When John Boyega was young, the church services he attended on the Old Kent Road in south London could stretch to six or seven hours. So sometimes, instead of praying, he would close his eyes, tuck his head between his knees and dream about where he wanted his life to go. “That was the place for me to have an imagination,” he says.
Now, at 28, those childhood daydreams have come true. The early years spent in church, theatre school and local raves across south London have given way to the dazzling successes of Hollywood blockbusters such as Star Wars and Pacific Rim: Uprising, which was produced by his own London-based production company, UpperRoom, launched in 2016.
Today, while we talk over Zoom, he is on an extended hike through British countryside as preparation for a role in the Netflix sci-fi mystery They Cloned Tyrone, which begins filming in a few days. We are here, though, to discuss his performance as Leroy Logan, the founder of the Met’s Black Police Association, in the third of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films – Red, White and Blue. According to the Guardian’s film critic Peter Bradshaw, it’s a “heroic” performance that “takes his career to the next level” and is reminiscent of Al Pacino in Serpico.
Small Axe arrived at a crossroads in Boyega’s life, he says, a time when he wanted to “come home and kickstart the next phase of my career”. The son of a preacher and a mother who cared for disabled people, his career rumbled into motion in 2011 with the sci-fi horror-comedy Attack the Block, and then snowballed after a chance meeting with director JJ Abrams in Los Angeles in 2012 led to the part of reformed stormtrooper Finn in the Star Wars franchise. That stint wrapped last year with The Rise of Skywalker, the closing of a sequel trilogy that grossed $4.5bn worldwide and made Boyega one of the defining actors of his era.
The Star Wars journey was peppered with peaks and valleys. At the premiere of The Force Awakens in 2015, he stood on the red carpet in Leicester Square, surrounded by childhood friends, and jubilantly told an interviewer: “I’m a boy from Peckham and I’m in a Star Wars movie!” But in darker moments, he dealt with the online racism from Star Wars fans aggrieved about the presence of a Black stormtrooper, and a character arc that Boyega himself criticised for its lack of nuance.
On the franchise’s off years, he threw himself into new work. There was the tense American period drama Detroit in 2017 and a return to the stage in Woyzeck at London’s Old Vic theatre in the same year. Still, in the four years between The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, Star Wars dominated. “When you’re in a franchise, you’re playing one role that evolves throughout a good few years,” he says, “and sometimes people miss the roles in between.” When it was finished, he decided it was time to “explore more versatility. I’m into so many different types of genres and storytelling. I want to explore that with the freedom I have now.”
This new direction in his career also arrives at a time when Britain is re-examining and re-evaluating the country’s past and present relationship with racial inequality. Boyega has played his role. At Black Lives Matter protests in London’s Hyde Park following the killing of George Floyd in May, Boyega found himself slowly walking to the stage to address the thousands who had gathered. With a megaphone in hand and a mask sitting just below his mouth, he bellowed: “I need you to understand how painful it is to be reminded every day that your race means nothing! And that isn’t the case any more. That is never the case any more.”
After a few moments, he melted into tears, telling the crowd and the watching world: “Today is about innocent people who were halfway through their process. We don’t know what George Floyd could have achieved”, before admitting: “I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this.”
It was “pretty much spontaneous”, he says now. “The things we continue to see, the consistent discrimination against Black people on a global scale” had been bottled within him, until “the emotion and the intensity of the moment led towards those words”. As someone in a position to speak out, he says, “it’s important for you to voice out your truth”.
Small Axe sees Boyega turn his gaze towards home. Red, White and Blue – which McQueen co-wrote with author Courttia Newland – is a tender telling of Logan’s early career in the 1980s. We watch the young Leroy navigating a chaotic period of his life, turning his back on a career in forensic science and instead wading into the deep political waters of the Metropolitan police, an organisation that would eventually be labelled “institutionally racist” in a report from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 1999.
Leroy was guided throughout by a personal calling to, as Boyega says, “change the system from the inside out”, at a time when Black faces in the Met were few and “you don’t have allies or support”.
The film captures the fallout from that decision. “He got it from all sides,” Boyega says. Behind the sealed blue walls of the Met, officers spray paint the N-word on his locker and fail him for exams he had passed. At home, his father ignores him, staring through him at family get-togethers. While Leroy patrols his local streets, kids call him a “coconut” and a “Bounty”, angered and confused by his decision to work with an organisation actively persecuting the community.
“I feel like someone has got to do the bridge,” Leroy says in Red, White and Blue, “and when you’re doing that, you’ve got to realise you’re alone.”
Working beside McQueen was a constant learning process for Boyega, an education in the director’s attention to detail. In one scene, where the Met’s new recruits – Leroy included – undergo a fitness test in a makeshift gym hall, McQueen filmed an entire bleep test, telling Boyega “off you go”, sending him sprinting back and forth until it was over.
In another powerful scene, Leroy finds his father laid up in hospital, recovering from an assault by a group of police officers. In the first few takes, a moment when Leroy arrives at his father’s bedside that lasts only seconds in the film, Boyega was struggling to project the right emotion. “I couldn’t convey it for some reason,” he says, “Maybe it was the outside world, maybe I was too tired.” McQueen cleared the set, shed the crew and the extras, giving Boyega the space and the time to figure it out. “Steve finds artistic expression really important,” says Boyega, “and he holds it at a high value. That’s one thing I learned: the art really comes first.” The pair are already planning to work with each other again.
Going forward, Boyega is keen to bring change within his own industry. He set up his own production company to “create our own stories”, and make sure voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard “are heard in projects that are really cool”, diverse and interesting. Watching Star Wars producers like JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy build projects from scratch sparked a desire in him to be involved in the creative process on films from the beginning. Some productions will be heavily influenced by his upbringing, he says. In January, UpperRoom announced a development deal with Netflix for a string of films from west and east Africa.
“I’ve built this up to try and be a door, so I can use this role, this momentum, to give opportunities. Because I was given an opportunity by another actor called Femi Oguns,” he says. (Oguns, now Boyega’s agent, gave up his own acting career to found the Identity School of Acting in 2003, which Boyega attended). “He gave up on his whole career to give us the opportunity. So I’m just following that cycle because I’ve seen the benefits it’s had in my life.”
In an industry that often encourages compromise, Boyega has refused to shed his south London skin. He still lives in the city, seeing it as “part of my energy”. In summers gone, cameras have caught him dancing freely at Notting Hill Carnival, and recently, when July and August offered London a brief reprieve from the strictness of lockdown, he was spotted at DLT brunch, a cult London day party popular within young Black British communities across the city. He takes pride in being born and raised in London, and how the melding of strong characters, the deep ties to African cultures, the music and the food have shaped him.
“It’s just who I am bro. I can’t stop because I’ve secured the bag,” he says. “The way everyone does the wealth ting is going to be dependent on the life you lived before. And so, my life before? I’m going to a brunch where’s there’s going to be beautiful Black women there and I’m going to be bussing whines at Carnival. I can’t help it.”