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