John Boyega is ready to be a force, both onscreen and off
John Boyega has found his voice.
Back in June, as protests broke out around the world following the death of George Floyd, the 28-year-old British actor attended such an event in London, where, with no prior notice, he was handed a megaphone and asked to speak. A visibly emotional Boyega declared, “Black lives have always mattered. We have always been important. We have always meant something. We have always succeeded regardless. And now is the time. I ain’t waiting." He would also add, "I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this but, f— that," prompting filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Rian Johnson to show their support.
Shortly thereafter, in a candid interview with British GQ, Boyega slammed how the Star Wars franchise handled his character, Finn, and those played by other actors of color. “Like, you guys knew what to do with Daisy Ridley, you knew what to do with Adam Driver,” he said. “You knew what to do with these other people, but when it came to Kelly Marie Tran, when it came to John Boyega, you know f--- all. So what do you want me to say? What they want you to say is, ‘I enjoyed being a part of it. It was a great experience…’ Nah, nah, nah. I’ll take that deal when it’s a great experience."
Now, after spending the last three years wrapping up his Star Wars run and starring in the sci-fi blockbuster Pacific Rim: Uprising, Boyega is saying something with this art, too. The actor-producer was at a career crossroads when Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) came to him with Red, White and Blue, one of the five original films in McQueen's "necessary, important, and urgent" Small Axe collection.
Premiering Friday on Amazon Prime Video, the latest installment tells the true story of Leroy Logan, a young forensic scientist who decides to join the police force after his father is assaulted by officers. Believing he can make change from within, Logan faces the wrath of his father and fellow cops.
EW spoke to Boyega about having a personal connection to Red, White and Blue, expanding the global conversation of race, and becoming a "voice of service."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about Red, White and Blue that drew you in?
JOHN BOYEGA: I just think it was an interesting story. I grew up here in London and I still live here, so to be able to play a man who is very important to our community and who has done especially so much for the young people. I’ve seen his work, because growing up I had friends who were mentored by him, so I know firsthand the positive impact that he’s had on various different lives in the U.K. So to be able to embody him, but to embody him at a time where he hadn’t come into the Leroy Logan that we know today. He was a young man in a very racist society and institution who was trying to navigate that space without the necessary support, and that interested me. And on top of that, Steve McQueen. I was at a crossroads, I had just finished a franchise, and so I just wanted to know what I could potentially do next and this felt like a great option.
So much of your last few years had been spent working on these giant special-effects films that are set in these futuristic worlds, so did you enjoy getting to come back down to earth so to speak? Do this really human story on a human level? Even though I did enjoy Red, White and Blue finding a way to make a Star Wars joke about you joining the force.
Right? Being in a scene, thinking, you know we can just force joke this lad. [Laughs] Wrong project! But I like to explore, that’s why between Star Wars VIII and Star Wars IX I did Detroit, or the reason why I’m playing a frantic, messed up lawyer in Naked Singularity. I just like jumping into different types of roles and characters and people.
You mentioned your friends being mentored by Leroy growing up, but, once you landed the role, did you get a chance to talk to him? If so, what were those conversations like?
Yeah, it was brilliant. We actually met up and had a nice long sit-down and we just spoke about his experience and were able to relate. Because I had a lot of experience in the youth clubs and school programs out here in South London and Leroy’s got a lot of experience with working with young people here, and we are just able to be like, “Yo, I’ve been to that institution, have you been there too?” And that was a connection that way, but then about getting into his mind: why, why make this decision, why let go of being a scientist and a stable life and a baby on the way and then decide to join the police force and put yourself in harm’s way? And so understanding his thinking was very, very cool.
Once he laid it out for you, how easy was it to get his mindset and understand this decision he made to pursue a new path that was controversial to many around him?
I definitely understand the perspective. And I don’t think everyone is made for it. I think we all have our different calling. But I don’t think that’s something that doesn’t help us, to have Black individuals on that side, who can add perspective and add safety to us and an understanding; it feels better than to have alien faces who perhaps won’t be able to relate and who could see things in the way that could lead to a negative outcome. So I understood those choices and I understood the conflict of it. It’s just real tricky. I know my job doesn’t need to conflict with my position, socially, whereas with Leroy Logan, it’s a hard pill to swallow.
I couldn’t help but be taken by this quote from Leroy in Red, White and Blue: “I just feel like someone’s got to be the bridge, and when you’re doing that, you just realize you’re alone.” I can’t imagine how isolating that must feel for someone to take that on. So, for you, what was it like playing the weight of that?
I felt the change in that line, and that was such a natural scene to film. Steve kind of left us alone in this café and had us have this conversation. For me, I relate to that point as Leroy. Like I understand why this guy is saying it, because he is alone, statistically. How many Black police officers are in the streets? And they definitely didn’t have enough to give him a Black partner or whatever it is he needed for those specific communities. And, in a sense, he became the poster boy, too. It’s a very isolating experience, so I understand why he said that and the loneliness that he felt in that moment, and that’s what I played.
We so often see the exploration of race and racism in America played out on the big screen or on television. As you mentioned, you even did it with Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit. But what’s it like exploring race in the U.K., which are stories that don't make it over to the States as much? I talked to Steve about this and his big thing was “America doesn’t have a monopoly on anything, especially not race.”
It definitely helps in expanding the global conversation when it comes to race. And I know America is such a big place, man, you all can stay in the same nation and have two different types of weather. All of a sudden you’re in the mountains of Utah in the snow and then you can say I’m going to a beach vacation and be in Miami. I need to travel out for that because Brighton doesn’t have that kind of color. So if you see how small we are, to be able to then share our stories and to be able to basically remove the veil, and even for African Americans as well to see the, “Oh, these are the similar lines,” it definitely helps in understanding our several different issues as we come up through society.
The headline of this Leroy's story is what he has done and what he has faced, but, to me, the father-son relationship really is the heart of this project. Did you see it that way as well?
I love my father, and I love him in the sense that you know true love, even in some shortcomings that we all have you are still able to grab something positive to learn from it. So with that I understand the love Leroy has for his father. And when Leroy spoke face-to-face with me about his father, you can just see that this guy had a very serious respect for his dad and his dad instilled in him the power to be able to do what he’s doing now. I just think his dad didn’t know that was the direction his son was heading in, but look what his son has achieved now. I’m sure his dad, God rest his soul, would definitely be proud of how far he’s come. So, for me, relating to that father and son dynamic, even in them being in conflict and arguing, just was so true to that father and son experience that some of us have had the privilege to have.
Of all the heartbreaking moments in Red, White and Blue, the one that stuck with me the most is the opening scene, which you’re not even in. It features Leroy as a child being accosted by cops as he’s just minding his own business standing outside his school. He seems so accustomed to it, like it's just part of his daily life. Is that something that you could just inherently relate to?
Oh yeah. Period. It is what it is. I noticed that too when I first watched the scene. I wasn’t there when they were shooting that scene. I actually saw that young kid coming into set to film that when I was leaving; I shot my stuff in the early day, so I took a picture of him quickly and I had to shoot off. But that scene in itself really reflects what it’s like for a lot of people and their experiences, especially here where stop and search is a major issue. And for that to randomly happen and to see someone at such a young age that is so accustomed with that system, how frequently did that happen to Leroy and those around him?
With everything that has been going on this year, something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately are how prevalent cop shows and movies are. Like every actor of note has played a cop at least once in their career. I know this story is unique in that it's based on a real man and a real hero, but moving forward, considering the continued violence from police towards people of color, will you have any hesitation in portraying a cop?
No, not at all. Because each actor has a different process for consideration of a role, and for me it’s character. If I’m playing a cop in one movie who is conflicted about his position and then in another movie I play a really messed up cop who is essentially head of this like chain gang, those are two completely different people to me, two different roles. Despite the similarities, it’s not enough to make them the same thing. So I would walk into anything that is written well, and even if it was Steve McQueen again, he’s just like, “I’ve got another cop thing." Knowing Steve, it will always be dynamic and different. Hell yeah, I’d definitely be a cop.
Is there something specific that you hope viewers take away from Red, White and Blue?
For me, I think the big thing is about understanding the perspective of the character and the conflicts of the character. Because I feel like stories like this can help us understand our society and sometimes its unfortunate complications. Whereas the news kind of packages news for us to make it simple for us to comprehend, something like this goes into depth of what happened when someone was in that position, the true conflicts that they could possibly face — and it potentially can just make us think. What I’m really curious about is how police officers themselves feel watching it. I have a friend who is an officer and I’m definitely going to be asking her what she feels about the portrayal, so it will be interesting to see her reaction to it.
So much of what Steve is exploring in Small Axe was put in the spotlight over the last few months, between systematic racism within the police to protests for racial equality. Knowing that you had just made a project about many of these same issues, what was it like seeing all of what has recently played out, not just in the U.S., but around the world?
It is surreal. I remember people saying we made the film after the protests or during the George Floyd stuff. It’s like, no, we’re in a pandemic, couldn’t do that. So just knowing that we were onto something energy-wise, that reality would reflect and project and our art would do the same thing back in what has been the craziest year so far, you can’t write that. It’s something that nobody could control. But to see it come out in this way while there are such big, intense conversations just goes to show how much of an issue it is and how much hasn’t changed.
You took this moment of time to heart and delivered this really powerful speech at a protest in London that ended up making headlines. When talking to Steve, he thought it was cathartic for you, and he was also very impressed and grateful. For you, afterwards, did it feel cathartic, and what’s it been like seeing how receptive people have been to what you did and wanting to actually hear what you’re saying?
Yeah, definitely. Because you have to understand being in a position where you are privileged, mind you the privilege is quite different because I worked for it and I still spent most of my years struggling like anybody else, your memory isn’t erased. I remember those years and I still have those friends, I still have my family — everybody doesn’t change with you. Things still connect you to that past, and so to be able to relate with that and be a part of the storytelling to push the nuance of that message is very, very important to me, because it helps me identify and support and know when to actually feel motivated by it. Because, essentially, it’s service to people, and if people say, “Okay cool, you are allowed to continue to be a voice of service for us,” then it is a blessing that comes with a responsibility. And so that’s something that I’m in full mode to handle.
Wrapping up, you’ve already done so much in your career, whether it’s starring in these blockbuster franchises or working with these great auteurs like Steve and Kathryn Bigelow, but what do you want to do next? Are there certain things that you are especially interested in pursuing?
There are so many. I just think that I’d like to explore every single genre. I am not closed, even to horror, and horror was something that I didn’t see until I watched It, and then I was kind of like, “Hmm.” [Laughs] So there are so many different things that I’d love to explore. And as a producer that’s given me so much opportunity, because now I can be a part of that development process and I’m seeing the uniqueness of what I’d like to see myself in now in the projects that we get to develop.
I feel like we’ve got to get you into a good rom-com.
Rom-com, oh yes! Absolutely. I love a rom-com, or a romantic drama. Just make sure that woman gives me space on the door. We ain’t doing that, Kate Winslet!