John Boyega is squaring up to his next challenge

John Boyega is squaring up to his next challenge | Soho House

Feet up? Get cosy? ‘The Woman King’ star wouldn’t know how

Tuesday 4 October 2022   By Hanna Flint   Photography by Juan Veloz   Styling by Jason Rembert   Hair by Jalon Webster   Grooming by Amber Amos   Production by Dalia Nassimi and Alyssa Dersahagian

John Boyega is feeling pretty calm about life right now. Well, he will be once he sorts the framing of his camera out for this Zoom call. ‘Sorry,’ he says from the place he’s renting in Los Angeles. ‘I’m just getting a light on so you can see me.’ 

I appreciate the effort. So often when I do these sorts of interviews, the subject chooses to turn their camera off and I’m stuck staring at their name against a black background. But on this Thursday night in London, Boyega’s Thursday morning in LA, I get to witness his megawatt smile in full beam through my laptop screen. We’ve been brought together to celebrate the big moves he’s made in the movie industry that has rightly earned him the Actor gong at the inaugural Soho House Awards. Monumental moves, to be honest.

Just this year, the brilliant British actor has three major motion pictures primed for release: tense thriller Breaking, West African historical epic The Woman King and offbeat comedy They Cloned Tyrone opposite Jamie Foxx. ‘Jamie is hilarious,’ Boyega smiles. ‘He still gets excited by cinema, by movies and, I guess, you know, from my perspective, you’d be fresher in the game by looking up to actors like him. To see him still have this enthusiasm for what we do, I’m like, yeah, man – I’m taking a page out of this happy brother’s book.’

With each of these films, massive space has been provided for Boyega to flex his acting muscles and truly challenge himself. The experience has reinvigorated his love for the craft and focused his mind on exactly what he wants to do with it. ‘During the pandemic, that’s when I was working through these three projects. What that did is make me have a real, solid commitment to the real definition of acting,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe acting should just be about playing elements of yourself. I like to break my characters down into what their wants are, their motivations throughout the movie and how that might change. How their personality changes. Then I layer it on top and sprinkle that, you know, I call it that “Boyega s**t” – those emotions that you don’t plan for it,’ he adds. ‘The performances that shock us, the performances that move us, are when the actor transcends themselves and totally commits to the role.’

John Boyega is squaring up to his next challenge | Soho House

Above: Coat, Rhude; jumper, Salvatore Ferragamo; jeans, stylist’s own; boots, Bottega Veneta

Boyega did just that in 2020 with his blazing turn in Red, White And Blue – the third feature-length episode in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology series. The actor’s passionate performance as a pioneering police officer in the 1980s, navigating the local and systemic racism within the London Met, rightly secured him a Golden Globe win for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Series last year. Then there’s his not insignificant contribution to that sci-fi space opera you might have heard of. He played FN-2187, aka Finn, a troubled Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter in the Star Wars legacy sequels, which kicked off with The Force Awakens in 2015, followed by The Last Jedi in 2017 and concluded with The Rise Of Skywalker in 2019. ‘The biggest movies of my career,’ Boyega says. ‘It’s even bigger than that – it’s a culture. It feels good to not have to be in the front line of that. I feel like I’ve upgraded to being a fan again.’

Once he completed the trilogy, John Boyega was not just a household name – he had become the type of actor who celebrated directors, such as Kathryn Bigelow and Gina Prince-Bythewood, were desperate to work with. Throw in a string of acclaimed stage and screen performances, ranging from bonafide cult film Attack The Block to The Old Vic’s revival of German tragedy Woyzeck, and you’ve got a body of work defined by remarkable versatility. Are the youths still saying ‘#goals’ these days? If so, Boyega has scored several, all by the age of 30. 

Now, he is ready to take a breath and open himself up to what the universe has to offer. ‘When I started out professionally at 17, I definitely had some goals within my twenties: career goals, financial goals, the whole spiel,’ Boyega says. ‘Now I’m 30, I don’t have any. I’m more conscious. Much calmer. It gave me a new perspective on several different types of situations. I have fewer plans while I watch everything unfold based on the decisions I basically made in my late twenties up until this point.’ But let’s go back even further.

John Boyega is squaring up to his next challenge | Soho House

Coat and trousers, both Ami; jumper, stylist’s own; trainers, Converse x Kim Jones

John Boyega is squaring up to his next challenge | Soho House

‘There’s a way the industry wants you to be and when you’re not that way, you’re labelled as difficult’

Born to Nigerian immigrants Samson, a Pentecostal minister, and Abigail, a carer, in Camberwell, south London, Boyega was raised in nearby Peckham with two older sisters in a home that supported his theatrical ambitions. But, he says, ‘there’s so many people that have been a helping hand in this journey’, including his ‘first-ever theatre director’ Teresa Early. The founder and creative director of Theatre Peckham spotted Boyega at Oliver Goldsmith Primary School in 2001, where they were conducting an after-school project. Early was so impressed with his raw talent that she gave him a scholarship at the age of 10 so he could afford to attend. The drama world has not exactly been the most balanced place for marginalised individuals to enter, whether they be working class, people of colour, or both. It’s why the actor namechecks Identity School of Acting and its founder Femi Oguns for helping to shape the foundation of his acting skills as a student.

Boyega also shouts out Zimbabwean director Sunu Gonera (the actor starred in his short film Riding With Sugar) for letting him crash at his house while trying to break into Hollywood. ‘When I was homeless in LA doing the actors’ season, I flopped, ran out of money and Sunu offered me his son’s room to stay in for free if I took care of his black cat Bella,’ Boyega remembers. Don’t worry, I confirmed that the cat survived his care and is thriving, living happily with Gonera in South Africa.

Yet his first big-screen break would occur far closer to home than Tinseltown. At 18, he landed the lead role of Moses in Joe Cornish’s subversive, Stockwell-based alien invasion movie, Attack The Block after impressing onstage in Paulette Randall’s production of prison drama Category B at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre. ‘He was onstage for about 10 minutes, but there was already a buzz around him,’ Cornish told Complex in 2011. ‘It was pretty clear that he was something special. When we saw him onstage, he looked right and he had the right energy, and when we met him he was clever, ambitious, smart and dedicated.’

It was a ‘crash course’ in filmmaking for Boyega, who learnt some big lessons while relishing every high-octane second as the film’s antihero lead. ‘Normally you’d have a few episodes of EastEnders or something to warm you up, but this was like a full feature film: you’re number one on the call sheet, you’re the main character and you just have to jump right into it,’ he says. ‘We had to learn about the process from the ground up. Then it’s just about always bringing energy and enthusiasm to the work with my director and having a relationship with my creatives so that we can collaborate in the best way we can on set.’

John Boyega is squaring up to his next challenge | Soho House

‘Collaborate’ is the operative word, because there is nothing more important to the actor than working with directors who provide essential guidance for bringing out a performance that everyone can be proud of. It’s one of the reasons why he’s reteamed with Cornish for a sequel to Attack The Block. ‘We’ve got our story. I love the story,’ he smiles. ‘That’s one thing I can say. Me and Joe are steadily, privately collaborating and we’ll have news soon.’ 

Steve McQueen is another director Boyega credits for emboldening him to do his best work in Red, White And Blue. He wishes he could do a Mean Girls by breaking his Golden Globe to give the British filmmaker a piece. ‘I needed Steve with this performance, he was vital to this process,’ he praises. ‘There are some days that, emotionally, are hard. Our job is to emote; to fake emotion as if it were true, right? In doing that you still have to have something there. That’s what your director is for: to consistently motivate that creative spirit and to make sure you’re thinking about other ways to do it. To stay on top of you when it comes to the skill set. Steve’s energy on Small Axe was what I needed at the time. It was healing to have a director who knows my world, especially being a Londoner and a big supporter of me. It was perfect.’

Yet Boyega has always valued his voice being heard, too. That principle was instilled in him early on in his career and the actor has only grown more confident with the filmmakers he’s had the privilege of working with. ‘You want your character to be able to have a full arc, to feel multidimensional, and you want to be hired based on the fact you can bring that to those roles,’ he explains. ‘When I find that with a director, I don’t take it for granted. Like with Gina [Prince-Bythewood] on The Woman King, Abi [Damaris] Corbin on Breaking and Juel Taylor on They Cloned Tyrone. These three individuals who, you see their vision, you collaborate with and end up making some special stuff,’ Boyega adds.

John Boyega is squaring up to his next challenge | Soho House

Shirt and trousers, both Berluti; jewellery, Boyega's own

John Boyega is squaring up to his next challenge | Soho House

Shirt, Bode; shorts, Berluti; socks, Boyega’s own; trainers, Nike

‘Up your self-value, take care of yourself and love yourself so that when the world starts talking nonsense, you genuinely don’t care’

While he’s not the titular king, Boyega is on regal form in Prince-Bythewood’s historical action epic The Woman King. He plays Ghezo, the new ruler of the West African Kingdom of Dahomey. Ghezo must rely on an all-female military regiment of warriors, led by General Nanisca (played by Academy Award-winner and powerhouse Viola Davis), to protect his people from rival nations and colonisers. This isn’t an alternative history lesson, rather a shining example of what diverse stories can be told if we look into the margins of history. 

There was no way Boyega was going to pass up an opportunity to work with this group. ‘If Gina had called me four, five, six years ago, I’d have probably said yes, but to be a part of this specific movie?’ Boyega says of the kismet timing of working with the American filmmaker, ‘Her career is definitely special and I feel lucky to be in Gina’s movie stage where she’s getting to play with the big boys. She has more toys to get her creativity out there and I’m glad to be an actor in her cast, especially when you’re able to base this take on elements of history, which hopefully makes people curious to go do some further reading or research.
‘Creatively, you have to handle it with a lot of caution,’ he continues. ‘You’re dealing with real-life events that still cast a shadow in our society today. That’s why I believe Viola was the only woman to play this role and I believe that Gina was the only director. It needed these two people.’ It also needed a whole load of women, and the ensemble cast boasts the likes of Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch and Sheila Atim on formidable form. Being surrounded by so many brilliant Black women on a daily basis made Boyega feel right at home. ‘That’s just my household,’ he laughs. ‘There’s more women in my family than men! I’d met Lashana before, I know Sheila and Thando [Dlomo] and the whole team. Everybody was dope and had a good vibe.’

In addition to The Woman King, this year fans can also watch Boyega take the lead in Breaking, a heart-wrenching thriller based on the true story of Brian Brown-Easley, a US marine veteran who held several people hostage inside a bank after systemic issues pushed him into financial insolvency. In the film, Boyega commands the screen, bringing a deep vibrancy and vulnerability we’ve become accustomed to in his performances. He was so committed to the character, to the point that he sometimes struggles to recall those moments in front of the camera. ‘I’ll be real, I can’t remember half of that performance,’ he says. ‘Honestly, I watched the film and, OK, I remember being on set and saying that but, you know…’ he trails off with a laugh.

John Boyega is squaring up to his next challenge | Soho House

Behind the scenes, Boyega was on high alert as a producer, a role that is of the utmost importance to him. He set up his production company UpperRoom in 2016 to star in and produce the blockbuster sequel Pacific Rim: Rising. ‘Us being a startup company and your first project is working with £120m [budget] – that was big,’ he recalls. ‘My [producing] aspect on Breaking was solely focused on the creative: the scenes, the emotions, looking into what we want the audience to feel when we start portraying Brian’s story, so it was good to have more of a say, to be involved in the conversation.’

The ability to communicate effectively and emotively has always been one of the greatest weapons in Boyega’s arsenal, whether it’s onscreen as a police officer, resistance fighter, or young thug with a heart of gold; on a makeshift podium in a park with a megaphone articulating the painful struggle to convince people that Black lives truly matter; or as part of an initiative dedicated to mentoring the next generation of Black filmmakers he might just one day work with. 

Boyega says what he says, and the movie business will continue to be better for his contribution. No amount of pressure from fandoms or gatekeepers is going to prevent him from doing that. ‘There’s a way the industry wants you to be and when you’re not that way, you’re labelled as difficult,’ Boyega says. ‘It happens to a lot of Black actors. The industry has a way of making it seem as if it’s not at fault, rather than having accountability. 

‘It’s very important for your voice to be heard and for you not to be gaslit by anybody. It’s about having the right people around you, who are there to protect and uphold you, but at the same time will tell you the truth. Up your self-value, take care of yourself and love yourself so that when the world starts talking nonsense, you genuinely don’t care. If any negativity comes at you, find your way of building up a resistance.’ You heard the man.

Interested in becoming a member?