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John Boyega: from Peckham, to the Death Star, to the Old Vic

The Guardian logo The Guardian 2 days ago Esther Addley
Attack the Block stars (from left): Simon Howard, Leeon Jones, John Boyega, Alex Esmail and Franz Drameh. © Richard Saker for the Observer Attack the Block stars (from left): Simon Howard, Leeon Jones, John Boyega, Alex Esmail and Franz Drameh.

Like many overnight sensations, John Boyega worked on his craft for a very long time indeed before he became famous.

The British actor was five years old when he first realised his love for performing, while playing a leopard in an infant school production.

“I went on all fours,” he has said, “and gave him a character breakdown.”

Eighteen years later, and having been cast on the strength of his first ever movie role, the Peckham native found himself as the leading man in one of the most anticipated movies in history, playing stormtrooper Finn in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Related: John Boyega to star on stage in Old Vic's Woyzeck

Next month will see Boyega, 25, crossing another frontier, playing the title character on the London stage in Georg Büchner’s 19th-century German classic Woyzeck, in a new version written specially for him.

It is the actor’s first stage role for almost eight years and his first ever lead – a daunting leap, perhaps, to now find himself fronting a major production on the hallowed stage of the Old Vic.

But the young man who carried the weight of the retooled Star Wars franchise, while brushing aside racist protests about the casting of a black actor as a stormtrooper, has very broad shoulders, according to Woyzeck director Joe Murphy.

“We can’t overestimate the insane pressure of Star Wars,” Murphy said.

“Coping with that has given him some serious mental strength, and has really built up those emotional muscles that know how to deal with pressure, know what it is to be a leading man.

John Boyega in a scene from the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photograph: Industrial Light & Magic/Lucasfilm via AP

“Of course, there’s a level of inexperience – he hasn’t done this kind of role before.

“But I think the last few years’ experience has prepped him really well to take this kind of challenge on.”

The historic theatre on London’s South Bank is only a few miles from the council estate where Boyega grew up, but it might as well have been another galaxy, he said this week.

“Growing up, I used to get the bus, the 171, and I would pass the Old Vic and I thought: ‘Who goes to see plays there, man?’ It felt to me so distant.”

Related: John Boyega: Star Wars: Episode VIII will be 'much darker'

Yet, while Boyega’s housing estate background was far from privileged, he has always resisted attempts to portray his childhood as a gritty urban struggle dominated by gangs and crime.

Boyega was born in Camberwell in 1992, the youngest child and only son of Samson, a Pentecostal minister, and Abigail, who works with disabled children. The couple had moved to the UK from Nigeria some years earlier.

It is true that Boyega and his sisters were friends with Damilola Taylor, who was murdered on their estate in 2000 at the age of 10, and were with the young boy just before he was killed, something the actor has resisted talking about before this week.

The incident was horrifying, Boyega told the London Evening Standard. But, he added: “Just because you’re in the area, doesn’t mean you have to carry all the circumstances that come with it.”

Star Wars cast members (from left) Mark Hamill, Kelly Marie Tran, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Rian Johnson, Kathleen Kennedy and Josh Gad at a Star Wars celebration day in Orlando, Florida this month. Photograph: Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

It was Teresa Early, the artistic director of local community drama group Theatre Peckham, who first spotted an eight-year-old Boyega when he was appearing in a play at his primary school.

“I looked at that little boy,” she said, “and I thought: ‘Hmmm. There’s something going on in that child.’ Because he had a presence.”

She decided to offer the boy a place at the community theatre’s drama school, where he became a “delightfully eager” student.

“He has got a high, strong energy, and he was focused in what he did,” she said.

Related: First trailer revealed for Star Wars: The Last Jedi

“If John was being a rabbit, he would be a rabbit. If he was being Captain Hook, he would be Captain Hook, and there would be a visible difference between the two.”

But as the young boy became involved in more and more productions – “He couldn’t keep away,” according to Early – his close-knit family took some convincing that there was a future in his all-consuming hobby.

“I think his parents’ ambitions didn’t really include him being an actor. His father is a pastor, and I think he thought that John would follow in his footsteps.

“I think it’s quite conceivable, frankly, that his father as a role model did give John a good idea of how to hold an audience.”

She recalls meeting the actor’s father, who was seeking reassurance on “the question of whether you could be a good person and an actor … later, after John had started making his first films, he actually phoned me and said it was a really good thing that John was an actor. So he is now completely behind him, which is great.”

From left: John Boyega, Peter Mayhew (as Chewbacca) and Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Photograph: Allstar/Disney/Lucasfilm

After secondary school, the young Boyega took a diploma in performing arts at South Thames College before enrolling at the Identity School of Acting in Hackney.

A small role as part of an ensemble cast in a play called Category B at the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn, north London, followed in 2009.

Related: Star Wars actor John Boyega hits back at 'prejudiced' fans

It would lead to his first major break, after he was seen by Joe Cornish – the comedian and writer/director – who was looking for young unknown actors for what would become his first feature film, Attack the Block (2011).

“John was onstage for about 10 minutes, playing the son of one of the adult characters,” said Cornish of the Tricycle play.

“He didn’t say much but he had a real presence and really expressive face. He drew the eye, even though he wasn’t saying much.”

His screen test was also impressive, Cornish said. “We sort of cast the rest of the gang in Attack the Block around him, because he was so good and had such quiet charisma.”

One of Cornish’s ambitions for the film was to “provide a launchpad” for its young actors, including the 19-year-old Boyega.

“We knew we were going to cast five unknowns, and we wanted to give them a break,” he said. “It’s quite something to be given the opportunity to carry a feature film at that age.”

Attack the Block stars (from left): Simon Howard, Leeon Jones, John Boyega, Alex Esmail and Franz Drameh. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

It did indeed provide a launchpad after the very funny movie, in which a group of inner London teenagers gang together to defeat aliens invading their housing estate, was particularly warmly reviewed in the US.

“As soon as we started screening it, people said [of Boyega]: ‘This kid is something else.’”

One of the film’s unexpected fans was the US film director and producer JJ Abrams. According to Cornish, he was woken by his wife, who – having just seen the film – urged him to check out the young man playing the leading youth, Moses.

Related: Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Black Lives Matter's first science fiction film

In 2011, finding himself in Los Angeles, Boyega by chance ran into Abrams and Tom Cruise, who were working together on one of the Mission Impossible films.

Abrams told the young actor: “I am going to get you in something.” And so it proved when, several years later, Abrams told Boyega, after seven months of tortuous auditions, that the career-making role in The Force Awakens was his.

If Star Wars certainly turned Boyega’s world upside down, the young man who had taken Harrison Ford for pounded yam on the Old Kent Road showed an admirable degree of self-possession in dealing with the publicity firestorm he encountered.

Asked by the New York Times how he felt about the racist abuse he received when he was cast as a stormtrooper, he said: “It made me feel fine. I’m grounded in who I am, and I am a confident black man … they’re stupid and I’m not going to lose sleep over those people.”

Instead, he took to making surprise appearances at cinemas where the movie was being screened, delighting fans.

John Boyega in the Kathryn Bigelow-directed new film, Detroit, about riots in the US city in 1967. Photograph: Francois Duhamel/Entertainment O/PA

Boyega is not afraid of speaking out, dismissing Samuel L Jackson’s recent suggestion that black British actors do not “really feel” African American experiences as “a stupid-ass conflict we don’t have time for”.

But he apologised for remarks he made while collecting an award that black actors complaining about diversity “is not going to benefit us”, which were criticised by Sir Lenny Henry and others.

Murphy said he was particularly eager to cast a non-white, working-class actor as the titular Woyzeck (the play, first performed in 1913, has been updated to 1980s Berlin by This is England and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child writer Jack Thorne).

Related: Pacific Rim 2: Star Wars' John Boyega cast as lead in sequel to monster epic

Murphy had that casting aim because, he said: “I think class is a big thing in the theatre that doesn’t get discussed enough.”

So he is now looking forward to Boyega bringing a new audience to the theatre from Peckham, and from other places “far, far away”.

He added: “We are really excited about the the Old Vic crowd and John’s crowd coming together and watching a play.

“It feels like the more diverse that audience is – in terms of class, ethnicity, life experience, gender, age – the better that experience is.”

  • Woyzeck, which comes with a strong language and sexual content warning, is at the Old Vic, London, from 15 May to 24 June 2017.
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi (also known as Star Wars: Episode 8) will be in cinemas from 15 December 2017.

Potted profile

Name: John Boyega

Born: 17 March 1992

Age: 25

Career: Small stage roles and a lead in British “hoodie horror” movie Attack the Block led to career-making role in Star Wars franchise. Soon to be seen on screen in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit about the 1967 US race riots.

High point: Cast, while still a virtual unknown, as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, leading to global superstardom. Appears in his second film in the series later this year.

Low point: Attracted some racist abuse after it was revealed, in a teaser trailer for the 2015 film, that some stormtroopers are black.

What he says: “My parents are from a Nigerian culture that has no interest in spaceships and all that nonsense. My dad wants to see real life stuff. He’s a big Bruce Willis fan. But he’s caught the Star Wars bug. Mum hasn’t.”

What they say: “John is absolutely aware that he is a kind of leader for his community. People need people to look up to, and I think John is really aware of this.” – Teresa Early, artistic director of Theatre Peckham and Boyega’s first acting teacher


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