John Boyega on Star Wars, Detroit, and Staying Sane with the Help of Robert Downey Jr.
Before he became the face of Star Wars, John Boyega was just some impossibly talented, humble, and exuberant kid from South London. Now he’s getting a bite with Harrison Ford and talking shop with Robert Downey Jr.—and he’s still humble. Exuberant, too! Anna Peele went to Boyega’s current South London home to hang with one of Hollywood’s least “Hollywood” stars.
A Stormtrooper lay in the sand, sealed in the white plastic shell of a uniform better suited for a climate-controlled area: like, say, a Death Star. This particular Stormtrooper had defected and crashed on the desert planet Jakku. It was the fiercely shielded first shot of the fiercely hyped first teaser of the fiercely anticipated first Star Wars movie in a decade, so no one without a Disney contract knew who or where this Stormtrooper was as he fought to get off the dusty ground of what was actually Abu Dhabi. The story behind that image in the The Force Awakens was less fierce, more…awkward.
“Every time I’d move, the plastic would pinch my armpits,” the Stormtrooper says a few years later, reminiscing in his South London apartment as he removes the Indiana Jones hat he’s been inexplicably wearing indoors, exposing the neat high fade atop his dense five-foot-nine frame. “I’d rolled onto my bum, pushed up with my arms, then got onto my knees, struggling to get my thighs up. The sand was moving, and it was a struggle. I was out of breath. It was hot as hell. But I got my back up. And then I came into shot.”
The Stormtroopers had been No One until The Force Awakens. Unnamed. Rarely heard. Then the Stormtrooper removed his helmet and became John Boyega.
“I thought they were going to keep Stormtroopers taking helmets off a mystery for a while,” Boyega says. “I thought they were going to hold that back, but they put you bang right in the middle of the narrative.”
The face we were seeing held warm deep-set eyes darting around the desert while sweat dripped down his forehead. Lips parted to reveal clenched teeth. It was all very human—and he seemed convincingly terrified. Boyega’s talent was so obvious that you see him on the screen and think, Yeah, that guy belongs here. When he took off the helmet, Boyega became part of Hollywood’s next wave, a swell that would carry him through Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Detroit, out this month, and nudge him into the top tier of leading men. And, yeah, onto the cover of GQ.
But the moment we—the world—realized Boyega was going to be a star was not the same moment when he realized it. That took longer. And you can actually YouTube the exact second he got it. On the red carpet of the 2015 London premiere of The Force Awakens, a reporter asked him how he felt. Boyega looked shocked as he yelled, seemingly without permission from his brain, and definitely not from his publicist, “I’m a boy from Peckham”—a mostly immigrant, mostly working-class district of South London—“and I’m in a Star Wars movie!”
Boyega turned to the 15 hometown friends he’d brought on the red carpet with him. “We gotta get a camera to my people!” he said. Boyega beckoned the lens with both arms and walked over to his people with the smile of someone who suddenly realized this was the coolest thing ever. His friends draped their arms over him, and the whole scrum of Peckhamites danced. His arms started pumping, ending in pointed fingers, then fists, then palms turned upward to take in the glory of the moment.
This is the kind of thing you never see. An expression of genuine happiness at a contractually obligated, highly stage-managed professional function. (Just try to imagine a young Ryan Gosling or Anne Hathaway being moved to spontaneous dance on a red carpet.) But it doesn’t feel arrogant—closer to an offering of gratitude to the forces that brought him there.
Two years after that premiere, we’re in his flat playing Nintendo before heading to the Old Vic theater for a performance of Woyzeck, an adaptation of the Georg Buchner play that Boyega is starring in. I marvel at how momentous that premiere was. It must have just felt like everything had changed, all at once—he was a star! Eyes fixed on the Mario Kart race that he is about to win, Boyega very politely corrects me, the boy from Peckham putting everything in perspective:
“Star Wars will always be the star of Star Wars.”
How does a 25-year-old actor come to have that kind of perspective? Because he knows he doesn’t have all the answers and is confident enough to go looking for them.
At Robert Downey Jr.’s house. Over waffles. (RDJ didn’t make them himself, Boyega says, but he did “orchestrate the making of the waffles.”)
It was just before Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened in theaters. “It was time for me to sit down with someone who’s been through the extremes of Hollywood,” Boyega says, “and to be given some tips as to how to stay stable.” Boyega asked his agent at the time if he could ask Robert Downey Jr.’s agent if Downey wouldn’t mind briefly filling Boyega in on how to just, like, be famous correctly. How to not become so overwhelmed by attention that, as RDJ briefly did, you squander your talent and get busted for heroin, rendering yourself unemployable. Boyega was hoping to skip to the part where you maintain a healthy relationship with your own ego and ambition, so that you’re able to make fulfilling and lucrative creative decisions, as RDJ currently does. Sure, that’s kind of embarrassing to ask about, but how else would you find out?
Then suddenly, mid-waffle, Orlando Bloom dropped by. Just unannounced, like it was a regular thing. “I’m not used to any of that stuff, hanging out with Iron Man on a day-to-day basis,” Boyega says now. “I was just like, ‘Bloody hell. Is this how the celebrities do?’”
It was the best-case scenario for someone seeking a crash course in fame. He’s getting advice from one of the most famous actors in the world, someone who, against all odds, has wound up solid and sane, and suddenly a second one shows up. So while Boyega had the opportunity, there was something kind of crazy he wanted to ask these huge celebrities about.
“Women. Women, women, women,” Boyega said. But this wasn’t some gross thing where a nascent star asks reformed hounds how to assemble a Pussy Posse. It was more gentlemanly than that. He was asking a man seemingly in a blissful marriage (Downey) and one of the dudes who inspired Katy Perry’s latest album (Bloom) about relationships. “My mom and dad have been together for 25 years, so that’s the system I will follow,” Boyega says. On the other hand, his parents met in Nigeria, immigrated to South London, and brought up three children in a small apartment while making a modest living preaching and aiding the disabled. Boyega knows that’s not going to be his life. So, how do you find that kind of partnership when you’re famous enough to casually arrange a mentorship with Robert Downey Jr.? Boyega is borderline wistful as he imagines this ideal woman, equally comfortable in Peckham and Hollywood, going through tough times and dancing on red carpets. “It’s nice to survive with your companion by your side. I’m sure it’s a good thing,” he says. “But I’ve never experienced it. And people advise you as a celebrity, ‘Make sure you get someone who doesn’t care about your career.’ Mmmm…I disagree,” Boyega told Downey and Bloom. They concurred: “She has to care about it to understand it.”
J J. Abrams knew he was going to give Boyega the part. He’d known all along. But Boyega had no idea how this meeting was going to go. There was no way Abrams had called Boyega here, to the Soho House offshoot Little House, to tell him he didn’t get the role, right? Not after the “interminable auditioning,” months of work, returning to the Disney lot six, seven, eight times. On the other hand, Boyega thought, If he’s gonna let me off, he would want to do it face-to-face. Or perhaps he would offer me another role or a walk-on. Would Boyega have done that? Taken a lesser role? “I’m not watching the next man do it with a front-row seat,” he says.
Abrams had loved Boyega since he saw him in another film that involved naturalistic interactions with extra-terrestrials: Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, in which Boyega plays a teenager defending a South London housing project from space invaders—E.T. but with an Alien-like alien and Elliott beating the shit out of him with a bat instead of feeding him Reese’s Pieces.
And then Abrams asked him to be “the star of Star Wars.” This is the moment when the actor jumps up and down and gives his new boss a hug. But Abrams just kept talking. He began a lengthy cautionary speech laying out that this role, in addition to positively altering Boyega’s entire career, forever, would occasionally kind of suck, forever. “The job isn’t just to be an actor in a movie when you’re doing something like Star Wars,” Abrams told Boyega, prudently warning him about the dream-slash-nightmare that would unfold over the coming decades. “It’s a significant lifetime commitment to this thing.” Did Boyega understand that this would be a load he would carry for as long as he walked this earth? “Don’t get drunk on the fun of the moment.” Had Abrams mentioned that Boyega would never, ever escape Star Wars? “It could be an enormous burden.”
“You don’t see one black person in Lord of the Rings,” says Boyega. “I ain’t paying money to always see one type of person on-screen.… We can ruffle up some feathers.”
Ah, yes, the burden of Star Wars—the burden of being forever tethered to something so much more iconic than any of its individual components could ever be, a burden that overwhelmed the future careers of people like, say, Hayden Christensen.
But Boyega had already gone through all this in his own head, already asked himself all of Abrams’s questions.
So he cut the director off halfway through the speech: “Thanks, man. I’m in.”
It wasn’t like that for Harrison Ford. Unlike future cast members, he was never burdened by the franchise because, Ford reminds me over the phone, when he became the star of Star Wars, “there was no Star Wars.” Ford was therefore free. Unburdened.
How could Boyega be similarly unburdened in such different circumstances?
When Ford was in London for the Star Wars premiere, he asked Boyega “to have a meal somewhere out of the glitzy area.” And since Ford “likes his food really spicy,” Boyega brought him to 805, a Nigerian restaurant next to Ladbrokes, an off-track-betting shop on the main drag of Peckham. Boyega ordered for the table, and they ate pepper soup and okra and beans, Ford forgoing utensils, Boyega says proudly, “like a real Nigerian.” (Ford, with something between pride and deep sarcasm: “Yeah, I’m like a real Nigerian.”)
Boyega showed Ford “a piece of my world” and told the story of his early life in the neighborhood. The older actor seemed genuinely interested. “Oh, cool, you lived in that area.” “Oh, you went to that place.”
“It was cool for me,” Ford says. “I learned that he had a lot of interests, concerns, and talents that were beyond those that I was immediately aware of from the work we were doing together.” To recap: This was cool for HARRISON FORD. And even though Boyega says he was “careful not to be asking too much, because you don’t want to get too ‘inner,’ Harrison told me about being a carpenter.” Just two peers shooting the shit and licking yams off their fingers.
Ford knows Boyega’s going to be all right, just like he was. Unburdened. “He’s capable,” Ford says. “He’s making wise choices.”
Boyega’s new movie Detroit is set during the city’s 1967 riot, the bulk of the action taking place during one horrible night in a hotel, when a group of white police officers tormented a group of young black men and two white women under the guise of keeping the city safe. The film somehow manages to marry the unrelenting tension of The Hurt Locker with the unrelenting cruelty of 12 Years a Slave. Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a black security guard who bore petrified, and mostly paralyzed, witness to the savagery of the police. Kathryn Bigelow describes him as being caught in an “impossible situation” somewhere between the terrorized and the terrorizers, unable to help the former by doing anything more than hoping his presence would curb the brutality of the latter. Boyega says that during filming in Boston, the real Dismukes told him he didn’t leave the hotel that night because “‘that meant that the police weren’t as free to do as they wanted. Of course, it didn’t last long.’”
In the movie, Boyega is the naturalistic foil to the chaos of the violence happening around him and has what Bigelow calls a “charged strength, a magnificent power held in check by a fraught political climate.” It’s a stoic dignity that makes the rest of the movie seem even more out of control by contrast. After watching the movie, Boyega told Bigelow, “Yeah, I’d probably only be able to watch this every ten years.” Not just because it’s painful to watch. (And it is deeply painful to watch.) But because, as he says, “being black, going through what we’ve been through…the past is still hanging over our heads.” Part of the theme of Detroit is that even though it’s set in 1967, it could easily be 2017. As Bigelow puts it, “It feels all too reminiscent of today.”
Like this past May, when Boyega went to a friend’s home in London to work on another upcoming project. He was waiting for his buddy to buzz him into the apartment building and wound up walking through the door behind a couple who had keys. Boyega and the friend were in the middle of a writing session when the concierge called up and asked if Boyega’s friend knew the guy in the hoodie who’d just come up. Affirmative.
“The concierge goes, ‘Oh, because we had some residents who called and said that someone a bit suspicious came through the door,’” Boyega recalls.
But he knew that in 2017, he doesn’t have to be paralyzed. He can do something about it. “I looked at my boy and was just like, ‘You know what, man? Ring that concierge back.’ I said, ‘Never call the apartment again with that kind of query.’”
When the stormtrooper took off his helmet in Episode VII, it didn’t just matter that there was a real person under there. It mattered that the face you saw belonged to John Boyega, son of Samson Adegboyega and Nigeria and Peckham. “There are no black people on Game of Thrones,” Boyega says. (To be fair, there are, like, three.) “You don’t see one black person in Lord of the Rings.” (That is true.) And though Star Wars had featured a few black characters—Billy Dee Williams as a smuggler, Samuel L. Jackson as a peripheral Jedi—they were less represented in the galaxy than Ewoks.
“I ain’t paying money to always see one type of person on-screen,” says Boyega. “Because you see different people from different backgrounds, different cultures, every day. Even if you’re a racist, you have to live with that. We can ruffle up some feathers.”
When we watched that first moment of the Episode VII teaser trailer, we didn’t see who we were expecting to see. We got someone who simultaneously understood his insignificance in the scope of the multi-billion-dollar franchise he was inhabiting and could blow up everything we thought we knew about it. Han Solo is the obvious choice for that trailer—Harrison Ford is the icon in the movie. But Abrams re-introduced Star Wars through Boyega because Boyega’s performance was the one that defined his movie.
But, yeah, Star Wars is bigger than Boyega. So are Hollywood and fame. There’s racism in film, and in the world, and in Peckham. And obviously nobody in Hollywood is bigger than Ford or Robert Downey Jr. But Boyega is at peace with his place in a much larger system—it’s probably not a coincidence that he’s religious. This sense of smallness, this humility, brings him the kind of joy that spurs spontaneous red-carpet dancing and allows him to hold the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders.
Boyega struggled to his feet in the desert, sands shifting beneath them, thighs burning as he got his back up and came into shot. And in that moment, his life changed.
Well, it did and it didn’t.
“People were saying that,” he says. “But it truly didn’t feel that way. It just felt like this would give me the opportunity. To make stuff happen. To make my dreams come true.”
To use the film to do it himself. Let Star Wars be the star of Star Wars. John Boyega can take it from here.