From the biggest film franchise of all time to the scrappiest Sundance indie, John Boyega has become an artist of eclectic tastes. As he tells The A.V. Club, that’s no coincidence: “versatility” is the word he keeps coming back to, both in talking about his acting on camera and his burgeoning producing work behind the scenes. Bleecker Street’s Breaking is the latest expansion of those skills; audiences who got to know the BAFTA Award winner from action-packed sci-fi like Attack The Block and the Star Wars sequels may barely recognize him as Brian Brown-Easley, a real-life former Marine who in 2017 held up a Georgia bank over a missing Veterans Affairs check. Boyega delivers all the edge-of-your-seat drama required in this thriller, directed and co-written by Abi Damaris Corbin, but grounds its increasingly high stakes in the personal and political; Brown-Easley’s stand for justice can resonate with anyone whose humanity has been denied by bureaucracy.
The film also marks one of the last onscreen appearances from Michael Kenneth Williams, who, as was typical of the late actor, went above and beyond working with collaborators. Here, Boyega reflects on that experience and chats about biographical acting, reteaming with Joe Cornish for the highly anticipated Attack The Block sequel, and how Star Wars impacted his artistic mission. He’ll next star as King Ghezo, who ruled over the 19th century West African kingdom of Dahomey—making good on that promise of versatility!—opposite Viola Davis in The Woman King.
The A.V. Club: So how did you get involved with Breaking? Why this story and why now?
John Boyega: I read the script and I was blown away. I had a frog in my throat, I was very emotional about it, I was sitting up, I was standing up reading it. It was very intense. I feel like the emotional journey the audience is going to go through is what I went through. So I wanted to be a part of it. And then I was at a stage in my career when I was thinking about what to do after being involved in [Star Wars], such a big franchise. What was the next step? And versatility was the answer. I’ll go for roles that challenge, roles that transform. Go for roles where people do not see John Boyega. And that role just stood out as something that just added up to that.
AVC: And part of that is the challenge of doing justice to a real person? You got to know Brian Brown-Easley’s wife, correct?
JB: Yeah. It was great, because you need those pieces. You need somebody that’s had intimate time, day to day time, with this person to understand the character. Because you’re being him and you have to go into depth—first the facts about the character and then seek to bring that up and add that to the script and obviously to inform and form the performance. That’s something that just helps with the whole experience. And she gave me pointers, you know, Brian’s pitch, his voice, the way in which he would walk, the way in which his eyes would set looking at another human being, the way he would talk sometimes. How his anger would manifest, how he would sometimes forget things and sometimes go into speeches that made you feel like his mind was elsewhere. For me, those pointers help you just have a good performance and portray him in the right way.
AVC: Where does John Boyega factor into your process of building a biographical character? Do you think of it as a Venn diagram of this real person overlapping with yourself?
JB: No, I think of it as me transcending self and having nothing to do with me.
AVC: So when you’re playing someone else, you’re not there at all?
JB: Yeah. I believe in an overcommitment to the character. Because if I think about me, that’s what makes you be hungry for movie star moments out of your character. Like, “Nah, I don’t want to get punched to the ground, I want to be cool all the time.” Is that the character though? I do it all for the character. You have to kind of tell your mind that you are somebody else. So your mind stops powering your mentality, your thoughts, and starts powering the thoughts of the character. And then while you’re moving and while you’re talking, it starts to become a bit more fluid until you’re near enough that you sometimes forget the camera’s there. That was something that was cool to experience in this process.
AVC: It sounds extreme, especially on a tense thriller like this. How do you then get out of that mentality, decompress and separate after filming or between takes?
JB: It’s not going to be no sophisticated Shakespeare stuff, I’m going to tell you, but here’s how to do it. You get two friends who like to have a good time. You get them to book a venue. And after you’ve wrapped up, you just go straight to the venue. Jazz bar, music, dance. Even if it’s for an hour. You just go to an environment where you see other human beings that don’t care that you’re in a movie, they couldn’t care less. And that in itself breaks you off from the character, you can wash it off, go home, heal, do what you enjoy. Sometimes I’ll see actors need to read their script before they go to bed or go over lines. But having time with friends is the way I was doing it. I was actually staying with friends while I was filming Breaking, so I had them around on purpose. Because I’m not coming back to an empty house, I need some good energy around.
AVC: You were able to work with Michael Kenneth Williams in one of his last screen roles. What was he like as a scene partner? What did his presence contribute to this project?
JB: Everything, everything. I mean, the main reason you’re going to be called is because of the work that you’ve done before. And I knew this was a favor, as well—Michael didn’t have to come down and do our movie, do a few weeks of work. I knew he was in town and I wanted to collaborate with him and he accepted. He collaborated well. We had a process—because most of our scenes are on the phone—where the other actor had to come on set and literally fold themselves in the corner and read the off lines. But Michael would come fully prepared and emotionally engaged. When you watch the movie and Brian has all these emotional reactions and you think, Wow, they’re on the phone, it’s really because Michael was there. And that presence in itself helps inform the whole film and helps elevate the whole film. For me, that’s just something that only a skillful actor could bring. And that’s what he is.
AVC: I promise I won’t ask for Attack The Block 2 secrets. But what made you excited about returning to the project that was your breakout role?
JB: I think it’s a way to switch it up, man. It’s fun. I’m just all about, in my pursuit of character, in pursuit of my taste, I’ve found that it’s created patterns that don’t make sense. [Laughs] And I don’t know, I like that. Maybe it reflects my interests. But that’s a world I just want to go back to, because I feel like London has changed since the first movie. We even spoke of certain things in that first movie that have been, like, manifested. And it’s just been the only role, in terms of the roles that I’ve done, that I’m willing to revisit. Because [Moses] is someone I want to see, I want to see where he’s at. There’s unresolved business.
AVC: And how does something like Star Wars and these bigger mythologies inform the way you think about creating an Attack The Block sequel?
JB: In terms of Star Wars, it’s something that’s too big to even compare, you know? But I guess you can think about how the first Star Wars started off as kind of like an indie—not necessarily with a budget you see these days. But I think it’s comparing the process of trusting your universe, trusting your characters, collaborating with the right people. I feel Joe Cornish is the best person to be sharing minds with, in order to create this extension. But I’m excited about just making the temple peaceful for myself and Joe to make sure that we cook up something great for you guys.
AVC: And speaking of collaboration, talk about what you hope to accomplish with your production company. What is the mission of Upperroom Entertainment Limited?
JB: To tell the stories of the untold, man! From a new, fresh perspective. To enhance versatility in roles, characters. And then to back people of color in the business. All we can do—to develop them, from writers to producers to directors, to make sure the development process is as smooth as possible, and to attract the best people in the industry to be able to collaborate, to make movies that work. I think for us now the conversation is about: Where are these original films? Where are these original filmmakers and people who can come in and enhance our film filmmaking experience? And where are the people that are going to attract people back into the movie theaters? And I feel like we are collaborating with the people that can just do that. And we’re open to being hard workers and at the same time making sure that these stories that we tell are entertaining and inspiring at the same time. It’s been fun developing the team.
AVC: It sounds like you don’t want to get boxed in as either actor or producer. Your commitment to your on-camera versatility extends to your producing?
JB: Yeah, it’s all reflective of my interests. That’s what it is. There are so many fun roles out there. The possibilities are endless.
AVC: Lastly, do you have an all-time favorite film? And a dream filmmaker collaborator?
JB: One of my favorite films is City Of God. One of my favorite directors is Barry Jenkins. I would love to work with Barry Jenkins! Yes. If he has the time, I would love to.