John Boyega is the star that we need in these times
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The actor chats about The Last Jedi backlash, a cracking story with Harrison Ford, online bullying, and The Rise of Skywalker.
How do you talk about a film that's the most closely-guarded secret in the galaxy? Easy, you introduce John Boyega to a room full of journalists and just let him talk about Star Wars: Episode IX- The Rise of Skywalker and everything else.
With the world's most beloved saga set to conclude, it's a Death Star-sized underestimation to say that expectations are high.
This is the culmination of 42 years of storytelling.
Throw into the mix J.J. Abrams' return as director, Carrie Fisher's farewell, the Emperor striking back, a divided fanbase from The Last Jedi, Lando Calrissian taking to the sky again, and the need to wrap up the storylines from this particular trilogy - while tying up themes and plots that have been around since 1977 - and you've got an insight into why everyone wants to know about The Rise of Skywalker.
"You're talking to the person that has struggled the most over the years to keep secrets! I will say this though. It's important to me that nobody knows anything about this one because the shock value is just so important for this one," said Boyega when he met JOE.
Charming, engaged, and refreshingly honest, the Londoner is the perfect interviewee for all things Star Wars because aside from playing the resilient and courageous Finn in the latest trilogy, you very much get the impression that he's a Star Wars fan first, actor second.
"Was I tempted to show up and watch Billy Bee and Ian McDiarmid work? Ha, I fell in love with temptation! Man, I was on set. I was on set for every big moment. I always make that a point to come on and see other people filming. With Billy Dee, I was there the whole entire time. Sure, I was there in the makeup trailer when they were putting on his hair. I said to the crew 'Yo! That's my boy, Billy Dee. Don't mess him up. Get him right!' Na, it was very cool to see," he said.
While you're in his company, it's impossible not to get swept up in Boyega's love for the galaxy that's far, far away - it emanates with every word.
However, the Rise of Skywalker also carries some additional weight.
After all, Disney CEO Bob Iger did state that: "I think we made and released too many Star Wars films over a short period of time. I have not said that they were disappointing in any way. I’ve not said that I'm disappointed in their performance. I just think that there’s something so special about a Star Wars film, and less is more."
The backlash from The Last Jedi and the diminished box-office of Solo: A Star Wars Story may imply that dark side is beginning to gather.
On The Last Jedi, Boyega is refreshingly upfront and honest about the divided reaction to Rian Johnson's film but he does believe that the narrative decisions made by Johnson will be fully justified by the time the closing credits roll on Episode IX.
"Yeah, The Last Jedi split the fans a bit. I feel like in this movie, you'll understand why there was such a transition with Episode VIII. Also, with The Last Jedi, it's about understanding that sometimes life just happens. I think that life just happened to these characters in Episode VIII. They were split apart, there was a lot of suffering, low morale, and low numbers. That film had the lowest hope levels in any Star Wars movie and the audience was thinking 'Wait, are they going to lose?' but I think that's good because Episode IX wraps it up in such a way that makes sense of that all stuff," said the actor.
While critics generally endorsed The Last Jedi - it currently has an 85% rating on Metacritic - the backlash to the film highlighted some of the more worrying aspects of social media and the culture of online bullying. Sadly, the man from Peckham is no stranger to the part of the Internet.
Remember the furore after the first trailer for The Force Awakens showed a black Stormtrooper? After The Last Jedi was released, Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran bore the brunt of the online ire.
Rather than sit on the sidelines and watch his friends being attacked online, Boyega actively made himself a part of the online conversation. Knowing that people could have potentially turned on him, would he have changed anything about how he handled that situation though?
"I see the online situation in the exact same way. My attitude hasn't changed. People have the right to say what they want but as fans, you need to understand that we all have to share the love. As long as we respect each other, there's no hierarchy between us. Sometimes with the fans, you recognise that what they're saying and all of their feelings come from the love they have for the project.
"They love it so much but they don't understand how Hollywood works. They come to the actors for some stupid things and say stuff like 'John, why did you cast this person?' and I'm like 'mate, I'm not a casting director!' I still feel the same way about any type of online bullying. These bullies are weak because they'd never say that stuff in real life."
Sage advise that you might find Luke Skywalker saying, but with such a massive property like Star Wars, was there ever a concern that he'd be swept up in all the online Sith? Boyega's response is why he's well and truly one of the good guys.
If you don’t like Star Wars or the characters understand that there are decisions makers and harassing the actors/ actresses will do nothing. You’re not entitled to politeness when your approach is rude. Even if you paid for a ticket! 🤷🏾♂️
— John Boyega (@JohnBoyega) June 12, 2018
"No, I'm not scared of any of that. If people say that they don't like me for my views on bullying and for speaking out against online bullying, it just means that they don't like themselves. They don't like themselves, that's the problem. Like, I could never, ever judge you based on your social media presence, or how the media might present you to me.
"In terms of this culture of 'celebrity,' I've looked up to famous individuals in the healthiest way possible. I think to myself 'I don't really know you,' but once the media gives out a message or a snippet of an interview that may include something you said, I don't really care. Just go on the internet, have fun with people you support, don't follow people that you don't like, and just enjoy your life. I also understand that if trolls were in my position, they'd also have people getting onto them too. So, I can't be too pressed about it."
Chilled and calm, you can't help but imagine that Boyega shares an awful lot of personality traits with his co-star of The Force Awakens, Harrison Ford.
Both men take their profession seriously, but don't buy into all the bullshit that surrounds fame and celebrity.
"Harrison and the guys didn't do Star Wars in the age of social media. We were the first of the trilogies to do it. It's a different time. The older guys could advise you on other things in the film business, but online bullying is pretty new to them. Bullying is really just me, Daisy, and Kelly Marie experiencing it. Daisy was my point of call for that. I also understand that sometimes these people don't mean as much harm as they intend. Sometimes, they're just commenting because they're bored and they forget what they wrote in the next five minutes. With that in mind, I just don't get worked up."
After catching Hollywood's eye with his breakthrough performance in Joe Cornish's Attack The Block, Boyega's down to earth charm is exactly why he's the perfect fit for the world's biggest franchise. This being said, he's still a Star Wars nerd at heart.
Case in point, take a look at the sheer joy in his reaction to the first trailer for The Force Awakens.
When it comes to the first time that he met the stars of the original trilogy, the laidback Londoner was just living the dream.
"My process of meeting people like that - Harrison, Mark, Carrie - is that I'd love the opportunity to just chill with them like we're normal. Like, for me, I prefer to make memories. There's a difference between meeting Will Smith at a premiere and, let's say, I meet Will Smith at my house and he told me he wanted a chicken drumstick and some rice! Then we had dinner together. I prefer that type of story."
Lo and behold, Boyega did that exact thing with Harrison Ford when he invited him to his local Nigerian restaurant in Peckham.
"Hell yeah I did that with Harrison! I asked him to dinner, straight up. He was just like 'alright' in that very cool way he speaks. He wanted some real good food, like, solid spicy seasoned food from Africa. By the time we were done, he was starting to nod off at the table and he asked me to swap places because he wanted more leg room! I'll always remember the both of us are climbing over each other in this small Nigerian restaurant in Peckham and Harrison just conks out. Harrison is a real Peckham boy. Like, the locals were asking him 'Are you Harrison Ford' and he replies in that real cool way of his 'Yeah, I used to be?' He's just cool."
That's the movie star magic, right there.
On one hand, he's a consummate professional that works hard, loves that Star Wars legacy, and gives his all. On the other, he understands that it's fricking STAR WARS! If you cant have fun now, when will you?
That attitude translates to his favourite things to do between takes.
"Playing video games with Oscar Issac. We do that a lot. Oscar has a great trailer! We play a lot of Street Fighter and he always brings his game consoles with him. I also used to go into Carrie Fisher's trailer and go through her fridge. See, I was on a diet during Episode VIII but I never stuck to it! I used to go to her trailer because she was like 'pfft, all that diet shit!'
"You know Carrie. She was very free and she'd just give me Kit-Kats, Snickers and I'd munch my face off! Carrie would be in her trailer sleeping and her daughter Billy would be saying 'Man, you are hungry!' I'd go back to set with so much energy from all this sugar and start shouting "Ok, let's go!'"
While plot details about The Rise of Skywalker have been kept quiet, Boyega does say that the tone is closer to The Force Awakens with more of an ensemble feel. Of course, Finn spent the majority of The Last Jedi on the gambling planet of Canto Bight but as the trailers for Episode IX have shown, he's back with the whole gang, something that the actor is very pleased about.
"Eight was a bit of a struggle for the characters - as well as the actors - but it was kind of cool because in separation, there's a certain level of vulnerability. That was required for The Last Jedi but to be back as part of an ensemble just feels so fricking good because we're doing a lot of crazy stunts. This one was not a joke. To have somebody that's going through the same fear makes it less of a challenge. I appreciated having Daisy, Oscar, Naomi, and Kelly-Marie there to lift morale. There's also more chocolate to steal!"
In a way, it's fitting that the next Star Wars film has a Skywalker in its title because the saga is the story of one family. Speaking with Boyega, you get the same sense about the process of filming it.
Yes, this is a billion dollar franchise that's loved by generations. Yes, it will dominate the column inches this December. Yes, it's a pop-culture behemoth. However, you won't hear about the moments when Boyega gets 'hangry' on set, or when he misses his family, or the happiness he feels about knowing that his work means so much to so many people.
Sometimes, you just have to take a step back and remember what makes Star Wars special.
Thankfully, the star of Detroit and Pacific Rim: Uprising was happy to talk about those things with JOE.
"I just get real emotional thinking that this is the end of nine films. I can't believe it. I was at my house the other day with my sister and I said to her 'do you have that fear that we're going to go to bed tonight, knowing that all this amazing stuff has happened to us that we really appreciate. Then we'll wake up and we'll be somewhere else?' It feels surreal to a part of something that goes back generations. In 1977, I don't even think that I was even a thought in my dad's head! To come and be a part of it is still mad to me.
"The high points are definitely just moments of laughter on set. I'm either with Daisy or Oscar, and we're just talking. We talk about everything and we have great conversations where we're just laughing. A good day is just us getting through our shots well, everything is flowing. A bad day is when all of this isn't happening. Sometimes, I get hungry and I'm in a mood. Daisy's like 'Oh, John's hungry. he's going to be in a mood!' Little things like that.
"Also, the days can be long and tough, especially if there's a shot that we really want to get. Physically, it's demanding and we have to do things 26 times. Those days are tough and they're days when you miss your family. It's six-seven months of the year with consistent filming. There are also days when I miss my mum. There are days when I'm FaceTiming my mum and saying 'Oh, I miss you so much. Say hello to everyone. I love you so much,' and I've got a rifle on my shoulder! She doesn't care about secrets. I don't even think my family understand what's going on in the films, they just want to see their boy running around and blasting stuff!|
To many people, Star Wars is not just a franchise. Sure there are even people who even identify as a Jedi when it comes to their religious preference. Boyega has never lost of sight of the hardcore fans and why Star Wars will always mean so much to them.
"The time it was released helped because 1977 was such a different time to what we're in now. It's still very profound to people and it makes them feel good. There's a nostalgia of memories, childhood moments, family events. Star Wars is a large part of the DNA of some people's lives.
"Even if you're not into Star Wars, to see other people being so passionate about it means that you can enjoy it a little bit more. You're happy that they're happy. Good and evil, man. Everyone likes a story that captures the nature of what it's like to be a human being - especially in a world where we don't really have real heroes, or a resistance like we see in these films. To watch a world in which characters like that exist is cool."
Talking with Boyega, you get the sense that he'd be no different if J.J. Abrams didn't pick up the phone and offer him the role of Finn, all those years ago.
He's at ease talking about the world's most anticipated film with a bunch of strangers. This being said, he'd probably be no different while talking about his favourite Street Fighter character in a room of his mates.
However, he does think that the experience of making Star Wars has been a key role in his personal development.
"I've definitely matured, I was way more immature when we started filming The Force Awakens all those years ago. That really wasn't due to filming, it's just because I was 22 when we started that film and I was having fun! It's the same transition from 22 to 27 that everyone has.
"I know it's not that big of a deal, but for me, looking back , there has been a lot of growth. For example, I deal with things in different ways now. I listen to my family more. One thing that being in Star Wars does, it puts you in a position where sometimes you have to lead and guide people. Sometimes you have to be a good example.
"Proactive support for friends is something that I've really learned about. Communication in general - which is a major thing for all of us - is something that I've really worked on. Articulating myself better. Little things like that can make a difference. I'm a very self-aware person and I like to grow. I don't want to spend 10 years on this planet and be the same person at the end of that period."
Make no mistake about it, John Boyega is now one of the most recognisable faces on the planet. Who else will ever know what it feels like to see their face adorn Happy Meal toys, millions of action figures, gigantic LED screens around the world, and buses everywhere?
And yet, he still eats in the same Nigerian restaurant. He still kicks back by playing video games. He still hates bullies. He still love Star Wars. He still has the same friends, something that the actor couldn't help but find funny when the idea of a 'celebrity circle' was brought up.
"I've always wondered about this. What do people think happens when you get famous and wealthy? Do you think actors just go to their mates and say 'Yo, guys. I'm gone! I'm hanging out with Will Smith now! You're not my friend anymore! I'm with Will...with WILL!" Na, I understand what you're saying," he said with typical good humour.
"Sometimes I want to be spontaneous and do all that stuff without being noticed, but that has nothing really to do with fame. Unfortunately, my story is just so boring. I think that fame is harder to handle if you've had a very active life before you get it. Like, if going out and partying is your norm, it's probably different because when fame comes, you're this outward person that can't do these things anymore. For me, I'm just in my house! If I want a party vibe, I'll invite people over. The transition for me hasn't been as hard because of the life I lived before people started to notice me."
When JOE meets the 27-year-old, you get the impression that he has the whole galaxy in front of him and he's buzzing after recently buying his first home in London. However, is he worried about being typecast? Is he afraid of being 'boxed in' by the power of Star Wars?
After all, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher have spoken candidly about how they'll always be Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia.
"No, I understand that fear. I just think that now is quite a different time than then. Today, Star Wars is the biggest thing that I'm known for, but it's not the only thing. I'm very lucky for that. Let's say that if I did nothing before Star Wars and in between the Star Wars films films, then I'd definitely be worried. If that happened, I'd be thinking that i need to diversify and find different roles.
"Right now, I've just finished a film in New York called A Naked Singularity, and there are various things that I'm doing next year which I can't talk about. I'm also doing Steve McQueen's new show. I've always said that Star Wars is like 'luxury prison.' You look outside of these golden bars and see everyone else in these really profound pieces and you do want to go out there and be a part of the projects that are going on there.
"However, you also know that Star Wars takes six to seven months to film, so it's a sacrifice. Now that it's done, I want to read absolutely everything that I can. I want to know what kind of choices that I can make, based on the fact that I can feel like I can do a vast majority of these projects."
In terms of his work on Star Wars, John Boyega has come a long way from the conflicted Stormtrooper that we saw on Jakku. While Finn continues to search for his place in the Resistance, the actor is very comfortable with his own position in Hollywood.
"I feel good now that it's done. I'm going to miss it a lot, especially the people. I feel that my acting process is always going to be continuous. I don't really differentiate between movies. I feel like it's the same steps - rehearsal, filming, wrap, party! - that process is still going to be there, but the specific people aren't. Like, I won't be able to chill with Daisy who has known me since I was auditioning. Now I'm going to have to be on a super-professional set!.
"I've got life-long friendships from these films. I had a house warming party here in London and there was a moment when I looked around the room and saw the people that were dancing. I was like 'this is so funny to me.' We just met on set and now we're lifelong friends, it's a nice feeling to have. I cried on the last day on set. You have to watch the film to see why though!" he said.
Whatever happens in The Rise of Skywalker, the rise of John Boyega continues.
Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker is released on 19 December.
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