A STAR AWAKENS
He went from unknown to Hollywood player at warp speed. But John Boyega is loving the ride
John Boyega got his big break in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; now he’s crossed genres in the gritty new Detroit.
John Boyega has had some big breaks. At 22, he was plucked from obscurity to play renegade stormtrooper Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Now all of 25, he’s impressing critics with his role in Kathryn Bigelow’s gritty new movie, Detroit (out Nov. 9). But the moment that really launched his career? That would be landing the part of a leopard in a primary-school play. With one growl, Boyega knew he had found his calling. “I’ve always aimed high,” says the London-born son of Nigerian immigrants. “I’ve been working towards this for a very long time.”
Well, not really all that long, if you measure Boyega’s trajectory in mere years. But there was nothing in the actor’s early life to suggest that wealth and fame were on the cards. The son of Samson Boyega, a Pentecostal minister, and his
wife, Abigail, a carer for disabled children, he grew up in working-class Peckham, a neighbourhood populated by migrants from around the world. The Boyegas didn’t have much money, but their son was spotted by the director of a local theatre—at 9, he was given a grant to pay for drama classes and to perform. “I always knew that it was my happy place,” he says. “Acting made my childhood so dope because I learned how to relate to and interact with people.”
Boyega went on to study drama in college, and in 2011 landed a role in the low-budget British sci-fi thriller Attack the Block. Happily enough, the cult movie had an important fan: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams. After months of auditions and screen tests, Abrams cast the newcomer in a leading role. “Everything froze,” Boyega says of getting the news. “The whole world was perfect.” On-set the eager Brit geeked out in the presence of Harrison Ford, who he asked to autograph a giant Han Solo action figure. “He said, ‘This is weird,’ ’’ Boyega recalls. “But he signed it!”
Starring in one of the most successful movie franchises of all time keeps Boyega very busy— in December, he’ll appear in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But it’s also given him opportunities to take on challenging new roles. In Detroit, which is based on actual events, Boyega plays a security guard who finds himself caught in the violence that swept the city in 1967. “Detroit is my chance to get out of the Star Wars umbrella and do something that is quite epic on another format,” he says. As for relating to the tragic American story, “I have unique experience when it comes to race,” he adds. “There’s no kind of journey that needs to be made in terms of understanding the pain and the sorrow of the situation. These issues are global.” Director Bigelow says her star brought everything to a gruelling part: “Even in stillness he commands attention. John is an incredible talent—and a wonderful human being.” He hopes to make more dramas, and hopefully, a few comedies, too. “I’m versatile,” he says. “I’d like to tell diverse stories.”
But if his opportunities are different, life back in London hasn’t changed too much. Boyega bought a new home for his parents, who he calls “my king and queen,” and keeps his ties to his old neighbourhood. “I get recognised by a few people,” he says. “But I’m mostly in my house, so I’m experiencing everything from a window, going, ‘OK, this is cool.’ ” Indeed it is, and the actor couldn’t be more grateful for the journey. “I’ve just been having fun,” he says. “I’m enjoying myself.”
“Acting made me feel like I was living my purpose” —John Boyega
Growing up in London, Boyega found the city a “hotbox of creativity.” Acting was his way to a brighter future. “I always felt happy doing it. I was fortunate enough to discover that quite young.”
Boyega’s first film, 2011’s Attack the Block, was a cult hit.
In Detroit, he plays security guard Melvin Dismukes with “emotional dexterity and depth,” says director Kathryn Bigelow.
With Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens.