Who I am – Glass talks identity to emerging British actor John Boyega

The precociously talented young British actor John Boyega made his film debut in 2011 starring in the critically acclaimed UK hit Attack the Block. Since then he’s gone on to play a variety of roles including BBC3 produced My Murder and Junkhearts, directed by the award-winning Tinge Krishnan. At the tender age of 21, Boyega displays an on screen conviction and presence that’s beyond his years.

Boyega has recently completed filming the highly anticipated Half Of A Yellow Sun, based on the novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Directed by Biyi Bandele, John appears alongside a stellar cast including Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Joseph Mawle, in a drama about the struggle to establish a Nigerian independent republic.

Boyega’s next project, Imperial Dreams will have its world premiere at the prestigious Sundance Festival in early 2014, but more immediately, he’s set to appear in BBC produced The Whale, later this month as a member of a cast which includes US-screen giant Martin Sheen.

John Boyega. Photograph: Justin van VlietJohn Boyega. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

What made you decide to get into acting?
I guess that question to me has somewhat evolved as I’ve got older, I know I’m only 21, but acting found me in a sense. I just found myself being good at it, but I commend my primary school educational system for presenting that option
to me because I was probably wouldn’t have found it, I was spending a lot of my acting energy at playtime making up stuff, doing what kids do, but also just establishing that [acting] as a love.

I started to realise this is what I can do. Football flopped a bit and academically I wasn’t the greatest so you know, I found something that was cool to me – I ran with it.

So was it doing school plays and then realising you had the acting bug?
At primary school, at playtime we’d play Power Rangers and Ninja turtles – it would be so amazing, even then I literally felt like it was a production of some sort because at the time I didn’t know what the world of film was. I mean the first
film I watched in the cinema was A Bug’s Life and when did that come out?

So I literally just stumbled into it and there was my teacher, a Caribbean woman who wanted me to do a monologue from the Anansi the Spider stories – (Anasi is a huge character in West African and Caribbean folklore). I played a leopard from one of these stories; like the whole Eddie Murphy donkey in Shrek, African American and comedic. Then this whole world opened up to my eyes and I found out there was a theatre right behind my house where I could train.

John Boyega. Photograph: Justin van VlietJohn Boyega. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

As you’ve mentioned performance – as an actor, do you work closely with the director to harness your performances or do you craft them on your own?
It’s definitely a collaborative effort, there’s a balance to it that I’m still trying to learn. You do your own personal work when you get home, find your own establishment with it as an actor, as sometimes you’re going to read things that
are quite out there in terms of character. It’s interesting as an actor to pick up on those things.

Then you have to consult with your director, who sees things from the outside, who’s viewing every shot and who is basically the orchestrator of the whole thing – so it’s got to be a collaborative effort for me, love working with the

I know you’re going to work with many more, but do you have a favorite director to work with?
I enjoyed working with Joe Cornish, just awesome. Even until today when I think about it. Attack the Block was my first film, so I didn’t know the ins and outs of a film set – but after working on a few productions and going on some journeys, he definitely was great to work with.

You’ve gone on to do a number of projects since your debut of Attack the Block. Do you have a favorite body of work so far, if you have one?
My favorite body of work so far would be My Murder, it was a BBC3 project based on the murder of Shakilus Townsend. I was speaking to my manager Femi at the time and we were talking about how I’ve always been trying to make the
transition out of the whole urban thing.

So when this came about, I didn’t want to initially do it, we weren’t sure if was going to be the same old story and I don’t want to fall into that thing of being urban in every role. There are actors who do that and that’s fine, but it’s not what
I’d enjoy to watch all the time.

I enjoy Sci-Fi’s, thrillers, prehistoric dramas and all that kind of stuff. I feel I have to mirror who I am, and that’s [Urban] not who I am.

It was based on a true story, but it’s interesting that Shakilus wasn’t the average urban dude, and that’s one thing that’s hard to capture. You have the cap on, you’ve got the hoodie, but how do you show that you’re not that person
underneath the superficiality. The director Bruce Goodison really helped me capture that. I’ve watched it since and I was really drawn into it and thought, “Oh wow, that’s actually a good performance”.

John Boyega. Photograph: Justin van VlietJohn Boyega. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

Do you think being typecast in urban roles is a worrying aspect for young  black actors?
I don’t know if everybody worries about it because it’s an individual thing though isn’t it? It’s art and about what you want to put out there on display. For me it’s not, sometimes it’s based on the image as a whole, but I feel like
everything we do as black people, we open doors and you make a ripple effect – so bearing that in mind it’s an individual decision, I’ve decided to go diverse and take it that way.

I’m sure everyone runs by the saying “each to his or her own”, but you’re finding many black British actors who are doing well without having to do those kinds of roles.

Speaking of other projects, you’re starring BBC produced The Whale this  Christmas. What can you tell me about it?
The Whale is the story about the sinking of the Essex ship, and it’s based on men who are on this massive ship, where they would go out to hunt whales, extract the meat, get whale oil and make a lot of money from it.
But it’s also about this whale, which follows the ship and eventually sunk it – it’s said that this story is the one that inspired the Moby Dick novel.

It’s told from the point of view of Thomas Nickerson, a young boy who’s put on this ship in this weird circumstance and write and narrates the story of all the different people he meets, through to the sinking.

You’ve got some tense situations on the ships, arguments, cannibalism and then if a whale fin smacks into your ship, you’re done – so It’s interesting to see a boy who hasn’t been exposed to this world before takes it all in. It’s also beautifully narrated by Martin Sheen, he plays the older version of Thomas Nickerson.

John Boyega. Photograph: Justin van VlietJohn Boyega. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

What can you tell me about your character?
I play a character called Mr Bond and he is a cook on the ship, an African-American dude carrying some emotional burdens because of his history – his family was murdered prior to him getting on the ship. So we meet him on this, when it’s his second sail out – so he’s pretty fresh.

He’s stern, a hard shell, but he makes an interesting bond with Thomas, shows him the ropes a little, what we do here, what your position is, who the captain is, how to get to the top, do speak / don’t speak and all that kind of stuff.
It was a very great role and a great shoot, I haven’t seen it yet, but can’t wait for it to come out.

Were you actually on sea at any point filming that?
We filmed in Malta at Mediterranean Studios, they do a lot of European films there, I can’t remember how long we were there now, but there was some parts on the island of Gozo first for the outdoor locations, so the dry sea beds, open seas and we went out to a little where there were a few cases of sea sickness.

Was that a case of seasickness for you?
I muscled it (laughs). To be honest, I’ve been on boats but never been seasick before. But when you’re put a small 16th century rowboat, you feel the waves and your stomach starts to mix up everything inside of you. You’re thinking about it at the time, it’s probably the feeling of seeing Jesus in the flesh. There was an extra talking about how he’s sailed a ton of times, but after a few minutes his head was over the side! I was thinking that I didn’t stand a chance, but I just thought about good food and that kept it all down.

You mentioned the narration by Martin Sheen earlier – what was the cast like?
There was a fantastic cast, had Charlie Furness playing the young Thomas Nickerson, Jassa Ahluwalia playing a character called Owen, Jonas Armstrong, David Gyasi – a great cast overall, all lads. It was brilliant, good chemistry.

Have you ever had bad chemistry with a cast?
I haven’t yet, the only time I had that was when I’d done a play. It was my first professional job; it probably wasn’t the lack of chemistry, more fact that I was young and making some mistakes. Chemistry is very important though; if you have chemistry on film, it helps to sell the connection between you and the other character.

I always like to ask actors this; do you have a method for transitioning between roles or getting into character?
The script is key; it’s your biblical text, the source code. Everything is there and for me, I can never understand a character without going through that script. One of my favorite actors, Anthony Hopkins says that he goes through the script again, again and again until he knows it.

There’s something interesting in that, I don’t know if it’s like it for anyone else, but you start to embody it [the character] a little bit – once you’ve read that a character is a certain way, you just start to become it, there’s a natural element
that you can’t control.

Then there are the learning lines and if there’s an accent, which is more a technical element, but in terms of the soul and the spirit, actors have this sponge thing where we just absorb. I think everyone has it; you know when you’re
around someone for a long time and you become perfect at doing an impression of that person? It’s just that.

It’s almost like you fall into method acting instinctively.
Acting to me is your spirit, you can’t be too academic with it, but you can’t be too artistic with it either, you’ve just got to feel it. It’s something you can’t explain it – I know for a fact that some of these A-list actors sometimes they watch their
good performances and cringe saying, “I did that?” There are moments where I look and think that too, where I felt like I was capturing one thing and it comes out completely differently on screen, so there’s a soulful, spiritual truth to it.

I’ve also seen an upcoming project of yours in the Sundance festival – Imperial Dreams – what’s that about?
Imperial dreams is a story based on a reformed gangster who went to prison and has come out and decided he wants to be a man and express his talent as a novelist. Despite his ambitions and dreams he returns home and has to face the
reality of what he left behind before jail – he lives in South Central Watts (Los Angeles) with his gangster uncle, he has a son that he has to be a father to, the mother is in jail, but at the same time he has to build himself up and get back on

The camera sticks with this character Bambi, he goes through all of these situations and his relations with his family, his girlfriend played by Kiki Palmer and it’s a very, very well thought out story.

When I got the part I was thinking, how do I capture the gangster? That’s why Malik [Vitthal] is fantastic at what he does, because it’s not about your natural dude from the street. It’s really about a kind of human being that isn’t captured in that area of South Central, the human being that puts their dreams and aspirations at the forefront of their circumstance and that’s the most fantastic thing about this project.

Sundance is renowned festival, are you looking forward to the screening?
I haven’t seen it yet, I have to go back to LA to do some ADR so I’ll see little bit. I don’t know whether I’m going to watch it at the first screening for the first time, its kind of scary.

What makes you say that, was it an intimate role?
Yeah, I should have done an Idris Elba and waited until I was 30 plus! I can’t wait to hear the feedback as I was worried walking into this, I thought if you’re going to play an African American, I didn’t want to just play a generic
American. I wanted to capture South Central LA; I wanted to show the things that they would know to be true to their world.

You grew up in the  London suburb of Peckham, how did you adapt in order
to capture the colloquialisms of Southern LA?
It was worrying coming from Peckham, as hood as Peckham is, in LA there’s a different language, body language, they know your flow and they know who you are because the difference in culture sticks out.

I’ve been to LA before, but I was able to experience the culture a lot more this time, I think there’s something about not being from the best place in the world, you find a love for it.

So when you go to other countries, you establish that you’re in the Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Streets of America, but where’s the Peckham and the Camberwell? I want to go over there; it’s in your blood. I went to an area called Imperial, where Denzel Washington shot Training Day and it was amazing to just stand there and be like wow, I’m actually about to shoot a gangster film, but one with heart.

As a person, I’m not going to go into another country and disrespect their culture, going down there, you realise that the stereotype of America is overplayed here, it’s there in a sense to maybe survive, but when you talk to the
individuals they’re so different, you find out they’re into orchestral music, Bono, Japanese cartoons, so many different things. That’s how people are; we’re all different in ways.

That’s the big thing with this movie, if you’ve watched The Wire, it’s the same thing – kids living in the hood, but they’re not all the same person.

So is life cracking up to all it seems as an actor?
I never expect anything, but I know what I want. For me it felt like after ATB (Attack the Block), I would be bang on to another feature, especially after how it was received here and in the States, but it just didn’t go that way – I went up for everything, but I had to learn that to audition for a Hollywood film is different to an audition over here, but then it was a different ball-game for me.

I now look back and I’ve grown, matured a bit – I don’t just want to merely exist in the big studio picks, I don’t want to be just be there and say, “Hey I’m in Superman Six”. I want to use the time when I’m young to show my chops so I can
do as much acting as possible.

What’s next for you?
There’s The Whale, which is coming out on the BBC on December 22, Imperial Dreams at Sundance, screening on January 20 next year. I’ve just booked an American show, I can’t say what it is yet and then there are two other projects, one’s a biopic and a Sci-Fi that’s in the works, so we’re pretty much making this transition of capturing who I am – and who I am is someone who loves film!

by Kashman Harris

Photographs by Justin van Vliet

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Glass Online culture writer

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