"Someone was telling me yesterday that they read [that I'd called Kathryn Bigelow's new film Detroit "the biggest movie of my career"]," the 25-year-old British actor John Boyega, who is best known for playing Finn in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, says as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "And they go, 'Are you crazy? You've been in Star Wars! How can Detroit be the biggest movie of your career?' Because it depends on what you value as quality. For me, quality is longevity, and longevity in acting comes from an access to skills and an appeal that could see you getting work for years, hopefully. And so, for me, I just felt like I discovered that side of myself while doing Detroit. Whatever you see me do after Detroit will have been inspired by the artistic freedom I felt I had and how deep I felt I was able to go into a character."
Boyega, who was born in southeast London to Nigerian immigrants (his father is a minister and his mother is a caretaker), can't remember a time when he wasn't drawn to acting. Following a performance in a school play when he was about 9, he was lured, with a scholarship, to a local community drama program, the first of several in which he partook throughout his adolescence. While still in his teens, Boyega landed an agent and then his first professional job in 2009, at London's venerated Tricycle Theatre, but quickly "got frustrated" because he felt he "didn't have a big enough role." Consequently, he was excited when he happened upon an online notice inviting Londoners to audition for an indie sci-fi/horror comedy called Attack the Block, which he describes as "Aliens 'N the Hood," and for which first-time feature filmmaker Joe Cornish chose him, at just 19, over 1,500 others to play the lead, his first big-screen role. "It was fun," Boyega says through his megawatt smile. "We were young."
When, in 2011, Attack the Block landed U.S. distribution, Boyega already was in Hollywood seeking work. Overnight, he was upgraded from a motel to the Ritz-Carlton, signed with CAA and began getting sent out on much higher-profile auditions. One particularly coveted role that he landed was in Spike Lee's pilot for an HBO series called Da Brick, but the pay cable network ultimately declined to pick it up, a crushing blow at the time. Boyega soon turned up opposite Kiefer Sutherland on Fox's 24: Live Another Day miniseries and in some movies, but otherwise things got pretty slow. "I had nothing to do and I just needed work," he recalls. "I felt like I needed an American version of Attack the Block, in some sense — a movie that would create buzz at the festivals and would get my name back into the conversation." He found it in Malik Vitthal's Imperial Dreams, in which, as the lead, he plays a reformed gang member who emerges from a jail stint committed to getting his young son out of Watts. The film won the audience award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
In the meantime, unbeknownst to Boyega, J.J. Abrams' wife caught up with Attack the Block and told her husband to check it out. Not long after, Boyega ran into Abrams while at Abrams' Bad Robot production company for a meeting. "He said he really loved my work in Attack the Block and he was gonna find me something to be in," the actor recalls. "I didn't take him seriously, to be honest with you." Time passed and Boyega continued to pursue a breakout role — he went in for The Kingsman, Maleficent and The Maze Runner, among other big-budget studio films, to no avail — and then he heard about a seventh installment of Star Wars, the first in a decade, to be directed by Abrams, not that he thought it had any applicability to his own life. "This was the first time I heard they were seeing black people for Star Wars," he remembers. "I put friends on tape for Star Wars — and I was playing Rey. That's messed up!"
Eventually, though, Boyega's Star Wars call came, and he began what proved to be seven months of the most unusual auditions he had ever heard of, let alone participated in. "I'd never been in an audition in which what you were auditioning for was a secret," he emphasizes. He knew the character for which he was being considered would be the film's lead, but he assumed the character would be an alpha-male tough guy, whereas Abrams carefully steered him in other directions; consulting the decades-old Star Wars auditions of Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill on YouTube also proved helpful. In April 2014, to Boyega's unabashed delight, Abrams tapped him to star in The Force Awakens. Twenty months later — following the release of a cryptic trailer in which Boyega's appearance provoked some bigots to call for a boycott of Star Wars, leaving him "quite pissed" — people around the world were introduced to the actor as Finn, a disillusioned stormtrooper who joins the resistance. The film received rapturous reviews and became the third highest-grossing film of all time.
Boyega insists that his life wasn't detrimentally impacted by his overnight celebrity. "You're getting recognized here and there," he acknowledges, "but it's not some Harry Styles stuff," adding, "Until today, it is actually manageable." His greater concern, he says, always has been that he not be thought of only as Finn. "I knew I wanted to work between the [Star Wars] films," he explains, "because I understand most of the population would probably be introduced to me through Star Wars, and not all of them would go back to see my early work, so there was obviously something to prove, in terms of versatility and the other stuff I could do." That led him first to James Ponsoldt's The Circle (which also starred Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, and which was released in April to disappointing reviews and box office). And then it led him to Detroit.
But first, there was another Star Wars film to complete: Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi, due out Dec. 15. "The Force Awakens was a great foundation," Boyega teases, "and now we're about to build a big house." He says The Last Jedi is considerably darker and "very physical," noting, "Finn is much more active and involved in the fight, which is something that I really wanted." And, he notes, this is the last installment in which we will see Carrie Fisher: "I think the sendoff is really cool. Even before she passed away, I'd see her in scenes and be like, 'This is really cool for both Carrie and Mark, who are the last two original leads [alive in the franchise]. I felt like they deserve more and more — they've been doing this for a while and have been the beating heart of something special, and I just feel like [The Last Jedi] pays homage to them in general. But unfortunately, now that she's passed, it does have a deeper meaning." He adds, "I think the fans are going to appreciate that."
But back to Detroit, which Boyega says "just came out of nowhere." Out of the blue, he heard about the possibility of appearing in a Bigelow movie, and quickly flew to New York to audition — something he doesn't have to do much anymore because of Star Wars. "I just wanted to go through the process so that if I did book the role, I knew I deserved it," he says, "not because everyone's given it to me because I'm in the Star Wars movie." In Detroit, a film based on a true story of the 1967 riot in the Motor City, Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a grocery store's security guard who wound up a witness to a horrific instance of police brutality inside the nearby Algiers Motel. (The drama, after first playing exclusive engagements, expanded into wide release last weekend.)
Boyega got to know the real Dismukes during the run-up to and making of the film, and was dismayed to learn that the now-elderly gentleman had been called an "Uncle Tom" and "coward" for not doing more to stop the corrupt cops on that night 50 years ago. "I think it's wrong that he was treated in that way," Boyega says. "Everyone thinks they're Spider-Man until they get into the damn suit." He adds, "I wouldn't have left the grocery store." After the incident, Dismukes was scapegoated for the behavior of the cops and charged with a crime himself, and the interrogation scene that leads to his arrest was one that Boyega had to perform much sooner than he had expected when the production schedule abruptly changed. "I had to find some way of going there," he says, "and the only way I could go there was to try and — through the character, anyway, at all times through the character — relate to things that are happening now that have made me feel personally [shocked and outraged at injustices committed by police towards young members of the black community]. Hence, why I referenced Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and those situations that we've seen coming up."
Detroit has provoked widespread discussion and debate, not least about whether Bigelow, a white person, should be telling a story about an incident that primarily impacted black people. "I understand that thought and the thought is not something to be dismissed," Boyega says diplomatically. "But, for me, when I had that thought, it was more on the level of: 'She has obviously decided to use her platform — her success so far — to shed a light on this particular story, and knowing the work that she's done, this is going to be done in a very tasteful way, we're going to get good characters and good story, and we're gonna get a real perspective on the truth.'" He adds, "She approached it with a lot of integrity and respect. And she personally doesn't think she is the right person to do it — she said that many times — but she just felt compelled to do her thing." He continues, "I can't rely on her experience, I can't rely on her particular perspective, because she is who she is, but what I can rely on is her openness to learn, seeing the great research team around her, the fact that she has embraced the real people, the real survivors of this situation — the fact that they were there on set, for me, that in itself grows trust."
As for complaints that Boyega, as a black British actor, shouldn't play an African-American character — something that he has been hearing for years — he says, "It's just a sensitive time, so you have to understand." He elaborates: "I believe that before you come up with a response, just understand what the concern is, and understand that in a time in which representation is a hard thing to get, and diversity is a hard thing to get, people feel some type of way. They feel like, 'Okay, the one role that we do get, can it just be one of us in it?' And I understand that." He pauses before bursting into laughter, "But it can't be that way! It can't be that way. I'm sorry, I gotta work, I gotta work goddamit!" He adds, more seriously, "The reason why I laugh is because [that criticism is reflective of] a lack of knowledge — a lot of people have that opinion based on the fact that they don't know about the black experience outside of America, so all of these lines that they think are blurred to us because they think it's all tea and crumpets in the U.K., they don't understand that race relations, the black experience, the vibe of blacks — we are not detached from that just because we're not in the States. And, even furthermore, a lot of us in the U.K. are directly from Africa." He chuckles, "Like, our moms and dads still have names like, you know, Umbutu and Oluwatunde, so, like, we have a distinct connection to that, and it doesn't take much for us to go there. And also there's creative freedom, man — that's what actors do."
The proof to Boyega that Detroit has accomplished something special? "It's uncomfortable to each person, each race, for obviously different reasons," he says. "But I think if the right intention is there, it can lead to good, healthy dialogue. So I just hope everybody sees it." He pauses a beat before adding, "Maybe not the kids — give them a little time!"