‘If you lot got rich, you would be gone!’ John Boyega on staying true to his roots and the real-life tragedy of his new film

John Boyega (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
John Boyega (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

John Boyega is remembering how he set out his stall at the very beginning of his career. Fresh out of drama school, he told his agent: “Don’t put me in no EastEnders, don’t put me in no The Bill, don’t put me in any of that.” He says this with force, from a room in Los Angeles, eyes steely. Distancing himself from some of the traditional routes into the industry for young actors was a mark of supreme confidence. Boyega knew the kind of projects he wanted – and didn’t want – to be associated with.

He was clear with his friend and agent Femi Oguns about the way forward. “Not to toot my own horn, but I had strict rules for Femi when I first signed with him. I want something that can be relatable, but unique. It has to have a spin on it.” So far, the plan is working perfectly. From his first screen role as a fresh-faced, alien-fighting teen in 2011’s Attack the Block, to playing a Star Wars stormtrooper in three of the franchise’s films (2015-2019), to a security guard wrongly accused of murder in Detroit, the 31-year-old has played a diverse and rich range of characters, each bearing little resemblance to the others, or to himself.

“I don’t really play roles that relate to me,” he explains. “You always have to do some form of research work, even if it’s someone from your own environment. At the end of the day, you are just acting; you haven’t lived that scenario most of the time.” When Attack the Block hit the cinemas, Boyega was a fresh-faced 19-year-old. He’d made his National Theatre debut while still a sixth-form college student, before training at London’s Identity Drama School. Every time, he wants to make a mark in a different way.

His latest film role tests his chameleonic abilities further. In Breaking, written by director Abi Damaris Corbin and the British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, the actor plays Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley, a retired US Marine. While still possessing the charm frequently flaunted on chat shows and red carpets, Boyega is noticeably subdued. Perhaps the conversation’s sombre tone reflects the film’s gloomy true-life subject matter of the film itself. In the dramatic thriller, Boyega’s character is a man on the brink. When a flawed governmental system denies Brown-Easley access to his disability benefits, a relatively humble sum of $892, the soldier makes an extreme choice. To ensure that those in power finally take notice of his struggle, Brown-Easley walks into a bank and calmly informs the teller that he has a concealed bomb, instructing her to call the police and the local TV station. All apart from two employees are allowed to leave the building, as Brown-Easley, frantic, figures out what to do next. But he doesn’t actually want the bank’s money, or to hurt anyone – it’s eventually revealed that he has no bomb on him. Brown-Easley simply wants to be heard.

In the 2018 article on which the film is based, writer Aaron Gell noted how unassuming and gentle Brown-Easley’s demeanour usually was, and how calm he seemed when he entered the bank. “The thing that everyone remembered about the man in the light grey sweatshirt was how composed he was, how polite and respectful,” it began. Boyega is also wearing a light grey sweatshirt today, perhaps in unconscious solidarity with the man he portrays. “I want people watching to learn about what happened to Brian; what he faced,” Boyega says. “The way civilians relate to the military is significantly different [in the US, compared to the UK]. It’s much more of a bigger world out here in America.”

As Brown-Easley, Boyega is magnificent. It’s one of the best performances of his career. He’s gaunt, bruised and utterly dejected, the life seemingly drained out of him by a system that’s repeatedly told him that his voice didn’t matter. Notably, Boyega’s first day on set for this role took place exactly four years after the real Brown-Easley stepped into the Windy Hill Road branch of Wells Fargo, in Atlanta. Sadly, and predictably, Brown-Easley didn’t leave the bank alive.

Though the story is extraordinary in its specifics, it illuminates an unfortunate aspect of many people’s experiences of living on the margins of society. It’s a reflection of how Black people’s lives are systemically disregarded, and often only deemed worthy of media attention after tragedy strikes. It’s a topic that Boyega cares about deeply.

Boyega as the doomed US Marine in ‘Breaking’ (Universal Pictures)
Boyega as the doomed US Marine in ‘Breaking’ (Universal Pictures)

In June 2020, Boyega gave an energising speech at the London Black Lives Matter protest, one of several that emerged after police killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black American man. Speaking passionately into a megaphone for just under five minutes, the then-28-year-old expressed his own heartbreak at the situation. “I need you to understand how painful this s**t is,” he cried, “to be reminded every day that your race means nothing.” Nearly instantly, his speech went viral. Many felt as if he was the perfect conduit to express the burning rage of the moment. Boyega was confirmed as being “for the people”; his act of unity established him as a celebrity who was firmly aware of society’s injustices.

Weeks later, he made headlines again after publicly speaking out about his treatment as part of the Star Wars films. After making his debut in Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, Boyega found that his character, Finn, was effectively sidelined as the franchise went on. He publicly criticised Disney for their treatment of actors of colour, compared to storylines of substance given to the white stars.

“You guys knew what to do with Daisy Ridley, you knew what to do with Adam Driver,” he told GQ, expressing his frustrations. “But when it came to Kelly Marie Tran, when it came to John Boyega, you know f**k all.” Boyega’s frankness sent shockwaves through the industry, so rare it was to hear of an actor speaking out against their powerful employer. Thankfully, the results of his outspokenness were positive. When Moses Ingram was faced with racist abuse after starring in Obi-Wan, the company was quick to defend her and criticised the behaviour of prejudiced fans – open support that Boyega didn’t feel when he was in the same position. When Boyega speaks out, people take notice.

Three years on, Boyega has mixed feelings about his Black Lives Matter speech, and the attention it was given. “I don’t fixate on it,” he says. “I feel it’s something that’s highly commented on; it kind of blocks you out of your own experience. I sometimes don’t even know what to say, but I definitely think it has helped me organise, and actually do things to help people directly.” With minimal publicity, Boyega has visited schools and youth organisations across London in his time off work, speaking to young people and seeing how he can help with making their experiences better.

Born in Camberwell, Boyega grew up in nearby Peckham with his Nigerian parents – a mother who worked as a carer and a Pentecostal pastor father – and two older sisters. He remains close to his family, and gives his sisters credit for keeping him aware of what’s hot online when he falls behind – from fan-made memes about him, to the freshest takes on The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

After more than a decade in the public eye, does it feel different for him to be back at home in Peckham?

Problem child: Boyega (center) in ‘Attack the Block’ (Optimum Releasing)
Problem child: Boyega (center) in ‘Attack the Block’ (Optimum Releasing)

“Damn, that’s how I know if you lot got rich, you lot would be gone!” He breaks into a sudden boom of laughter. “You lot” appears to be Boyega’s collective term for journalists, and not necessarily a term of endearment. Clearly, he finds the idea of feeling out of place in his pre-fame south London haunts incredulous. “It’s not like that,” he says, his mouth still holding an amused smirk. “I’ve never had a detachment from home that makes me feel different. I’ve never lived properly in LA. I’ve always been back and forth, so I’ve kept myself [grounded].

“Young kids that grew up in my dad’s church, I still talk to and go and see,” he continues. “You just keep yourself connected to that world. To the people there, they don’t even care – ‘We see John all the bloody freakin’ time.’ I keep that connection there.”

For all his success, Boyega’s refreshingly un-Hollywood. Though important to him, acting is a job – going “Method”, and living in the role 24/7 isn’t an option. “I take it off like it’s socks,” he says with a half-shrug. “I can’t help it. For Breaking, we were filming in LA, and I was staying nearby in a house with my best friends. By the time I got home from set, they’re just being their regular selves – cracking jokes, laughing. There ain’t no Brian no more.”

It’s days before the Oscars when we speak. Despite early projections, Black actors such as Till’s Danielle Deadwyler and Boyega’s co-stars in The Woman King, Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch, went unrecognised by the Academy, with no nominations. Weeks before, only white people were rewarded at the Baftas, sparking criticism about how little progress has been made, despite previous promises.

The thought of getting a Bafta, an Oscar is all good and well, but who came to see your film?

“When an institution recognises you, you do get much more recognition, and opportunities in the future,” he says. “Much more people see your project. I do think, for those who see themselves [worthy], they should get nominated for what they work hard for. Sheila Atim, Lashana Lynch, Viola Davis, they did sick!”

In 2020, Boyega was awarded a Golden Globe for his portrayal of police officer Leroy Logan in Red, White and Blue – the third film in Steve McQueen’s historical anthology, Small Axe. As much as he looks upon his achievement with pride, however, Boyega admits that adding to his collection of accolades isn’t something that crosses his mind. “It’s more about you lot having an interest, coming and seeing the stuff I make,” he reasons plainly. “That’s the first thing. The thought of getting a Bafta, an Oscar is all good and well, but who came to see it?”

Despite the experience being far from idyllic, Star Wars still occupies a special place in Boyega’s heart, and he looks back at moments with his castmates fondly. “Watching the trailer for The Force Awakens for the first time; working with Daisy, building that chemistry with Oscar [Isaac], incredible,” he says. “Those are the moments I always think about, and I still cherish to this day. People sending me pictures of stuff with my face on, like weird panties and oranges. Those times were crazy.”

Oscar Isaac and Boyega in 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (Lucasfilm Ltd)
Oscar Isaac and Boyega in 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (Lucasfilm Ltd)

It’s impossible to predict the genre, or type of role that you’ll see Boyega in next. It makes sense, then, why Boyega had an opinion on Idris Elba’s statement on no longer categorising himself as a “Black actor”. In February, Elba explained that he’d stopped describing himself in this way as he found it made some put him in a box, unfairly limiting the expectations of the kinds of roles he could play.

“I think we should fixate on who is typecasting and putting actors in boxes because of [race],” Boyega tweeted in response, turning the focus on those in power. “Not on making weird adjustments for them. We continuously focus on what we have to do so they don’t do this or that. Very worrying. We BLACK and that’s that.”

Ahead of our chat, I’m warned off asking Boyega any questions directly about Elba and his comments; but it’s clear that having the freedom to play any part he wants to is something that drives him.

Later this year, he’ll star alongside Jamie Foxx and Teyonah Parris in They Cloned Tyrone, a sci-fi comic mystery that sees them banding together to uncover a government conspiracy. “It’s another opportunity to be somebody else,” he says. “I’m just gonna keep on going till I run out of people.”

‘Breaking’ is available to rent and own now