Right now, John Boyega might be the happiest guy in the universe. He’s 23, he was hand-picked by director JJ Abrams to appear in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (probably 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 on a chair in one of London’s swankiest hotels, the young Brit actor 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 as Finn – a character rumoured 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 2011’s British alien invasion flick ‘Attack the Block’.
All of which is 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 a perfect fit for the gritty-but-giddy fairytale world of ‘Star Wars’. The fact that he’s a lightsaber-swinging, action-figure-collecting, video-game-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 JJ [Abrams, the director] tells me a secret, that’s geek-out number three. And then JJ gets excited about something, and when JJ gets excited, everyone gets excited: there’s number four. It was like going to Disneyland every single day.’
What was the best moment on set?
‘Wearing the Stormtrooper armour was cool. You have to watch out, because it pinches in the armpits and between the legs. But when I was given a lightsaber to hold, that was when I was like: yes! Swinging it around, making the sounds. As you do. And the special-effects guys can control the colour. I’d ask them to switch it to red. “I want to be evil now!”’
How big a ‘Star Wars’ fan were you when 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 defence 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, though, everyone’s going to like. By force.’
© Shamil Tanna
‘I stroked that Wookiee all the time. They had to get me off him.’
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, 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.’
JJ Abrams made a commitment to using practical (non-CGI) special effects. So were you surrounded by rubber aliens and plastic robots?
‘I spent a lot of time at the creature department. Because of my expertise, of course. I wanted to check those guys were making the puppets right! No, it was just fun in there, seeing them put so much detail into the characters. You’d see the animatronics, weird bat things up in the corner of the roof. It was like a museum.’
Do you enjoy stunt work?
‘I love all that stuff. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re playing in the living room, the sofa’s your safe haven and everything else is lava, and you will die instantly if one toe touches the floor. It was like that on an epic scale.’
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, the audience have 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 there are other characters who are like “Erm, I’m not sure about this…” I love characters like that.’
How tough was the casting process?
‘It was hard. And rightly so. If I bought a company for 4 billion dollars, I’d make sure those actors were on point! [In 2012 Disney bought “Star Wars” maker 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. That does bring an element of fear, like: Oh my gosh, this could be it.’
‘I think my visits to Tesco will be a bit different’
How do you feel about the way the British press has treated you since the announcement? You were annoyed by one piece that portrayed you as a kid from gritty 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 theatre. 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 that 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.’
When you were a young actor, who were the people doing the things you wanted to do?
‘I always watched movies but I didn’t see any particular person as a role model. It was more about me! About my skills and my craft. When I was training, it was about other guys and girls in the class who were better than I was. But when “Kidulthood” came out, that was cool to see.’
A number of black British actors have spoken out about the difficulty of finding representation in film and TV. Were you aware early on that it was going to be a struggle?
‘No, I wasn’t aware of the whole black-people-struggling-for-parts thing. I was aware that the black characters didn’t always survive in films – but that was about it!’
Have you come up against prejudice, whether towards your race, your accent or where you’re from?
‘People make stupid comments, but that’s nothing that’s going to stop me! I’m in “Star Wars”, so they can just sit down and eat that for a second. I feel like people who come from normal backgrounds, we are the massive. I always celebrate Tom Hardy, not because it’s a rags-to-riches story but because he comes from an area I can relate to. If he can do it, I can do it.’
‘Star Wars’ has always had a strong British contingent in the cast. But with you, Daisy Ridley and Gwendoline Christie involved, this film looks really London-centric. Is that a source of pride for you?
‘Absolutely. I hope I get to spend a lot of time here when the movie’s released. It’ll be good to be here, to see how people from the UK react to the film. I can’t wait. It’s Christmas as well!’
Can you imagine ever moving to LA?
‘No. Just… no. London is home. It’s where the heart is. Here is cool.’
What do you think will change for you 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 – he had a little swollen eye – to the vet on the Old Kent Road, and that was no problem.’
You seem very relaxed about all this. Can you imagine a point where it gets a bit much?
‘There are moments when you’re tired or you just want to hang out with the family, when 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’ opens on Thu Dec 17.