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Filming the Franchise of the Century

Newcomer John Boyega takes us inside the incredible world of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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For a guy whose anonymity is about to go the way of the floppy disc, John Boyega is surprisingly serene. Sitting in a Los Angeles photo studio and unwinding after a day-long photo shoot, it’s as if he’s completely unaware that come December 18, his life will change forever. Of course that’s the day that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the fervently worshipped franchise, invades the known universe—and Boyega has a starring role.

Today, two months before the movie’s release, the actor is more vexed by an action figure he’s just discovered on a nearby table than by what his future holds. He stretches back in a leather lounge chair, props both feet up on an ottoman and examines the strange-looking toy, which appears to be half-man, half-monster. His expressive face takes on a look of puzzlement and he eventually asks, “What is this?”

Many Star Wars fans have similarly wondered about Boyega who, with just a few credits to his name—most notably the 2011 sci-fi fantasy Attack the Block—landed the lead role in what is likely to become the biggest blockbuster of the year. His character, Finn, is the kind of breakout part about which young actors fantasize, especially a comic book and science fiction devotee like Boyega. Reared by religious Nigerian parents in Peckham, a rough-and-tumble district in southeast London, Boyega first discovered the escapism of Star Wars through the line of action figures that coincided with the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999.

Another way the young man would escape? Acting, as he first did in a primary school production that found him playing the eccentric author of Jamaican Spider-Man books. Almost immediately, Boyega says, he was captivated by the adrenaline rush of performing. “When I went on stage I felt a natural kind of comfort,” he recalls. “I thought this is where I’m supposed to be.”

His early career would include stints on the BBC series Being Human as well as in a handful of made-for-TV movies. But now his place is front and center in the latest installment of cinema’s most popular franchise, despite a silly and short-lived threat of a boycott of the film by internet trolls, who labeled the film “anti-white” due in part to the teaser’s reveal of Boyega as the franchise’s first black Stormtrooper. When it happened, the actor shrugged off the brouhaha with a short tweet saying, “get used to it.” Today he says, “To be the first face revealed to a new generation of Star Wars fans is an absolute honor. It was good to start with a bang.”

This confidence has served him well. It’s what kept him going when, despite an exhausting seven months of auditions for the role, Boyega held out hope that the role of Finn would be his. “I just felt it,” he reveals of landing the part. “I got to a certain point where I understood exactly how far to go with this character and now we see the same things in terms of Finn. It was that sort of trust.” 

More than just conviction was required of Boyega, who also underwent rigorous training to be ready to play Finn. “I learned hand-to-hand combat,” he reveals. “Of course being on the [Millennium] Falcon, I had to learn to slide and fall all around the place, how to drop and roll. It came natural to do that kind of stuff.”

There’s also the moment dreamed of by every Star Wars fan: wielding a light saber. “It’s a good feeling to hold that in your hand,” he shares. “It’s one thing to be in a Star Wars movie, but it’s another to be in a Star Wars movie, wear a Stormtrooper outfit and to be able to hold a light saber. I’ve done everything that Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill did [in the first three films], and it’s been so fun.”

The decision to go with Boyega has also left producers ecstatic with their investment. “John is electric on screen,” Tommy Harper, an executive producer on the film, says. “He’s a movie star. He had to show so many different qualities: vulnerability, toughness, smarts, all of these things. You want him to be your best friend.”

The actor deflects such a profound read of his work. “It’s not that deep,” he firmly insists. “It’s like, you shoot a gun and make it look good.”

Even if things were that easy, Boyega confesses he’s just as eager to see the finished product—which is, even at this late date, shrouded in secrecy—as every other fan. “I really can’t wait for the film to come out,” he admits. “I just want to watch it. I want to see what it’s like.” Unfortunately, just like the rest of the world, the young star will have to wait just a bit longer.

And it isn’t just the film that he’s anticipating. It turns out that in addition to his work on-screen, Finn will appear as an action figure, not too different from those Boyega played with as a child—or the one he’s been tinkering with for the entirety of our conversation.  “It’s strange that I could go to a store to buy groceries and I could buy myself,” Boyega observes. “That’s very surreal.”