John Boyega is sitting in a suite in the Park Hyatt, Circular Quay, Sydney. He is mere metres from the location of a key scene of his latest film, Pacific Rim: Uprising, where giant robotic ‘Jaegers’ emerge from Sydney Harbour and face off in a devastating battle that levels tall buildings.
The film is the sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 action piece that pitted giant lizards from the deep, or ‘kaiju’, against humans operating the massive robotic Jaegers. Boyega, who starred at age 18 in the London street-kids-versus-aliens flick Attack the Block and went on to global fame as Finn in the latest Star Wars trilogy, stars in Steven S DeKnight’s sequel as Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba’s character, who is recruited to help train a new generation of Jaeger operators in case the kaiju ever return (spoiler: they do).
Still just 25 and with the movie world at his feet, Boyega notes that fame hasn’t really changed him. In fact, being a movie star is a bit like being in charge of a giant robot. “I’m literally inside it, going ‘that’s not me there throwing punches with metal things!’” he laughs. “My personal life looks at my other life in a strange way. Because the loudness of fame only comes when I do promotional tours or if I go to a public space and people know I’m going to be there... I didn’t get into this for fame, I just wanted to be a part of great stories.“
John, I guess I should thank you for not demolishing the whole of Sydney in Pacific Rim: Uprising…
Aha! Actually, it’s the Japanese who should be complaining the most. They got annihilated!
Although I appreciate that it was only fake buildings in Sydney that fell down – no actual architectural icons. If only the NSW government could be so considerate about the Rocks area.
Yeah, yeah, it’s all good.
So you shot most of the film here in Sydney.
Yeah, at Fox Studios. We had a good old time. For me it was back to back near enough, on set every day, but some days I got to relax and chill and go out to Newtown – that’s where I like to hang.
And your own company co-produced. Why did you start your own production company?
Upperroom Entertainment is a company I founded in 2015 after Star Wars. I went over to LA and met with [production company] Legendary, and that’s when the idea to collaborate on Pacific Rim was born. ’Cos I’ve always had ideas and concepts that I’d like to develop. And I was just waiting for the right time and I did feel that if you have success in acting it can lead to a good enough platform to develop stories, and then you get to collaborate with actors you’ve worked with before and the process is a good one.
You play the son of Elba’s character from the first film. We noticed you get your mouth around the word “apocalypse” much like he does. Did you base your performance on his?
I knew Stacker Pentecost like I know my dad, in a sense. I just really loved the first film. We all grow into our fathers one day don’t we? Embodying that charm that Idris had in that movie was important to me. They’re of the same lineage and blood, so their approach to things is going to be quite similar.
Your actual father is a Pentecostal preacher, coincidentally.
I know! He doesn’t handle big Jaegers and stuff, though I’m sure he’d want to.
Spiritual Jaegers, perhaps.
Anything that can get the job done [laughs].
Was he a role model in inspiring you towards acting?
My dad is a role model in every single aspect of my life. I want to become him when I grow up. He’s just a great man inside and out. My dad has always been a shining example. Both my parents are.
When was the moment when you realised acting was your scene?
That was back in [primary] school [Oliver Goldsmith School, Camberwell, London] when I was doing a school play and getting laughs from the audience. That was cool to me. I was playing the author of the Anansi the Spider Man children’s books, explaining how I write the books. And I had a big old walking stick and a waistcoat, playing an old man even though I was 11. I got the laughs, man, and went home on a high. I didn’t see it as a career, but as I got older things started to make sense and I started to pursue it with a very specific goal.
"My dad is a role model in every single aspect of my life. I want to become him when I grow up"
Was it a surprise when you were cast in the lead of Attack the Block?
No. While auditioning for Attack the Block I just felt at one with the character and the story and I felt like nobody else could play him. I was pretty much like this kid, and from that area, so for me it was like the perfect opportunity.
And Star Wars was an even bigger opportunity.
The funny thing was that when I first met JJ Abrams he loved Attack the Block, so I always felt like JJ was rooting for me and really on my side even during the audition process. Getting the part was a big relief, because between Attack the Block and Star Wars was a whole bunch of failures, ups and downs, running out of money, all of this stuff.
We hear you took Harrison Ford out for a cheap eat in London while doing The Force Awakens.
Yeah I did! It was great. We were on set on the Millennium Falcon and he was like, do you know any good places to go to? I said, yeah I’ll take you to this place [on Old Kent Road] that does Nigerian food, it’s spicy, are you OK with that? He said yeah. We went down there, had a good chat, and conked out in the car home.
Harrison did very well out of the original Star Wars trilogy, but Mark Hamill, not so much. Did you talk to Mark about that, and where your career is going?
No, we didn’t get the chance to get into career talk, but I actually see Mark’s career as a fantastic success. For me, Mark is just as inspiring as Harrison. Because I remember watching the Batman series and finding out it was Luke Skywalker that done the voice to the Joker – that opened up my mind to nuance in character, how you can play characters that are far fetched from yourself. I love that concept.
You’re a diverse performer yourself. We saw that in Detroit, about the 1967 Algiers Motel Killings, where you play a character with incredible humanity and dignity [Melvin Dismukes]. Were you disappointed with the film’s reception? Reviews were mixed and audiences stayed away.
Yeah, definitely, But at the same time the timing of it all, it’s a sensitive story, to go and watch that movie you’re not really escaping into another world. It’s like a history lesson that reflects what’s still going on now and it’s something that’s quite hard to swallow. But I do see the movie as a slow burner. And the most important thing is not awards, it’s not critical acclaim, it’s people seeing it and it igniting real change.
"Finn’s got some decisions to make. Rose likes me, Poe likes me… a whole bunch of people"
And what are your memories of Carrie Fisher?
Carrie was great. We had great times. She was very, very charismatic. Very funny. One of those people who you’re like, “she can’t die.” She had endless energy and positivity and was not afraid to be herself. I liked watching Carrie across the room sometimes. She was just free, she lived with complete, brutal honesty.
Are you gearing up for Episode IX?
Apparently that starts in July. It’s been pushed back a few times. I haven’t been given the official word yet. I’m looking forward to stepping back into that world. I’ve been away for a bit.
Maybe Finn and Rey will finally hook up?
Finally man! I mean, Finn’s got some decisions to make. Rose likes me, Poe likes me… a whole bunch of people. It’s going to be fun to see where it all goes, I can’t wait to read the script.
Pacific Rim: Uprising opens Thu March 22.
Watch a movie in Sydney tonight.