John Boyega, 25, arrived at the sleek photo studio in the Camden section of London like a movie star: over an hour late; with an entourage of four including a stylist, groomer and groomer’s assistant; and dressed head to toe in designer clothes. And he brought jokes.
“I think this is the official look of humility,” he said of his conservative outfit, which included a brown suede Zegna jacket, black Ksubi denim pants, a white Brioni sweater, a white Versace shirt and dark tan Chelsea boots by Christian Louboutin.
“This is how I’m going to dress when I’m 50 years old — as a dad,” he said, as he posed for a portrait on a grey winter Sunday.
But Boyega has become a sought-after figure on the style circuit. He sits in the front row at collections for Burberry, which has dressed him for many public appearances, and he was leaving the next day to attend a Moncler presentation to kick off Milan Fashion Week. It’s a schedule that befits his new status in Hollywood, and beyond.
Since his 2015 debut as Finn, a major new character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this cheeky Londoner has used his charm and talent to become a global celebrity. In addition to his work in Star Wars, he has played serious roles in films including Detroit (earning him a comparison to “a young Sidney Poitier” in The Washington Post), and in the theatre, at London’s Old Vic.
Now, he is at the forefront of what he describes as a “movement” of young British actors, many from African backgrounds, who are becoming household names. And in March, he becomes the face of a second sci-fi franchise, with the opening of Pacific Rim: Uprising, a monster film with giant robots, which he also produced.
In person, Boyega is built like a bullet and is seemingly always in motion. Handsome and self-assured, he bears a resemblance to a younger Denzel Washington and exhibits the same antic humour as Kevin Hart. His mix of on-screen talent and off-screen ambition, as a producer, has drawn admiration from old hands in the industry. Harrison Ford, his Star Wars co-star, described Boyega as being “bold, confident and complicated, with intelligent ideas.”
Boyega seemed pleased by the description, and reiterated that the two are “best friends,” a shtick he often uses in interviews, spawning countless memes and news articles about their “Star Wars bromance,” as Mashable put it.
Ford politely debunked the hype around the friendship (“I hardly know the man,” he said, wryly), but he did manage to impart a few lessons in A-list attitude. During a publicity shoot involving both men and Daisy Ridley, who portrays the film’s heroine, the photographer asked Boyega to step to the side so Ford could have the centre position.
“Harrison was just like: ‘See that, kid? I’m the star,’” said Boyega, doing an impression of Ford that sounded like the gravelly voice-overs heard in Hollywood trailers. “And I said to him, ‘Yeah, mate, you ain’t going to be the star when you get stabbed by Kylo Ren,’” referring to the villain who kills off his character, Han Solo, with a light sabre. So, did Ford feel that he was passing the Star Wars baton to Boyega with his departure from the series?
“I don’t know that I thought of it that way at all,” Ford said, sounding very much like Boyega’s impression. “I was there to die. And I didn’t really give a [expletive] who got my sword.” Boyega’s parents are Nigerian immigrants, and he grew up in Peckham, a modest neighbourhood of South London. His father is a Pentecostal minister, and Boyega remains religious.
The name of his production company, UpperRoom, has a double meaning: It is a reference to the location of his childhood bedroom (“Where I planned long-term goals, where I got dumped. That’s where I became king. That’s where I became slave. Everything”) and intended in a biblical sense, as a place where people come together in unity. Asked whether faith also informs his dating life, he said, “Yeah, she’s got to be Christian.”
And has the future Mrs. Boyega turned up yet?
“Nah, still waiting,” he said, in between mugging for the camera at the Annroy photo studio.
“My bank account’s doing all right, but if I have money and a relationship, I’d have, like, 39.99,” he said, delivering the punch line in his South London accent as “fuh-ey noin noiny-noin.” As a boy in school, Boyega struggled to find his niche after failing with soccer and the cello. But a knack for plays prompted him to start training at the nearby Theatre Peckham, where he played a trickster leopard in an adaptation of the Caribbean folk tale Ansari the Spider and also appeared in a production of Shrek.
“I wasn’t Shrek, I wouldn’t put myself through that,” he said. “I played Donkey for the comic relief. I found that I would gain more fans doing that.”
As an aspiring thespian, he would wait outside the stage door of the Royal Court Theater to ask the actor Daniel Kaluuya (an Oscar nominee for his role in Get Out) for advice. And at London’s Identity School of Acting, Boyega trained with Letitia Wright (a star of Black Panther).
Boyega’s breakout role came in 2011, with Attack the Block, a comedic low-budget sci-fi thriller about aliens invading a public housing development very much like his own. “It was Steven Spielberg mixed with the ‘hood,” he told The New York Times that year. “I thought 50 Cent wrote it.”
From there, it was only a few years before he was running lines with Lupita Nyong’o, whom he met on the set of Star Wars. She got a dose of his comic relief up front.
“I remember, he immediately teased me about my uncombed hair, moments after we met,” she said. “I was stunned that he had the audacity to do so, not conforming to social norms of making a good impression.”
Boyega burst out laughing at the memory. “OK, it was the morning time, and she was looking a bit rough,” he said, barely suppressing his giggles. “I think that, being a good person, you should be honest: ‘Are they going to touch up your hair,’ you know?”
Nonetheless, Nyong’o declared herself charmed. “I was impressed by his honesty, even in jest, and I knew we would be good friends at that point,” she said.
Underneath all the chumminess, it is not lost on Boyega that he is part of a new wave of British black actors receiving respect and acclaim in the industry.
“For me it feels like a big movement,” he said. “It’s the first time seeing my peers who I’ve gone through drama school with, seen at auditions, secure roles in good quality TV and film. And I am inspired by that right now.”
Even Ford, once he had time to think about it, came around to the notion that Boyega may represent the future. “If he is the new replacement for Han Solo, he’s brought a uniqueness to it,” he said.
And then, like a final blaster shot before the spaceship door closed, Ford said: “I do think he’s got bigger ideas than that. And better ideas than that.”
As the photo shoot was wrapping up, Boyega remembered that he had been in that studio before. Indeed, a coffee-table book nearby contained a picture of him from 2013 that had been taken there.
“You look so young,” said his groomer, Natalie Abizadeh.
His entourage gathered around the book for a long moment, until Boyega wrinkled his nose and ran a censorious finger along the image of his untidy hairline. “I couldn’t afford a haircut,” he said. ___
Don’t miss it
Pacific Rim: Uprising releases in the UAE on March 22.