Boyega gives Star Wars tips to cast

British actor John Boyega (far left), with Chewbacca and Harrison Ford, whom he says he has a cool relationship with.
British actor John Boyega (far left), with Chewbacca and Harrison Ford, whom he says he has a cool relationship with.PHOTO: DISNEY

In the Star Wars universe, stormtroopers are the fearsome, faceless soldiers of the Galactic Empire - in other words, not the type of guys you would expect to talk about their feelings over hot chocolate and cookies.

But John Boyega does just that while chatting with The Straits Times about Finn, his character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, who promises to be unlike any stormtrooper the franchise has seen.

"Finn's a stormtrooper who doesn't want to be a stormtrooper, and so he leaves in search of a new life, and ends up crossing paths with Rey and BB-8," the actor says, referring to the scavenger character played by Daisy Ridley and their robot sidekick.

"And they all embark, unwill- ingly, on a journey together."

The jocular Brit - a self-described Star Wars super-nerd - readily admits he cried when he first read the script and says getting to work alongside his idol Harrison Ford was nothing short of surreal.

Hence the tears when he received the screenplay co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, who penned The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return Of The Jedi (1983), and director J.J. Abrams - and discovered that Finn is one of the main characters.

"You know, it was just one eye and it never actually rolled down my face, it just welled up," quips the 23-year-old. His biggest film before this was British science-fiction comedy Attack The Block (2011).

"But yeah, I cried because of how prominent my character was in the script. And interacting with Han and Chewie was like, wow, I can't believe I'm actually a part of this."

Finn's prominence in the story has been welcomed by fans, happy to see a black character finally take centre stage in a Star Wars movie. It has been hailed as a coup for diversity in Hollywood, but he downplays the significance of it all.

"I'm going to be honest. I really don't care about the black stormtrooper stuff," he says at a press conference later that day. "This is a movie about human beings, Wookies, spaceships and TIE fighters, and it has a message of courage, friendship and loyalty. And I think that's what's ultimately important."

The best reaction to the actor landing this plum role came from his father, who cheered - and then asked what Star Wars was.

His dad, a Nigeria-born preacher, had "no idea what it was, it's not a major thing in Nigeria".

"But he was happy because I'd been in the audition process for a long time. And now he is discovering how big it is. I spoke to him yesterday and he was like, 'John, everything is Star Wars! I didn't notice it before because I knew nothing about it.'

"So now he knows and he digs it. l like that."

Boyega, on the other hand, is a "proper fanboy'". His encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Star Wars came in handy on set, where he ran a sort of "mental bootcamp" for actors less familiar with the franchise.

"I've given myself a title - I'm the ambassador for the official Star Wars Nerd Council, which basically means I represent Star Wars fans on the film-making side.

"What that means is, I put cast members through bootcamp and give them information. Everybody knew that if you want to know anything, you just call me. I know enough about the story and the arcs to give people a bit of information so that when they're acting in these scenes, they feel like they belonged."

It took every ounce of restraint he had not to have a fanboy meltdown when he first met co-star Ford, 73.

Getting starstruck would have been a mistake, he says, "because it robs you of the chance to ask the right questions and have your merchandise signed, which was what I did."

Boyega hopes to model his own career after the post-Star Wars resume of Ford, who went on to become one of the biggest stars in the industry with the Indiana Jones franchise and other action films.

"I like his body of work, especially in terms of being a leading man and being charming and charismatic."

Boyega is fond of impishly telling reporters how close he and Ford are. "Um, Harrison's my best friend," he deadpans. "We're too close. I don't know why you're making a face like that - he would say the same."

Jokes aside, he says he has "a cool relationship" with Harrison. "He came with me to my home town, we went for dinner and we've been in communication ever since.

"It's good to know that if I need advice, I have his direct phone num- ber, e-mail and fax," he says, "and an owl that we can send to each other."

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'Boyega gives Star Wars tips to cast'. Print Edition | Subscribe