Right now, John Boyega might be the happiest guy in the universe. He’s 23, he was hand-picked by director J. J. Abrams to appear in Star Wars – The Force Awakens, set to be the biggest movie of the decade, and now everyone on Earth wants a piece of him. Dressed to the nines in designer clobber and slumped in a chair in one of London’s swankiest hotels, the young Brit grips my hand and grins like a lottery winner. “You know when you sit down with an actor and you ask how they are and they say they’re good?” he bellows. “I’m genuinely good!”
Boyega’s casting in Star Wars as Finn – a character rumored to be a foot soldier who deserts his Stormtrooper platoon to join the rebel resistance – came as a surprise to almost everyone when it was announced last year. It was followed by a slew of comment pieces, many of them portraying him as a kid from the mean streets, cut from the same guns’n’gangs cloth as his character Moses in the 2011 British alien invasion flick Attack the Block.
All of which is, of course, complete nonsense: Boyega is just a damn fine actor, fierce and charming in the proud British tradition of Albert Finney, Bob Hoskins and Tom Hardy. But there’s an openness to him too, especially in person: a hyperactive enthusiasm and skyrocketing self-confidence that’s impossible not to warm to. It’s a unique combination, and it makes Boyega the perfect fit for the gritty-but-giddy fairytale world of Star Wars. The fact that he’s a lightsaber-swinging, action-figure-collecting, videogame-playing franchise fanboy can’t have hurt either…
On the set of Star Wars, how many times a day did you find yourself completely geeking out?
“It was continuous. I get driven to set in the morning and put on my costume, that’s geek-out number one. I get called on set, that’s geek-out number two. Then J. J. [the director] tells me a secret, that’s number three geek-out. And then J. J. gets excited about something, and when J. J. gets excited, everyone gets excited: there’s number four. It was like going to Disneyland every single day.”
How big a Star Wars fan were you growing up?
“I was the biggest fan. But I got exposed to the merchandise before the story – the books and the video games. I was born in 1992, don’t judge me! I watched the prequels, then I watched the originals. So technically I did it in order! But I did have a moment watching the original movie, when I was like, ‘Dad, what’s happened to the special effects?’”
What can you say in defense of the Star Wars prequels, the second trilogy that started with The Phantom Menace in 1999?
“There are a lot of haters. But this is what art is: you release it and let it be judged. Some people don’t like the original films. It’s all a matter of opinion. This one everyone’s going to like, though. By force.”
What was it like to work with the stars of the original trilogy, with Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher?
“It was fantastic. It’s all very well me being excited, but they’ve walked this path before so I was intrigued to know how they felt. And all three of them were like: we’re ready to do this. Ready to work, and very professional and fun.”
Harrison Ford has a daunting reputation. How did you two get along?
“Ha! I got along fine with Harrison. I get him. Everyone acts up so much in front of him, and he’s just this laidback, down-to-earth guy. If there’s nothing to say, he doesn’t say anything.”
Did you manage to resist constantly stroking Peter Mayhew when he was wearing the Chewbacca costume?
“I stroked that Wookiee all the time. They had to get me off him sometimes; I just wanted to give him cuddles. Best thing in the world.”
How do you think your character, Finn, matches up to the heroes of the original trilogy?
“I think Finn is frigging cool! With a movie like this, that’s really out there, the audience has to go through this portal of imagination. It’s good to have a character we can relate to. Some characters are part of the magic, they always know what to do, like Batman. Then we have other characters who are like, erm, I’m not sure about this… And I love characters like that.”
How tough was the casting process?
“It was hard. And rightfully so. If I bought a company for four billion dollars I’d make sure those actors were on point! [In 2012 Disney bought Star Wars makers Lucasfilm.] But it was a great process, it was healthy. I spent seven months running on a treadmill and saying ‘Finn’ all the time. The only scary thing about it was being on the brink of either being part of history or just going on with life as normal. And that does bring an element of fear, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be it.’”
How do you feel about the way the British press has treated you since the announcement? I know you were annoyed by one piece in particular, casting you as a kid from the mean streets of inner-city London…
“They’re just trying to find a story. When people hear I’m from Peckham they go into this rags-to-riches mode, this whole escape-the-dark-life thing. That’s why it’s great to own your own social media, to dismiss it and move on.”
You tweeted back “this isn’t my story.” What is your story?
“I had a fantastic childhood. I was exposed to a world of contemporary dance, tap, musical theater. I performed at the Royal Albert Hall when I was 13, I had a great time.”
Did acting start out as a hobby and gradually become more serious?
“You hit the nail on the head. I started out so early, it wasn’t a career choice. I was just having fun, expressing myself. But life asks those serious questions: what do you want to pursue? And I chose to do the acting.”
What do you think will change once Star Wars comes out?
“I think my visits to Tesco will be a bit different. But I haven’t been able to walk around Peckham since Attack the Block. It’s nothing epic, not Justin Bieber levels. I can still go to the shops. The other day I took my cat to the vet’s on the Old Kent Road. He had a little swollen eye.”
You seem very casual about all this. Can you imagine a point where it could get a bit much?
“There are moments where you’re tired or you just want to hang out with the family, where the force is not always welcome. But you get into a project like this with a full understanding of what the responsibilities are. I’ll wait for the film to come out, for circumstances to dictate how I should go about things, rather than assuming this or that’s going to happen. You can’t control the weather, you can only make a good enough shack. My main fixation is that I get to watch a Star Wars film in the cinema. If you hear someone at the back of the cinema screaming and laughing and crying, it’s probably me.”
Star Wars – The Force Awakens opened Dec 17.