Nearly two years after becoming a face of the most important franchise in film history, John Boyega is as charming as ever.
I first met the actor in New York a few weeks before “The Force Awakens” opened, back when the whole overnight-fame thing still seemed “very strange.” This week, Boyega called to chat about “Detroit,” a film that couldn’t be more different from “Star Wars.” Even over the phone, he evinced the same joyful spirit I’d witnessed before multiple galaxies knew his name.
In “Detroit,” the latest movie from “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” director Kathryn Bigelow, Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a courtly security guard caught in racial crossfire. The film picks up on July 23, 1967, when police raided an unlicensed bar celebrating two black soldiers who had returned from the Vietnam War. The incursion sparked five days of rioting and looting, as well as the harrowing events that become the crux of “Detroit”: an overnight standoff at the low-rent Algiers Motel, with cops wielding guns in search of a non-existent sniper. Three unarmed black teenagers were killed; the officers responsible were exonerated.
Boyega, who also appeared in “The Circle” this year, has a delicate role. As a black member of law enforcement, Melvin tries to diffuse the tension, ultimately getting stuck in the midst of it all. Boyega carries that weight well, becoming the story’s heart.
“Detroit,” opening in limited release this weekend and expanding nationwide Aug. 4, is an interlude as the fast-talking Boyega steels himself for another bout of “Star Wars” madness. Don’t worry: With or without Robert Downey Jr.’s advice, he seems relaxed. After all, a vacation is first.
Let’s start with “The Force Awakens”
[Boyega emits a hearty laugh.]
“The Force Awakens” opens. You go on a grueling press tour, fans are screaming in your direction for days, the movie makes every dollar in the world and your life forever changes. At what point did you feel the come-down? Was there a moment when you said, “Oh, wow, I can breathe again”?
Oh yeah, definitely, because I think there was a separation between that craziness and my personal life, which kind of stayed the same, you know, with family and stuff. Just going back home, it felt like I was on the craziest summer-camp trip ever. Just being quiet was very alien to me, but at the same time, it was very peaceful, knowing obviously with that film that it’ll start up again. It completely rises as time goes on, the more you’re recognized. But I have to say I’ve been spoiled by the amount of freedom I still have. I don’t understand — I shouldn’t have that freedom, but it is very, very peaceful for me.
What changed the most? Surely you have to take precautions when leaving your house.
[Laughs] Schedule, schedule, schedule. You’re not at home a lot of the time — you’re in different places. You get to experience different countries and meet new people — people who know you before you know them. It’s very strange. Normally, you introduce yourself, and now you introduce yourself and the person doesn’t automatically say, “Well, this is my name”; they go, “Oh, I know.” It’s different.
Most memorable fan moment?
I had this amazing moment at the airport. This young girl from Jamaica was with her mom in the line, and she tapped me on the back and asked me whether my back was OK and whether I had healed up. And I didn’t clock on to what she was talking about, and she goes, “You know, because you had that fight.” I was like, “Oh yeah!” Her mom kind of looked at me like, “You better carry on this story because I am not going to hear the last of it.” I just put on my Finn hat and said, “Yeah, my back’s fine, I’m healing up OK.” She was really concerned.
You can’t break the illusion.
Yeah, the kids are the most interesting because they’re not at the age to differentiate yet — they just see the character. It’s fun to see their reactions.
When I used to watch “Star Wars” on VHS as a kid, I thought the actors were acting out the movie every single time I put it on. I thought they would somehow rewind when I rewound the tape.
Live! A live performance.
Exactly. You were the huge reveal of the first “Force Awakens” trailer, which sparked a lot of conversation. And then you were only in one quick shot of the “Last Jedi” trailer. Is that a relief? A disappointment?
Oh, the excitement in general is definitely going to change. The first is the first. To me, I think it’s fine, but I did tell [“Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson], “When’s that second trailer coming out, man? That’s what we’re waiting for.” I tweeted him, as well. He got me back because when I was on holiday, Rian commented and said, “Get back to work.” I had loads of “Star Wars” fans messaging me saying, “Yeah, Rian said leave the Caribbean and get back to work.”
I’m sure many people ask what it was like to work with Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher and the other “Star Wars” alums, but I want to know what it was like to spend time with Queen Laura Dern.
I didn’t get to spend as much time with her because we don’t have much scenes with each other, but for the times I did see her, it was all cool. It was a nice meet-and-greet, and then we kept it moving.
It’s interesting to go from “Star Wars” and “Pacific Rim,” where shots are meticulously planned and you do a lot of takes to get the choreography right, to “Detroit,” which uses an intimate vérité style where the camera is often right on your face.
The shooting style for “Detroit” really reminded of me of my time doing “Imperial Dreams.” Sometimes you can find the camera, sometimes you can’t. For me, it makes you a tad bit less selfish as an actor. You start to make decisions because it’s the truth, rather than because you’ve got a camera on you and you have to make the performance right. It brings you closer and closer to the character, especially for me playing a man who is caught in between several different worlds and has to play the balance. That, for me, made things very, very complicated. But I appreciated it. It makes the scenes more realistic.
When you can’t see a camera and you have a tank and military driving across the street from you, it feels real. I can’t lie to you: It feels very real. At times, I couldn’t even see where Kathryn was. I was like, “OK, cool.” It’s like getting into a time machine and landing myself in a horrific situation. It makes your performance more nuanced. I really, really enjoyed doing it. It was a breath of fresh air because with other, bigger projects like “Star Wars,” there is a technical element to it, given the effects, whereas here the camera is the eye of the audience. That’s why you see it pan in quickly, because that’s how our eyes work. I really thought, watching the film, that it really does add to the experience of watching it.
In terms of going home at the end of the day, what’s more difficult to shake: the emotional exhaustion of “Detroit” or the physical exhaustion of “Star Wars”?
It’s definitely emotion, for sure. With stunt-heavy films, you just get a massage and go to sleep. With this, it’s an emotional investment. We pretty much knew what we were getting ourselves into. I mean, Kathryn was very polite and open enough to give us a detailed talk as to what this process would be like. I remember the producers saying, “This will be a very new experience for you.” But I come from theater, and theater is a place in which they can throw you a ball and say, “Look at this red ball; this red ball is your wife. And scene!” And you just have to do it. I think, as much as it also was a great movie for anyone to be involved with, for the craft, it definitely made me feel like I left it better as an actor.
As someone who isn’t from America, were you familiar with the story of these riots? I think this will be an education for a lot of Americans.
A few years ago, I came to LA and I was staying in Inglewood. I watched a documentary called “Hidden Colors.” In this documentary are various unique stories that are reflective of black history. When you see Black History Month, there are the mainstream stories that people tell: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. But I was fortunate enough to see people who were willing to share new stories with a different perspective — stories like Black Wall Street. It seems like when I learned about that, I heard about the riots in Detroit. Also, other than Motown ― I loved the music — every time Detroit comes up, there seems to be a form of “Oh man, it’s rough.” I was just curious, and I’d heard about the riots. But this specific situation, the Algiers Motel, I had no clue about. It’s highly documented; there are loads of documents surrounding this. I was shocked to hear that in the backdrop of this crazy situation, there was a story this horrific.
Making a movie like this now, especially when told in such an intimate and harrowing way, can become a “great power, great responsibility” situation. What conversation do you hope “Detroit” sparks?
Yeah, with me, I think, after watching it ― because I wasn’t there for each storyline ― I was like, “This is not a simple situation.” I’ll be surprised if this movie isn’t a part of some form of curricular activity on an educational level. There’s something a documentary does ― obviously it documents things and gives perspective ― but I think when you dramatize something, you know there are people that lived through that time. They’ve advised the actors, they’ve spoken to the actors, and they want their story to be told accurately and to support the movie. For me, watching it, I was like, this is a lot to take in, man ― this is intense. But it challenges you to know more because we’re in a time when race is a big discussion, and I think the more and more we educate ourselves to really understand the perspectives, the more it can end up being a positive thing. The world isn’t going to have this conversation for no reason.
I felt that about “Selma” after seeing it, too, that it should be shown in high schools.
Yeah, I think more movies will follow suit in this style. I lost myself watching this film. Everybody approached this with respect. For example, as an actor, you are sometimes tempted to overdramatize certain scenes. You’re performing and you want it to be the best — regardless of the subject matter, there is still an element of you that wants to entertain. But we were all forced to hold back on that. If you want to get that one teardrop from your left eye, it wasn’t going to happen for no reason. That all had to be integral to the story, and I feel like that’s what makes this so gripping. There are certain scenes where you read the dialogue and you think, “OK, cool, I can do something kind of toward this,” but Kathryn’s like, “Hmm.” The reality is, this is stone-cold. That’s a curveball that helps. When you’re speaking to the truth, you’re also growing as an actor.
Do you get some time off before the “Star Wars” frenzy starts up again in the fall?
Oh yeah, yeah, I’m definitely going to do that because I feel like everybody’s watching me. Is John really by himself or is he a twin? But it has been me doing all these movies. There is no second John Boyega. But yeah, I’m going to take a break soon enough.
Do you have a vacation lined up?
Oh, I do. For sure. For sure.