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John Boyega on taking dates to McDonald’s and why Samuel L Jackson is wrong about black British actors

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 20/04/2017 Jimi Famurewa
© Provided by Evening Standard Limited

To see John Boyega react to a mention of Samuel L Jackson’s recent comments about black British actors – body collapsing into the sofa as if hit by a tranquilliser dart, eyes rolled comically into the back of his head, low animal groan — is to glory in his apparent lack of poker face. To recap: Jackson questioned the ability of UK-born men to take on African American roles, causing the 25-year-old actor to tweet his disdain for what he saw as a ‘stupid-ass conflict’.

‘Damn, Sam,’ says Boyega, sitting up and smiling. ‘I love him but he didn’t have to go there. I was actually going to send him a message to check that he’s cool. But look, I get it, I just think there’s no end result in black Brits and African Americans going back and forth at each other... I rate Sam and he’s always showed me love — he’s like a big unc — but, across the planet, the black experience is a layered one and his comments didn’t represent that.’

This, as I learn after a lunchtime in his company, is Boyega’s way. Whether he’s reflecting on his recent stint working on Detroit, about the 1967 race riots and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (‘If she calls and asks for just my toe to be in a film, I’ll do it, man’), or enthusing about his cat (‘He’s honest with his selfishness’), his default mode is a kind of mischievous ebullience. It’s a trait plenty will recognise from the Star Wars: The Force Awakens press tour, which — whether he was surprising fans at screenings or detailing the time he took Harrison Ford for Nigerian pounded yam on Old Kent Road — essentially morphed into Boyega: Global Charm Offensive.

Or perhaps it’s just his latest project — a significant homecoming on the West End stage — that’s responsible for his energised, impish mood. With nearly eight years having passed since he last performed on the stage in London (as part of the ensemble in a series of hard-hitting plays at the Tricycle), Boyega is returning to play the lead in The Old Vic’s Woyzeck, an all-new, Cold War-set adaptation of German playwright Georg Büchner’s unfinished 1837 play about a lowly soldier driven to madness and murder by jealousy. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child mastermind Jack Thorne has written the script and, if it all seems a galaxy far, far away from taking out TIE fighters and swinging a lightsabre, then that is very much the idea. ‘I’ve never actually done this before,’ Boyega explains, with a disbelieving grin in his South London twang. ‘When I worked at the Tricycle I did three different plays but I wasn’t in them for, like, three back-to-back scenes. Now I’m on stage for the whole thing. It puts me in an interesting position but, at the same time, it will be good to say, “Okay, I’ve done that”. And when you do movies back to back, plays bring you back to your beginnings. Because there’s no fanciness with plays.’

DRIES VAN NOTEN jacket, £315, at libertylondon.com. PRADA shirt, £315, at mrporter.com (Credit: YannRabanier) © Provided by Evening Standard Limited DRIES VAN NOTEN jacket, £315, at libertylondon.com. PRADA shirt, £315, at mrporter.com (Credit: YannRabanier)

There are abundant reminders of this when we meet in a vacant office within the cramped interior of The Old Vic on a sunny spring day. Boyega bounds into the room to join me, bearing a bag from Pret laden with a sandwich, popcorn and can of sparkling apple (‘I’m going to be nibbling some nonsense while we talk, is that okay?’) and apologies for his jet lag. A fan of a bold red-carpet outfit — he threw Jedi poses in a purple Versace tux at the US premiere of The Force Awakens — today he’s in ripped black motorcycle trousers, a grey longline bomber jacket and charcoal Yeezy Boost trainers.

Daisy Ridley and Boyega in The Force Awakens, 2015 © Provided by Evening Standard Limited Daisy Ridley and Boyega in The Force Awakens, 2015

He’s full of admiration for artistic director Matthew Warchus’s attempts to ‘shake things up’ at The Old Vic. Still, acclimatising to the small-scale world of theatre after an uninterrupted run of enormo-franchises and starry adult blockbusters (which, as well as the follow-up to The Force Awakens, includes Dave Eggers’ adaptation The Circle) has not been without its challenges.

DRIES VAN NOTEN jacket, £315, at libertylondon.com. PRADA shirt, £315, at mrporter.com (Credit: YannRabanier) © Provided by Evening Standard Limited DRIES VAN NOTEN jacket, £315, at libertylondon.com. PRADA shirt, £315, at mrporter.com (Credit: YannRabanier)

‘The rehearsal process is something that you forget about when you do movies all the time,’ he says, after a few neat bites of his sandwich. ‘On movies you don’t really get time to rehearse so that was a shock to me. On the second day, I was thinking to myself: “Oi mate, why don’t you know these lines?” Because on a film you need to be ready to go.’ He effortlessly adopts the voice of a Hollywood big shot. ‘“We’re spending $250,000 an hour” and all that kind of stuff. So this feels like a holiday. A really strenuous holiday with some good people.’ There’s no sense then, of Woyzeck representing a kind of easy victory lap for London’s returning champion. But it can’t hurt — after spending recent months filming various projects in Australia, China and the US — to be back in the city he still calls home. 

Receiving his EE Rising Star Award at the Baftas in 2016 © Provided by Evening Standard Limited Receiving his EE Rising Star Award at the Baftas in 2016

The son of Nigerian immigrants (Samson, a Pentecostal preacher, and Abigail, who works with disabled children), Boyega was born in King’s College Hospital in Camberwell in 1992 and grew up on a council estate in nearby Peckham. The younger brother to two older sisters (Grace, 26, works as his assistant and Blessing, 29, is a train driver for Southeastern), he quickly caught the acting bug while studying at Oliver Goldsmith Primary School. His unconventional rise from there — training at disruptive BAME incubator Identity School of Acting, a star-making role in 2011’s sci-fi comedy Attack The Block, his Bafta EE Rising Star award in 2016 — is almost folkloric. The same goes for the seven-month audition process he navigated before finally being offered one of the lead roles in JJ Abrams’ reawakened intergalactic saga. But before all that I’m keen to get his take on Peckham’s status as the new crucible of gentrified hipsterdom. He now has his own place in south-west London (with that moggie, Oluwalogan) and he admits he’s at Peckham market ‘near enough every day’ buying cooking ingredients such as sugar cane. Does he worry about the changing face of where he grew up?

‘I get the need [to develop] for the betterment of our society and our spaces,’ he says, diplomatically. ‘But at the same time, is that at the cost of people that have lived there for years? Who’ve worked there? Who’ve struggled there? What happens to them?’ He admits that the rooftop Frank’s Café in Peckham is one of his favourite spots in London but notes that the temporary removal of Underexposed, a local photographic mural of famous black performers on Peckham Hill that he used to pass as a kid on the way to his Old Kent Road church, prompted him to ‘holler at Southwark [council]’. After uproar from other residents the council has been quick to stress that the images — dismantled as part of the construction of a new theatre school — will be displayed in a new location, but it’s a reminder of the rival forces at work in the area. ‘My mind just goes, “Where is the balance?”’ he says. The notion of ‘balance’ is a continued theme for Boyega and, surprisingly, to stress his point he talks about something he’s never really publicly discussed.

SANDRO jacket, £630 (sandro-paris.com). LANVIN top, £335, at harrods.com. EMPORIOARMANI trousers, £300 (armani.com) (Credit: YannRabanier) © Provided by Evening Standard Limited SANDRO jacket, £630 (sandro-paris.com). LANVIN top, £335, at harrods.com. EMPORIOARMANI trousers, £300 (armani.com) (Credit: YannRabanier)

The actor and his sisters attended the same school as Damilola Taylor, the 10-year-old Nigerian schoolboy killed near his home on the North Peckham Estate in 2000, and it has been said that the Boyegas were among the last people to see him alive. Boyega has been quick to snuff out press attempts to spin what he sees as a clichéd narrative out of a tragic coincidence (‘Inaccurate. Stereotypical. NOT my story’ he tweeted in response to a 2015 newspaper profile) but feels this general urge for a neat ‘rags-to-riches’ fable is in itself revealing. ‘Although those events [occurred] and what happened to Damilola Taylor is true, I was merely walking with him before it happened,’ he says, picking the frayed fabric at his knees. ‘Me and my sister [Grace] didn’t know any specifics until the police showed up or whatever. But before then, I went to Theatre Peckham to do tap and contemporary dance. I had an experience of quality art within Peckham. There are diverse spirits in that area who have different talents. I know a pilot from Peckham, I know a guy who deals in luxury cars and started his business in Peckham. Just because you’re in the area doesn’t mean you have to carry all the circumstances that come with it.’

Boyega paints a vivid portrait of a happy upbringing, even when misbehaviour in a maths lesson drew the wrath of his strict father (‘I was like, “Wow, is this how life ends? Your dad kills you?”’ he laughs). Even so, he admits that he’s seen ‘many people led to make the wrong choices’ and — more than his Christian faith — he feels it was a tight knit, likeminded social group that helped keep him focused. He’s still close to them now. ‘I’ve got in school fights with these dudes and gone on group dates with girls,’ he says, before jokingly adding: ‘If you were getting the premium dating package back then you were getting taken to Peckham McDonald’s and the cinema across the street. Done. That was all I could afford.’ Asked whether he’s currently single he’ll only say: ‘I’m good. I’ve had various people try to find out [my status] but you’ll have to run really fast to try and catch out a Peckham boy when it comes to what he’s up to.’

Regular trips back to Lagos in Nigeria (his most recent visit over Christmas saw him hanging out with fellow British-Nigerian Skepta) are important to Boyega, too. ‘I just love being back home. And I love being in a country where I’m not the minority. It does something to me. And I wish I could take my boys from America out there, especially at this time, to have that feeling.’ I wonder, in the age of Trump and extreme vetting, if his Nigerian heritage has ever given him any difficulty when travelling to the US. 

In Attack the Block, 2011 © Provided by Evening Standard Limited In Attack the Block, 2011

The facial gymnastics are back. ‘Dude, have I ever,’ he laughs. ‘I used to fly back and forth when I was hustling and auditioning for things in LA. I’d get cheap flights and stay there for two weeks or whatever. And every time I was getting these random checks. Every. Single. Time. I wish I remembered the airline because I called them out on it, too. Like, “This stuff ain’t right”. Anyway, they said it was a problem Stateside, they gave me a letter and it stopped. But before that it was consistent. I understand that [these things] are for our safety but when you fly a lot and it happens three or four times there’s an element of, “Okay, I’m still not a terrorist”.’

These days of course, intergalactic ships are more his speed. As well as Pacific Rim (which his fledgling company, UpperRoom, is also producing), imminent techno-thriller The Circle with Emma Watson (‘a very, very intelligent girl’) and Bigelow’s Detroit, the release of Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi in the core saga is looming at the end of his year like a Death Star on the horizon. Boyega will of course return as Stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter Finn. Did following a critical and commercial hit like The Force Awakens change their approach?

‘It was definitely different,’ he says, tentatively. ‘And in the shadow of the unfortunate death of Carrie [Fisher], you can’t ignore that something like that creates an energy around the project. It’s her last epic finale and, at the moment, to be part of that just feels weird.’

There has been talk of new director Rian Johnson bringing a darkness but Boyega — ‘a massive Star Wars fan’ — is adept at keeping the Disney-owned franchise’s plot elements secret. ‘No snitching. It’s as simple as that,’ he chuckles. ‘Don’t snitch or Mickey Mouse will roll up in front of your house and take you out.’ Whatever the film’s 15 December launch date brings, Boyega’s role as its magnetic star and infectiously nerdy champion seems crucial to any future success. It’s a resounding victory over the section of racist online trolls who, seemingly scandalised by the notion that (gasp!) a black man could be under a Stormtrooper helmet, mounted a risible, failed boycott. Before he heads back to Woyzeck rehearsal, Boyega can’t help but express his personal vindication, given the first film’s favourable reception and the general positive response to a post on Instagram in which he stylishly smacked down the boycotters: ‘To whom it may concern… Get used to it :)’.

‘The reaction was incredible,’ he says. ‘Although, I remember I met someone in the street who went: “I felt like you should have stayed silent and held it with more grace.” I said: “I am not the actor who’s going to feed you the grace that you want.” Sorry, the way I was raised, if anyone comes talking nonsense I’m going to shut them down. You have to fight fire with fire sometimes. So transfer that “grace and dignity” to someone else. I’m not your role model.’ Outspoken, playful, commanding. He may not want to be a role model but, less than a decade into his screen career, John Boyega is, undeniably, a force to be reckoned with.

John Boyega stars in ‘Woyzeck’, a new version by Jack Thorne, at The Old Vic 15 May to 24 June, generously supported by RBC (oldvictheatre.com)


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