Sharp suit, gigantic grin, and an infectious sense of fun that has his PR and social media entourage hooting with genuine laughter – you know when John Boyega has entered the room. The Londoner-turned-Star Wars superstar is a second generation Nigerian immigrant, who grew up on a housing estate in South East London. He took on aliens on the streets of the UK’s capital in 2011’s Attack the Block before moving to a galaxy far, far away himself, playing Finn in the latest (and final) Star Wars trilogy.
You started out in local theatre, didn’t you?
Theatre Peckham [in London] was where I trained, the first theatre where I really discovered the arts. I got a scholarship there when I was at primary school. Teresa Early who’s the founder was like “yeah, you can come, you can train, you can do it for free”, so she gave me a really good opportunity and all of a sudden I was opened up into a world of contemporary theatre, dance, tap, ballet…
You don’t look like a ballet kid...
Ballet classes were a bit tough. But I got to meet other kids who were into the performing arts too which was just kind of hard in school. A lot of my friendships are from there. I’ve been lucky, even with just people around my estate, I felt like I just had a whole bunch of creative people round the whole time, always performing. We did performances at the Roundhouse, my college drama group won a competition to perform at the National Theatre, and all of that stuff just made me more passionate about it. And at the same time I made some long term friends who I still have today. I remember gospel singing at the Royal Albert Hall – this is all youth groups. Hence why I feel it’s so important to have that, and not cut so much funding going into to it. It gave me perspective. I knew what my options were and how challenging it would be. So when things didn’t work out I wasn’t beaten.
You bought a house for your mum and dad with your first big pay cheque, right?
If your family isn’t important to you, man, I’m so sorry!
Sometimes when you get older you lose some closeness, though?
I had that a little bit, travelling, more distance. It’s the switch of roles, as your parents get older they become your babies, they’re curious every day about who you are as a person. I can tell my parents are so aware of the limited time a human being has on this planet, that they’re trying as much as possible to communicate. They’re always showing love and that’s important because when that time comes you don’t want to feel regret as to what that connection is.
You often take your friends and family to your premieres. Are they ever embarrassing?
No! My dad is my guy. He doesn’t know anyone in Hollywood so he will be talking to a big massive star and he will say “Oh that man, that man is very nice. Very tall.”, and I’ll be like “Dad, you were just talking to Dwayne Johnson, dude.” Very tall. I love that. They genuinely don’t care, not in a mean way, it’s just not important to them.
How important are your friends?
My friendship circle is cool, it’s great for me, mental health wise, to still feel like part of the lads, to not be like the leader. Because I’m the youngest, not the oldest, I’m not the leader. I’m a bachelor. I don’t want to feel like the famous guy it’s not my forte.
You see kids get wealthy and successful then go off the rails. How come that hasn’t happened to you?
I don’t know if that narrative is true. And that’s one thing that I’ve noticed. I get it – money, fame, all those things are big temptations and can sway your mind in several different ways but there’s something about you being the person that worked for what you had right now.
People have bad days and I don’t judge them. I used to when I wasn’t a celebrity myself. I’d see something about a celebrity, I’d laugh, I’d give my opinion, but once I became one I’d see things that were not even true. I don’t want to partake, it kills your brain cells. When it comes to keeping grounded it isn’t just that this person got money, and fame then started acting badly – maybe they were poor before and maybe when they got rich they were kicked out of that environment like “you’ve changed, you can’t stay”. Then they go to the wealthy and the wealthy are like “you’re from a poor background, go back there”. And that can cause you to have bad days. I understand that.
Star Wars is coming to an end. How does it feel?
It’s part of everyone’s culture and childhood, it’s a big part of mine. Even the feeling of seeing that Star Wars logo coming out of the screen – it just reminds me of how you felt the first time you watched it. For a lot of people that’s why it’s straight to your inner being, the thing that makes you happy or sad. I’m happy to be one part of the jigsaw puzzle because it is massive. It’s emotional. Because of the people – Oscar [Isaac], Daisy [Ridley], Naomi [Ackie], Kelly [Marie Tran], Billy [Dee Williams]. Everybody. Working six-seven months of the year, so you’re spending a lot of time [together]. I swear people fall in love in that time limit!
Was everyone crying on the last day?
For real. We all had a big cry. Weeping, weeping. It’s also the feeling of joy and being thankful, for you guys, for all the people who’ve been coming out to see the films. In a time when it’s harder and harder to get people out to the cinema. It’s appreciated. It’s a part of people’s lives. To be one of the many faces of it is very, very cool.
If Star Wars asked you to come back for a sequel in 40 years’ time would you do it?
Yeah, man! I’d come on with my Burberry walking stick! That’s what I want.
And what’s next for John Boyega?
I set up my production company in 2016 on the back of Pacific Rim: Uprising, after a long time being on set learning and seeing people who are at the top of their game producing, collaborating and finding funding for various projects. I have a cool, smart team who are really just about bringing our culture to the forefront. It’s really important for me. I would love an opportunity to play British as well as American roles. With British entertainment there’s something quite humble about us we’re like “we’re entertaining you, sorry if it’s too loud”. Whereas in America they’re like “here’s the action!”, and I feel like a bit of that DNA mixed in with what it means to be British, which means various different things, would be incredible for our industry and create more opportunities for actors.
What needs to happen to really shift representation in movies?
I still feel very proud of the growth that’s been going on but the ownership for me is the most exciting thing. Many actors are writing and taking ownership of the creative process. And for the industry to follow suit, in backing up that voice, that’s super important. Because you want to know in the next ten years you won’t have to have certain conversations – just to leave the politics and all that in the real world and let art be art.
There is a crop of diverse British filmmakers coming through. How important is that?
It’s very, very important to be the makers – especially if you have cultural awareness of these characters and those stories that you’re writing – but even if you’re creating a fantasy, that’s your imagination. Seeing people take ownership of that gives me motivation to
What are your hopes for your own future?
They go as far as this production company at the moment. Balance, we all know it’s hard in this world to keep this balance. Good health, safety. Making sure as time goes on you grow, you have accountability, and you can look at yourself in the mirror and tell your truth truth. You know, that’s the truth underneath the truth. Sometimes it’s hard to tell yourself you need to change things up.
Are you tough on the person in the mirror?
Everyone should be tough with the person in the mirror because you are your worst enemy.Self-discipline is a continuous learning game but I hold it important, I really do.
You’re a hero to a lot of kids who love Star Wars. What advice would you give young John Boyega?
Shut your mouth man! Shut your mouth and work! Stop talking about it, you’re only talking about it because you’re scared. Work! And be more easy on yourself when it comes to obstacles, because you didn’t choose for those obstacles to be there. I’d tell my younger self remember that you’re not the only one going for this dream, there are others going for it and it’s ok to find allies in order to have a source of good friendship and motivation.
That’s great advice. And what if it hadn’t worked out? Estate agent?
Estate agent was definitely on the cards! Architecture, cartoonist. Or you know, working at Butlins [holiday camp] as a character in one of their pop videos.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is in cinemas from December 19.