“One movie can’t change your life to the point where you can’t walk the streets,” he tells Variety. “I go to the supermarket. I do my own shopping. I go out to the park with my friends. I go to the movies. Some people recognize me, but with most it doesn’t register.”
Boyega’s good looks and intensity have earned him comparisons to a “young Denzel.” His role as Finn, a former stormtrooper turned rebel warrior, in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” propelled him to the top of casting directors’ lists. In the wake of the film’s success, he’s lined up showy roles in a “Pacific Rim” sequel and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit.” But Boyega knows that in Hollywood, stardom is fleeting. One moment your face is popping up on T-shirts and lunchboxes; a few years later and you’re lucky to be headlining a movie of the week.
|Zoey Grossman for Variety|
So Boyega took all that “Star Wars” money and invested it in his own company, Upperroom Entertainment. Like Warren Beatty and Brad Pitt, two movie stars who became formidable producers in their own right, he wants a seat at the table.
“I can’t wait for other people to create roles for me,” Boyega says. “If I wait for another man to get inspiration for a script and call me, I may be risking a lot.”
Upperroom’s first film is “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” which finds Boyega suiting up to fight giant monsters. He produces as well as stars in the picture. It’s not a vanity credit. Boyega took his role as producer seriously, and wants the film to demonstrate his creative chops.
“You never know what you’re going to get when talent starts producing,” says “Pacific Rim: Uprising” director Steven DeKnight. “We’ve all heard horror stories, but John was never overbearing. It was always ‘Here are some suggestions, and just tell me if I’m crazy.’”
Boyega hopes “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is the first of many Upperroom projects — the company will back pictures in a range of budgets and genres, some of which will feature the actor and some of which will be headlined by other stars. Before he can go full mogul, though, Boyega will take another trip to a galaxy far, far away. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” opens in December, when it’s expected to dominate the box office and spark a fresh wave of Force frenzy. It also finds Finn and the Resistance, last seen blowing up the Starkiller Base, back on their heels.
“The Resistance isn’t in the best condition,” Boyega tells Variety. “Things are shaky.”
All “Star Wars” cast members are sworn to secrecy, but Boyega does spill a few things about what to expect for the new film.
“It’s a chance for each character to decide what side they’re on and decide what they’re fighting for,” he says. “It’s an epic dark story. At the same time it’s still fun. It’s still ‘Star Wars.’”
Before filming began Boyega met with director Rian Johnson to make sure they shared a vision for Finn.
“We were on the same page,” says Johnson. “We wanted this to be the movie where his character strengthens — not just by becoming a better-drawn character — but by literally finding his strength and discovering what he believes in.”
There’s a bittersweet element to “The Last Jedi.” It marks the final big-screen appearance of Carrie Fisher. The actress behind Princess Leia died last December, and Boyega says it hit the cast hard. He promises the film will pay homage to her legacy.
“Carrie Fisher means freedom,” he says. “She influenced people to be authentic and say what you want, however you want. I’ll miss her energy. You were always going to hear Carrie Fisher somewhere saying something that she has no business saying, that makes everybody laugh.”
Boyega has one of those faces that can look babyish or wizened depending on the angle, so it’s a shock that despite some impressive screen credits, he’s just 25. Other actors that age can be found getting bottle service in the hottest nightclubs or lounging at the Chateau Marmont. Perhaps it’s his upbringing as the son of a Pentecostal minister, raised a world away from the klieg lights in London, but Boyega doesn’t seem to be addicted to the Hollywood scene. A heavy travel schedule has left him with a nagging case of jet lag, so he’s been working on getting more sleep, and his major indulgence is paintballing.
|“I can’t wait for other people to create roles for me. If I wait for another man to get inspiration for a script and call me, I may be risking a lot.”|
“When I paintball I don’t dick around,” he says. “You’ll see me doing roly-polies, jumping off trees. Sometimes I sacrifice myself for the next man. I don’t play.”
He still goes to the movies, name-checking “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” as a recent favorite, and gave up on “Game of Thrones” after watching the pilot.
“I’m going to wait until all the episodes are out so I can binge,” he says. “I can’t do this whole ‘Next week on “Game of Thrones.”’ I don’t have the patience.”
Fortunately, Boyega didn’t have to wait long for success. At age 19, he turned heads as an alien-fighting street thug in the 2011 cult favorite “Attack the Block.” It wasn’t the most glamorous of on-set experiences. The thriller was shot on a shoestring budget, in the small hours of night, often in freezing conditions. At various points, Boyega was hanging in a harness off the side of an apartment tower or dodging explosions.
“No matter what we did to him, he never complained,” says director Joe Cornish. Buzz started building around Boyega when the film premiered at SXSW, with top movie business players such as Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams lining up to take meetings.
“He was weirdly ready for it because he had a clarity of purpose,” says Cornish.
“Star Wars” has opened doors for Boyega, but big franchises can be a blessing and a curse. For every Harrison Ford, who used the epic to launch a rich and varied career, there’s a Mark Hamill, who couldn’t shake off the shadow of Luke Skywalker. Boyega is taking pains to prove his versatility.
|John Boyega shows his range in (clockwise, from left) “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Attack the Block” and “Detroit.”|
“I believe I can give audience members different sides of me,” he says. “If you look back at the stuff I’ve done previously, no character is the same.”
He’s earning raves this summer for his work in “Detroit” as a security guard caught up in a brutal police interrogation. The film is set against the backdrop of the 1967 riots in the Motor City. It examines the shootings of three unarmed black men in the Algiers Motel. Three white police officers were accused of killing the men and of brutalizing several motel guests.
In one intense sequence, when Boyega’s character is being strong-armed by policemen looking to pin the shootings on him, the actor got so emotional that he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. As he acted out the scene, his thoughts raced to Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and other victims of racially charged violence.
“All these images came to my head,” says Boyega. “I felt in that moment like a victim. In my brain I saw all these faces of victims of the mishandling of law and justice.”
“Detroit” seems like a radical departure from the universe of lightsabers and spaceships, but Boyega says “The Force Awakens” gave him greater awareness of racial politics. As a black man stepping into the blockbuster series, he found himself fielding question after question about diversity.
“When I was exposed to the world in ‘Star Wars,’ I also was exposed to the reality of ignorance that still exists around the world,” he says. “When I was in ‘Star Wars’ there was a semi, kind of racial discussion that was quite negative when it first came out.”
|Zoey Grossman for Variety|
On red carpets and interviews he realized that he was being treated differently from co-stars such as Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac.
“I was the only person to always talk about the color of my skin,” he says. “In every interview my skin color comes up. If Daisy does an interview, her skin color is not going to come up. … It doesn’t matter what position you’re in — once you’re black, you’re black, and these idiots always have something to say about it.”
Still, there are perks to being an ex-stormtrooper. Boyega has been a fan of the “Star Wars” series since he was growing up, and Johnson thinks that’s the key to his performance.
“There’s this inner kid to John on the set that’s just so excited about playing a ‘Star Wars’ character and thinks it’s really, really cool,” he says. “That shines through on-screen like a laser.”
Watch behind-the-scenes footage from Boyega’s Variety cover shoot below as part of “Uncovered” presented by H&M.