Path To Stardom
By Peter Wallace
Hailed as a future Hollywood megastar ever since his indie breakthrough – John Boyega’s talents have placed him front and centre in one of the biggest film franchises in history. But the path to fame wasn’t easy, and the young Londoner isn’t one to make exceptions…
In John Boyega’s latest and biggest cinematic appearances – as the modern Star Wars trilogy’s Finn – the Peckham-born star plays an Imperial stormtrooper who comes to reject his ideologies and instead joins the freedom-fighter Resistance.
It’s not just that this representation of Boyega appears in a galaxy far, far away. The casting off of beliefs is a concept far, far removed from the 27-year-old actor’s real-life core message. ‘I come from a family that has strong faith, and you realise that life is transient, and nothing is more important than inner peace,’ he smiles. ‘I pray and meditate a lot. Money and fame do not have enough power over me to change my personality.’
In spite of being propelled via the multi-billion-dollar Star Wars franchise, the ninth and final episode of the ‘Skywalker’ saga having come to a close this year, Boyega has stayed true throughout to life before the limelight. The son of a Pentecostal minister, Samson Adegboyega, who for the past fifteen years has preached in the capital, the young actor’s initial expectation was in fact to follow in his father’s footsteps as a representative of the church. ‘I had a wonderful drama teacher, Ms Early, and she helped convince my father that I was serious about my acting studies,’ he recalls. ‘I think she told him that it was a good way to keep me out of trouble, and so he was fine with that!’
Had the intervention of Ms Early not been successful, there’s little doubt that cinema would be worse off. Since making waves in his 2011 big screen debut as gang leader Moses in cult sci-fi hit Attack the Block – for which he was awarded both British Independent Film and London Film Critics’ Circle Awards – Boyega’s career has gone from strength to strength. Just four years later, he was chosen to front the Star Wars reboot alongside fellow Brit Daisy Ridley. The much-anticipated first instalment of the series, The Force Awakens, was an immediate record-breaker, reporting the then-highest opening weekend takings, and surging onwards to become the fastest film to scoop $1billion at the box office.
More so than financial gains, however, was Boyega’s shortcut to bona fide blockbuster stardom. In less than half a decade, Boyega had moved from working on films with less than $10million in the budget, to playing the lead on the seventh instalment of one of cinema’s defining franchises. In the modern era, such an astronomical rise is a double-sided coin. ‘Being in this position, you just understand the masses, how the masses think, you know?’ he says. ‘Through social media, we get to engage, we get to have fun. But at the same time, for those who are not mentally strong, who believe in every single thing that you read, that backlash...it is what it is sometimes. But to engage, to connect with the fans who otherwise wouldn’t get a day to day experience, especially during things like the press tour, and behind the scenes stuff, is always good.’
There’s always the sense with Boyega, though, that no matter the cameras and the red carpets, the teachings of his father remain to navigate him away from the perils and pitfalls that so many young Hollywood hotshots stumble headlong into. ‘Faith carries me through it all,’ he agrees. ‘But apart from that, you need a good set of people behind you. Good family and friends. I’m lucky that I’ve disciplined myself in choosing who I allow into my heart; it’s benefited me in the long run. Now I’m ready for the ride. Faith will guide me.’
Perhaps Boyega is lucky in that he is working in a Hollywood that has undergone sweeping changes in recent years. Not so long ago, such public declarations would have been considered unwise by many an actor’s management. In times past, the only avenue for faith-based filmmaking came at the fringes, with companies like Mike and Gloria Bamiloye’s Mount Zion Drama Ministry and Mount Zion Television. The industry has made headway, however small, in bringing about a space in which stars can be comfortable to express themselves. Boyega has not only benefitted; he has shouldered the responsibility that comes with such a huge opportunity and is hoping to do even more to unite his passions in the future. ‘I grew up watching the Mount Zion movies!’ he laughs. ’I thought because of my religious background, I would specifically go for a market that was based in spirituality. Later I realised that wasn’t for me, so I went secular, but I want to be able to make movies with spiritual themes in the future...’
If the title of Boyega’s debut stint as a producer is anything to go on, that chance may come soon. South African crime thriller God is Good will recount the story of a reformed gangster turned pastor who crosses paths with a detective as they battle against a vicious gangster. The film will deal with many religious themes as part of Boyega’s determination to extend his staunch faith into his work.
‘It’s an important story that explores themes of fathers and fatherhood, toxic masculinity, race and faith in a community that has become trapped in an unending cycle of violence and racial oppression,’ he explains, ‘and where sometimes it seems for men that violence is the only way of achieving power.’
In producing a film before his thirtieth birthday, Boyega shows just how far he has come. His dedication to his craft, however, and the work ethic that saw him complete three films in 2017, for example, are just as obvious traits off-camera. When Boyega says he stays humble by relying on his faith, he’s not inferring it’s an easy ride – indeed, the star puts in as much daily effort into this side of his life as he does on his professional vocation. ‘I pray every day after I wake up and before I go to bed - that’s how I was raised,’ he nods. ‘In the evening I pray and then sometimes if I have enough time I’ll try to meditate as well. Just to detach from the day and the current challenges and struggles of daily life, I try to detach and hopefully find some good path.’
That ability to disconnect from the omnipresent pressures of a celebrity lifestyle has roots in his upbringing: ‘I don’t drink,’ he shrugs. ‘Because I was raised by parents who never drank. It’s harder if you’re a party animal before you’re famous, because when the glory comes, you do not want to give it up.’
But though this may seem restrictive to your average wannabe star, Boyega is sure in the knowledge that his childhood was anything but strict. ‘When I tell people where I was raised, they always go, “Oof, how was that?” as if it was rough,’ he explains. ‘I reckon I had a better childhood than most people who were raised in amazing environments. It was happy and active – playing on the estate, climbing trees, and going to theatre clubs. There was so much community, so much to get involved in.’
Incredibly, Boyega has even managed to find the same path as another member of that community – breakout Black Panther star Letitia Wright. A year younger than Boyega, Wright has outpaced him in at least one regard, with a spot on the gargantuan Avengers franchise finale, Endgame, which became the highest grossing film of all time on its release this year. There’s no hint of jealously, however. Instead Boyega sees himself and Wright as living their childhood dreams together, and hopefully opening the way for kids like them who have at some point felt compelled to compromise on their personal beliefs in order to succeed in the public eye.
‘Letitia and I were in the same class at London’s School of Acting,’ he smiles. ‘It was so special for me to see her in Black Panther because I have seen Letitia from when we both had nothing, had no credibility, and wanted our chance. We would sit and after classes, everybody would congregate at a nearby McDonald’s and I remember seeing Letitia and we would speak about our dreams and our visions. We would speak about our spirituality, our relationship with God, prayer, and various other things. We knew something was cooking. We knew there was a group of people that were gonna come out of there and really do it. It felt like this group of people might just be the example and prove the success is real. We all did that and it’s just mad. It’s crazy for us all.’
Like many of his contemporaries, Boyega represents a kinder side to celebrity. Though the entertainment industry continues to be a cut-throat world in many ways, as a London-born child of Nigerian immigrants, Boyega feels akin to the kind of underdog stories that have characterised his move from the inner city to premiers around the globe.
‘I love people like Drake, he’s done very well in his career and I like his perspective, I really respect the guy,’ he says. ‘And I’m into Afrobeats now; it’s coming up, just in terms of the way I’ve been seeing Afrobeats infiltrate popular culture and mainstream culture. Just a bit more awareness of it is a good thing. Even in little commercials, all the Afrobeats music you’ll hear. I’m a big fan of that movement!’
His next high-profile TV project again speaks volumes. Small Axe will follow a group in London’s burgeoning African-Caribbean community from the late Sixties into the early Eighties. Directed by Academy Award-winning director of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, the BBC mini-series will see Boyega star as Leroy Logan, one of the Metropolitan Police’s first black officers. Is it a stretch to imagine that the struggles of former generations and fellow immigrants have shaped his determined persona? Boyega’s mix of open-hearted artistry and instilled toughness reflects parts of his life, good and bad – his childhood friendship with Damilola Taylor, killed at the turn of the millennium aged just 10, is balanced against his ambitions to fight stereotyping from the media, and even his own industry.
He has made a point of refuting aspersions about his upbringing, such as the reminder that despite the shadow of crime that crossed his path, his estate was just two minutes’ walk from ‘a beautiful theatre.’ And as he looks towards a future where he has achieved so much in such a short time, the sense of a clear vision has never wavered, despite outside expectations. ‘My mom and dad have been together for 25 years, so that’s the system I will follow,’ he explains. ‘It’s nice to survive with your companion by your side. I’m sure it’s a good thing. But I’ve never experienced it. I do know, however, that she’s got to be Christian.’
Humility works both ways. Boyega may be becoming known as a role model who stands his ground and keeps to his moral compass in spite of fame and fortune, but he’s not about to undo the good work by beginning to believe his own hype. ‘I grew up as a minister’s son and was systematically religious in the beginning,’ he notes. ‘I was religious because that was all I knew. But then I let it go and had my own spiritual experiences and came on back. When I did that, my life and my outlook changed. I’m still a work in progress but I have a fundamental blueprint for the kind of man I want to be – and it’s a result of a process of being around some incredible people in acting school who had a spiritual awareness and weren’t afraid to say it.’