Star Wars’ John Boyega: ‘There was no work in London so I went to America’
Just eight years ago, John Boyega was a budding young British stage actor, playing a small role in Roy Williams’ Category B at north London’s Tricycle Theatre. Now, still only 25, he’s returned to theatre for the first time since then to play the title role in Jack Thorne’s new version of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck at the Old Vic.
In the intervening years, Boyega has become a globally recognised film star thanks to his leading role as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise. The eighth instalment, The Last Jedi, will be released on December 15, in which he reprises that role. Before that, he has a leading role in director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Detroit (due for release on August 4) and he has also starred in and is a co-producer of Pacific Rim: Uprising, which will be released next February.
But returning to theatre is a homecoming in more senses than one: not only does it bring him back to his performing roots – he started acting aged nine with a youth company called Theatre Peckham, not far from the Old Vic – but also to his home town of London.
‘Part of theatre history’
Why Woyzeck? “It’s a great chance to work on the craft and be a part of a story that is very shocking to me in its content,” he says, sitting in a tiny spartan office on the third floor of the Old Vic, overlooking Waterloo Road. Happily for me, it’s a far cry from the production line of a film junket, in which interviewers are put in front of the stars for five-minute soundbites, and there are no accompanying teams of publicists or stylists.
Boyega is refreshingly ordinary, modest and easy-going, breezing into the room in casual but smart rehearsal gear.
“This is a homecoming in a sense – coming back to the theatre after eight years, a very long gap,” he says, with a flicker of tentativeness that’s quickly replaced by confidence in his collaborators. “To work with Jack Thorne and Joe Murphy [who have respectively adapted and directed Buchner’s classic play] is a great collaboration in a theatre space. The industry is different to film, so you want to get involved with the creme de la creme of the theatre, and the Old Vic is that.
“Also, I wanted to be a part of theatre history because I think it’s an interesting time that will be referenced for many decades. A lot of actors who do movies are now transitioning to theatre and making an adjustment to the theatre culture, but also the theatre culture is making an adjustment to the actors, and to a more diverse way of telling stories.”
This was demonstrated recently at this very venue when Glenda Jackson played the title role in King Lear, but also in the diversity of its casting. “It’s still about preserving the culture of theatre, but at the same time giving breadth and space for a new audience to come here. So it feels really good to do that,” says Boyega.
He recently told another interviewer: “Growing up, I used to get the 171 bus and I would pass the Old Vic. I thought, ‘Who goes to see plays there, man?’ It felt to me so distant.” Today, he admits: “I would look at the front of the theatre and see the pictures, and think, ‘I don’t want to see that!’ ”
Until he came to do this play here, he tells me he had never stepped foot inside this building, even though he readily checks off theatres he’s been to elsewhere. “I grew up seeing plays at the National’s Cottesloe and the Young Vic, the Arcola and the Almeida. I saw plays that were culturally about what was going on in today’s society, and also plays that came from a very sophisticated standpoint in terms of the writers they had, but I could never relate to anything going on here. So this is now a great chance for me to try as much as possible to give it a broader appeal. Daniel Radcliffe and Kevin Spacey have ramped up the appeal here; to be a small part of that now is great.”
He is using Woyzeck as a career marker. “I haven’t stopped for two years,” Boyega says. “This is my finale to stage one of my career.”
When I suggest that he seems to have had a fast journey to the top, he replies with the impatience of youth: “What success does is it filters out all the years of struggle and it becomes one thing. So it may seem very fast in the public perspective, but for me it has been as slow as hell.”
He laughs, not wanting to appear ungrateful. “It has definitely been a process,” he says of the journey that has brought him here. “And I’ve wanted to be part of creating something on this level for a very long time. I went to theatre classes from the age of nine. And we have a young man aged nine, playing young Woyzeck, who goes to Theatre Peckham, as I did. I really wanted to implement that in the casting. They [Theatre Peckham] have actually got a new building now. I loved performing and watching plays there; and I just wanted to get involved. It was something to do apart from school.”
It also helped fuel his early awareness of something else. “They did these kiddie plays and musicals, and I found it fascinating. They’d cast a family, and the mum would be white, the dad would be white, and the kid would be black, but no one questioned it. No one cared. Differences of colour were filtered out.”
He rises to the theme of colour blindness in casting. “What is required is respect of craft and the role, and that is a universal language.”
Samuel L Jackson recently complained of the casting of young black British actor Daniel Kaluuya in the American film Get Out, saying, “I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that…Some things are universal, but not everything.” Boyega tweeted his response: “Black Brits vs African American. A stupid ass conflict we don’t have time for.”
Today, he clarifies his response to Jackson’s comments. “I think it was an interesting way of articulating it. But balance and respect have to be taken into consideration. People take out the individuality from a career and box you in with everyone else, saying, ‘The Brits are coming!’ It’s like we call each other and get on the same flights. But we’re all living our own lives, and trying to act, like everyone else.
“I’d work with anyone who can fill out a role that may be different to their culture; if you can do service with that role and make that journey, that’s the interesting thing for me about acting. I love that you can cast an actor who is close to the character. That works out well. But what is also interesting is watching actors who are not necessarily like the roles they play. That’s great, that’s phenomenal. For us to get too sensitive and political is a pity. I know there is a line we can’t cross over – for example, a white actor can’t put on blackface – but for the little leeway that we do have, can’t we be free and enjoy that? Otherwise, all of a sudden a gay man won’t be able to play a straight man, or a straight man couldn’t play a gay man. Where do we draw the line? It’s acting, please!”
We talk a bit about Kaluuya, who is also embarking on a busy movie career Stateside, and whom I first saw at London’s Royal Court in Sucker Punch by Roy Williams – the same (black, British) playwright that provided Boyega’s last professional stage role at the Tricycle. It turns out Boyega saw Sucker Punch too: “The dude lost a whole bunch of weight for that role. He was skipping and doing double lunges while doing a monologue. We have phenomenal actors in the UK, doing great service to storytelling.” He notes of Kuluuya’s crossover from stage to film: “Do both, dude. Have two wives!”
Q&A: John Boyega
What was your first job? I did a whole bunch of stuff. I worked as an assistant at Theatro Technis in Mornington Crescent and worked as a model for stock shoots for brochures.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Increase your work ethic. It doesn’t hurt to be open to that. And be open to challenges. And lose some weight! To a certain extent, I enjoy being chubby. But in terms of the roles I’m taking on now, fitness is required. I have a trainer who also trains Daniel Craig and Chris Pratt.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Teresa Early at Theatre Peckham, where I started acting; Femi Oguns, my agent, manager and friend; my dad, Pastor Samson Boyega, and obviously my mother too; and Stefan Wade, one of my closest friends, who I live with.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Always come prepared and be open to change. You must learn your lines, which is great, but you can over-learn the role. They want to see how the actor fills out a role, and if a director or casting director is present, they may ask for a different approach. If you’re too fixed in what you’re doing, that may throw you a bit.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Maybe an architect. Or I’d like to have established my own theatre.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No, but I respect them. My roots are in Nigeria, where spiritual things do happen.
Of his own return to the stage, he says it came about when his agent called and said it “would be a great moment to do some theatre”.
Boyega plays the eponymous young soldier, whose gradual dehumanisation by the system drives him to madness and murder. Buchner never completed it, which means that every version is different. This one is relocated to 1980s Berlin, where the Cold War rages and the world sits at a crossroads between capitalism and communism. It’s not an easy play.
“As you can see, my energy level is rather low and it’s not usually,” he replies. “We’re rehearsing it in such a short time, so we’re jumping hurdles of complexity of character and text that most would have more time for. But because of the schedule, we have to really step up to the plate.”
What has he learned so far about theatre from doing this? “I’m always trying to find levels of contrast within a role, and theatre has for me a certain style you need to follow and a certain way you need to project. There are all these things you need to think about, but once you get past the technical elements of it, like diction, you’re free.
“The way I see it, the rehearsals are the way to create a body for the text and story, and for technical things about knowing cues and when to come on stage. Once you memorise that, you’re free to fly every night. No performance is ever going to be the same. I would tell people to come twice – it is always going to be different. I can’t jump that deep every night, and sometimes it requires you to step back and approach with caution, so I’m curious to see how that works out.”
Unlike film, theatre has no second takes. But he immediately notes: “Does a second take make it easier? There is still a consistency and storytelling and subtlety that is required with film. I think we should respect movies, too. It’s not a joke. Many theatre actors do TV and film. To juggle both, they both need due respect. It’s always good to mix it up and challenge yourself. With theatre, you’re aware of your audience and voice and pitch, and that’s interesting. It’s like learning to ride a bike again.”
He previously scaled the dramatic heights of the stage as a teenager, when he played the title role of Othello at 17 and again when at South Thames College in Wandsworth, studying for a national diploma in the performing arts.
“It was complex. I’d love to play him again, to do it in an interesting version would be cool. Someone said to me at the stage door here recently that I should play Iago, but I said, ‘No, I want to play Othello.’ ” What about Hamlet? “Yeah, sure, why not? I’m open! But I have a feeling I won’t be back to the theatre for a bit after this. When I do, I want to experience new venues and different ways of working.”
Mellow though he says he is today, you sense the ambition and urgency that has brought him this far this fast. While Boyega was still at South Thames College, he was cast in the British film Attack the Block. Its director Joe Cornish cast him after he saw him in the play at the Tricycle.
Cornish has commented: “John was on stage for about 10 minutes, playing the son of one of the adult characters. He didn’t say much but he had a real presence and a really expressive face. He drew the eye, even though he wasn’t saying much. We sort of cast the rest of the gang in Attack the Block around him, because he was so good and had such quiet charisma.”
Boyega tells me he had to skip college to do it. “They gave me sessions to come in after hours so I could get through it and also finish the film, and get enough qualifications to get to university.”
That was the University of Greenwich, where he went on to study for a BA in film studies, but he dropped out in his first year. His moment of epiphany came when they were filming one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films within the college campus. “I saw Johnny Depp downstairs and I knew it was time to go. My lecturer had started his first lecture with the question, ‘What is film?’ And there was a big explosion downstairs. We went to look and the university was dressed as historic London and Johnny Depp was in his Jack Sparrow costume. I saw that and knew that’s what I wanted to do. And being there was not going to get me close to that.”
Attack the Block, for which he was nominated for a number of awards, including the Evening Standard British Film Award for most promising newcomer and the London Film Critics’ Circle Award for young British performer of the year, proved to be a calling card for him to chance his luck in LA.
I said, ‘If you don’t appreciate me here now you will later.’ So I left and went to America
“A lot of people told me to stay in London, but there was no work – and I wanted to work. I didn’t want always to have a hoodie in everything I did. And I said, if you don’t appreciate me here now you will appreciate me later. So I left and went to America.”
Attack the Block led indirectly to his casting in Star Wars, after the wife of its director JJ Abrams saw it and recommended him to her husband.
“It was a great opportunity,” he says now, “and it has catapulted me to a position where I can make my own choices. I’m now on a steady rise. The definition of that for me isn’t financial gain, though it’s nice to get paid, but it is having the option to have creative control over the roles you take and not having to rely on roles just for money. Star Wars taught me many things, and one was wanting to have a say in what I did. It was a huge, great, beautiful opportunity – but that’s what it was, an opportunity to do other things.”
That brings him to Pacific Rim: Uprising, in which he plays Jake Pentecost, son of the marshal played by Idris Elba in the original 2013 film. When Boyega was announced, director Guillermo del Toro said: “I am very proud and happy to welcome John into a fantastic sandbox. The Pacific Rim universe will be reinforced with him as a leading man as it continues to be a multicultural, multilayered world. ‘The world saving the world’ was our goal and I couldn’t think of a better man for the job.”
Boyega came on board as a co-producer for it. “Setting up a production company was one of my biggest dreams since I was 15. And after Star Wars, I used the money I made after paying my tax bills and other stressful things from the past – that’s what you do with your first payment, you clear your name – I reinvested what I had left in the company. I went to LA and spoke to several production companies, and that’s when I met up with Legendary [entertainment company] and saw their concept art for the suits in Pacific Rim. We were able to get to a place where they creatively saw a place for my company.”
Today he’s a recognised commodity and a celebrity. Does fame have a price?
“Not a price I have change for,” he jokes in response. “When you look at it in perspective, it’s not bad at all.” He still takes the tube – “when Uber is taking too long” – and tells me that the previous day he went to Tesco at lunchtime, and no one recognised him. “I still have a lot of freedom and the life I lived before.”
That’s been achieved, he says, by maintaining London as his home. “I get a sense of normality here. I feel like I’m everyone’s boy here. That’s some of my bullshit too. At the same time, I feel there is another side of me that’s grounded in normality that I get to experience every day here. That’s why I live in London, bro. You’d have expected me to get a pad in the Hollywood Hills, and that’s not too bad. But in terms of home, it was very clear when Star Wars came out that being as close to my family physically as I could be would be best for me. I still visit Peckham every week. Where else am I going to get my African food? I feel my world is balanced in the right way, and I’m enjoying it.”
John Boyega’s top tips for an aspiring actor
He lives in south London with his one of his closest friends, Stefan Wade, a musician and chief executive of Addmore animation company. “I love what I do, but it comes with stress and anger and I do get annoyed. When I go home I’m able to express myself and talk to my boy. Parents are not always available – they’re like 60 now and they’re done raising us guys – so you need good friends.”
Still, his parents remain a big force in his life. He shares a text his father, a pastor, sent to him that morning. “I’ll read it to you because it’s really beautiful. He said, ‘Thank you my son for honouring us as your parents. May your unborn children be great in life. You are my hero, I salute you. Good morning and remain blessed – daddy.’ ”
He adds: “I think he really understands that it is not easy doing what I do.” But he has prepared him to be shocked when he comes to see Woyzeck: “It’s a very deep, dark play. I’ve forewarned him: ‘Daddy, you might see some bum cheeks and some skin and vulgar language. But it’s all for the greater good.’ ”
CV: John Boyega
Born: 1992, London
Training: South Thames College (national diploma in performing arts); University of Greenwich (BA (hons) film studies, uncompleted)
Landmark productions: Theatre: Category B, Tricycle Theatre, London (2009), Woyzeck, Old Vic (2017). Film: Attack the Block (2011), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Awards: BAFTA rising star award for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2016)
Agent: Femi Oguns, Identity Agency Group
Woyzeck runs at the Old Vic, London, from May 15 to June 24