John Boyega

John Boyega

he Couldn't Hide Forever. The Force Beckons A Little-known Actor From North Peckham, London, Onto The World's Biggest Stage As He Steps Into A Role At The Center Of The Billion-dollar Star Wars Saga. In The Words Of Lando Calrissian, Here Goes Nothing.

he Couldn't Hide Forever. The Force Beckons A Little-known Actor From North Peckham, London, Onto The World's Biggest Stage As He Steps Into A Role At The Center Of The Billion-dollar Star Wars Saga. In The Words Of Lando Calrissian, Here Goes Nothing.

Photography: Paul Wetherell

Styling: Anna Trevelyan

Text: DAVID RENSHAW

 “I’m about to get on and the engine is going fricking crazy,” says John Boyega as he boards a private jet to Comic-Con International in San Diego. It’s his first time. Gesturing to his friend and colleague, he shouts: “Femi, take a video of me getting on this jet.”

Come December, things like this will seem normal to Boyega, when Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens blasts into cinemas. The film, a chronological sequel to 1983’s Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi, stars Boyega alongside both old generation and new generation franchise stars: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill—or Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker as they are known to millions—and Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver. So how did a 23-year-old from South London land a role that every young actor in Hollywood would have killed for?

“There was already contact between me and J.J. [Abrams, the film’s director],” he explains. “He was a big fan of Attack the Block and we were waiting for a project where we could collaborate.” The casting took seven months. “Disney is a four-billion-pound company,” Boyega says. “They wanted to make sure they got the right person for the job. I learned that I got the part over a nice breakfast in Mayfair. J.J. said, ‘John, you’re the new star of Star Wars,’ and everything froze for a moment.”

Since filming began last May, life has been a series of time-stopping moments for Boyega. Walking on set to see a full-scale replica of the Millennium Falcon was one; meeting Harrison Ford was another. To get himself in the zone, Boyega studied tapes of Ford’s auditions for the original film some four decades ago. The next thing he knew, they were costars and making small talk between scenes.

“He has that knowledge and it’s beautiful to watch,” Boyega says. “He has a great balance between the artistic and technical elements of acting, which is what it’s all about.” Peers on set, Boyega marveled at their differences away from the glare of the camera. “He told me about his career and his house. I realized that I probably couldn’t relate to him about finances because he’s on another level.”

Boyega plays the character of Finn, who he describes as being “in conflict, mostly with himself and also with the powers” but is tight-lipped about why this conflict exists, or which powers he means for that matter—the Force? Asked what would happen if he was to say, he jokes that Abrams would fly a robotic helicopter overhead and he’d disappear from Hollywood forever. “I’d literally be a regular on [British soap opera] EastEnders after that.”

What he will disclose, however, is that Finn is a character with a “unique” narrative “never before seen” in the Star Wars universe. “We’ve seen him in the Stormtrooper outfit and his own clothes. Why is that?” The answer, he says, is “very surprising.” And if you think you’ve worked it out, the chances are you’re wrong. “J.J. will send me YouTube clips of fans reacting to things online and it’s funny. The fans have no idea. It’s great they are talking, but nobody has a clue.” Boyega got his first big dose of attention when the film’s trailer was released earlier this year. A minority of the millions watching on YouTube questioned why a black actor was playing a Stormtrooper, the racist underbelly of the Internet showing itself to be no more advanced than when the original film was released in the ’70s. Boyega’s response was a dignified but forthright Instagram message: “Get used to it.”

“It was unnecessary,” he says of the negativity. “I’m in the movie, what are you going to do about it? You either enjoy it or you don’t. I’m not saying get used to the future, but what is already happening. People of color and women are increasingly being shown on-screen. For things to be whitewashed just doesn’t make sense.”

Attack the Block was Boyega’s 2011 film debut, transporting the tropes of a horror classic onto a council estate in South London. Boyega played the leader of a gang who mugs a woman before helping her to safety as monsters chase them through the high-rise tower blocks of Brixton. He also appeared alongside Oscar nominees Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton in the 1960s Nigeria-set Half of a Yellow Sun and will soon be seen in the British indie Imperial Dreams as a reformed gangster fresh out of prison who has his resolve tested as he attempts to start a new life. He’s adamant that his career to date has seen him sidestep stereotypical characters black actors are forced to take.

“All the films I’ve done have had a secret commentary on stereotypical mentalities,” he says. “It’s about getting people to drop a prejudiced state of mind and realize, ‘Oh shit we’re just watching normal people.’” Part of this desire to smash preconceptions stems from reaction to his upbringing in a part of London more often associated with crime and gang culture.

“People write about how I grew up opposite where Damilola Taylor was stabbed,” Boyega says. Taylor was 10 when he was killed on the North Peckham Estate in 2000. “As if that’s my story. Absolute nonsense. I spent most of my time dancing and acting. Guns and knives mean nothing to me. I had a multicultural society to take advantage of. I worked hard and ended up where I am today”—walking into the most beloved franchise in movie history.

Boyega knows this and has turned to someone who has gone through a similar process for guidance. “I’m being mentored by Robert Downey Jr. at the moment,” he says. “He’s helped me prepare for how my life is going to change and that has been inspiring. I’m talking to someone who understands the power of choices, both positive and negative.”

Iron Man aside, Boyega is keeping his crew low-key. There’s Femi, who will film him getting on private jets, and there are other people he has met at house parties and on nights out. “Most of the friends I have made in L.A. are just normal guys,” he says. “One of my friends works at the airport. The only difference is I’m like, ‘I’m going to go to Planet Jakku now while you go to your office.’”

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens is in theaters December 18

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Credits: GROOMING Gary Gill  Production Siobahn Devlin (M.A.P.)  Photo assistants Chris Miller and Sam Wilson   Stylist assistants Alicija Aputyte and Saskia Cole  equipment RAW AND Big Sky Studios Â

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