There are two John Boyegas. One is a goofy kid from Peckham who’s still learning the basics of housework; the other is an obsessive actor, who is carefully crafting a Hollywood career that’s almost too good to be true
First published in Vera magazine, April 2018. With photography by Kurt Iswarienko
John Boyega sometimes forgets he’s famous. “I’ll look around the house and realise there’s no food, and the Internet’s not working,” he says. “And then I’m like: Come on, there’s an action figure of you. You can afford to sort this out. But, you know, I went 23 years when no one knew who I was. Two years doesn’t change all that muscle memory.”
Boyega is most definitely famous now. While he collected Star Wars toys as a kid, now there are brooding action figures of him as Finn, the rebel Stormtrooper in the The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the first two parts in the latest trilogy. His face has appeared on bottles of Volvic mineral water and the web is awash with John Boyega merchandise, from iPhone cases to throw pillows decorated with his grinning face.
And the career is going well. After a hard-hitting lead role in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, he’s now starring in the robot action sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, on which he was a co-producer. Online forums have taken to comparing him to a young Denzel Washington (the intensity, but also the megawatt smile). The film means there will be yet another action figure in the works.
But, to Boyega, that’s his career, not his life. “It happens in these waves,” he tells me over the phone, during a quiet period in February, before publicity for Pacific Rim: Uprising kicks into gear. “But the main event in my life is coming home to London, and being with my friends and family. That’s the real me, and it’s what I hold on to.”
In real life, he’s John, a 25-year-old from Peckham, Southeast London, who is still learning to cook: “It’s mainly rice and stew, I’m no Gordon Ramsay,” he says. His mum worries about his safety during action sequences, while his dad – a Pentecostal minister – wishes he could be just a bit more like Bruce Willis. He still makes the questionable interior decor choices that first surfaced on The Graham Norton Show: the saxophone lamp, the spartan warrior loo-roll holder… and more recently a giant chess set. “Cos everyone needs one of them, right?”
But when it comes to acting, or even talking about acting, the self-effacing banter tends to switch off, and Boyega gets serious. It’s been that way ever since he played a leopard in a primary school production, and – as he once told Interview magazine – “gave the leopard a character breakdown, and researched its motivations.”
He was born John Adedayo B Adegboyega (he later created the simpler version as a stage name), and grew up on Peckham’s Sceaux Gardens estate. From an early age, his mother, Abigail and father, Samson, took John and his sisters on regular visits to their native Nigeria. “We were Nigerian first, English second,” says Boyega.
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out in 2015, the Daily Telegraph newspaper ran a piece about Boyega’s childhood, playing up Peckham’s youth gang culture and claiming that a lot of boys from Boyega’s time at school were “now in prison or dead”. In response, the actor wrote on Twitter: “Innacurate. Stereotypical. NOT my story.” (He’s not been afraid of speaking his mind, for example calling out Game Of Thrones for not having enough black actors).
There were also stories about Boyega rebelling against his religious upbringing, which don’t quite ring true when he tells me his dad has become his biggest fan, coming to every show he did growing up, and more recently poring over every storyline and character arc. “I don’t know how, but my parents have always been cool with the acting,” he says.
It’s not a stretch to surmise that his parents might have been cool with their son’s acting because it made him happy. “For me, drama has always been this space where you get to be free,” he says. “From the start, I just felt good doing it, and it made me popular for an hour.”
When Boyega was eight, the Theatre Peckham youth theatre group did an after-school workshop at the Oliver Goldsmith Primary School. The company’s founder and artistic director, Teresa Early, immediately noticed something about one of the boys in the class. “There was just something there,” Early says of noticing Boyega. “I remember just looking at him and thinking: Who are you then?”
Boyega ended up joining the Theatre Peckham acting programme until the age of 14, with his first role as one of four children in the story of an unpleasant fairy living in the broom cupboard. He was, in Early’s words, “like a duck to water… he was so instinctive and committed to every role, and you could just see that it made him happy, even if he wasn’t in the lead role. He was in the building just about every day. I remember telling him: John, you shouldn’t be here. Go home.”
John was in the theatre building just about every day. I remember telling him: John, you shouldn’t be here. Go home.
Boyega continued to study acting after secondary school, at the South Thames College and then the Identity School of Acting in Hackney. “I would pore over tapes of actors like [English theatre actor] Adrian Lester, and try to work out how they did it,” he says. “I was always trying to learn about the process. I knew this was what I needed to do.”
His first notable role was as Moses, the leader of a gang of teenage hoodlums in 2011’s Attack The Block, a sci-fi comedy by writer-director Joe Cornish. Despite a modest box office showing, the critics liked it, and – fatefully – so did the American director and producer JJ Abrams, who took a particular interest in the kid playing Moses.
Boyega’s career trajectory back then would have been enough for most aspiring young British actors. He had roles in shows like Law and Order and Becoming Human, a BBC vampire drama. “But a lot of the time, the roles I’d get offered would be, like, ‘Hoodie number one,’” he says. “I knew I had to go to America to get the kind of roles I wanted.”
So he started taking trips to the US, couch surfing and getting stopped at customs with irritating regularity. “I’d basically spend all my money from whatever TV show I’d been in, and just stay in Los Angeles for as long as I could afford,” he says. “It felt like a gamble every time, but there was always a goal in mind.”
The goal was to make a big-time career as an actor, though not specifically ‘Join the biggest movie franchise of all time’. But one day he was at the Bad Robot production company for a meeting, and saw a guy he didn’t recognise walking out of a production room with Tom Cruise. It was Abrams, who’d been working on one of the Mission: Impossible movies, and he made a beeline for Boyega. “We had a quick meeting, and at the end of it, he just said: ‘I want to put you in something,’” recalls Boyega. “I didn’t think much of it at the time.”
I had a quick meeting [with JJ Abrams] and at the end of it, he just said: ‘I want to put you in something.’ I didn’t think much of it at the time.
‘Something’, it turned out, was Star Wars, and the process of getting the role wasn’t at all what Boyega had expected. “I’d imagined getting a call while cruising down the Sunset Boulevard, then flying home in glory,” he says. “But it was eight, maybe ten auditions, mostly in little rooms in London, over seven months. I went from nervous and excited to ‘great, I hope I get this’ to ‘they’d better give me this damn role now.’”
He did get the role as Finn, who provided much of the humanity and levity in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even when he was in full Stormtrooper gear. When I asked if he was overawed at walking onto the Star Wars set for the first time, he seems nonplussed. “You feel that responsibility, but as an actor the process is not that different to Attack The Block in terms of figuring out a character, and then bringing him alive.”
The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were, of course, massive hits, taking $2.06 billion and $1.32 billion at the box office, respectively, while mostly satisfying the Star Wars faithful. But what was notable about Boyega, doing the publicity rounds for the movies, was how comfortable he seemed. He mucked around with light sabres on talk shows, snuck into screenings of the movie, and did the beat-boxing for an impromptu Star Wars rap by Daisy Ridley, his co-star, another London actor who seemed to have come from nowhere. When the premiere for The Force Awakens came to London, he invited all his London mates onto the red carpet, and he decided to impress Harrison Ford by taking him to 805, a Nigerian restaurant in Peckham.
“You don’t have a choice when you’re in a Star Wars film,” he says. “So, I just decided to really embrace that side of things, and let the silliness and fun shine through.”
It probably helped that Boyega is a self-confessed nerd, who tells me the most A-list he’s ever done was getting his agent to force the Los Angeles branch of the Forbidden Planet bookstore to stay open so that he could buy the latest Spider-Man comic. One of his first actions on the Star Wars set was to get Harrison Ford to sign his Han Solo toy figure, though he admits that his early addiction to the movies left him confused. “I watched the prequels first as a kid,” he says, of the films released between 1999 and 2005. “Then I watched the main films and I was like: ‘Man, did they lose their budget or something?’”
Still, Boyega has always been careful that he’s not defined by Finn the Stormtrooper. “I knew that it didn’t guarantee I’d suddenly get good roles,” he says. “So I tried to use it as an opportunity to craft the kind of career I wanted.”
After Star Wars, he again did the rounds at the big studios, landing the juicy role as security guard Melvin Dismukes in Detroit, a pivotal role in the story of police brutality during the Detroit riots on 1967, for which he earned good reviews, even if the major awards nominations some had predicted never quite materialised.
Now, he’s most excited about his starring role Pacific Rim: Uprising , which is also the first gig for his newly-formed production company, Upperroom Productions, which he formed because he didn’t want to “always sit and wait for the phone to ring. That element of setting up projects has always excited me, and on this I’ve been involved with things like pre-visuals, stunts and casting. It’s really different from just acting, and it’s been a real eye-opener.”
Boyega has already ticked off a lot of the milestones in a good acting career – from the massive franchise to the starring role in the challenging drama and the move into production – and he’s done it by the time he’s 25. He’s appeared in the odd flop, like The Circle, a critically-panned tech company drama, but mostly the career plan seems to be going swimmingly.
I ask Teresa Early, Boyega’s first acting mentor, for her take on what’s happened to that eight-year-old. “He really is a genuine and nice young man,” she says, “who hasn’t lost touch with who he is and where he’s from. But I think what people sometimes miss is that he’s very mature, and very astute. I think he’s always known who he is and what he’s here to do. He really is here to be an actor, and that was obvious from the beginning.”
He really is here to be an actor, and that was obvious from the beginning.
Speaking to Boyega, that all rings very true. You sense that the person least impressed by the action figures and the fame is Boyega himself. He’ll be thinking about his next career move, and what he’ll bring to his next role, while probably still forgetting to set up his home broadband. Part of him will always be that kid in a primary school classroom in Peckham, wondering what the leopard’s motivation really was.