Right now, John Boyega might be the happiest guy in the universe. And it’s not hard to understand why. Directors like J.J. Abrams don’t often handpick 23-year-olds to appear in what could be the biggest movie of the decade—in this case, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When we meet, the young Brit, dressed to the nines, fittingly grins like he won the lottery. “You know when you sit down with an actor, and you ask how they are, and they say they’re good?” he says. “I’m genuinely good!”
Boyega’s casting as a lead in Star Wars came as a shock when it was announced last year. When the arguably most-beloved series of all time places its bets on a relatively unknown talent, it’s bound to turn a few heads. First, Boyega’s character, Finn, was rumored—rumored, since every reveal for Star Wars has been hush-hush—to be a foot soldier who deserts his Stormtrooper platoon to join the rebel resistance. Then a slew of articles in the British press portrayed the actor as a kid from the mean streets who’s cut from the same cloth as his breakthrough role in the 2011 alien-invasion flick Attack the Block.
But what’s lost in all the surprise is that Boyega is a damn fine actor, fierce and charming in the tradition of Albert Finney and Bob Hoskins. In person and onscreen, there’s an openness to him, a hyperactive enthusiasm and skyrocketing self-confidence. It’s a unique combination that makes him a perfect choice for Star Wars. The fact that he’s an action-figure-collecting, video-game-playing franchise fanboy doesn’t hurt, either.
What were some of your best moments on set?
Wearing the Stormtrooper armor 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. The special-effects guys can control the color. I’d ask them to switch it to red. “I want to be evil now!”
It sounds like you were geeking out often.
It was continuous. It was like going to Disneyland every single day.
So you were a big Star Wars fan growing up?
I was the biggest fan. But I was exposed to the merchandise—the books and the video games—before the story. I was born in 1992; don’t judge me! I watched the prequels, then the originals. So, technically, I did it in order.
Could you defend the Star Wars prequels for me?
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. This one everyone’s going to like, though. By force.
Harrison Ford returns for this film. He has a pretty daunting reputation. Did you two get along?
[Laughs] I got along fine with Harrison. I get him. Everyone acts up so much in front of him, and he’s just this down-to-earth guy. If there’s nothing to say, he doesn’t say anything.
Did you resist constantly petting Peter Mayhew when he was in his Chewbacca costume?
I stroked that Wookiee all the time. They had to get me off him sometimes. I just wanted to give him cuddles.
Abrams made a commitment to using practical special effects. So were you surrounded by rubber aliens and plastic robots?
I spent a lot of time in the creature department. Because of my expertise, of course. I wanted to check that those guys were making the puppets right! [Laughs] 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.
Similarly, you did your own stunts. Did you enjoy that?
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 can die instantly if one toe touches the floor. It was like that but on an epic scale.
How do you think your character, Finn, matches up to the heroes of the original trilogy?
I think Finn is friggin’ 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 to relate to. Some characters are part of the magic, and they always know what to do—like Batman. Then we have other characters who are like, Um, I’m not sure about this.…
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! [Editor’s note: In 2012, Disney bought Star Wars production company Lucasfilm.] 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.
Speaking of relating to you, how do you feel about the way the British press has cast you, as a kid from the streets?
They’re just trying to find a story. When people hear I’m from Peckham [a working-class London district], they go into this rags-to-riches mode, this whole escape-the-dark-life thing.
You tweeted, “NOT my story,” in response to a piece. What is your story?
I had a fantastic childhood. I was exposed to a world of dance, tap, musical theater. I performed at the Royal Albert Hall when I was 13.
Have you come across prejudice about your background?
People make stupid comments, but that’s not 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 are the majority. I always celebrate Tom Hardy, not because his is a rags- to-riches story, but because he comes from an area I can relate to. If he can do it, then I can do it.
What do you think will change once Star Wars comes out?
I think my visits to Tesco’s 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 level. 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.
Is there anything annoying about your recent fame?
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 to dictate how I should go about things rather than assuming this or that’s going to happen. My main fixation is that I get to watch a Star Wars film in the cinema. If you hear someone at the back screaming and laughing and crying, it’s probably me.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens December 18, 2015 at local theaters.