John Boyega hadn't been born when "Star Wars," with its cast of relative unknowns, electrified pop culture. The trilogy forever transformed sci-fi filmmaking and made Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher household names.
Nearly 40 years later, the relatively unknown Boyega is poised to repeat history. The 23-year-old actor was tapped by "Star Wars" director J.J. Abrams to help kick-start the next installment of the franchise, "Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens."
"Sci-fi over the years has had a way of commenting on social issues, but without being preachy," says Boyega, who plays a character named Finn in the movie, set to be released in December. " 'Star Wars' was built on mythical stories, spirituality and also the classic good-versus-evil. But also, for me, is the understanding of human beings...I just love the human commentary."
You'd be forgiven if you're not familiar with Boyega. He's best-known for his role as Moses in the British comedy "Attack the Block," about teens who defend their London neighborhood against alien invaders. The low-budget (estimated at $13 million) movie is worlds apart from the marketing windup and excitement surrounding the new "Star Wars" film.
The son of Nigerian immigrants who relocated to the United Kingdom before he was born, Boyega isn't yet comfortable talking about himself, saying he's unsure about allowing the world to peer into his life. What he will say is that he likes to work out, play video games and collect action figures, which he features in posts on his Instagram photo-sharing account. He also cherishes an orange-and-black-striped cat he got after "Star Wars" finished filming last year. The cat's name: Oluwalogan, which includes the word for God in Nigeria's Yoruba language.
Boyega is even more secretive about his role in "Star Wars VII." He was the first character fans saw in Walt Disney's initial movie trailer, released last November.
In the clip, he's wearing Stormtrooper armor, sans helmet, and is on the run. Later, Disney released the film's promotional poster featuring him holding a lightsaber, the saga's iconic weapon.
What he will say about the movie is that Finn is on a journey, much like the origin stories of gods and superheroes from other mythologies. "All the characters we love — Batman, Spider-Man — never ever start off as those guys," Boyega says in his rich British accent.
His casting has sparked controversy. Last year, some Twitter users questioned Disney's decision to show a black man in the iconic white military garb. Boyega's response: "Get used to it."
Now, some are threatening to boycott a movie with a black man in a lead role.
Boyega says he thinks about the impact of his role, but it doesn't consume him. When "you're a working actor, and they tell you you've got an audition for a movie, diversity isn't the first thing you think about."
Boyega spoke with Ian Sherr, executive editor at CNET, about his connection to "Star Wars," the impact of science fiction on culture, his thoughts on the saga's mythology and how he fits into it. Here are some edited excerpts from their conversation.
Q What about "Star Wars" appeals to you most?
Sci-fi over the years has had a way of commenting on social issues, but without being preachy. I know that, according to George Lucas, "Star Wars" was built on mythical stories, spirituality and also the classic good-versus-evil. But also, for me, is the understanding of human beings. It's everybody that we've had so far, especially Anakin Skywalker, who has been conflicted about their part in the Force.
I like the way an individual explores the good side and the bad side of the Force. The funny thing to me is, it's a commentary about mistakes. It's always been said that Anakin Skywalker was going to bring balance to the Force, right? He eventually did, but in another way. So it just talks about us as human beings. We start off one way, with our own plan, and then life happens. Perhaps we reach a goal; perhaps we don't. I just love the human commentary.
It's commentary on life. Add some spaceships, controlling things with your mind and stuff, and you've got a cool space opera.
Over the years we've had a lot of big-budget movies with special effects, but they don't resonate with the people as much as others do. And the main reason, I feel, is because of the human stories.
What did you think when you first saw "Star Wars"?
I saw "The Phantom Menace" first, which is pretty cool. I watched it at home and the only thing I was obsessed about was [the character] we now know as Darth Maul. Black and red, his face used to creep me out.
I remember watching the prequels and just not being as intrigued. But then I watched the original, and I was like, "ohhh."
It was an interesting time to really get to know the "galaxy far, far away" and I was very, very much intrigued and interested in "Star Wars." Today, I'm much more involved in the expanded universe. I like reading the comic books. I played "The Force Unleashed" games. I'm really looking forward to "Star Wars Battlefront" and all those games. I'm really involved in that.
Darth Maul is the movies' least-explained character and yet you find him the most interesting. Why?
I just remember being at school and seeing this black-and-red dude with spikes coming out of his head and thinking, "Is he all right? Does he need some sort of a pill?" So I've always been intrigued by this guy. And his fighting style was dope. Everyone else is running around with this single-handed lightsaber, and he had that dual-edged sword. And he was doing flips. No one else was doing that stuff.
Do you have a favorite scene from all the movies?
The scene where Han Solo and Luke have gone to rescue Princess Leia and they're in the control room [on the Death Star]. There's a moment where Harrison is talking into the intercom. There's a little exchange [with a Stormtrooper] and he shoots the intercom. I love that moment. It's just hilarious and funny.
Do you prefer those lighthearted scenes over dramatic ones?
That's what gets me happy. "Star Wars" is different from any other movie. Let's say, in a [director Martin] Scorsese drama, you have a plane crash and everybody would be scared.
But in "Star Wars," the pilot would just be like, "Woo! Everyone, hold on! Put the thrusters on! Cut to light speed!"
It speaks to the inner child in everyone. There's just that kind of adventurous feel, and it makes you feel like you're involved in the world, and you just feel like you're on a bloody big ride. It's quite amazing. I love it.
You were the first person to appear in the movie trailer. What did you think?
I think Finn is a very interesting character. Finn is going to represent that classic "Star Wars" story and that classic "Star Wars" narrative. We have all these new characters coming in, but Finn is going to be one of the characters that carries on the narrative that we all know from the original.
So, for me, it felt like it's necessary for my guy to be introduced — and introduced with a bang — because his story is not as straightforward.
Everybody's asking about the mystery of who Finn is. He's a mysterious guy so far, and no one has any clue what's going on with him.
What do you think you brought to the character of Finn?
Charisma is a big thing about Finn that I had to tap into. Finn has an inner confidence that is really, really mine.
For the first few auditions that I did for "Star Wars," I had to acquire a dramatic approach because of the content on the page. But then after a while I thought to myself, "Wait, this is 'Star Wars.' 'Star Wars' is different from any other project. 'Star Wars' has its own culture. It has its own energy."
I said, "You know what? I'm going to go to YouTube, and I'm going to watch Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford's audition for the original 'Star Wars' movie."
And I watched their audition, and there was this casual approach to danger and to being a hero that I drew some inspiration from. If you see Harrison in his audition and Mark, there's this, "The ship's about to blow up, but, woo hoo! Switch to light speed!" I love that. No other movie does that. In another movie they'd be crying and calling their parents, but in "Star Wars" it's like, "woo!"
It's all fun. So I'm just like, "I'm going to go in and have a whale of a time."
Without giving away the plot — unless you want to — what was your favorite moment working on "Star Wars"?
Favorite moment, for me, was being in Abu Dhabi in the desert, in full Stormtrooper gear, and standing next to a crashed TIE fighter.
You bring diversity to a series that some people say has lacked it. Do you feel any pressure from that?
I think about it. But, to be honest, when you get a call, and you're a working actor, and they tell you you've got an audition for a movie, diversity isn't the first thing you think about. The first thing you think about is booking the part and doing the best you can. That was seven long months of training, of reading scripts that I wasn't allowed to bring home, to create this character from scratch. So that for me was the emphasis.
Not many people become characters in a video game. And here I'm talking to one.
I had a great time doing the voiceover for Finn for "Disney's Infinity" [game]. The great thing about him is that you get to bring the same spirit of a character I helped create to the gaming world. For me, that is so weird, because I love games.
To see myself in that format, it's just ridiculous. I can't even say it's a dream come true. It's more like an altered reality. It's like, seriously, did I just end up in a video game? I mean, you want to be in movies, but then you end up in a video game. It's crazy.