A Star of His Own Making

In person, John Boyega carries himself with an assuredness that could be mistaken for self-­importance. He’s one of those actors who look as tall and sturdy in real life as they do onscreen. He fills whatever room he happens to be in with inviting, boisterous chatter, thanks, no doubt, to years of voice training on the English stage. And he’s dead certain he’s going to be a big, big movie star.

I first meet Boyega in a cramped hallway at ABC Studios in Manhattan in July. We barely manage a hurried handshake as he proceeds in Aaron Sorkin–like strides toward a nearby stage. His publicist and his sister—who also acts as his assistant and is Googling where they can find British pub food in New York—are drafting in his wake. I watch off set as Boyega sits down with the hosts of Live With Kelly and Ryan, his first of three interviews for the day. Each sit-down requires the same thing of the 25-year-old Brit: promoting his latest film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, about the city’s 1967 riots, and expounding on the state of race relations in neat, 30-second sound bites. Naturally, interviewers also want to ask about his other new movie, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, coming out in December. If the challenge of figuring out how to discuss Black Lives Matter and lightsabers in the same breath weighs on him, Boyega doesn’t show it. “I see what I do in part as creating change through art,” he tells me. “Sometimes that responsibility can feel like a burden, but it’s not. It pushes you to find your purpose in the world.”

Most people know Boyega as Finn, the Storm­trooper who defects to the Rebels and helps an aspiring Jedi (Daisy Ridley) in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Boyega is confident that he can sidestep the quagmire of franchise fame that has kept some actors from ever eclipsing their first blockbuster roles. So when I finally sit down with him for lunch, I begin by asking if he’d rather follow the Denzel Washington/Harrison Ford path to stardom—­bringing the same charming swagger to every role—or if he’d prefer to go the Judi Dench/Idris Elba route of disappearing into parts. He grins at me and says, “I think to be a real star, you have to do both. I’m going to do both.”

Which might seem presumptuous if Boyega hadn’t been consistently checking off items on his superstardom to-do list. Since his breakout role two years ago, he has produced and starred in another franchise film, the upcoming Pacific Rim: Uprising (become a producer: check), played opposite Tom Hanks in the poorly reviewed The Circle (inevitable flop: check), returned to London to play a soldier with PTSD at the Old Vic (reaffirm acting chops onstage: check) and, with Detroit, become the face of an Academy Award winner’s latest gritty film (make an Oscar bid: check). And he’s working on writing and producing his own movies in hopes of leading a generation of artists who bring more diverse stories to the screen.

So, yes, John Boyega will be a big, big movie star. And he plans to get there his own way.

Micaiah Carter for TIME

Boyega, the son of Nigerian parents, grew up in the working-class South London neighborhood of Peckham and began enrolling in youth theater programs when he was 9. As a teen, he was cast in a movie filming near his neighborhood, Attack the Block. The comedic horror film centers on a gang of teenagers who must defend their public-housing project from an extraterrestrial invasion. Soon after it premiered, Boyega began trying to land American movie roles, culminating in a series of grueling, secret Star Wars auditions for director J.J. Abrams, who had been a fan of his first film.

The day he found out he got the part, Boyega says, he went home to tell his parents. He bowed to them in a traditional Nigerian sign of respect to show his gratitude for the sacrifices they had made. His ­parents—his mother works with the disabled, while his father is a Pentecostal preacher—­immigrated to England before Boyega was born. “I grew up with my dad telling me that you’re currently around church people, but soon you’re going to be in a world where people don’t believe the same things you believe in. People are going to laugh at the stuff you believe or are going to treat you a certain way,” Boyega recalls. “And just to try as much as you can to be loving to all people.”

Boyega’s casting in Star Wars put that advice to the test. The beginning of the film’s first trailer, released in 2014, showed the actor in Stormtrooper garb minus the helmet. Within minutes, he was deluged with messages on Twitter objecting to the idea of a black man at the center of a Star Wars saga. And Boyega continues to endure occasional harassment on social media. “It’s blatant racism,” he says. “I embrace all people, but I do not embrace racists. I despise racists. Do they know how dumb it is to waste brain cells on taking issue with the amount of melanin in someone’s skin?” He argues that everyone just wants to see themselves represented onscreen and that it’s time for more diverse heroes at the movies.

He pauses and then tells me, “I really want you to include this: 99% of the response was positive. Good doesn’t get credit sometimes because it’s overshadowed by the bad. People tried to boycott the movie, and we made something like a billion dollars in 12 days. That represents every person who bought a ticket. So much for your boycott.”

Disney is hoping the next Star Wars, subtitled The Last Jedi, will draw an even bigger audience when it premieres on Dec. 15. Boyega’s innocent Finn offered much of the comic relief in The Force Awakens, but the actor says the movie and his character’s story get much darker in the sequel. Finn wakes from a coma and is paired off with a new character, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), as they embark on a dangerous mission with the droid BB-8 in tow. Rose, a lowly engineer who yearns to fight for the Resistance, believes that Finn is a war hero. “Finn’s not so sure that he’s a hero or that he really even believes in the Resistance or anything at all,” says Boyega. “So he’s off with Rose, who is a true believer, and he has to figure out whose side he’s on and navigate these conflicting emotions.”

Finn’s onscreen banter—with Rey, with Han Solo, even with BB-8—made the character a fan favorite. As a result, Boyega says he found himself with an unexpected platform. He’s used it to defend his fellow actors and challenge the entertainment industry. He spoke for Ridley when she left Instagram after an anti-gun-violence post resulted in harassment. He called out HBO’s Game of Thrones for its lack of diversity. And he defended Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya, whom he knows from the London theater circuit, when Samuel L. Jackson said an African-American actor, rather than a black English actor, should have played the lead role in the movie about American racism. “It just makes no sense for Brits and Americans to fight with each other like that,” says Boyega. “When you’re black and in a position of influence, you have a responsibility to speak out. When you’re an actor, you have a responsibility to speak out through your work.”

Detroit is an example of the latter. It is an affecting, if complicated, film. Bigelow filmed it as if she were running with a camera through a war zone. But unlike her other recent movies (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), the battleground is a Midwestern metropolis. Boyega plays a security guard who tries to act as a liaison between white cops and black civilians amid unfolding violence at the Algiers Motel. His attempts to protect the innocent eventually make him a scapegoat for the police. “It was an even bigger opportunity than Star Wars to show what I can do,” he says. “You don’t want people going to a movie as serious as this and saying, ‘Hey, why is Finn being interrogated by the police?’”

Boyega’s performance has put him in the conversation for an Oscar. That’s a particularly important item on the superstar checklist and requires a rigorous press tour. If you ask Boyega who his role models are on that score, he’ll talk about his Star Wars co-star Ford. But when it comes to influences, Boyega is more likely to cite his peers. He brings up Issa Rae, the creator and star of HBO’s Insecure. “That’s something I hope to achieve someday, to write and develop my own original project,” he says, adding that he has always written but didn’t really understand how to tackle a screenplay until Spike Lee gave him a copy of his Do the Right Thing script, which included notes scrawled in the margins.

Boyega says he’s excited that several actors he knew from the London theater world are beginning to break into Hollywood too: Malachi Kirby was Kunta Kinte in the recent Roots remake for History, and Letitia Wright will play a warrior in the 2018 Marvel superhero movie Black Panther. “It kind of reminds me of that picture of Tupac and Jada Pinkett in high school. Everybody’s gone off now to have their moments,” says Boyega. “I think our generation, we don’t want to wait around only to be given the same stereotyped roles again and again. We want to decide our own fate.”

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