Ever since exploding onto the screen as Moses, a teen gang leader who saves his South London council estate from an alien invasion in Attack the Block, John Boyega’s star power has been undeniable. That’s what made his sidelining in the Star Wars sequel trilogy so frustrating.
Despite beating out Tom Holland for the lead role of Finn, a stormtrooper turned Resistance freedom fighter in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Boyega’s presence was not only diminished in each passing film until his became an ancillary character, but he became the target of far-right Star Wars trolls unhappy with the series’ newfound diversity.
Fortunately for us, Boyega is back in the lead in Breaking, the feature directorial debut of Abi Damaris Corbin. He plays Lance Corporal Brian Brown-Easley, a real-life veteran of the Marines who, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder and facing homelessness after being unfairly denied his disability checks from the Veterans Administration, walked into a Wells Fargo Bank one day and said he had a bomb. It’s a dynamite turn from Boyega, who commands every inch of the screen as the despairing Brown-Easley, a man chewed up and spit out by the country he fought to protect. He’s joined by Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva, who impress as the bank employees he holds hostage, and the late great Michael K. Williams as a hostage negotiator (his second-to-last role).
The Daily Beast sat down with Boyega in Brooklyn to discuss Breaking and how the killings of two Black people—10-year-old Damilola Taylor and 46-year-old George Floyd—helped shape his worldview.
After watching Breaking, there’s no doubt that you’re a leading man. You really mine the depths of emotion in a way you’re maybe not afforded in supporting turns.
I think it’s the opportunity in the leading role, which is the opportunity that the audience is going to be following you and your perspective throughout the story. When that perspective is highlighted and uplifted, and that’s why the other actors support that perspective, it gives you a responsibility of making sure that what the audience is seeing is well-understood and they can take it in while also trying to entertain them. There’s more of an immense appreciation for the responsibility of it all, whereas in supporting, I take a backseat and am supporting their narrative and just doing my part.
You’re not only in nearly every scene of Breaking, but it’s also almost entirely set in a bank. So it struck me that there was a stage-theater element to this performance.
That’s literally what I was about to say. For this movie, I knew I had to go back into theater mode and go back into my original origins, which is the stage. I’d seen a stage way more times than I’d seen a camera by the time I got to Attack the Block, and on the set of Attack the Block I was like, “Where’s the audience?” “Am I standing stage left?” “What are these markers?” It was a whole different world. This was the first project where there was a strange duality. I’ll say, this was the first project where my film bae met my theater bae and said “Hi!” [Laughs] And it’s great. There’s a synergy there. Abi [Damaris Corbin], our director, collaborated to give the actors leeway over the space, so the cameras keeping up with the actors was something that was really special. It became theater to me, man. There were moments where I just couldn’t even see the camera. All I could see is this bank, and it felt immersive.
I like that as you’ve become more established you still work with first-time filmmakers. There are a number of big actors in Hollywood—and I won’t name names—who refuse to.
I know. Everyone has their opinion about what they think will come with that, but they have some good ideas, man. And you can do the studio and mainstream stuff, but there’s also something so cool about using your power to uplift projects from first-time directors that you just want to see win because they’re doing the work and just need a shot.
What was the pitch? How did Abi convince you to jump onboard?
The pitch was the script. Funny enough, there was something spiritual I felt about it anyway, because I was just back home and thinking to myself, “I want to do something meaningful.” It was after Small Axe had come out and then I got the Golden Globe, I think to a certain extent I needed a reminder that I was good and could do certain things, because for a long time, naturally when you’re in a franchise playing the same role for a long amount of time, I know the audience loves it and I love it, but the extent of it is that as an actor you want to explore other sides to your versatility because it’s hard to convince you guys that we can do other stuff.
The film presents an interesting message about the way we treat military veterans. The military in this country provides free college and benefits, so it relies heavily and financially insecure people—including many people of color these days—and then a group of mostly rich white guys sends them off to war, and when they come back, they’re denied proper support. It’s a wicked cycle and, to a degree, predatory.
Sometimes it comes across as a strong investment to getting people in, but not much care in terms of when they get out. Unfortunately, you have stories like Breaking where people like Brian do not get the support they need. Brian had PTSD issues, which was verified, as well as him not being able to be himself, feed his family and provide, living out of a motel. We look at those stories from the outside-in, and still in our comfort zone—from our favorite sofa viewing Netflix and our TVs—and we don’t take our bodies and put ourselves in a scenario where we’re in a shabby motel, nothing is working in life, and you’re getting no traction or consistency. As an actor, going in that motel room and seeing how specifically they set-dressed everything and the way he lived, it was reflection mode and made me get into the character a lot more.
One thing that struck me in the film is the ending and what it says about policing. The police seem to want to kill Brian and eventually snipers take him out. We don’t usually see that so much with white folks. We more often see them lead out in handcuffs alive.
It’s a strange thing. They come out clean. I don’t understand it, but it’s definitely something that they have to explain.
I’m curious how the last few years have affected you and how you think about your career. I think everyone’s been doing some reassessing over the course of the pandemic about where we are personally and professionally.
I’ve been reassessing all aspects. Time with family and friends, and putting much more quality and thought and intention into the time I spend with them, and including them into aspects of my life that normally I wouldn’t include them in because I’m so busy. Before I’d be like, “Nah, you just chill,” and you don’t realize, “Yo, they can help you as well.” Being alone and wanting more connection, because we were all so separated, and being vulnerable, I realized that this was a balance that I needed to upkeep in order to stay good. And then physically, it was about getting in the gym and proving that I could do it for myself. No ’roids. No nothing. Creatively, it spiraled off into different projects. Breaking certainly happened during the pandemic. In [The Woman King] I play a king who’s protected by some of the most ruthless female warriors out there. And for me, it was realizing, “Oh, I’m the guy they call when they need versatility in their projects, and I need to lean into that a little bit more.
And a lot of them are by Black filmmakers. I’m not sure how intentional that was.
Very much so. I invited Daniel Kaluuya to my house because I was thinking about a lot of stuff. We had a sit-down and I told him everything about how I felt. And it was so simple, the way he reacted. He was like, “Yeah. You need to prioritize the work, and work with people that actually fuck with you.” With creative collaborations, we have to find people who are on our wavelength and then we create something good for our audience. That was one of the voices where I was like, OK, this is what I’m going to do.
“He was like, “Yeah. You need to prioritize the work, and work with people that actually fuck with you.””
— John Boyega on Daniel Kaluuya
When Daniel gave you that advice, was he staring at you with his head tilted sideways like in Widows?
[Laughs] Yeah! His head was to the side! Not as close though. I’ve got a round dining table.
I watched your incredible speech at the Black Lives Matter protest in London during the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. And there are career implications when you do something like that if you’re working for, say, a company like Disney. But it seemed like a calling. Like something you had to do.
I do know it was a spontaneous day with the way everything went down, because I didn’t actually go to the protest to speak. There were no official plans or anything like that. And while we were waiting for Belly Mujinga’s family to come there specifically, that’s when the megaphone was like, “Do you want to say a few words?” And I stood up and said what was on my mind and expressed how I’d been thinking. The expression of that thought seemed so spontaneous, like it had come out of nowhere, but I’ve lived a Black life—even before money and fame. I’ve lived over a few decades of a Black life, and for me, that perspective doesn’t leave you because you have money or because you have stability. You’re still going to feel a certain connection when you see a Black individual in the States get stomped down like that. You’re going to feel that way. I think what’s been surprising for me is that sometimes people are like, “Well, you’re an actor now! Do your career and make your money!” And you’re like, wow, that’s more of a reflection of how cold-hearted you are. And by the way, I have money. I have it. It’s not powerful enough to erase your empathy when you see someone who looks like you going through a circumstance. If you have a heart, you will be moved by it.
“And by the way, I have money. I have it. It’s not powerful enough to erase your empathy when you see someone who looks like you going through a circumstance. If you have a heart, you will be moved by it.”
And you mentioned in the speech how it might affect your career, because Hollywood will give lip service to certain causes publicly but behind the scenes can act differently when people are outspoken.
I thought about that on the day, and honestly, it was much more simple in my head. It’s because the crowd was just building up a little bit more, and I looked up and saw news helicopters. When I saw the helicopters I was like, oh, this might be news to people. This might be something that’s online and stuff, which I hadn’t expected it to be. But I did worry. At the time, I hadn’t yet understood the positive side of it. I was worrying. I was like, damn, if they see that they’re not gonna go out and say, “We don’t support John Boyega.” They would never do that. You know what they’re gonna do behind the scenes? You’re not gonna get no work. There’s not gonna be a conversation or none of that. You’re gonna find that they’re sat in rooms that you’re not gonna be able to get into.
“John Boyega’s trouble.”
Yeah. “He’s trouble.” That kind of stuff. And we’re seeing examples of true trouble right now, and I hope people are using that as the comparison. Do not forget that. We are seeing real issues. Let’s measure it correctly, and get to the point in realizing that the positive side of things is meeting people that’s for me. The flip side of that is, you feel like the industry is all one person. And then through the filter, someone shoots out like boom, and you look up, and it’s someone in the industry and you just didn’t know that they thought like you. They’re like, no, I’m in this position, but I mess with what you were saying. That’s Jamie Foxx. That’s Viola Davis. That’s Gina Prince-Bythewood. That’s Abi [Damaris Corbin]. That’s Kwame Kwei-Armah. Michael K. Williams. Nicole Beharie. These are all my allies. They’ve come out and been like, let’s go work. That’s Olivia Washington. That’s Joe Cornish. That’s Juel Taylor. And for me, that synergy and now identifying the people who are like, we agree, is in my head like that last portal scene in Endgame where they’re coming out on your left. [Laughs] I’m a Pisces, so I can have a bit of an out-of-this-world imagination about normal stuff.
I wanted to talk about Star Wars, because when you were first cast, I was under the impression that you were going to be the lead.
[Whispers] So was I!
And then, with each successive film, the role got smaller and smaller until you were fifth or sixth billing by The Rise of Skywalker. Plus, you were minimized on posters for the films in China. What did that whole experience teach you about being in the big franchise machine, and also about how that machine treats people of color?
For me, it was just the differences. I always try to take away the lesson of, “That was different. But never again.” You know what I mean?
I do. It seems like they’ve at least been more supportive of Moses Ingram when the weird trolls came for her. And by the way, I grew up a big Star Wars fan, and I don’t know what movies these racist trolls are watching. If you don’t get that the Star Wars movies are overtly anti-fascist, you’re not understanding them at all. So, they’ve attracted this strange far-right fandom that just has no fucking idea what the movies are about.
Right. It’s an ignorance that keeps on coming up in conversation.
I think it’s a small but very vocal minority.
Yeah. And sometimes they can be louder because their perspective is like, wait, what? So, they can be exalted a bit too much. But as a fan even, I just think that being open to getting the best actors for the job who come from various backgrounds is fantastic. There’s nothing wrong with that. And going for actors of color wherever doesn’t mean that you’re pandering to any kind of notion, it can just be a person that’s a different color from you that is still the best person for the job. I don’t know why those things are mutually exclusive in people’s heads. That’s something that I feel more and more people are starting to understand a little bit more.
Did you enjoy all the shipping of Finn and Poe?
That was hilarious. You know what was funny about that? Oscar was playing it up. We were onstage at I think it was Comic-Con or something, and he turns to me and says, “Bae, give me your hand”—he always calls me “bae”—and I give Oscar my hand and he puts it up in the air and the crowd just starts going off. He loved it. For him, he always wanted to see that kind of representation in Star Wars. I read with another guy for Poe Dameron who was really talented as well, but it came down to the chemistry. When Oscar got on set, I don’t know why, we got this bromance that was just dope, but as actors we could transcend that bromance.
This is going to seem like a bit of a sharp turn, but it does back to some of themes explored in Breaking. I wanted to ask you about something that happened in your youth that not a lot of people in the States are familiar with, and that’s the killing of Damilola Taylor. I read that you were quite close with Damilola, and that’s a crazy thing to have happen to someone you’re close with at a young age. How did that shape your perspective?
I think that… I think the effects of that situation were life-long, in a sense. There’s a militant side in me now because of it. I was very young at that age and I didn’t understand the concept of death. I was 9. I felt like the concept of death was forcefully spoon-fed to me, because suddenly the police are at your house trying to get information, and they have to tell you what’s going on in order for you to emphasize the information. That’s a perspective I didn’t really know about. Coming from that environment and seeing the stuff that would happen around you, you start to understand more and more that the danger in this world could be around the corner. I appreciate the life I’ve made for myself now because of scenarios like that. It makes me have a connection to how mortal everybody is. Because that was a good guy. Damilola was a good guy. And we were just kids.
Man, I’ve been through a lot of scenarios that have shaped me. I was kidnapped in Nigeria. It just creates a perspective concerning the concept of empathy. And also, there’s a calmness when it comes to certain extreme situations or scenarios due to what you’ve been exposed to.
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