John Boyega is one of a diminishing number of Hollywood film stars that hasn’t yet dived properly into the world of high-end TV drama. The 30-year-old actor has made several appearances on television—most notably winning plaudits for his searing portrait of a London policeman in Steve McQueen’s multi-award-winning BBC/Prime Video anthology Small Axe—but his career has largely been defined by roles in movies like Attack the Block and the third Star Wars trilogy.
This may all be about to change if closely held plans come to fruition: Boyega’s production company, UpperRoom Productions, has, in his words, “something potentially big brewing”.
“The project has got a big commercial footprint—I mean that in the best way—and I’m circling it now,” he hints. “It’s something as secretive as hell, but it’s something that’s a potential project if we can pull it off. All I can say is that it’s at the development stage.”
It’s a teasing prospect, but no doubt producers, distributors and streamers will be desperate to hear more as it emerges. Boyega himself has plenty of homework to do and he openly admits he hasn’t done enough small screen work to pinpoint exactly the fundamental differences between television and cinema.
“To a certain extent, I don’t know because I’ve never been the lead of an ongoing TV series,” he says. “I’ve never done a season of a show. The spot in 24 doesn’t count in that respect because I was just a guest for four episodes.”
Interestingly, it is that role in Fox’s 24: Live Another Day, the 2014 limited series that resurrected Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer character, that Boyega is most grateful for as it helped him out of a spot of financial bother. He chuckles as he recounts the “glorious spin” he had back in 2014 working with Sutherland on the four-part season, set four years after the original 24 storyline ended.
“I came in as guest as a young drone pilot who got into a jam and gets locked up. Jack Bauer bails him out. It was so cool.” Not so cool was the fact that Boyega’s car had been placed in a police car pound in London. “It was going to cost £600 ($680) to get it out and I didn’t have the money. I started shooting 24, and I got the car out. Result.”
By that point, Boyega had already starred in Joe Cornish’s horror satire Attack the Block, which became an international cult hit after its SXSW premiere, as well as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens where he stars as reluctant stormtrooper Finn. While he’s increasingly keen to explore the TV world, the London-born star is adamant that he will continue with work that ends up on a big screen. On that front, he has recently starred in director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s scorching, kick-ass movie The Woman King (released last month) and Breaking, which sees him summon up the internal grief and scars of a Marine veteran who served his country in foreign wars but finds himself facing the threat of homelessness when he’s back home on U.S. soil.
Notably, it was the film’s co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah, an actor, playwright and artistic director of London’s Young Vic Theatre, who gave him his first big break as a teenager in the UK back in 2009. Kwei-Armah cast him in a trilogy of plays under the umbrella title of Not Black and White at the then Tricycle Theatre, now known as The Kiln, in Kilburn, north-west London. (I personally played a miniscule role in this story, signing off on the Not Black and White season as a trustee and board member of the Tricycle.)
On the day we talk via Zoom, Boyega is holed up in Brooklyn and has been following the news from London about the killing of Chris Kaba, an unarmed 24-year-old Black man shot dead by an officer of London’s Metropolitan Police. The actor sighs.
“This hits a deep chord for people because there have been stories of Black men killed at the hands of the police while in custody, behind closed doors, that have gone unanswered for years.”
At the time of writing, the officer has been suspended from duty while a thorough investigation of the shooting takes place.
Boyega is cautious in his response. “You don’t want to get caught up in the crescendo of the media frenzy. We sometimes know how the British press can be to a certain extent. I want everyone to just listen to the facts as much as possible so we can reach a more nuanced and detailed reaction that can be about solutions rather than danger, or anything that’s going to distract from getting answers to a very serious situation.”
Black lives matter to Boyega, on and off screen. He was notably filmed giving an impassioned speech at a George Floyd protest in London, which he has said cost him friends, and was critical of how Disney marketed his Star Wars character. However, he says, there is evidence of more diversity in the industry. “There’s been steady growth, and each time we grow and get the opportunity to get into more [important] positions, we learn about those positions and about more opportunities for diversity.”
Learning what each position of responsibility means equals more experience and understanding, especially as an actor, he adds. “When you get to that stage you learn of the opportunities you have: that you develop certain roles, that you now have access to producers and directors. Then it’s an individual choice of how you spread that knowledge and those opportunities.”
Boyega speaks like a man who has chewed over this topic many times. Warming to the theme, he adds, “It’s a good thing that it’s happening to us, especially people of my generation who say, ‘We don’t want to leave this industry the same way we found it and we don’t want to exist in this industry being anything other than ourselves.’ We have to make it work. We must.”
Boyega can be seen next in The Woman King, in which he plays an African monarch protected by an elite, all-women force including Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder), Lashana Lynch (No Time to Die), Sheila Atim (Bruised) and Thuso Mbedu (The Underground Railroad). Other upcoming projects include Netflix’s They Cloned Tyrone and a sequel to Attack the Block.
The actor believes prestige TV shows are competing with their film counterparts on an artistic level. Indeed, his starring role in the Small Axe episode Red, White and Blue, appeared on several critics’ top 10 movies of 2020 lists.
“They’re not single episodes anymore, they’re one-hour movies,” he says. “That’s about the scope of what’s put into a TV show on television. It could be the CGI, the story or epic quality. These one-hour movies definitely have cinematic elements, but I definitely feel at the same time that there’s nothing like going to the movie theater, for sure. Now we have two ways to experience one thing.”
Boyega acknowledges the “creative opportunity” TV offers and observes long running series give actors the “opportunity of being able to stretch out a character over a certain amount of time”, creating a level of familiarity “you can’t always create with one movie”. He muses this could be why feature film producers are increasingly seeking to create franchises out of characters.
In that sense, Red, White and Blue ticks both boxes. Director McQueen, making his first TV series, was adamant that his creations were films to be shown on both large and small screens, with Boyega’s film debuting at the New York Film Festival before its TV bow. However, it’s watched, Small Axe stands as a landmark production.
Boyega says he would have happily auditioned for the role of police officer Leroy Logan but McQueen had invited him to a lunch to talk through the job. “We ate and we spoke, and he explained to me the message of the story, about what he wanted to do as a director, and how he wanted to look into the elements of Black British history that we don’t normally explore. It felt so good that he even thought of me for something like that.”
Red, White and Blue began shooting in September 2019, almost a year before the global reckoning that was Black Lives Matter. “A lot of people thought it was shot after the BLM summer, like it was shot because of that, but it was down to crazy timing,” he recalls.
Another seminal TV show documenting the Black experience first drew him to possibilities of prestige television when he was still a teenager: David Simon’s Baltimore-based crime drama masterpiece The Wire. He noted British actors Idris Elba and Dominic West in their starring roles as Stringer Bell and Detective Jimmy McNulty.
“I saw an opportunity, man. I saw all different types of actors putting on these American accents and getting out to the States—and getting at that money,” he says gleefully.
Always savvy, Boyega started to look for opportunities to study and hone his chosen craft. “I knew how to do those over-the-top fake American accents, but I didn’t know how to do one that would hold an audience and convince them consistently for two hours where your voice is enhanced by Dolby,” he says. He’d soon enrolled at drama school and essentially watched everything he could, whether it be on stage, TV, or cinema to improve his skillset. Around a decade later, he is appearing opposite Michael K. Williams, the actor he’d seen playing stick-up man Omar Little on The Wire, in Breaking. Williams tragically passed in September last year, having left an indelible mark on his younger counterpart.
Boyega chuckles as he recalls first entering the business. “I loved it,” he says. “I didn’t fully understand what was going on as I was picked up off the stage, but that energy was dope. I was still living in Peckham at home and I was still getting used to being in the professional working environment. Now I had to be professional.”
The catalyst for Boyega was being plucked from the Tricycle Theatre to be the star of director Cornish’s cult classic Attack the Block, in which he played a teenager who defends his housing estate from aliens. “That was my first professional gig,” he says with pride, recalling how he would study the script backstage in between scenes during the Not Black and White season in Kilburn. Attack the Block 2’s production timestamps how far he has come: his UpperRoom production company is now among the producers, alongside Cornish’s Complete Fiction Pictures, Studiocanal and Film4.
The film will pick up the story of Boyega’s Moses as he nears 30. Boyega observes London has “changed between the first movie and now”, citing the London Riots that happened the same year the original movie landed, and widespread gentrification of the UK’s capital. “We go back and look at the locations where we shot the first movie [Southwark and Walworth in south London]—once dodgy areas—and we find that it’s all gleaming, high-end apartments and Starbucks. There’s a whole world that we’re about to explore here with a whole new take on that universe, building and revisiting those characters.”
As we continue the interview, Boyega is prompted to remember his first television appearance, which he recalls was 2011’s BBC3 supernatural teen drama Becoming Human, a spin-off of Being Human. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he confesses. “I was probably trying to pay some bills.”
Having zero interest in joining the Marvel Universe as recently rumored, Boyega says he and his executive team at UpperRoom are more focused on developing their TV and film projects. “I want to see how that goes for me. I would like to have a schedule that makes me work with Gina Prince-Bythewood, Juel Taylor [They Cloned Tyrone] and Steve McQueen all in the space of two to three years. You can’t do that necessarily when you’re stuck to a franchise, unfortunately enough.”
No doubt, the TV and films worlds will be looking on at his next moves with the utmost interest.
This article is the cover feature from Deadline’s first ever Mipcom print edition, which is available this week in Cannes.
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