Some people were always supposed to be stars. With a series of increasingly interesting roles and the self-assurance to speak his mind, John Boyega seems to be one of them. The 31-year-old has now been acting on-screen for almost half of his life. In 2015, he went from actor to sensation after first appearing as Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; and now, the world at his feet, he has the enviable freedom to do almost exactly as he pleases. Where does he go from here?
Boyega’s latest role, and the reason NME is talking to him via Zoom from London as he sits in a fuggy, grey Los Angeles, is that of Brian Brown-Easley. Brown-Easley was a 33-year-old American Marine veteran who, desperate to be paid the disability money he was owed by the Department Of Veterans Affairs, held up a bank in Atlanta on July 7, 2017 by sliding an employee a piece of paper that read “I have a bomb.” Brown-Easley never produced anything resembling a weapon, and didn’t want the millions of dollars Wells Fargo might have had on the premises. He only wanted what was owed to him. It was $892.
Though Brown-Easley was “unfailingly polite” and cooperative throughout the ordeal, he was shot – to the surprise of those trying to manage the situation – by ex-Marine sniper Dennis Ponte after three hours inside the building. Set almost entirely in and around the bank, Breaking is a character study of Brown-Easley, attempting to communicate to the audience the issues he was grappling with at the time: separation from his wife and daughter, mental health issues, poverty. But the story is also inseparable from the spate of violence against Black people which triggered the Black Lives Matter movement, protests in which Boyega himself played a crucial role. More on that later.
When he had finished the first draft of Breaking with director Abi Damaris Corbin, co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah knew that Boyega would be the perfect Brown-Easley. “It was the age profile and it was the level of intensity that I knew that John would bring to the role,” he says over the phone. “I could hear his voice when we were writing. And I could see him.” There was never any doubt, he says, that Boyega would be up to the challenge.
“I’ve always had roles that shine a light”
Corbin first met Boyega over Zoom. “He was in all his fly-ness, as he often is, just chattin’ – chatting about story, chatting about art, chatting about how are we gonna do this?” Together they looked at a photo of a wounded old lion, intended to resemble Brown-Easley. “This is a man who could unleash but he holds it in,” she says, “and he has the gentleness of someone who has age and wisdom and yet still is walking into this lions’ den.”
The script found its way to the top of Boyega’s pile thanks to Kwei-Armah having stayed in touch with Boyega’s manager for years. Kwei-Armah wrote the first play in which Boyega appeared, when he was a 16-year-old at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London. “His natural talent was totally clear,” he says. “As a personality he was very, very focused on where he was going. He was funny as fuck, don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t a seriousness. He was funny but he was totally eyes-on-the-prize about where he was heading.” The pair drifted out of touch. The next time Kwei-Armah saw Boyega, the actor was a superstar.
Kwei-Armah was adamant that Boyega read Breaking. “I read it; I was blown away by it,” says Boyega, who is wearing a denim jacket with the faces of classical statues over a grey jumper, his hair in braids. “I read it as if I was watching the movie.”
Corbin’s father was a military veteran who had similar experiences to Brown-Easley. The overlooking of that population of the US is a huge issue, and one sufficiently complex that Corbin can’t conveniently point to a piece of legislation that easily explains it. But Boyega, who divides his time between the US and the UK, was shocked to hear about this neglect. His superficial understanding had led him to believe that veterans were treated well.
“My ignorance was corrected”
“Then I was taught different,” he says. “My ignorance was corrected in that sense.” Brown-Easley became a fascinating man for Boyega to embody. “I liked the complication and the duality of his character,” he says. “So much going on: the PTSD he’s going through; not having access to his daughter…” At the same time, Boyega knew that Brown-Easley was a movie nerd who was into comic books, and that he had the ability to tell jokes, to be soft, and to be gentle. The film portrays a man whose temperament is totally at odds with the crime he is attempting to pull off.
Boyega has played a real man before, and played him well. In Steve McQueen’s BAFTA-winning anthology series Small Axe, he was Red, White And Blue‘s Leroy Logan, the first chair of the National Black Police Association (NBPA), a policeman who made hugely important contributions to the inquiry into the killing of Damilola Taylor among many other things. “John just got it,” Logan told The Guardian in 2020. “He saw me as what I was, a Black man and a Black cop trying to make change from within.”
When playing figures from real life, says Boyega, you become more academic about the task at hand. You must avoid prioritising yourself; you become the other person. The team contacted Brown-Easley’s ex-wife, Jessica, and daughter, Jayla, to clarify that they wanted to hear from them before telling Brown-Easley’s story with as much truth as possible. The first day Boyega was on camera was the anniversary of Brown-Easley’s death. “We had a moment of silence and the world faded away,” Corbin told the Los Angeles Times. “We saw Brian on camera.” Jessica saw a screening of Breaking and, in Boyega’s words, “She said that she loved the movie. She loved the portrayal and she thought it was an important story to tell. And she loved what I had done with Brian.”
Because the action was so rooted in one place, the scrutiny on Boyega and his facial expressions was immense. The role required “an actor that can carry interiority”, says Kwei-Armah. Whoever played Brown-Easley would need to capture his “angered dignity”. Corbin agrees: “He can capture with his eyes what I couldn’t do with two pages of exposition of showing you a scene. You see the past unveiled in his eyes.” Though Kwei-Armah knew that Boyega would be good, he was still surprised when he saw the footage from the set. “I was like, ‘Oh, you’ve gone deeper than I thought you would,’” he says.
“I was blown away by ‘Breaking'”
The resonance of the role for Boyega is particularly acute because Brown-Easley’s skin colour is no accident. He is a man killed by the authorities in a situation that Boyega acknowledges a white man would probably have escaped alive. Ponte, the sniper who killed Brown-Easley, “was basically influenced by the same kind of stereotypical fear that causes these hasty violent situations”, says Boyega. He means situations like the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner. The actor was one of thousands who marched in London on June 3, 2020 to say that enough was enough. And, though he had not planned to, Boyega ended up addressing the crowd.
His speech from that day is astonishing for its raw passion. In a voice that becomes increasingly hoarse over the five minutes, Boyega screams that “Black lives have always mattered”. He battles tears to say: “We are a physical representation of our support for George Floyd. We are a physical representation of our support for Sandra Bland. We are a physical representation of our support for Trayvon Martin. We are a physical representation of our support for Stephen Lawrence. For Mark Duggan.”
When Kwei-Armah saw the speech, he cried. “I cried with joy and with pride. And I went, ‘I knew him as a boy and now here is a man.’” The writer is 25 years older than Boyega and remembers when this kind of speech might have caused the industry to turn its back on an actor. It was extraordinarily brave to risk those kind of consequences, he says. “He was putting his whole career at risk. I was magnificently proud.” Later, it would also make Kwei-Armah feel even more certain that Boyega would understand what Breaking was trying to achieve. “Let’s give voice to who we’re trying to give voice to.” Rather than damage his career, Boyega had sent himself straight to the top of a lot of important lists in the industry.
Boyega, a little defensive, says that he was never asked questions about the issues around Black Lives Matter until he made his speech. He must think that people mistakenly believe that he jumped on a bandwagon. But the themes have always been present in the choices he made: in his films Detroit, My Murder, Half Of The Yellow Sun. Even Attack The Block, a film about aliens invading a council estate. (Boyega’s character says, “I think the government’s sending dem tings to come and kill Black boys.”) “I think from the very start of this, I’ve had roles that shine a light on that nuance,” he says.
“Sixteen in acting is like 30 in real life”
Boyega was only 19 when he starred in Attack The Block. He had “already sipped the juice of ‘I wanna be a movie star’,” he says. And he already felt old, even by that point. “Sixteen in acting is like 30 in real life,” he says. “It is actually a long game plan. You know? You might not get opportunities. It’s a long game plan.”
Boyega’s game plan is still unfolding, and there’s a lot of it left. Among the accents he would still like to pull off on film – “maybe some form of alien voice; get into different octaves” – is that of Calabar, Nigeria, the country where his parents are from. And on the horizon are films Attack the Block 2, They Cloned Tyrone, The Test and The Freshening. Though the first two are fun action films, the latter two seem to play with the themes to which Boyega is particularly drawn: The Test is about an immigrant and a far-right fanatic, and The Freshening is about an injection that the government hopes will quell civil unrest by enabling everyone to see each other as the same race.
Though his colossal fame means that millions will watch these performances of his, Boyega himself doesn’t watch himself back, says Corbin. He has a good sense himself of whether he performed well or not. “He knows when it’s great,” says Corbin. “He’s like, ‘Fuck yeah – I did it.’”
‘Breaking’ is out now on digital download