By Ian Sherr
John Boyega hadnâ€™t been born when â€œStar Wars,â€ 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 â€œStar Warsâ€ director J.J. Abrams to help kick-start the next installment of the franchise, â€œStar Wars VII: The Force Awakens.â€
â€œSci-fi over the years has had a way of commenting on social issues, but without being preachy,â€ says Boyega, who plays a character named Finn in the movie, set to be released in December. â€œâ€‰â€˜Star Warsâ€™ 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.â€
Youâ€™d be forgiven if youâ€™re not familiar with Boyega. Heâ€™s best-known for his role as Moses in the British comedy â€œAttack the Block,â€ 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 â€œStar Warsâ€ film.
The son of Nigerian immigrants who relocated to the United Kingdom before he was born, Boyega isnâ€™t yet comfortable talking about himself, saying heâ€™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 â€œStar Warsâ€ finished filming last year. The catâ€™s name: Oluwalogan, which includes the word for God in Nigeriaâ€™s Yoruba language.
Boyega is even more secretive about his role in â€œStar Wars VII.â€ He was the first character fans saw in Walt Disneyâ€™s initial movie trailer, released last November.
In the clip, heâ€™s wearing Stormtrooper armor, sans helmet, and is on the run. Later, Disney released the filmâ€™s promotional poster featuring him holding a lightsaber, the sagaâ€™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. â€œAll the characters we love â€” Batman, Spider-Man â€” never ever start off as those guys,â€ Boyega says in his rich British accent.
His casting has sparked controversy. Last year, some Twitter users questioned Disneyâ€™s decision to show a black man in the iconic white military garb. Boyegaâ€™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 doesnâ€™t consume him. When â€œyouâ€™re a working actor, and they tell you youâ€™ve got an audition for a movie, diversity isnâ€™t the first thing you think about.”