John Boyega: I don’t see myself as a celebrity
Fame and online haters don’t affect him but the Force remains strong with the Star Wars star
John Boyega is the centre of attention. No wonder. He both produces and stars in Pacific Rim: Uprising. The folk behind the sequel to Guillermo Del Toro’s Robots v Giant Lizards epic have brought us to a grand hotel at the Whitehall end of Westminster. People with earpieces talk to other people with earpieces in adjacent corridors. Everyone’s got a list they need to consult.
Here comes John. Dressed entirely in black, he moves with the confidence of a veteran. Or maybe I just think that because he’s surrounded by enough personnel to invade a medium-sized island.
Anyway, he’s arrived. He briefly glances out the window and then sits straight-backed in a generously sized chair. We are in his realm. I tentatively note – by way of a home-team ice-breaker – that he recently worked with Jack Reynor on Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. His face cracks.
“Yaaaaay! I love Jack,” he nearly yells. “He’s a cool guy. One of the coolest guys I’ve met. Something about the Irish. Right?”
We gab a little about how Reynor doesn’t seem to have changed much since he moved from small Irish films to behemoths such as Transformers. On the evidence of these first few seconds, John Boyega hasn’t been much corrupted either. His role in the rough-hewn London comedy Attack the Block at the start of the decade made him “one to watch”. J J Abrams duly watched and cast him as Finn, the charismatic, deserting stormtrooper, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Now, he’s an industry. Yet, once the ice is broken, he reverts straight to everyday south London vernacular.
The wiser movie stars always say that, when fame arrives, the problem is not that you change. It’s that people around you change. They impose difference upon you.
“Yes, that really is true,” he says. “The theory was that you change. When the money came and the fame came I was looking at myself like this. Come on. Here it comes.”
John mimes the act of looking at his own image in a hand-held device. Where’s the corruption? Is it that shadow over his shoulder?
“But I don’t think that happened. It’s the people around you who change.”
John Boyega was born in 1992 to parents of Nigerian origin. He speaks warmly of his father, a Pentecostal minister who has long worked in and about Peckham, but denies the story, now common in many profiles, that dad wanted him to follow in his footsteps.
“No. There were reports that my dad wanted me to be a minister. I think that was a journalist trying to write his own version of Star Wars,” he says.
John is calmly dismissive of the myth that he fought his way out of the ghetto to become a movie star. That part of London is endlessly diverse and resistant to easy caricature. There are middle-class parts of Peckham. There are deprived areas. It is true that Boyega’s sister was a contemporary and friend of Damilola Taylor, the young black boy murdered in the locale 17 years ago, but John is exhausted by the efforts to reduce his old manor to a clutch of sensationalist headlines.
He wouldn’t describe his upbringing as tough?
“No, I wouldn’t,” he says. “Look, your own circumstances are major. My dad taught me just because you’re in an environment where some people – not all people – are a problem that doesn’t mean you have to do the same things. I get mind-boggled when people try to do a ‘rags to riches’ story. Man, I was in Peckham the other day. What do you mean ‘from Peckham to Hollywood’? I don’t like when they do that.”
I won’t do that.
“Nah, nah. You’re all right. But it’s a strange simplification. I still live about 20 minutes away from where I grew up.”
School for me was an absolute joke. I was always laughing. Especially with my boys, one of who I am still great friends with today.
I get the sense that he had an up-and-down time with education. After leaving school, he retook GCSEs in English and maths with a mind to attending university. Earlier, he seems to have been distracted by his growing interest in acting and by the everyday pressures of being a teenager. He was a funny kid.
“Yeah, yeah. School for me was an absolute joke,” he says. “I was always laughing. Especially with my boys, one of who I am still great friends with today. Funny, funny times. Hanging out with the fellas. Those were great days.”
He studied dance. He pondered more sober options. But the interest in film and theatre stuck with him. As with so many budding actors, he felt swept in one direction by an uncontrollable force outside himself.
“I considered a few things,” he says. “But nothing ever became a passion enough for me to invest all my time. Nothing else was that appealing.”
In 2011, Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block changed everything. Following a group of south London geezers as they protect their area from invading aliens – good training for future Dr Who Jodie Whittaker – the film was not a smash at the box office, but, after developing a genuine cult following, it found its way towards the casting directors that mattered. Most of the reviews singled out John. Those plans for university were put on hold.
“That was my first feature film,” he says. “I had just done a few plays. I had done a few short films. Attack the Block was so much fun. Seventeen going on 18. On a film set. That was such good fun.”
Still, the doors didn’t swing open immediately. And he didn’t lose the run of himself.
“I didn’t really understand it,” he says. “When Attack the Block got American distribution I was already in LA. I was looking for opportunities. I was just staying in a motel and all of a sudden I got word that Attack the Block had US distribution. I was moved from this motel into a nice hotel. ‘John is in LA. He can do publicity for us.’ I thought: why do they want me? They probably want Nick Frost. Or at least me with the other guys.”
That’s interesting. So, when Attack the Block became a “real movie”, he suddenly found himself kicked a few rungs up the ladder?
“Yeah. ‘Come over to the Ritz Carlton. ’ I was staying at the Coral Sands Motel. Now, that’s a strange place. Book a night. Ha ha! I was suddenly in the Ritz Carlton. I thought: this is what it’s like being in a real film.”
Hustle and intrigue
John got some decent work before Star Wars came calling. You can see him opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film version of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. He turned up in 24: Live Another Day. But there were challenges in these years. Aside from anything else, he had, as a young guy to get to grips with the hustle and intrigue of Los Angeles. It’s a long way from south London.
.I like the culture in LA, but I like London so much. I like the fact that it’s a multicultural city.
“I miss the food, man.”
Ah, right? Nigerian food? I read he brought Harrison Ford out for a Nigerian meal.
“Yeah, I took him for Nigerian food. He liked it. So, yeah, I miss the food. But I also miss the culture. I like the culture in LA, but I like London so much. I like the fact that it’s a multicultural city. So culture doesn’t mean just one thing. Sometimes I miss that. And also just the all-round dryness of British comedy. I love that.”
The average Angelino will be rocking back on his or her heels at the implication that London is more multicultural than their home city. The good people of LA are always droning on about “melting pots” and “cross fertilisation”.
“Oh, sure, Los Angeles is a melting point,” he says. “But, yeah, of course, there’s more integration here. LA is a melting plot that’s always a good 30 minutes ride away. You know what I mean? ‘Come meet me in Venice. Come meet me in Malibu.’ It’s so spread out. Here in London the culture is fused. You feel you have more access to all that culture here.”
His argument is sound. There is a sense of cultures being jammed together in London. That city’s citizens are less likely to circle the wagons. At the same time, many black British actors have said that there are many more opportunities in America. Just look at how the likes of Daniel Kaluuya, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton and Carmen Ejogo have prospered in recent years.
“There are more opportunities for black actors in the States,” he agrees. “I wouldn’t advise any black actor to seek a healthy career in the UK. But, to be honest, I don’t think there’s a stigma here. I think it’s really just because America is a bigger place. The bigger the place, the more the opportunity. The TV and film industries are significantly busier. We are a small little island.”
Remember when the first teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens “dropped”? There was a worldwide inhalation as the footage crashed onto a billion screens. And John Boyega was the first thing we saw. The promo, released a year before the film’s arrival, began with a shot of the desert. We hear some classic Star Wars blather. Then the English man’s head pops up from the bottom of the screen. That’s how you arrive in the mainstream these days. Did J J Abrams ever explain what won him the part?
“He never did, you know,” Boyega says. “He just gave me the part and that was good enough for me. ‘Okay, bye!’ Ha ha! We fine-tuned the part and I was just always concerned about doing it to the best of my abilities.”
The numbers tell their own story. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened in late 2015 it quickly became the highest grossing film ever in the US and the third highest grossing ever worldwide. Boyega finds himself on all the usual merchandise. Few sane actors would turn that opportunity down, but he must have been aware that he would be stuck with the Star Wars shadow for the rest of his career.
“For me I never worried,” he says. “I have this opportunity. How do I expand on this? How do I make the best of these moments?”
There are the fans to be dealt with. He has attended events such as Comic-Con in San Diego where everyone comes dressed as their favourite characters. Now, that must be properly tiring.
“I did one thing where I put a stormtrooper helmet on and went out into the crowd and I was doing light-sabre fights with one of the fans. He had no idea who I was until later when I posted the picture. He was like: ‘That was me, that was me!’ That’s cool.”
He laughs merrily at the memory. But he does acknowledge that the attention has stripped away some degree of privacy.
“The downside? You’ll sometimes get it while walking on the street. I don’t see myself as a celebrity. I walk on the street because I have always walked on the street. Sometimes somebody will ask for a selfie and it’s not the right time. I have no problem being polite. But you’re not always going to get the best response. Some people think: that’s your job. That is understandable. But you know . . .”
Then there is the online mania. It’s hard to know how seriously to take racist backlashes against increasing levels of diversity in projects such as Star Wars. Too often, the obnoxious minorities make noise out of all proportion to their numbers. Still, a few nuts have argued that The Force Awakens – and the recent sequel, The Last Jedi – are manifestations of “PC gone mad”.
John somehow manages to avoid casting eyes to heaven.
“I am not one to care. I am going to do what I like – whatever anybody says. It’s just how I am,” he says. “And I feel that more people should be like that. I worked for the part. It was their personal opinion to put me in the movie. Even if it were an agenda I would still have taken the part. Ha ha! I feel sorry for people like that.”
He makes a more-in-sorrow-than-anger face.
“Yeah, fuck ‘em for real. I love people who see others doing well and who are positive. I just feel sorry for those who are negative.”
STAR WARS: THE NEXT GENERATION
The current tranche of Star Wars films have helped a few young actors to build on success and dragged a few more from obscurity. Here are five of the coming generation who matter.
JOHN BOYEGA (Finn)
John was certainly on the fringes of fame before the call came to play the charismatic, smart Finn. He has gone on to excel in a stage production of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and to star in and produce the upcoming Pacific Rim: Uprising.
DAISY RIDLEY (Rey)
Great-niece of Arnold Ridley, Godfrey on Dad’s Army, Daisy really was made by Star Wars. Has since starred in Murder on the Orient Express and Ophelia, a retelling of Hamlet from that character’s perspective. Currently to be heard in the surprisingly tolerable Peter Rabbit.
KELLY MARIE TRAN (Rose Tico)
The American actor, of Vietnamese descent, was seen by many as the breakout from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Kelly has been working hard in fringe and improv for years, but The Last Jedi has really pushed her to the front.
DOMHNALL GLEESON (General Hux)
To be honest, Domhnall, among the busiest actors of his generation, probably didn’t need the leg up from Star Wars. No matter. It does no harm. Currently visible in Peter Rabbit. Will appear in Lenny Abrahamson’s The Little Stranger later in the year.
ADAM DRIVER (Kylo Ren)
J J Abrams sensibly ploughed through all areas of world cinema to find his cast. Driver is among the most unavoidable figures in US independent film. Altogether an unlikely chap to play a successor to Darth Vader.
OSCAR ISAAC (Poe Dameron)
And suddenly the Guatemalan-American was everywhere. The eagle-eyed among us remember him in Madonna’s unfairly maligned W.E. Went above ground in the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Among the dishiest of the new Star Warriors.