John Boyega's star on the rise

Since his 2015 debut as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Boyega has used his charm and talent to become a global celebrity.
Since his 2015 debut as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Boyega has used his charm and talent to become a global celebrity. PHOTO: REUTERS

The actor, 25, is among a new wave of British actors, many from African backgrounds, who are becoming household names

LONDON •He is becoming a Force to be reckoned with.

Star Wars actor John Boyega is only 25, but he arrived at a photo studio in London like an A-lister - more than an hour late; with an entourage of four, including a stylist and a groomer; and dressed head to toe in designer clothes.

But he vanquished any resentment over the wait with his humour.

"I think this is the official look of humility," he said of his outfit, which included a brown suede Zegna jacket, black Ksubi denim trousers, a white Brioni sweater, a white Versace shirt and dark tan Chelsea boots by Christian Louboutin.

"This is how I'm going to dress when I'm 50 years old - as a dad," he added, as he posed for a portrait on a grey winter Sunday.

He has become a sought-after figure on the style circuit. He sits in the front row at collections for Burberry, which has dressed him for many public appearances.

Since his 2015 debut as Finn, a major new character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this cheeky Londoner has used his charm and talent to become a global celebrity.

In addition to his work in Star Wars, he has played serious roles in films, including last year's Detroit (earning him a comparison with "a young Sidney Poitier" in The Washington Post), and in the theatre, at London's Old Vic.

Now, he is at the forefront of what he describes as a "movement" of young British actors, many from African backgrounds, who are becoming household names.

This month, he becomes the face of a second sci-fi franchise, with the opening of Pacific Rim: Uprising, a monster film with giant robots, which he also produced.

His mix of on-screen talent and off-screen ambition, as a producer, has drawn admiration from old hands in the industry.

Harrison Ford, his Star Wars co-star, described Boyega as being "bold, confident and complicated, with intelligent ideas".

Boyega seemed pleased by the description and reiterated that the two are "best friends". But he does not play second fiddle in the presence of Ford.

During a publicity shoot involving both men and Daisy Ridley, who portrays the film's heroine, the photographer asked Boyega to step to the side so Ford could have the centre position.

"Harrison was just like, 'See that, kid? I'm the star,'" said Boyega, doing an impression of Ford that sounded like the gravelly voice-overs heard in Hollywood trailers.

"And I said to him, 'Yeah, mate, you ain't going to be the star when you get stabbed by Kylo Ren,'" referring to the villain who kills off his character, Han Solo, with a lightsaber.

Boyega's parents are Nigerian immigrants and he grew up in Peckham, a modest neighbourhood in South London.

The name of his production company, UpperRoom, has a double meaning. It is a reference to the location of his childhood bedroom ("Where I planned long-term goals, where I got dumped. That's where I became king. That's where I became slave.") and intended, in a biblical sense, as a place where people come together in unity.

As a boy in school, Boyega struggled to find his niche after failing with football and the cello.

But a knack for plays prompted him to start training at the nearby Theatre Peckham, where he played a trickster leopard in an adaptation of the Caribbean folk tale Ansari The Spider. He also appeared in a production of Shrek.

As an aspiring thespian, he would wait outside the stage door of the Royal Court Theatre to ask actor Daniel Kaluuya (an Oscar nominee for his role in last year's Get Out) for advice.

And at London's Identity School of Acting, Boyega trained with Letitia Wright (a star of this year's Black Panther).

His breakout role came in 2011, with Attack The Block, a comedic low-budget sci-fi thriller about aliens invading a public housing development very much like his own. "It was Steven Spielberg mixed with the 'hood," he told The New York Times that year.

From there, it was only a few years before he was running lines with Lupita Nyong'o, whom he met on the set of Star Wars. She got a dose of his comic relief up front.

"I remember, he immediately teased me about my uncombed hair, moments after we met," she said. "I was stunned that he had the audacity to do so, not conforming to social norms of making a good impression."

Boyega burst out laughing at the memory. "Okay, it was the morning time and she was looking a bit rough," he said, barely suppressing his giggles. "I think that, being a good person, you should be honest, 'Are they going to touch up your hair?' you know?"

Nonetheless, Nyong'o declared herself charmed. "I was impressed by his honesty, even in jest, and I knew we would be good friends at that point," she said.

Underneath all the chumminess, it is not lost on Boyega that he is part of a new wave of British black actors receiving respect and acclaim in the industry.

"For me, it feels like a big movement," he said. "It's the first time seeing my peers whom I've gone through drama school with, seen at auditions, secure roles in good quality TV and film. And I am inspired by that right now."

Ford thinks Boyega may represent the future. "If he is the new replacement for Han Solo, he's brought a uniqueness to it," he said.

And then, like a final blaster shot before the spaceship door closed, Ford said: "I do think he's got bigger ideas than that. And better ideas than that."

As the photo shoot was wrapping up, Boyega remembered that he had been in that studio before. Indeed, a coffee-table book nearby contained a picture of him from 2013 that had been taken there.

"You look so young," said his groomer. Boyega's entourage gathered around the book for a long moment, until he wrinkled his nose and ran a censorious finger along the image of his untidy hairline.

"I couldn't afford a haircut," he said. But, now, he has made the cut as an up-and-coming actor.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2018, with the headline 'John Boyega's star on the rise'. Print Edition | Subscribe