir Ben Kingsley!