International Star You Should Know: John Boyega

British actor has signed on to play Olympic runner Jesse Owens in biopic 'Race'

John Boyega
Jeff Vespa/WireImage

Boyega, 21, starred in 2011’s Brit cult hit “Attack the Block,” which grossed $4 million in the U.K., and recently made a splash at Sundance as the star of “Imperial Dreams,” in which he plays an ex-con and aspiring writer trying to turn his life around. He just signed on to play Jesse Owens in “Race,” which is being sold at Berlin.

The actor, from a tough part of South London, says he could relate to the universal story of “Dreams,” which is set in and around the Imperial Gardens housing project in South Los Angeles. “The culture is different, the language and the accent,” he notes. But it helped that producer Jonathan Schwartz and director Malik Vitthal gave him four weeks before filming to prep in the neighborhood, where he was embraced by residents.

Boyega says he stumbled into acting because he loved to be the center of attention. “I enjoy making people laugh and acting out stories,” he notes, crediting London’s Identity School of Acting with shaping his talent.

“Attack the Block” opened doors for the young thesp. He’s repped in the U.S. by CAA and Management 360. “I had the opportunity to be more ambitious and read scripts for bigger movies. But you still have to audition,” he explains.

Boyega sees Owens as an important historical figure, and says he’s researching the role to better understand the runner’s determination and fearlessness — “the mentality of this great man (who stood) up to Hitler.”

While Boyega sees directing in his future eventually, he says he’s drawn to the experiences of minorities. “I want to start producing,” he explains. “I’m interested in blacks in history — before slavery. Discovering the black and Asian experience and telling those stories.” He adds that he and Brit actor David Gyasi (“Cloud Atlas”) are working on “something cool.”