I’m talking to John Boyega, the 23-year-old star of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in a dimly lit conference room somewhere in Los Angeles. It’s part of a massive global media junket that’s so secretive, journalists are prohibited from geotagging photos they post to Instagram. There’s less than two weeks before J.J. Abrams’ film hits theaters, and the cast have to talk up the movie — which they themselves have only recently seen — nearly every day. But that’s not slowing Boyega down.
“I’m having so much fun, because you know what? They cast a Star Wars fan in a Star Wars movie,” he tells me. “Biiiiiig mistake!” The London-born actor first jumped on Hollywood's radar for his performance as a gang leader in the sci-fi comedy Attack the Block — that’s where Abrams first saw him — but over the past year he’s become the living embodiment of Star Wars fandom. Walking the Star Wars Celebration show floor in costume; posting trailer reaction videos on YouTube; geeking out over the fact that he’s been turned into multiple toys. If the original trio of Ford, Fisher, and Hamill had a reluctant relationship with their space opera fame, Boyega is running into his full tilt. But as we talk about stormtroopers, lightsabers, and the newfound diversity of the Star Wars universe, it’s clear that enthusiasm doesn’t keep him from taking the work itself extremely seriously.
Bryan Bishop: Anytime somebody gets cast in a big franchise film like this there’s a lot of talk about how their life is going to change forever. It seems like that’s already happened for you and Daisy, but you both still seem pretty grounded. How you are handling the influx of attention?
John Boyega: I think it’s probably because despite the short amount of time that I’ve had so far in my career, I have had a career, and have worked. So for me, I’m not going into something that is raw and fresh. Despite that it’s Star Wars and how huge it is, it’s still work to me, and that element of things grounds you, especially from nerding out a few times. Although, some days I can’t control myself. But apart from that, a good set of people behind you. Good family and friends. I’m lucky that I’ve disciplined myself in choosing who I allow into my heart [pounds fist on chest] so it’s benefited me in the long run. Now I’m ready for the ride.
I’m sure you’ve talked with the original cast about what they went through, but you guys are dealing with this kind of exposure in an age of social media and instant accessibility. It’s a very different challenge than what they faced.
Yeah, it’s nothing like it. Social media; it’s just different. For me, my main approach with this movie is that fans haven’t been able to have an insight into Star Wars the way they’d like to, and so the way in which I’ve used social media — and especially in terms of my Snapchat and Instagram — I’m basically trying to just remove the veil on the process, so fans can have more of an appreciation for the work that goes into the film. Because all they do is see the trailers, and then see the movie. So it’s good for fans to kind of go on this journey with me and see how things work.
One thing that’s generated a lot of conversation has been the casting of the film. It’s much more diverse and representative of the world we live in. The original movies, as much as they’re loved, were largely just a bunch of white American dudes fighting a bunch of white British dudes. Was changing that expectation something you were focusing on when you were making the film?
Yeah, you are aware of it to a certain extent, but it quickly becomes so natural, because that’s our [real] world. It just works. So it’s not something that you go, "Gosh, leading female and black male." It feels like an ensemble of people that work [cohesively]. Obviously everybody’s been chosen based on their skills and based on their ability. But the fact that also, we’re reflective of the world we live in today is fantastic. Apart from the Wookiees and the green people. We’re giving them attention just in case that happens. You never know where the melanin is gonna go. It could go pink. You never know.
It’s such an interesting proposition because you know there will be kids that will see this movie, and they’ll think they’ll be able to do something because Rey did it, or Finn did it. That’s an awesome power.
It’s so funny because I’ve watched the movie, and I related to Rey a lot. A lot. It actually surprised me how much I related to her story and who she is, and the tones and process that she goes through. So for me, that’s so good that we’re able to get different versions of relationships between audience and the cast.
So let’s talk about the movie itself. Obviously, I don’t know anything, because you guys have been doing your job…
I’m so sorry. What’s it now, eight days? Is it eight days now?
[Studio publicist: "For the premiere, it’s eight days."]
See that’s how I’m doing it. Premiere: eight days. Eight days. Eight days. I’m not trying to think about release.
"I relate to Rey a lot. A lot."
But one of the things we do know about Finn is that he’s a Stormtrooper that’s lost his faith a little bit, and decides to jump ship. That’s a dynamic we haven’t seen in this world before.
It was so intriguing about the role. I think for me, wearing the helmet and being part of the Stormtroopers felt so strange. Like, so this is what it feels like to just be one of the many. And to look the same, and to have to do the same thing. To be under the same orders. This is what it feels like. And I was actually quite shocked as to how much Finn’s journey is investigating [that idea]. He’s a fun character, he has a very complicated history, but we get to experience the individuality of Stormtroopers, and it’s never been done before.
One of the other things we know is that Finn ends up with Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. What was the lightsaber training process like?
Oh, that was fantastic. You know, it started off with sticks. And then I advanced to the ignited sabers, and I really enjoyed myself working with the sabers. The swinging, the aggression. And I was able to add my own little fighting style to that, my own ideas.
You often talk about how you’re a fan. Tell me about the first moment when you were on set, lightsaber in hand, and you turned it on.
It feels good, it feels good. One thing is when they get the timing right. As soon as they put it in your hand, you raise it up, they turn it on, and it just works out smooth? It feels like you’re actually within the scene, and you’re actually about to kick ass, and there’s no pretending necessary.
And you know, going up against Adam Driver; good lord. You gotta keep that blade up. Keep it up! [Laughs] Bob and weave, bob and weave! Adam Driver’s reach is like — he can be in New York, and he’ll slap you with the saber. You’re in LA, and you’ll be like [ducks] "What the hell was that?"
Did you take one of them home with you?
I didn’t think of that! That’s the part, in terms of my Star Wars fandom, where I think I have underachieved. Everything else it’s been 10 out of 10. My grades have been absolutely phenomenal. But that? I’m going back for what’s mine. It’s going to be Revenge of the Boyega. I’m going back to that set and going to be like, "J.J., [give me] the Stormtrooper helmet, the leather jacket, and the lightsaber."
You said you’re looking forward to the 14th, but on the 17th the entire world is going to be seeing this movie. Where are you going to be?
I’m sure you’re going to hear about someone that looks like the guy in the film popping up in theaters. I’ve just accepted that this is the only time I’ll be able to experience Star Wars like this. Especially [because] it’s a comeback; it’s a continuation after so long. So I definitely want, in a safe way, obviously, to interact with fans and really explore how Star Wars is actively affecting people on opening night. I want to dress up in costume and check out the queues. That’ll be really good fun.
That’s the thing about this movie — there will be sequels, obviously, but no subsequent Star Wars film will ever have this same level of anticipation again.
No. Unless they decided to just do no more Star Wars movies for 100 years on purpose, and then just bring it back. But I don’t see them doing that.
So you’ve seen the movie. You mentioned relating to Rey as being a stand-out moment. What other elements in the movie surprised you?
I like the dogfights in the air. The X-Wing dogfights that we’ve seen briefly in the trailers. It’s beautiful and magical to look at, and just reminds me of why I love Star Wars so much. For me it’s just epic, and it’s gonna make you feel like jumping over the cinema seat and slapping someone’s popcorn out of their hand. That’s what it’s going to make you feel like. And you’re going to feel like hollering most of the time, and it really brings out the nerd in everyone. So I really can’t wait for everybody else to see it.