John Boyega first impressed discerning audiences with his breakout role in 2011’s subversive sci-fi comedy “Attack the Block,” but it’s his role as rogue Stormtrooper Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” that is poised to launch him to stardom.
While viewers grew up with the adventures of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the Stormtroopers of the First Order — the evil regime which rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire — have been indoctrinated to believe that the remnants of the Rebel Alliance (now known as the Resistance) are a threat to the galaxy, not the heroes we know and love.
Variety spoke to Boyega about Finn’s journey from First Order minion to rebel fighter, his friendship with Daisy Ridley’s Rey and why “Star Wars” is still a force to be reckoned with, even 30 years later.
Which character traits do you relate to most in Finn?
I think the element of having to step up to a bigger calling, when your circumstances don’t particularly reflect that. Because I’m young, at the beginning of my life; you haven’t really achieved much, and then you have to do that whole adulthood thing, get responsible, work and all of that stuff, no more mummy and daddy taking care of things. I feel like it’s the same kind of journey that Finn has when he leaves the First Order. He leaves a curriculum, he leaves a system and embarks on his own journey.
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We know that Finn has been raised in the First Order and indoctrinated against the Resistance and the Jedi — how difficult is it for him to break through everything he has been taught?
It’s an ongoing struggle. And that’s what I love about this — it really shows the state of the human mind, when you’ve been conditioned to think a certain way. It’s hard to really get out of that mentality. To the point where you have to convince yourself, “I can’t think like this anymore.” And for me, that’s a great thing that we discover within Finn.
What’s his reflex in these insane situations he finds himself in? Is he quick to violence because of his training, or does he feel more comfortable following orders?
We’re all different — it’s improv. He’s a Stormtrooper on the run, so I think most of his decisions are based on adrenaline. Like, “Okay, you know what? I’m just going to get this blaster and run away.” And it’s nice, but that changes gradually, and it will be good for people to discover that change.
You’re obviously part of a much larger plan for the franchise, so J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan must’ve had a lot mapped out before you even went in, but how collaborative was the process? How much were you able to contribute to Finn’s character as you went?
They did have a lot of it mapped out. But the thing about mapping things out the way they do is they leave a very wide road that allows you to improv, to create your character. Obviously, various other people were going in for Finn and there were different versions of the same character. And they allowed that process to be organic. So, very collaborative … J.J. gives you ownership over your part and development of your part and for me, that’s something that is so important.
What were your instincts when approaching Finn as a character?
I wanted to go back to the unlikely hero story that I do miss, like “The Warriors,” “Assault on Precinct 13.” The unlikely dudes that, when it starts the movie it’s like, “you won’t be anything but this.” And then they rise to something bigger, gradually, realistically. I love that. And that’s something that attracted me to this role.
What does he admire most about Rey when they first meet?
Without giving away any spoilers, I think he identifies with her, in terms of just trying to find a path. It’s known that Rey is a scavenger and her life is a one-way thing; [it’s] the same thing, every day. And it was like that for Finn — same thing every day. You might just go out and raid a village but that’s about it, that’s the closest you’re ever going to get to some sort of fresh air. I feel that both of them are still trying to find their path and their purpose and they have a common interest. So that’s why Finn sticks with her.
He’s been raised with this First Order propaganda about the Jedi, so how does that affect his worldview?
The line from Han [in the trailer] kind of gives that away, “It’s true. It’s all true…” So, that obviously reflects that there’s some sort of a doubt about what’s happened. But it’s not only with the Jedi, it’s with the Resistance, it’s with Han and Chewie and all these guys. It’s almost like mentioning people from the Bible and it’s a distant memory.
Does his time in the First Order make him more susceptible to the Dark Side, or at least dark impulses?
I think we meet him at a point where he’s trying as much as possible to just leave that to the side, just leave that on the corner of the street and try and move on. But it does come with its repercussions. And for Finn, in terms of character, you don’t know where he stands at certain points and that’s realistic to the story.
What do you remember about your first day on set?
I just remember I had a good bagel and it had a salmon in it … it was a fantastic bagel. [Laughs.] Abu Dhabi, they do good bagels. Then I left there, got in the car, got to set, got changed into my leather jacket costume. Went on set and everything was there, you know. Jakku was real, practical effects, droids, animals, puppets. I was just like, “this is ridiculous, I’m in Star Wars land right now.” And then I was walking for the whole day and finished early, while I’m looking at Daisy on her first day, really working hard, with dialogue. And I’m just there, sitting back, like, “you all right? Good work, Daisy. 10 out of 10.” So I had time to take things in and all I had to do was walk, no dialogue. Fantastic first day. It was perfect. They eased me into it and then they just went bam.
What about your last day?
The last day was emotional. We had a fireworks display, there was “Star Wars” music, there was London. It just felt good to kind of finish it, the whole run, with an immense level of positivity. So it was a good last day.
What can you preview about the dynamic between Han and Finn, given that he’s kind of this legendary figure that Finn has been warned about?
I always assumed, based on the scenes, that Han has seen a young version of himself in this kid. Han starts out and really enters this journey on the motivation of getting a reward from royalty for helping Princess Leia. And it’s the same in the sense that Finn’s circumstance, it influences an element of dishonesty and Han sees that, he susses it. He’s like, “I know what you’re doing, kid,” and he susses that out. But also, it’s a nice charming relationship, because Finn doesn’t have respect for him. Finn is not like, “oh my gosh, you’re…” Finn’s just kind of like, “yeah, so how’re you going to help?” And that makes a funny relationship. And also, Han knowing so much now, it’s like, “this kid is like me and I’m gonna have his back.” And I love that.
Why do you think “Star Wars” has such an emotional impact on us as audience members, even after all these years?
I think we all miss completely leaving earth in a movie. It’s phenomenal to leave the reality of this planet and to deal with the issues that we still go through here, but in another place. It gives us perspective. I think a lot of people are ready to just fly with their imagination and go back to the days of, “The Goonies” and “Jaws.” The story’s not supposed to make sense. It’s not supposed to be hyper-real, like, Nolan’s Batman. It’s not supposed to have that kind of gravity to it, it has a reach for the clouds element. And that’s why I think that it’s important.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” bows in theaters on Dec. 18.