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ENDER'S GAME

Joining the International Fleet
Ender Wiggin is a pre-teen genius, born and raised to be the potential savior of his species. He bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, constantly struggling to do the right thing, even when it breaks his heart. The character is central to the story, incredibly difficult to play -- and critical to the film's success. The role would be an enormous undertaking for even an adult actor. Finding a child who could convincingly embody Ender's inner conflict was a daunting task for the filmmakers.

"The book's millions of fans have been projecting themselves onto the character for years," says Hendee. "People who love the book see themselves in him and it was crucial for the story that we allow them to continue to do that."

The filmmakers launched a worldwide search before selecting Asa Butterfield for the role. The young actor was fresh off a huge success, starring opposite Sir Ben Kingsley in Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

"We were aware of Asa Butterfield because of his work on Hugo, which we thought was fantastic," says McDonough. "His first audition was extraordinary, so we flew him to Los Angeles to work with Gavin in person. Once they connected, there was never another option. No one else was even close."

"When we found Asa, it was like a light bulb went on," says Hood. "Asa is mature beyond his years, genuinely kind, compassionate, intelligent and everything else we needed for Ender. The character is amazingly complicated in terms of both intellect and empathy. The biggest challenge was how to preserve his spirit. Asa does that superbly. Once we had him, we knew we had a movie."

Butterfield says this was his favorite among the numerous scripts he received after Hugo was released.

"Kid saves the world and fights in zero-gravity -- what more could you want?" he asks. "I knew it would be an exciting and fun shoot."

Ender is a child savant who has been bullied throughout his life because he's a "third," an additional child in a world where families are strictly limited to two. Like his parents and his brother and sister before him, he is chosen to go to the Battle School where he undergoes a series of training exercises that lead him ultimately into the Battle Room. "He's come further than anyone else in his family," says Butterfield. "He has to get past enemies within the program, but he is able to look at both sides of every conflict he has. Every human is capable of extreme selfishness and selflessness. Throughout the film, Ender is stuck in the middle of that contradiction."

In many imaginary futures, the Earth has become a blasted shell of its former self, but in Ender's Game, it is a verdant utopia. "That heightens the threat of a Formic invasion," explains Butterfield. "There's so much to lose and that's one of the main reasons Ender is so determined to save his planet."

The filmmakers have surrounded their young star with a distinguished adult cast, starting with Harrison Ford, as Colonel Hyrum Graff, commander of the Battle School and the man who singles out Ender as a potential hero.

"We're very happy to be the ones to put Harrison Ford back into outer space," says Orci. "Colonel Graff has to be commanding, but not so gruff that a child would be put off. There's a warmth to him, which is something Harrison naturally has. There's always a little twinkle in his eye and a little humor behind everything he says."

Ford recognized the complexities and contradictions of the character's motivations. "He has a tremendous burden," says the actor. "His job is to win this war for humanity. Failure is not an option. Graff uses extremely young people to fight the war because their minds operate at a higher speed and can deal with a tremendous amount of technology and input without getting frazzled.

"In the real world, soldiers are young, but there's something terrifying about asking children to go to war," Ford continues. "I don't believe he is without compassion for these young people, but that compassion has to be pushed aside in order to achieve a greater objective. That makes him a person who does not wish to engage or allow too much intimacy."

Graff has to be highly manipulative to mold his charges, and Ender is no exception. "He's very kind and friendly in order to recruit him," says Hood. "Ender arrives at school thinking he has an ally, but Graff not only abandons him, he subtly turns the others against him. In a way, it backfires, because had he been honest with Ender, he might have had the benefit of Ender's greater intelligence."

"Harrison brings great credibility and charm to the role," adds Hood. "His dry humor comes through beautifully. He never overplays anything and he was lovely to the kids. He understood that he was there to support them and be the mentor both as an actor and as a character."

Ford says the opportunity to work with Hood, as well co-stars Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis, was an additional draw for him. "Ben Kingsley is one of the great film actors of our time," he says. "Viola Davis is an extremely talented actress who thought deeply about the part she was playing and added a lot of important emotional reality to the story. And Asa is enormously gifted. He is hardworking and focused. I'm proud to have worked on a film like this with such a great cast."

Davis plays Major Gwen Anderson, who is responsible for the psychological well-being of the children who go through the battle school program. Although she has devoted her life to identifying the next great military leader, she is unsettled by Graff's emotional exploitation of the vulnerable youngsters in his care, especially Ender.

The decision to cast Davis initiated a key change in the character of Major Anderson, who in the book is a male Battle School instructor. The filmmakers agreed it was appropriate for the movie to reflect the way in which women's professional roles have changed in the nearly three decades since the novel was published. "Lynn suggested Anderson be reimagined as a woman and we all loved the idea," says McDonough. "It created a more interesting and complex dynamic between Colonel Graff and Major Anderson."

"In just a scene or two, Viola Davis can deliver an arc and a feeling of a character that might take other actors an entire movie to achieve -- if they can achieve it at all," says Hood. "Anderson tries to go along with Graff's notion that it is necessary to psychologically manipulate children for the greater good, but ultimately she can't. In the end, that is what sets her and Graff at odds. She is more interested in Ender's personal well-being than the ultimate goal. Harrison and Viola embrace those two points of view and clash fantastically in the movie."

Davis, who was nominated for Academy Awards for her roles in Doubt and The Help, approached her role thoughtfully. "Young men and women are always the core of the military, but they don't understand the cost of becoming a hero," she observes. "This is an extreme version, because the kids are so young. But by going to the extreme, it brings the point home that these children are being trained to die.

"My character is a psychologist, a nurturer, a mother and emotional investigator of sorts," she says. "I help train these kids to be warriors and leaders. Ender turns out to be an ultimate leader, fearless and passionate. But the difference between Graff and Anderson is that she still sees the boy and she will have to deal with the aftermath."

Hood's early film, Tsotsi, is one of Davis' favorites, she says, and one of the reasons she agreed to appear in Ender's Game. "I have great respect for Gavin as a director. Tsotsi humanized an unusual element in our culture. When you can walk away from a movie looking at a character that is so absolutely despicable in nature and something in your heart shifts while watching it, that's pretty masterful."

The students in Battle School have been raised on tales of a legendary military commander, Mazer Rackham, the hero of the first Formic War, who almost singlehandedly repelled the alien invasion with a blazing flash of insight. "Now the hope is that Ender will become the new Mazer Rackham," says Orci. "Ben Kingsley plays Rackham. He and Asa Butterfield worked so well together in Hugo and it was amazing to be able to reunite them in our film."

Hood says he imagined Kingsley in the role as he was crafting his script. "Of course, I couldn't know then that we would actually get him for the movie, but I was thrilled that we did. He has extraordinary stillness filled with enormous pulsing energy. We needed an iconic, heroic warrior who had saved the human race. There are very few actors who can stand dead still and give this amazing vibration of energy the way Ben Kingsley does."

Kingsley says he signed on because of the quality of the script, as well as the opportunity to work with Hood and Butterfield. "Gavin has a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, which he shared with us," says the actor. "He was extremely sensitive to the story of the child being taken advantage of by the adults around him, which is the pulse of the film. He made a magnificent film -- powerful, adventurous, thrilling, and deeply moving. It's not a confection. It is actually rooted in the truth of human behavior."

Rackham is descended from the Maori warriors of New Zealand and has the ritual facial tattoos to prove it, a striking visual in a film that is already rich with unforgettable imagery. "The Maori are an extraordinary race of people with a hallowed and ancient culture," says Kingsley. "I was privileged to be allowed to enter into it and was given a lot of information and encouragement. The tattoos I wear were designed according to family history in the context of the screenplay."

Director Hood was initially concerned that Kingsley wouldn't want to wear the tattoos. "But Sir Ben has an amazing approach to acting. He is an actor from the theater tradition and his love of language shows up. He's word perfect, he knows what you need from the character and he gives you that. He says -- and he means it -- 'I am a blank slate. Put it on me and I will wear it and be what you need for your story.' He sat in make-up everyday about an hour and 10 minutes to put on the tattoos. It took almost as long to get them off at the end of the day."

In addition to the adults who shape Ender's journey, the young recruit is influenced by the friendships and rivalries he develops with the other young people around him. In keeping with Card's concept of an ongoing international military alliance to defend the Earth, the young actors cast in these roles represent a global gathering of potential.

"It was challenging to have some of the themes in the book articulated by the child actors," says Orci. "You want them to be true to their ages, but also have an awareness and understanding of what the movie is about. It was a tricky thing to find."

Two of the key characters in Ender's life are his sister Valentine and his brother Peter. Both have already been cut from the International Forces Battle School when the film begins. Valentine's innate compassion kept her from being an effective warrior and Peter's propensity for violent outbursts overrode his intellect and empathy. That duality is what Ender struggles with throughout the movie, but it is also what makes him the leader he becomes.

His relationship with his siblings is one of the very important aspects of the character, says Butterfield. "It was the fact that he combines the strengths of both that made me to want to be Ender. He has Valentine's ability to relate to the enemy, even to love and understand them, as well as Peter's ability to destroy them if necessary. And that's why Graff chooses Ender."

Academy Award nominee Abigail Breslin brings genuine sincerity, compassion and intelligence to the role of Valentine. "It always seems like Abigail's not acting, she's just being," says Hood. "Of course, that is the best acting. She's truthful and honest to the emotional reality of the story. I love the scenes between her and Asa. They connected in a real way and I think that comes through in the movie."

Breslin, who was 16 when the film was shot, found many of the scenes between the two siblings heartbreaking. "They're really best friends," she explains. "Valentine has been Ender's protector in the family and vice versa. When he has to go away, they have no way of knowing if they will ever see each other again."

Valentine is Ender's heartbeat, says Hendee. "With limited screen time, Abigail makes every second count. I cannot think of anyone who could have nailed the role the way she did."

The actress was immediately attracted to the script, but she says she had no idea how many devoted fans the story already had until she started receiving messages on Twitter from them. "I hope the fans really like it. Everybody involved in the movie loves the book and wants it to do it justice. Gavin is so passionate about the story that he had the fans in mind the entire time. It's just a really cool movie. There are parts of it that are scary and parts that are sad. All the emotions that you go through when reading the book are there in the movie."

Peter, played by Jimmy "Jax" Pinchak, is a far less sympathetic character than Valentine. Ender's older brother is still smarting from his dismissal from the program and bullies his younger sibling relentlessly.

"Jimmy manages to capture Peter's pain very effectively," says Hood. People with a lot of pain can do terrible things and that to me is more interesting than aggression without reason. Peter was set up early in life to succeed, but he was dumped from the program at 16. Part of what fuels his violence towards his brother is a kind of distorted tough love. He thinks Ender better toughen up, or he's going to fail. I think Jimmy cracked that."

Seeing Ender negotiate the complex social structure of the school is one of the reasons Colonel Graff believes he has the combination of skills that the International Fleet has been looking for. Students from all over the world compete in a series of games and exercises designed to ready them for the battlefield, but they all know that only one will come out on top.

When Ender arrives at Battle School, the only student willing to befriend him is Petra Arkanian, one of the few girls there. Petra is a star in the Battle Room, the zero-gravity training ground central to the school's program. "It was important that we cast an actress who makes us believe that she really can compete with the boys," says McDonough, who likens Petra to women's soccer star Mia Hamm. "She's as good as any of them -- better, actually. Hailee Steinfeld does a terrific job bringing that energy to the role."

Hood describes Steinfeld, an Oscar nominee for her role in the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit, as "the most charming, enthusiastic, bubbly young person. She was brilliant as Mattie Ross, but she really had to restrain her personality to play that role. I watched a lot of interviews with her and thought, wait a minute -- is this the same person? This is one hell of an actress.

"Petra is the polar opposite of that character," he continues. "She is lively and full of wit. She's a sharpshooter who is not afraid to express her opinions in a dormitory full of extremely competitive boys. But she's also warm, kind and compassionate. So I think in this film, she will truly show her range as an actress."

Steinfeld says she joined the cast of Ender's Game because the film looked like a lot of fun. "After I read the script, I was picturing how it would be shot and how it would look," she recalls. "It seemed like an adventure I wanted to have. Petra Arkanian is a very independent, strong character, which I love. She's the only girl in Salamander, which is the top army at Battle School."

Petra reaches out to Ender because she sees herself in him, says the actress. "Al l either of them wants is to get the job done and go back to their families," she explains. "They make a very close connection, quickly, but not in a romantic way. They just feel like they have known each other for the longest time. Asa and I hit it off just as quickly. He is intelligent and creative and and always so on point."

Steinfeld's professionalism impressed everyone she worked with, especially given her youth. "She is so solid in her acting, which is appropriate because Petra is such a solid character," says Hendee. "Petra does not suffer fools and neither does Hailee. They are both full of energy and a little bit roguish."

Ender arrives at school with a crew of other newcomers, dubbed "Launchies" after the craft in which they arrive. His first contact is with Bean, played by Aramis Knight, who previously worked with Hood on the film Rendition. "Aramis was just 7-years-old the first time we worked together," says the director. "Even then, he was full of personality and intelligence, and he also has an amazing attitude. Aramis would be in the Battle Room hanging on the wires, obviously tired and uncomfortable, and I would say said, Aramis, you got another one in you? His answer was always, 'I got a hundred in me!' He is so dedicated and capable of delivering extraordinary emotion."

Knight was eager to tackle his first sci-fi adventure. "I'd never really done anything like this, so I was excited," he says. "My character, Bean, has a hard shell, but he's nice inside. He and Ender become the kind of best friends who like messing with each other and always try to one-up each other."

As one of the youngest actors on the set, Knight found something in common with the character. "I did feel like an underdog at first," he says. "I honestly didn't know if I was going to be able to fit in. I had to push my way through and fight to feel like I belonged there. I think that's how Bean feels too, because he's only 10, so it's tough for him."

Being a part of such a distinguished cast was exciting, but one of his co-stars made an especially big impression on Knight. "Sir Ben is such an incredible actor," Knight says. "Just getting to meet him and learn from him was amazing. And at the end of the day, he would shake my hand and say, 'very nice to work with you today.'"

Ender finds another friend in Alai, played by Suraj Parthasarathy. "Suraj is super smart for his age," says Hood. "He has these big, innocent eyes and really calls Ender on his acts of violence. The part required real talent and understanding of human nature, and Suraj has that in spades."

Parthasarathy says he read the book before auditioning. "I loved it and loved my character. I know people worry that the script won't do justice to the book, but if you compare them, you'll find a lot of the same dialogue and progressions in plot and character. I was really, really impressed."

The young actor says he is similar to his character in some ways. "Alai is a know-it-all," he says. "And if you ask any of the other guys, they'll tell you that I'm kind of like that. I love learning and going to schiool, which is something I share with Alai. On Earth, Ender has Valentine to be compassionate for him, which helps him deal with life. I'm sort of her counterpart in space. I'm one of Ender's first friends and I help him through those first weeks in Battle School."

But not all the other Launchies cotton to Ender immediately, most notably Bernard, the largest and strongest kid on the team. "Bernard is a bit of a bully," says Hood. "He's bigger than all the other kids and uses his bulk to intimidate them. But Conor Carroll, who plays Bernard, really got the idea that a bully can be someone who's actually lonely and looking for acceptance. Conor was only 12 at the time and he's amazing in the part."

Ender faces his most serious opponent in Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias), leader of Salamander Army. Bonzo rules through fear and violence, the polar opposite of Ender. "Moises Arias, who plays Bonzo, is just an amazing force of nature," says Hood. "He's actually such a nice guy, so seeing him playing somone this bad is a measure of him as an actor. He threw himself into the complexities of this character and found someone whose own fears don't allow him to be challenged. He becomes resentful of Ender's ability to lead through example, while he is only able to lead by intimidation and by abusing his authority."

"Bonzo's not to be messed with," says Arias. "He does everything his own way and if his army doesn't listen to him, they get reprimanded or even hurt. He knows he is one of the best, but he's immediately threatened by Ender, who catches on to everything super quickly.

Arias is eager to see fan reaction to the film, which he believes is faithful to the characters and ideas in the original. "The book was beautifully written by Orson Scott Card and the script is just as beautifully adapted by Gavin Hood," says Arias. "When I got to the end of the book, I was shocked. I thought, there is no way that just happened. It was such a surprise and I know movie audiences will be just as blown away as I was!"

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