John Boyega, the calm, collected kid from Peckham has gone interstellar since his leading role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here, ‘Finn’ talks to The Resident about growing up in Peckham, family and what’s next…
Interview: Jonathan Dean / The Sunday Times / The Interview People
Back in 1977, Interview magazine spoke to Mark Hamill, a relative unknown who was about to be known by everyone, for ever, as Luke Skywalker – the virginal farmer with a complicated past who fights for freedom wielding a deadly strip light. The star of the latest Star Wars was even less known, but this, of course, all changed overnight when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released late last year.
John Boyega was born in Peckham in 1992, to Nigerian parents who had emigrated to Britain in the 1980s. His father is a minister and his mother takes care of the disabled, yet out of such serious jobs came a son who wanted only to make-believe. His one big previous film was the excellent council-estate alien-fighting horror comedy Attack the Block, a Bafta-nominated movie that did surprisingly well in the US, despite its tricky London slang. To most, though, he was unknown.
He didn’t tell his parents about the Star Wars auditions, despite a seven-month process, and says his dad was in the bathroom when he was told the big news, dressed only in vest and pyjama trousers. ‘And he said,’ Boyega begins, putting on his dad’s heavy Nigerian accent, with some exaggerated finger-pointing, “‘I knew it! I knew it! Well done, well done, well done.” I don’t know why he said that.’ And Mum? ‘She didn’t understand the concept. She was, like, “Oh, OK. That’s good.’”’.
When Abrams’ cast was first shown to the world, some of the reaction to its male lead was, to be kind, negative; to be blunt, completely racist. ‘This guy is not representative of Star Wars culture at all,’ moaned one of the milder trolls, and such complaints led the actor to post on his Instagram account: ‘To whom it may concern… Get used to it.’
It isn’t as if his character, Finn, is a historical figure, or even Johnny Storm – a traditionally white Fantastic Four hero played by the black actor Michael B Jordan last summer, to similar blinkered disapproval. Finn is a totally made-up person who has always been black. Saying it’s wrong is like saying a pair of jeans shouldn’t be blue. ‘I don’t know where those mentalities come from, as I wasn’t raised like that,’ Boyega says of such detractors. ‘I can’t involve myself in that mentality. For most of us, it’s weird. It’s strange… It’s not a normal thing to think like that.’
Finn is a totally made-up person who has always been black. Saying it’s wrong is like saying a pair of jeans shouldn’t be blue
This is Boyega at his most passionate and natural, how I guess he is with his friends; independent, thoughtful, slightly superior. It is how he is, too, when I ask what it was like knowing Damilola Taylor as a kid, a question I’d based on an article about him that said he grew up on the same tough estate as the murdered schoolboy. He shakes his head. He didn’t know him at all, and wants to split fact from rumour. ‘I’m not the media,’ he says, frowning. ‘I don’t control what people say, but it was a Telegraph article, and this woman decided to write that I lived opposite Damilola Taylor – and I think it’s disgusting. The kid’s dead. He’s been dead for years. What has that got to do with anything that I’m doing?’
Peckham, he adds, where he and Taylor grew up, is a big place. ‘It’s too complicated to get into the whole tough-estate thing,’ he says, not tetchy, but resigned. ‘It’s just boring, but I’m not representing that, because it’s not my story. I went to the theatre growing up, and to Westminster City for secondary school, and was commuting from Peckham. My estate wasn’t tough. To this day, it isn’t tough. We used to draw a square on the brick wall and play penalties. What makes me laugh is when people say, “Oh my gosh, it’s tough.” What’s tough? I don’t know what was tough about it.’ So why would such stories run? ‘I just think it’s easy.’
Anyway, Peckham, Westminster, bad road or good, it’s all a long way from Los Angeles, where he found himself in 2011 at the time of Attack the Block, and a chance meeting with Abrams and Tom Cruise, who were working on a Mission: Impossible together. Abrams knew who he was and said, ‘I am going to get you in something.’ Did Cruise say anything? ‘Nothing… I mean, Cruise can’t do much for me.’ Boyega laughs a deep and long chuckle beyond his years.
Much about Boyega already seems so media-trained. When asked about his audition tape, for instance, he says he wanted to introduce some of ‘the charm of the old movies’, a line spun by just about everyone who worked on the film.
A story all his own, though, is what happened the day he got the part. He was in Catford playing video games at a friend’s house when Abrams contacted him. He told the director that he was on his way to Greenwich to an art gallery. It was a lie. Why? ‘I was, like, is this guy ringing because he wants to give me the part, or to let me down slowly? If I tell him I’m already en route to my location, perhaps he’ll be, like, “You know what? You didn’t get the part.”’
John Boyega was in Catford playing video games at a friend’s house when Abrams contacted him about Star Wars
Instead, Abrams asked the actor to come and see him in Mayfair. Boyega caught a taxi and filmed himself on his phone the whole way. What were you saying? ‘I was just looking, as I knew it was a moment I needed to film. It was either going to be a horrible memory or something I could look at and go, “That was a few minutes before getting the news.”’ So how much was this taxi? ‘I think it was £70. I emptied out my account.’
When he reached Abrams, he was quizzed about his family. The director wanted to know about support systems, ‘to know exactly what’s going to happen when this fame, or whatever, comes’. He and his parents passed the test.
Finally, I ask, did Lucas tell you that day – or do you know now – if you’re in any more Star Wars films? (A sequel is set for 2017 and a spin-off called Rogue One is out this year.) ‘I don’t know,’ he says, smiling. ‘They keep me out of the loop, you see.’
See John Boyega in The Circle with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, due for release later this year. He will also be starring in Woyzeck the Old Vic from May 2017. See oldvictheatre.com