Reach For The Stars

HE HAS CROSSED THE AT­LANTIC, FROM PECK­HAM TO HOL­LY­WOOD, CAR­RY­ING MUL­TI­PLE BLOCK­BUSTERS ON HIS NEWLY BROAD SHOUL­DERS. BUT WHILE JOHN BOYEGA’S STAR IS IN THE AS­CEN­DANT, HIS FEET RE­MAIN FIRMLY ON THE GROUND.

Men's Health (Singapore) - - ON THE COVER -

He has crossed the At­lantic, from Peck­ham to Hol­ly­wood, car­ry­ing mul­ti­ple block­busters on his newly broad shoul­ders. But while John Boyega’s star is in the as­cen­dant, his feet re­main firmly on the ground – thanks to a few fun­da­men­tal life lessons learned along the way. Take note and look up.

YYou may re­mem­ber John Boyega from such films as Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens and The Last Jedi. In fact, you’d

“I LOVED GO­ING TO THE GYM TO BUILD MUS­CLE. BUT WHEN I SAW A TREAD­MILL, I’D JUST RUN AWAY.”

have to be a res­i­dent of Ahch-To to have missed them. But to­day, in LA, MH is talk­ing to the Cam­ber­well-born, Peck­ham-raised ac­tor about his other sci-fi jug­ger­naut, Pa­cific Rim Up­ris­ing. Clearly the south Lon­doner is not one to do things by halves.

Re­leased in March, Up­ris­ing is a se­quel to the en­joy­able 2013 orig­i­nal, set in a near fu­ture in which hu­man­ity faces an epi­demic of build­ing-sized, city-lev­el­ling mon­sters called Kaiju (from the Ja­panese “strange beast”). Mankind re­sponds in the only log­i­cal way: by con­struct­ing build­ing-sized, hu­manoid ma­chines called Jaegers (Ger­man for “hunters”) to duke it out with them. Think Godzilla meets Trans­form­ers.

“I was look­ing for an­other fran­chise to be a part of,” says Boyega of what at­tracted him to the project. “The big things for me were the story, char­ac­ters and themes of the film.” Up­ris­ing was ev­i­dently a “big” enough thing for the pre­co­cious 25-yearold to de­cide to pro­duce it, too, through his own com­pany Up­per Room. Cru­cially, his diary was free. “It felt like the stars were align­ing, in­nit?” As­sum­ing lead­ing man du­ties from MH cover alum­nus Char­lie Hun­nam, Boyega plays Jake Pen­te­cost, son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pen­te­cost, who mar­shalled the hu­manoid troops in the first out­ing of the fran­chise. It is clearly his most phys­i­cally de­mand­ing movie to date. “It was fun – and then it got ex­cru­ci­at­ingly painful,” says Boyega, of suit­ing up and in­hab­it­ing the me­chan­i­cal ar­moury of a gi­ant Jaeger. “While watch­ing the first in­stal­ment, it never oc­curred to me how the ac­tors must have felt in those suits, mov­ing around and do­ing all that ac­tion si­mul­ta­ne­ously. I never con­sid­ered how hard it must have been. That is, un­til I got in one my­self.”

For the unini­ti­ated, the cock­pits – or Conn-Pods – of the Jaegers are oc­cu­pied by pi­lots, who act out their ma­chine’s every move while wear­ing minia­ture ver­sions of the enor­mous ar­mour they’re op­er­at­ing. For Boyega and co-star Scott East­wood (an­other MH cover alum­nus), this trans­lated into com­bat train­ing and a whole lot of car­dio. “Dur­ing a num­ber of scenes we had to talk at the same time as run­ning,” Boyega ex­plains. For the pur­poses of film­ing, the hy­draulic sys­tem that linked up to the pi­lots’ boots was ac­tu­ally a tread­mill, on which Boyega was forced to jog while wear­ing his suit, for take af­ter ex­haust­ing take. “It was hor­ri­ble,” he ad­mits. “The amount of calo­ries you burn from day to day is crazy. I wouldn’t no­tice that I’d done a work­out at first, but af­ter 13 hours I would strip the suit off and be ab­so­lutely drip­ping.”

JEDI TRAIN­ING

Given the stamina re­quired to per­form such a role, Boyega had to sweat it out con­sid­er­ably be­fore film­ing, as well as dur­ing it. “The goal was to de­crease fat and build mus­cle mass,” he says. “I didn’t want Jake to look as though he ac­tu­ally goes to the gym every day and works on his pecs. But I did want him to look like he’d been climb­ing and run­ning in or­der to ob­tain these Jaeger parts.” The de­sired aes­thetic was “ac­tive” and yet “still rel­a­tively nor­mal”. Even so, Boyega had to work out daily – of­ten more than twice. In the morn­ing, he’d do box­ing-style con­di­tion­ing, which in­cluded what he very transat­lanti­cally calls “jump­ing rope”. Then, dur­ing the day, he’d have hand-to­hand com­bat and stunt train­ing, plus run­ning drills (with his suit on) in­side a makeshift Conn-Pod. Fi­nally, he would lift weights in the evening, “just to fin­ish off the day”. And, by the sounds of it, him­self.

To fa­cil­i­tate this life­style sea change, Boyega called upon trainer Corey Cal­liet (@ mr­cal­liet), who knocked Michael B. Jor­dan into shape for the 2015 film Creed. Suit­ably fit­spired, Boyega first asked Cal­liet to help him lean up for the press tour of The Force Awak­ens – a film in which he was, in his own harsh words, “kinda chubby”. The two have worked to­gether on and off ever since. “It’s al­ways tough work­ing with Corey,” laughs Boyega. “He calls him­self an artist rather than a trainer, be­cause he sculpts the body out of you. It sounds strange at first, but af­ter one ses­sion with him, it feels like he does just that.” Cal­liet would of­ten take Boyega to a sta­dium to run sprints, climb the bleach­ers and per­form ply­o­met­rics on the field. The phys­i­cal process was “an ed­u­ca­tion” for the ac­tor. “Even with some­thing as sim­ple as a stan­dard bench press,” he says, “I re­alised I’d been get­ting it wrong for a long time.” Cal­liet’s fo­cus on mus­cle ac­ti­va­tion and cor­rect form – para­mount in or­der to elicit change and avoid in­jury – was cru­cial, given that the trainer wasn’t al­ways able to be on the set of Up­ris­ing and had to send Boyega pro­grammes to fol­low on his own.

Not that Boyega was a com­plete stranger to lift­ing weights. As a teen, he bought him­self a set of coloured dumb­bells and did “the stan­dard bi­ceps rou­tine”. But once he boarded the Hol­ly­wood ma­chine, he ini­tially strug­gled with the cranked-up in­ten­sity, sched­uled work­outs and sheer quan­tity of car­dio that fol­lowed. “I loved go­ing to the gym to build mus­cle. But when I saw a tread­mill, I’d just run away,” he says, seem­ingly un­aware of the irony. How­ever, he has since seen the myr­iad ben­e­fits of con­sis­tent ex­er­cise – and not just to his physique. “If you have time to work out be­fore go­ing on set,” he says, “it gives you re­newed en­ergy and a clearer head.”

An­other valu­able les­son learnt by Boyega was the im­por­tance of nu­tri­tion. “When a trainer or nu­tri­tion­ist ad­vises you on what you can or can’t eat, the first thing you learn is pre­cisely what you’re ad­dicted to,” he says. “And I found that I would just lose my mind when sugar wasn’t in my sys­tem.”

“BUT WORK­ING SMART MEANS THAT YOU PUT YOUR BRAIN IN THE HEALTH­I­EST PO­SI­TION SO THAT WHEN YOU DO WORK, IT MEANS MUCH MORE.”

Eat­ing well was key for Boyega, who de­scribes him­self as “thick” of body (the not-so-tech­ni­cal term for an en­do­morph). “It’s pretty easy for me to put on mus­cle, but it’s just as easy for me to put on fat,” he says, hon­estly. How­ever, one re­ward of hav­ing his food di­alled in was that skip­ping a work­out ow­ing to film­ing or tired­ness was less of an is­sue. “And on Sun­day you get to cheat.”

Boyega’s go-to blowout is Nige­rian jollof rice (his par­ents em­i­grated to the UK from Nige­ria in the 1980s), fol­lowed by chicken drum­sticks, plan­tain, spicy stew and salad. “Af­ter that, I’d prob­a­bly in­hale four dough­nuts,” he says em­phat­i­cally. “I don’t play. I’m back to back. Those ice-ring dough­nuts, mate. I just chuck them back.” Krispy Kreme? “Oh yeah. Krispy Kreme, what­ever. I

feel bad about it for a se­cond, then I get back on the wagon.”

FORCE OF NUR­TURE

Boyega is a thought­ful man with a con­sid­ered ap­proach to his craft. Nev­er­the­less – as evinced by his taste in food, in­tact south Lon­don ac­cent and lib­eral use of the word ‘mate’ – it’s grat­i­fy­ing to know Boyega hasn’t quite trans­formed into the earnest, green-juice- sip­ping An­ge­leno just yet. “I can’t stand the stuff,” he says. “Can’t do it. I’m al­ler­gic to ap­ples: my lips start to itch and swell up. I’d rather steam my greens and then drink some wa­ter.”

If any­thing, the trend is go­ing in the other di­rec­tion for Boyega. Af­ter land­ing the role of rebel stormtrooper Finn in The Force Awak­ens, he took Har­ri­son Ford to 805, a Nige­rian restau­rant in south­east Lon­don. Eat­ing din­ner with Han Solo (not to men­tion In­di­ana Jones) next door to a Lad­brokes must have been a real trip, right? “I think it’s a trip for ev­ery­one who’s out­side look­ing in,” says Boyega, mat­ter-of- factly. “But af­ter work­ing to­gether for a good amount of time, you get to know the man be­hind the shenani­gans. And you un­der­stand that he’s a hu­man be­ing. So I told him: ‘You need to eat some proper food, mate. You can’t just be out in Lon­don hav­ing dry food. You need to get some spice in your life.’” The Force Awak­ens may have brought Boyega to in­ter­ga­lac­tic at­ten­tion, but it was aged eight that he first caught the eye of com­mu­nity drama group Theatre Peck­ham’s artis­tic di­rec­tor while act­ing in his pri­mary school play. Af­ter sec­ondary school, he stud­ied for a per­form­ing arts diploma at South Thames Col­lege, be­fore en­rolling at the Iden­tity School of Act­ing in Hack­ney. He was later spot­ted in a play called Cat­e­gory B at north-west Lon­don’s Tri­cy­cle Theatre by Joe Cor­nish of com­edy duo Adam and Joe, who was then cast­ing for un­knowns to star in his first film as a di­rec­tor, 2011’s At­tack the Block. An A-grade B movie that com­bines scares, LOLs and smart so­cial commentary, At­tack the Block de­picts an alien in­va­sion on a south Lon­don coun­cil es­tate. Boyega plays Moses, a stoic gang leader who chal­lenges stereo­types by go­ing from knife-tot­ing nurse-mug­ger to sword-wielding day-saver in the course of 88 min­utes. You don’t have to be Darth Vader to feel his pres­ence: the wife of The Force Awak­ens di­rec­tor JJ Abrams woke him up to tell him about this young ac­tor in a film that she’d just seen. Cut to 2014, and the first face shown in the first teaser trailer for the first Star Wars film in a decade was Boyega’s. It was viewed a record 112 mil­lion times in 24 hours. Per­haps be­cause of that role, and his up­bring­ing on a south Lon­don coun­cil es­tate, it’s easy to char­ac­terise Boyega as a rags-to-riches fig­ure, grav­i­tat­ing to­wards the Hol­ly­wood Hills from the mean streets. It’s a nar­ra­tive that is lent added verisimil­i­tude by the fact that, as chil­dren, he and his el­der sis­ter Grace were walk­ing with 10-year-old Damilola Tay­lor just be­fore he was stabbed to death. (They were cap­tured on the CCTV that the po­lice used to ap­peal for in­for­ma­tion.) But there was noth­ing ro­man­tic about Boyega land­ing the part in The Force Awak­ens. It wasn’t fate, so much as force of will.

“For me, that was the goal,” he says plainly. “Star Wars wasn’t the only movie that I’d gone on tape for. I aimed to be a part of some form of fran­chise be­cause of the op­por­tu­ni­ties those projects give you, as well as be­ing a fan of many of them. It was some­thing that I was work­ing to­wards, but it took a while. Still, I stayed per­sis­tent and it ended up work­ing out for me.”

That’s not to say that Boyega is in any way blasé. Quite the op­po­site: he wasn’t above danc­ing on the red car­pet at the pre­miere of The Force Awak­ens with his Peck­ham mates, or post­ing to In­sta­gram a video of his ex­cited re­ac­tion to see­ing him­self in that trailer. (Google it – the short clip racked up more than 30,000 likes.) Part of what makes him so like­able is that he’s the kind of un­abashed fan­boy who will sur­prise au­di­ences by turn­ing up unan­nounced at cine­mas on the open­ing week­end. And he has. His en­thu­si­asm for geek cul­ture is as bound­less as his ap­petite for dough­nuts.

DOWN TO EARTH

Boyega’s life has been trans­formed in many re­spects, though he in­sists it’s a mat­ter of per­spec­tive. “You change in this process, but what changes the most is the way in which peo­ple re­act to you,” he says. “Treat­ing your­self like a hu­man be­ing is some­thing you must con­stantly re­mem­ber to im­ple­ment, not for your­self but for the peo­ple who are clos­est to you – as they say back in my ends – ‘so you don’t get lost in the sauce’.” He still has the same friends, plays com­puter games (he wants to build his own PC but hasn’t had time) and does the other “nor­mal stuff” that he did be­fore: “I go to the movies, I go shop­ping, I go to par­ties and, y’know, I go to church.”

Phrases such as “crazy”, “day to day” and “back to back” are con­stant Boyega re­frains, which speak to his com­mit­ment to work, train­ing and Krispy Kremes. But his dad likes to preach the value of downtime, too. “He al­ways says: ‘Make sure you’re med­i­tat­ing, rest­ing well and eat­ing well,’” says Boyega. “A lot of peo­ple know how to work hard and for a long amount of time. But work­ing smart means that you put your brain in the health­i­est po­si­tion so that when you do work, it means much more.” Every morn­ing, the “very spir­i­tual” Boyega med­i­tates with prayer af­ter lis­ten­ing to clas­si­cal mu­sic.

The brain and the spirit, just like the body, need rest. You can’t sim­ply camp out in the gym un­til you hit your goal: you have to re­cover, then at­tack again with re­newed vigour. It’s a les­son Boyega has learnt well. “What was crazy for me was that, no mat­ter how hard I worked, I had this trou­bling fat that just wouldn’t bloody go away,” he re­calls. “So I was sur­prised to learn that when I caught more sleep, I lost more weight.” He also dis­cov­ered the sim­ple hack of play­ing rain sounds on his phone at bed­time. “For some rea­son, that would help me nod off,” he says. Per­haps it was an­other re­minder of where he’s come from.

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